Saturday, April 4, 2009

He Gave No Answer

The Sanhedren accuse Jesus of three things: subverting the nation (turning the Jews away from their accepted standard of values), opposing the payment of taxes (a distortion of what he actually had said), and claiming to be Christ and a king (a re-framing of Jesus' spiritual claim into a political one).

Herod, seeking entertainment from Jesus' response to these accusations, was not going to get it.  I picture Jesus facing our entertainment-oriented media interviewers or commentators - Keith Olberman, say, or Rush Limbaugh - and saying nothing at all.  What fun is that?  Jesus could have provided high entertainment by a profound or pithy answer, but his story, though gripping, is not about entertainment.  It is not about answers, pithy or otherwise.  Jesus leaves us to ponder things.

The question of the relationship between spiritual and political power is always before us and has not yet been answered. Does a change of values subvert the nation or raise it to a new level of responsibility and performance? How can this question ever be answered once and for all? Even if refusing to answer questions like this raises more difficult questions, gets us fired, lands us in jail, or even delivers us into the hands of our killers, there are some questions that should not be answered.  They are meant to challenge us each time they arise. Thinking we have these answers tucked neatly under our belts will not lead us to wise and just decisions or keep us from criticism, loss, or death - and they just keep coming up.

Jesus' followers were both Christian and Jewish, probably subverting the nation of Israel while at the same time expanding it.  In Seattle, of all places, we just defrocked a priest for being both Christian and Muslim. And in Michigan we await the disposal of a bishop who is also a Zen Buddhist.  Do these people subvert our nation or expand it? Unite or divide it? It's always an appropriate question, worthy of deep thought, meant for opening our hearts, but not meant for pat or entertaining answers. Jesus gave up his life without answering these questions, and so will we.  We will always have to decide which rules to break and when to break them, what tribute goes to Caesar and what to God, and how our religious values inform (or are informed by) our cultural ones.

Jesus didn't bother, at the point of his trial and imprisonment, to answer Herod's questions.  Instead he gave himself to his captors and tormentors, to all of us enraged by being shaken, frustrated by challenges to the status quo, or simply swept up in mob hysteria and willing to let others think and feel for us.  He gave himself to the worst in us.  Did he think, "These people are misunderstood, basically deserving, and therefore I will give them a hand up, after which they will get themselves together and make something of themselves?  No.  He simply gave himself completely to whoever was there - whoever was born in that part of the world in those days, whoever chose to come out of their house and could make their way into Herod's court, self-selected by love or hate or curiosity or boredom or a chance to do some mischief.  We have some evidence that he loved these people, that he was drawn to them for what we would call no good reason.  In any case, he made himself vulnerable to them, exposed his nakedness and weakness to them , while at the same time trusting them to be human and mistaken.  

"How does this help?," I might have thought, had I been one of Jesus' followers that day. "We have lost everything: our teacher and our faith, and probably next, our lives. And he didn't even answer them." In a success-oriented world, we turn away easily from such abject failure. We turn away too soon.

One of the advantages of living into old age is seeing how stories begun long ago turn out. Early in life I was rankled, like almost everyone, by the easy lives of people who I knew were rule-breakers.  That was before I broke the rules myself and also had an easy life. In fact it was before I learned what the rules actually are.  It was before I learned that true laws cannot be enforced from the outside, but that they will inexorably enforce themselves, and that when you are in the way of one of these "adjustments," nothing you say or do will assuage your pain or alter the landscape your path must cross.  If you have lost the art of receiving the truth as a friend, as Tagore also noticed, it will come as a conqueror.

It was also before I saw that we are in each other's way.  That we sometimes pay each other's debts, and that this serves us all.  In fact, we are all in this together, and forgiving and paying another's debt is a very sturdy and dependable way to move us all forward, if only an inch or two, in the right direction.  Jesus certainly demonstrated that.  He was in the way of a great truth, asserting itself through him and the story he was in. Nothing he said could have stopped the wheel of a great justice, far greater than the justice his disciples wanted.

How did he bear it? The only experience in my life that could have come close to motivating me to such suffering is love.  Love draws us in, pulls us forward, and fortifies us for suffering. We will follow our hearts past all reason, right into the jaws of death in some cases.  In the depths of Jesus' suffering, as he cried out in pain and loneliness, love still gushed from him in forgiveness and blessing. I am not yet capable of such a thing, but I have lived long enough to see that it is possible.

Sometimes we are in the grip of a Great Truth, its hour come round at last, to which our words, no matter how profound or entertaining or pithy, add nothing.  In those times, we are required to act, to be a pivot point and instrument of God's rescuing action, even at great cost to ourselves, without explanation or justification.  As Christians, we are invited to accept, as Jesus accepted, the worst of this world.  We expose our vulnerabilities and our nakedness to it, and we are asked to wordlessly bring our small humiliations and wounds to the altar of Love.  God's saving power will be exercised through us, and we will pay for it dearly.  But sacrifice that is thoroughly explained is explained away.  Packaged Christianity that is not as vulnerable to the world as Christ was is not worthy of the name.  And safety-first Love, defined and defended by words, is worthless. 

I acknowledge a God who is complex, mysteriously folded, and deeply, wordlessly vulnerable to the world.  As was Jesus.  As are we.

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