At age six I lost a billfold with five dollars in it. I said to my concerned parents, ' Lets pretend I never had it, then we won't be so upset'. I realize we can't get through life denying losses and pains but the event does show that by changing our point of view, the lens through which we choose to view things , results in a very different emotional outlook. As an aging preacher I find myself more needing to look, I trust faithfully and responsibly, at our sacred ancient text threw lens that make them more relevant and helpful in the 21st century. I do not insist you agree but invite you to look over my shoulder while I attempt that today. So, if for you I fail , please know what I am trying to do.
What poetic and inspired words the ancient author of Matthew's gospel puts before us here. The nature of the gospels is not to provide the actual words Jesus said but instead we are given metaphorical poetic heart stirring images of the quality of life and love of one called Jesus of Nazareth. Such a life that it generated a new point of view in the hearts of a small group which then spread throughout the world. We now likely experience only a small ripple effect of what those emotional images did near the beginning. A danger as we look at such a metaphorical passage is to take these spiritual teachings too literally, as being about the literal outer world and fail to see they are first meant to describe the dynamics of our personal inner world or what the gospels call the heart. Let's seek an inner meaning of this passage, a meaning which is the central message the gospel seeks to bring to each of us. This passage is the crescendo of the story of Jesus's potential influence on our common collective life, of hope for peace in the world. And it is so important it is called the very 'foundations of the world.' So it must be offering us what is central to life and love.
First, let us acknowledge that 'son of man' is an expression emphasizing that Jesus was fully human, son of man not only son of God. That means the image is not just about Jesus bringing judgment but about us doing such inner work. Instead of our jumping to an interpretation of some literal judgment scene where Jesus proclaims some of God's children are saved and as many damned eternally , let's take it instead as speaking of us , to our imaginative capacity. And describing our taking the rightful place on our own inner throne and deciding(that is taking personal responsibility) for what we each judge as most important in life. YOU are the 'son or daughter of man' here. Yes, we can “take our place on our heart's throne, with our best angels , as we truly seek to own what is our truest glory as a human being.”
|Can this now describe a personal inner owning of Good and Evil, not future literal Judgment?|
The images speak of ' knowing the difference between 'good and evil.' Remember the Genesis story that has so influenced all of Western Civilization, where the first human couple is pictured being told to not eat of the ' Tree of Knowledge Of Good And Evil' for it would result in them knowing the real difference between good and evil? Unfortunately we have been overwhelmingly persuaded to think of the couple eating of that tree as something to grieve and to think, "Oh if only they hadn't the world would be only be good." No, that ancient story was told not to prevent evil but to give an understanding of why there must be presently good and evil for life to exist. And that we must be keenly aware of the difference. And that it was necessary for humans to, as it were, eat of that tree so we could come to discern what is really good and really bad. Why I was taught in my youth that dancing and having a drink, playing cards, most anything sexual and being Catholic were among the greatest evils. You may laugh but do we yet get it that good is that which promotes human beings to be more fully their truest and finest selves, each one contributing to the well being of others. And evil is anything that questions human worth and dignity and treats humans and creation as only objects for self pleasure with little concern for the person or the planet? Now I see that dancing, taking a drink, playing cards, being Catholic and certainly sexuality do not fit the criteria of being evil. But, for example, not caring that there are mentally ill people who our social structure has decided to put on the street and not take care of …. that is evil. To allow, yes promote, in America the gathering of personal wealth to the extent it makes poverty for others a consequence is evil. To surgically drop bombs on those we call enemies with no strong misgiving that we will be killing completely innocent persons is wrong.
|Psychologically, can't this be a call for inner personal discernment of Good and Evil?|
What this passage's poetic images can reveal to us is that we humans are now more capable of knowing what true good is and what healthy religious instinct can potentially bring about in the world . Notice the highest good we can aspire to is not primarily about 'our church' and its traditions, dogmas and rites. It is surely not about living in luxury or about achieving notoriety, position or some measure of wealth. It is not about being right in our religious beliefs so we can judge how others are wrong. What good is , and that we as 'sons and daughters of man' are capable of proclaiming from our personal inner thrones to ourself, is made crystal clear in this teaching. A question is , 'will we do this private inner work?' Surely this is where a better world has to begin, in individuals deciding what they really believe is the highest good behavior and attitude for human living. And the passage stresses this inner human activity is the very 'foundations of the earth”. It is the only thing that can hold the earth and all the cooperating elements of creation and humanity together. Without humans announcing this first to ourselves from our own inner throne, life and love and hope and trust will vanish from the world, will become impossible. We may be near such a crisis in our day. Have we ever seen as much low human behavior and words on public display at highest levels as we did in the presidential process? No side is exempt. We and our forebears are all implicated in it coming to this. Our nation's hands clearly are dirty in numerous ways. It has become an important matter that we be paying close attention to the difference in good and evil as they show themselves in public discourse and in our public policies. Polices which surely effect how citizens of our land treat each other.
(Read verses 34-36)Now Let's try to keep our thinking of this whole poetic image as something in our inner personal life, not a description of some eternal judgment. Only when it is kept there and worked with can it eventually become something commonly real in the outer world. There is a completely unexpected Paradox here. Very unlike the conventional interpretation. The passage is saying the greatest good is made possible by recognizing our own personal needs and fears. We are pushed to first look within, not our usual looking outside of ourselves for answers. We can instead learn to respond to those needs in our self and take them seriously. Surprisingly the images say we are the ones in great need. With few exceptions we have not faced literal starvation from food and water as so many others have. Yet we all can identify with having important unresolved emotional hungers. The teaching taken as an inner discipline implies that only when we take a caring interest in our own sense of being a stranger and alone do we create the capacity to more fully respond to the stranger who is the other person or group of persons. The same if you have ever felt barred or kept away from life and love, being in literal or psychological prison, then do what you can to release and to embrace yourself . Only then can one be most in tune to the many ways other humans are literally and socially imprisoned. If you have had the literal experience of being cold for lack of clothing or being embarrassed at not having designer brand clothes, treat yourself with dignity. Then you may see and respond to the many kinds of nakedness that other humans experience.
I've begun to question the usual suggestion that if we suspect one on the street begging is addicted to drugs that we not give any money to them but only food. I'm thinking our response on the street is not going to cure one of addiction nor is a few dollars from our purse to the beggars hand going to go far in supplying his/her fix. But you know it will give that hungry, thirsty, disenfranchised prisoner of addiction or mental illness a moment when another human cared enough to touch their hand and say, 'here you can have this'. I think maybe the gift of expressed care in these situation may be more the path of good than the fear that they may use the good will gesture foolishly.
And this leads me to another American notion that I think needs challenged. That if enough individuals would be charitable along their way to our most vulnerable citizens , that would be enough. That would take care of the problem. So just be nice, give a sandwich or cup of coffee, a pair of shoes , prepare and deliver some food baskets, donate to charities that help the left out. All such is good but is it the highest good? Is it seriously and consistently good? Does it meet the need that good points out? That trickle down charity is enough I suspect is very flawed in a complex society like ours. For one thing all of these measures put the person in need in the role of beggar and receiver from individuals who are supposedly, even sometimes in their own mind, more blessed. It creates a beggar -giver mentality which may not be healthy for either. My point is should we not make taking care of the basic needs of humans when they are down- food, clothing, shelter and health care a matter of solid public legal policy? Policy that far more covers, without discrimination, all persons who are in such times of embarrassing hardship and risk? And does not place them at the mercy and quirk of individual charity that may or may not be there when needed. It seems to fail to take human suffering seriously. I think perhaps that our high estimate of personal and group charity has become an excuse for not taking our neighbors' needs to heart and failing to treat the 'least of these' with dignity and respect and social competence. Would most of us not be glad to pay tax to be used efficiently in these most important matters of good, of life and love. Are we not glad to pay tax now for what good is being done collectively?
In all genuine spiritual teaching, compared to the preaching of rules and commands, there is an irrational paradox. The way there is not direct or simply calling us to 'just do it.' No, the good so needed today cannot happen in magnanimous and efficient ways by simple willingness and occasional 'gifts to the needy' or only group or church projects of good will. For this teaching of Jesus to find realization in the world about us, it must start with genuinely noting caring for ones self. Jesus clearly taught one cannot effectively care for another until we intentionally care for ourselves. Until we experience how much we need feeding, clothed, and taken in and seek to find that for ourselves are we most preparing to do our best at naturally loving others.
Another paradox shown here is that those who do this inner work on their own inner thrones and strive to see the difference between collective good and evil are pictured as not being aware they are instruments of generating good in the outer collective world. This must indicate it is possible for humans to awaken to the process that such good, when it should ever come in the world, is a natural phenomenon not a supernatural happening. The coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is the most natural of healthy human desires, to care for oneself. This awareness can potentially happen in the life of all persons. We will no longer categorize humans as 'needy and blessed' or 'haves and have nots' but as one family that intentially cares for its own. Then doing good is no longer seen primarily as occasionally going out of ones way or a special occasion but a natural response of seeing the very same needs in others as one sees and seriously attends to in his/her self. Here only lies the gospel's paradoxical potential of humans loving others as we love ourselves.