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Posted: November 12, 2010 12:30 a.m.

About Faith: Going All In

In high-stakes poker, there usually comes a time when one player has an advantage over the others and declares, "All in," meaning he is betting everything he has. This forces other players to put up their fortunes, or fold.

In matters of faith, we are called to go "all-in" as well, but the analogy is imperfect. In this game, God is not our adversary, and going all-in is not a dare, but an invitation, with a promise that you will win. Most ironic of all, the promise of winning comes at a time when we have no hope of winning with our own pitiful stack of chips. It seems the house is spotting us a fortune.

Even so, it is interesting to note how few people accept this invitation to go all-in, when they would quickly gamble all they have in other ways. They say yes to a proposal of marriage to a person they have known for just a few months, but withhold commitment to God, who was with them before they took their first breath. They invest their life savings on a deal too-good-to-be-true, but feel they can’t afford to give more than a token to their church’s ministries. They spend tens of thousands of dollars, and countless hours, in studies to advance their education, but give only a passing glance at the timeless wisdom of scriptures that are free.

This is nothing new, of course. Jesus encountered people who were attracted to his teachings, but showed reluctance to go all-in (Luke 9:57-62). "Let me take care of my father until he dies", said one. "Let me say goodbye to my family". But Jesus knew the uncompromising nature of going all-in. "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?", asked another (Mark 10:17-27). "I’ve obeyed all the commandments since my youth."

"You lack one thing", Jesus said. "Go and sell all your possessions, and give them to the poor. Then follow me."

You know the rest of the story. He went away sad, for he had much with which to go all-in.

The lawyer was right, said Jesus, when he summed up the law and the prophets with the old adage: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind (italics mine); and love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:25-37). Here we find the language of going all-in.

But even as the lawyer said it, he looked for loopholes by which he could limit his investment and avoid the full commitment. Who is my neighbor? From whom can I withhold my love and still pass the test? Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan, showing that good neighbors are not defined by geography or culture, but by our willingness to go all-in for each other.

Jesus knew what he was asking, a sacrifice he himself was willing to make. But he knew also the great prize that awaits the adventurous spirit that gives it all to God. "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:25). It may not seem logical, but the greater gamble is in not going all-in. The reward for safety is mediocrity in this life, and missing the prize in the next.

Father Luis Espinal joined the great cloud of witnesses in 1980 when he was assassinated by paramilitary forces in La Paz, Bolivia. For him, life was a gamble, but in death, victory is assured. The National Catholic Reporter published a meditation he wrote shortly before his death, in which he declared:

"Take away the sadness from our faces.

We are not in a game of chance…

You have the last word!

Beyond the crushing of our bones,

Now has begun the eternal "alleluia!"

From the thousand openings of our wounded bodies

And souls there arises now a triumphal song!"

Glory halleluiah! The deck is stacked in our favor! All in!

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