Reflection for Thursday, March 8, 2007: 2nd week in Lent.
College of Arts and Sciences; English
Psalms 1:1-2, 3, 4, 6
Psalms 1:1-2, 3, 4, 6
233. Year I, Lent.
233. Year I, Lent.
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Faced with the old scenario of "desert island books," I wonder if I would take the Bible. I'd have to take it, right? But desert island books are for comfort and edification. The better reader I become and, I hope, the better student of sacred writings I become, the more I become convinced that as hard as I might try to take comfort in the Bible, it ultimately isn't supposed to work that way. Today's readings present one of the central challenges for me as to how I read the Bible. Is it consumed for comfort, for familiarity? Is it read for guidance down known paths? Or, as I think is the case here, is it read as a challenge to the intellect and to faith? In an earlier Chapter from Luke, the Sermon on the Plain, which is echoed in today's reading, Jesus challenges his followers at precisely the moment that he names his Apostles. Jesus asks pointed questions that we often forget: "...if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same" (Lk 6:33-4). Jesus moves towards conclusion with, "You hypocrite! remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother's eye" (6: 42). This isn't that "old time religion" that sways out of sleepy smiling chairs where we wait for pop affirmation of our holiness singing hymns like "My Grandfather's Bible." It is precisely this fluid and challenging nature of the Bible's text that both frustrates and truly enriches my experience with it. The hard lessons that Jeremiah relates today are further examples of this truly challenging nature. In a time of earthly strife and true enslavement, he was a voice crying out of a literal and spiritual wilderness. "More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?" seems to strike a note almost beyond despair. Reading Jeremiah, we might too simplistically wonder if it is just a harsh prophecy for an old-fashioned time: "Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord?" This seems a little, well, hard. Jeremiah is perhaps one of the great examples of a Jack Nicholson moment from the Bible where we hear that perhaps we can't handle the truth--that truth being that we cannot simply and only rely upon ourselves. I wonder if only incredible naivete, or shocking hubris, could result in thinking that we alone (person, tribe, or nation) can solve all of the problems with which the world presents us. Jeremiah offers a stern reminder that there is something out there much larger than us which grants meaning. As sentient beings, we don't like to be told that we're limited in any way. Yet the message is an important one--a message of acceptance that is universal in it's spiritual value: accept that you are not a god, and you may accept God; understand that you are not worthy of veneration; and you may humble yourself in service to your fellow man. In Luke 16, the well-known parable of Lazarus and the rich man carries a similarly stern message. We all probably have heard at some point this story about the rich man, who would not pity the poor man who died at his doorstep and was received into "the bosom of Abraham." We might easily recall the simple moral that sufferings on earth will receive compensation in heaven. That's just the sort of desert island reading we long for; that's the sort of stuff that'll bring comfort at the end of a long day or brief solace after opening another small paycheck. And it's too easy all over again, especially considering that Abraham refuses to send anyone to the rich man's five living brothers to tell them to repent. The reason for this, as Jesus says through the character of Abraham, is: "'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead'." I personally find such irony more than a little disconcerting from Jesus. Having made a career, such as it is, reading and amp; writing, I know that what you say at the end of a short piece is pivotal, especially in a parable. Are all the pieces already there? From Moses and the prophets do we actually have what we need to live a just and holy life? It would seem from Jesus, who is throughout these passages (especially in Luke 6 and 16) struggling to live as a good Jew and a prophet, that the answer is emphatically "yes." Then, why do we not get it? What is standing in our way? It seems like I am standing in my own way as an obstacle. Throughout these Gospel passages, Jesus will focus upon forsaking money. The general way in which it is often spoken about suggests a real materialism that stands in his followers way--whether that is hanging on to money, intellectual confidence, or any clinging to something which separates them (and us) from becoming holy. Like the Dao, the way in today's Psalm is an active path and not one upon which we embark by the solo light of inner faith, but by constant diligence and study. The way is something that changes, that we learn from, and that we both follow and discover as we go along. But, it is also not something that we accumulate things upon or undertake for gain.In a recent writing, "Contemplating Emptiness," the Tibetan teacher Ponlop Rinpoche cited the Pramanavartika by Dharmakirti in illustration of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness: "If one conceives of the existence of a self, one will conceive of an other. From self and other arise clinging and aversion. Through thoroughly engaging in these, all faults arise." It seems to me that, if we're going to follow the call of Jeremiah out of the wilderness or Jesus on the plain, we're going to have to travel light; the most difficult thing to leave behind (and the most necessary according to today's works) might be ourselves.