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Striking at the Root

Thoreau put it this way: “For everyone striking at the root, there are a hundred hacking at the branches.”¹ When it comes to the spiritual journey, there are times when I’m among the hundred. I want to stay the course, but I get distracted and confused. As a result, I sometimes stumble around trying to find my way. It’s not that I abandon the journey; it’s just that I find myself weaving from one side of the path to the other.

Thoreau’s quote raises an important question: what does it mean to strike at the root? What’s the core of the spiritual journey? “At the root” is the classic understanding of the word “radical.” It gets to the essence, to the heart of the matter. Although the term “radical” often takes on political baggage, that’s not its original meaning.

Matthew’s Gospel describes a scene in which the Pharisees push Jesus to strike at the root. They ask him which commandment is the greatest. His answer goes to the heart of the matter.

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:37-40)

Great teachers simplify. Jesus’ answer boils the complexity of the Jewish law down to its essence. Jesus’ answer focuses on two dynamics that are at the heart of the spiritual journey: surrendering to God and embracing an expansive view of neighbor. Not only are these dynamics at the core of the Gospel, but they also resonate with the teaching of other faith traditions.

Surrendering to God

The first commandment Jesus quotes urges us to surrender to God, going all in to commit our whole selves – heart, soul, and mind – to God. Surrender focuses our energy and attention on cultivating an ever-deeper relationship with God. The more fully we surrender to God, the more discipleship goes from being “one of many” commitments to being our core commitment. As our relationship with God moves to the center of our lives, it gradually reshapes all of our other commitments. For me, it changes the way I fulfill my roles of husband, stepfather, grandfather, consultant, and writer. 

When Benito Acquino was exiled from the Philippines, he was living in the United States and studying at Harvard. A reporter learned that he had a spiritual director. In an interview, he asked Acquino whether it was true that he was leading a spiritual life. Acquino responded by saying that one doesn’t lead a spiritual life; one follows a spiritual life.

Surrender is a profound shift from leading to following, and it changes everything. As our surrender deepens, we give up calling our own shots; and we try to follow God’s will and God’s way. The words of the Lord’s prayer – “Your kingdom come; your will be done” – take root and grow within us. The phrases we once mumbled without thinking gradually become the way we discern our direction in life and make the decisions that shape the way we live. Embracing surrender helps us shift from hacking at the branches to striking at the root.

Embracing Jesus’ View of Neighbor

The focus of the second commandment Jesus quotes is love of neighbor. That’s no easy task. Consistently loving the people closest to us – in spite of all the ways they push our buttons – is a challenge. To fully grasp the significance of Jesus’ message, however, requires embracing the way Jesus understands “neighbor.”

Jesus’ audience would most likely have heard “neighbor” as “the people in my village, my community, or my synagogue.” Audiences today tend to hear it as “the people close to me” or “people like me.” Jesus, however, uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to radically redefine the meaning of “neighbor.” The privileged Jews in the parable – a priest and a Levite – pass by the injured man on the other side of the road. They want nothing to do with him. It is the Samaritan – the foreigner, the outcast, the one that Jews shun and despise – who cares for the injured man. The parable forces us to wrestle with a profound question: who is our neighbor?

Claiming our identity as children of God requires embracing Jesus’ radically expansive view of “neighbor.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes clear how encompassing his view is.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good . . . (Matt. 5:43-45)

In God, there is no outcast, no foreigner, no one who is other. We are all brothers and sisters. No one – not even our enemies – is excluded from the profound unity of the human family. Jesus’ radical view of neighbor includes all others without exception.

It might be possible to dismiss Jesus’ teaching as idealistic – even naïve – if he hadn’t lived it so completely in his own life. He fully embodied it and willingly died for it. In Gethsemane, Jesus modelled prayerful surrender to the Father’s will – heart, soul, and mind – to the point of surrendering his life. He accepted execution rather than denying his identity as God’s son. In the midst of excruciating suffering, he forgave his executioners – those who represented the empire oppressing his people. In a single sentence, Anthony Padovano strikes at the root of what this means: “Easter occurred because Jesus loved his enemies and trusted the Father.”²

The spiritual journey urges us to explore implications of these two dynamics – surrendering to God and embracing Jesus’ view of neighbor – in our own lives. We can continue to hack at the branches, or we can choose to strike at the root. Going to the heart of the matter invites us to swallow hard, trust God enough to surrender, and embrace the challenge to love our enemies. “Your kingdom come; your will be done.”

Questions to Ponder

I hope these help you ponder what it means to strike at the root.

  • When it comes to the spiritual journey, in what ways do you find yourself:
    • Hacking at the branches?
    • Striking at the root?
  • As you attempt to shift from control to surrender, what holds you back?
  • What does the term “neighbor” mean to you?
  • What is your reaction to Jesus’ radical view of what neighbor means?
  • What would “surrendering to God” mean in your life?
  • What would “embracing Jesus’ view of neighbor” ask of you?


¹ Thoreau’s quote is from his essay, “Economy.” 

²Padovano, Anthony, Free to Be Faithful (Paramus, New Jersey, Paulist Press, 1972) p. 47.