When the Piling On Is Over

I’ve tried mightily to resist. The issues regarding my alma mater have been beaten to death in so many places, by so many people, so many times that it seems pointless to add another few words. But the resistance has lost.

My intended focus, however, is on what we as a society will do with the experience, and more so with how we will have handled the experience after a few months or years will have passed. Presently, the very suggestion that there needs to be a bit of perspective brought to the discussion is itself met with charges of being soft on child sexual predators, having head securely buried in sand, having drunk the Penn State Kool-Aid, ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. The idea that some semblance of perspective is needed is obvious to anyone associated with the Penn State University and to anyone else who cares about the kind of people we would like to be in this culture.

There is due outrage, to be sure. First, outrage toward Jerry Sandusky; then outrage that seems to be of an even higher order directed at those individuals singled out as having worked diligently to cover up the facts of the incidents. Even if all the interpretations included in the Freeh report are true (there is reason to question some of the findings as under-determined by the evidence), the rate at which people have been lining up to paint everyone associated with Penn State as somehow complicit in the events is staggering. If we weren’t directly involved, all of us are at least deemed guilty of being suckers for the fraud of the football program and its evil, conniving head coach (right, David Jones? Jason Whitlock?).

For the record, I am not returning my degree in protest. I’m not even relinquishing my season tickets. Penn State, contrary to the cynical remarks made even by people in the state, is not football. Not even close. It has been, and remains, a world-class university with a half million graduates serving in all corners of the world in all disciplines. We studied there as much, and in some cases as little, as students anywhere else. We had competent professors, more than adequate facilities and resources; we debated the issues of the day, formed lasting friendships, argued inconclusively at ridiculous hours of the morning, got into trouble, went streaking, protested the Vietnam War and the government research contracts. And on a few Saturdays in the fall term, we gathered for the fun of a major college football game, played by guys who really were fellow students. And it hasn’t changed all that much (for the good of all, the streaking craze didn’t last). The suggestion, however, that Penn State is all about football is an affront to every professor and administrator who did her or his job in teaching, and to every student who buckled down enough to graduate and contribute to family, community, and society. Football was an event, a big one; but it wasn’t (and isn’t) the sum total of college for anyone. Personally, it was the place where I was introduced to the intellectual history and vitality of Christianity, a discovery without which my faith would have evaporated. It’s special. So we continue going back, yes for a good football game and the whole aura of those fall Saturdays, but also because of our unwillingness to relinquish ties to what is really Penn State.

The ranters would also have it that Penn State should not be allowed to play football again, at least for a few seasons. So in order to properly punish a deceased man, a displaced president, and two other administrators, we should take away the employment of hundreds of other people, damage the businesses of scores of others, and take away the scholarships of players now on the team, forcing them to disrupt their education to go elsewhere. For maybe the first and only time, I find myself in agreement with James Carville on that one. But if that would undue the damage done to the boys once under Sandusky’s terror, so be it; alas, it would not.

But let’s get back to that perspective question. What will we have found out about ourselves as a society when there has been a little more distance between the horrible events (and the mishandling thereof) and our thoughts about them? For one, I would hope that we will have learned that sportswriters make lousy moral authorities. It is sickeningly ironic that some of the very ones who decry the importance of sports in our cultural life are the ones who have taken it upon themselves to make sure it stays that way. And the same ones are unsatisfied to tell us what happens on the field, but assume the right to tell us what ought to be done about any and all of the moral issues that arise, all, of course, without ever studying ethics, logic, moral reasoning, etc.

More importantly, I trust we will have been reminded that we are moral creatures, and are so necessarily by nature. There are very few taboos remaining in our culture; most of the ones largely recognized by all have to do with sexuality, particularly with children. We are right to react against violations such as those committed by Sandusky, and against efforts to shield the discovery and prosecutions thereof. But are these the only (dare I use the term) sins that disturb us? Could it be that our moral instincts have so atrophied that little other than the most obvious violations arouse our disapproval?

And perhaps we will be bold enough to learn to be honest with ourselves. We are all both capable of significant good, heroic, and altruistic actions and yet prone to great darkness at the same time. In Luther’s terms, simul justus et peccator, simultaneously just and sinful. We don’t handle this well about ourselves or about other people. We want to read all the good things in light of the evil deeds others have done (David Jones, Patriot News, loves this approach); or we minimize the evil and view it as insignificant in light of the good. We wear the mantle of moral judge poorly, undoubtedly because it is the vestment of another greater than ourselves. We would do well to remember this, even as we attempt to discern where the violations are and what must be done about them for the betterment of all.

And, as has been noted by many commentators, we should hope to have learned to take better care of and more interest in the welfare and treatment of others. One wonders how things might have been different if this had been a concern a little more than a generation ago, when Jerry was young. Who did things to him about which he may have been told to be quiet, as was the approach of a not-so-long-ago time? Monsters are seldom born; they are created. Let’s not make any more of them and do what grace allows to transform those in the process of being made.

Freedom at 236

Some of us have a habit of taking stock of our lives when those annual reminders known as birthdays roll around to tell us we’re not getting any younger; and the more often it happens, the more urgent becomes the attention we are willing to give to areas that need to be addressed, not only for our own benefit but for that of the people we will eventually leave behind.

I don’t know how a nation does the sort of soul-searching individuals do. Certainly, there is no shortage of volunteers to make the assessment and pronounce the cures for all ills discovered in the process. But the agendas attending these pronouncements are generally quite transparent; and those agendas all too frequently have little to do with a sound understanding of what we once were, what founders set out to create, or what changes in the initial vision have been necessitated by the movement of times, ideas, philosophies, and the means by which any of these are communicated, instantiated, or defended. Yet where we go from here has to begin with where we’ve come from and how we got from there to this point, unless one holds the notion that history is all irrelevant–in which case there is no way to discern either where we are or where we ought to go.

Many of us learned and even memorized the words of such an assessment made eighty-eight years into what became known as the Grand Experiment. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address included several lines that have never left my memory:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, can long endure.

How long, and under what sorts of duress and circumstances, can the vision endure? How does it fare? I suspect that how we answer such questions has more relevance in a presidential election year than at other times. But it seems that we are very close to a point in national/cultural history at which freedom and equality are seen by too many on either side of a great political divide as irreconcilable pursuits. What I fear is that freedom is viewed only as the absence of restraint on what one desires, regardless of the merits of those very desires. One wants to be free from restraint to become as wealthy as possible; another wishes to engage in whatever pleasurable activities happen to be in vogue, create whatever relationships strike the fancies of the moment. To such a mindset, equality consists only in the opportunity fo each person to do the same with his or her freedom.

How we negotiate the claims of freedom on one hand and the guarding of equality on the other has much to do with what we believe freedom to be and to what extent we will protect the rights of others from being violated in our chosen pursuits. I would also suggest that it has to do with what we perceive human beings to be in the first place. This, honestly, is the source of my deepest concerns for our future: we have lost the grounding of both the Declaration and the Gettysburg Address, namely that we are the intentional creation of God. I am hard pressed to think of solid grounding for human dignity, freedom, and therefore mutual concern and protection absent this foundation. This is not to suggest that people without such a belief are unable to act in ways that are honorable and responsible to freedom and equality; there are ample examples of such people, and I am thankful for the fact. Whether they can give a satisfying reason for their nobility is another question, and it is a question being more and more frequently asked by another generation, one which finds anything having to do with sacrifice and hard work too much of an imposition on their freedom.

This is not intended as gloom and doom. It is yet another call to Christian people of all political stripes to pay greater attention to our humanity than to our party, and to engage in the hard work of helping a culture think through its options. Are we up to it?

Oh, and Happy Birthday to us!

A Not So Brave New Farm of Sheep?

Okay, the title is a weak attempt at cleverness; but I wonder how many of you (and it would help to be of a certain age) could identify the three books referenced therein. Thoughts of each of them have been running through my mind today as the dust tries in vain to settle from the announcement by the U. S. Supreme Court that the Health Care Reform Act (HRA below) has been largely upheld.

Unlike tv reality (yeah, right) shows, I won’t leave the reader hanging until the end before revealing their identity. The books are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and the somewhat lesser known A Nation of Sheep by William Lederer. They come from an earlier time (mid-late twentieth century), and were part of the required summer reading lists I was required to work through in high school. That practice alone tells you I’m from an earlier era.

What’s the point of resonating with these books and the announcement? Well, first of all, I am not making comment so much on the details of the constitutionality decision itself; I am not a qualified legal analyst or constitutional scholar, of which there are more than enough pretenders burning up the status pages of facebook. While I admit it doesn’t make sense to me, I also admit that I don’t know enough about what makes sense to the people who have studied these things for decades. Secondly, I don’t think this is about whether or not President Obama is a good or evil man. For the record, I believe he is a decent man who cares about people; but I also think his thinking about who should do what about the problems we face are seriously flawed. And those flaws are what remind me of the books.

Brave New World had much to say about the dehumanization of the citizens. They were told what to think and were given ample doses of pleasure-inducing drugs when their brains actuality tried to kick into gear and question the “truths” that were being constantly drummed into their minds. Dissenters were shipped off to a safely confined area where they could do as they pleased–even think freely–among themselves. It’s the constant repetition of “truths” that concern me with regard to the current cultural climate, including but certainly not limited to the president. If a proposition is repeated long enough, loudly enough, and by enough people, it becomes the truth; and such a process lies at the heart of political correctness, in which a decision to treat preferred positions as true and unassailable closes debate and marginalizes those who might dissent. Many such propositions are buried in the 2,000 pages that comprise the HRA. And they include positions regarding abortion, homosexuality, the role of government, the nature of religion, human evolutionary development, and a host of others. They are neither argued nor open to argument; they became true by governmental fiat, as determined by consultation with supposed experts.

Animal Farm, on the other hand, warns against thinking that we can fix everything by replacing leaders. We do not, and perhaps cannot, permanently install the people themselves as governors; those who ascend on such a basis eventually assume it their business to be “more equal” than others. Perhaps the genius of our American system is that it has forestalled the ascent of the new ruling class for as long as it has. But (inevitably?) that leadership decides more and more what will and what will not be tolerated–and what can and cannot be left for the governed to decide. My fear with today’s decision is that it marks a point of no return regarding the powers the government can take upon itself. If the requirement to purchase one particular good is in place, can we really expect that it will not become the first in a series? If this, why not that also?

Finally, Lederer’s book from 1961 pointed to the mesmerizing effect of mass marketing and governmental shell games, hiding things in law and anesthetizing us to their effects, leading us to where we can be fleeced and slaughtered (figuratively, of course). The book resurfaced recently through references in the speeches and writings of Andrew Napolitano. He is worth a read.

What does all of this recollection of books read in high school more than forty years ago tell me? It does not mean that I’m excessively angered by this particular decision, though I think it a bad one. It does not mean that I’m joining a new or existing political movement. It does not mean that those who do, or even those who continue the current regime are necessarily worse people than the rest of us. It does remind me of the inability of human government to do that which can only be done under the Lordship of Christ. We try in vain to instantiate the kingdom for which all humanity inwardly longs–the kingdom in which real truth, righteousness, beauty, and goodness prevail. And the response of believers, rather than to rail against a president or his detractors, ought to be to live and exemplify what a redeemed humanity looks like, where people bear one another’s burdens, rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, and live as they truly are and ought to be their brother’s keeper.

Confessions of a Delinquent Blogger

It happens. To some of us it happens more easily and frequently than it does to others. Take a couple of days off from a task or routine, and it turns into a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months. Whether it’s an exercise program, a spiritual discipline, staying current on a given subject, or writing blog posts there is a measure of difficulty attendant to staying on track when one does not feel up to the task. During that time away from the particular routine there are inevitable internal wranglings and questionings about just how important that routine is in the grand scheme of things and about what sort of impact is being made by the practice in the first place, either on oneself or on others (like readers). Well, while the world at large has never flocked to this blog page, enough of you have prevailed upon me to resume, even suggesting topics with which you would like some engagement. So here we go again.

But I do want confess a few of the misgivings. I do indeed wonder about the overall value of what amounts to an intramural conversation about things we think matter. Is there ever a danger of substituting dialog for action, or banter for substantive engagement with those who see the world very differently and haven’t a clue into what we’re talking about? While there have been occasional disagreements among those who take the time to comment on this page, we really are having internal conversations among those who share a rather familiar worldview. Has anything posted truly informed anyone’s engagements with the “outsiders” to the Christian perspective. Really, I’d like to know.

A second confession: I feel inadequate to the task at hand and would often prefer to send people to the thoughts of others on given subjects than try to speak authoritatively myself. Over the years, I have come to the point at which many wiser men and women have arrived more quickly–I could be wrong. And I hate being wrong. I don’t think evangelicals handle that sort of intellectual confession very well. We’ve been hijacked in recent decades by a mentality suggesting (make that “asserting”) that true biblical knowledge is the answer to every question, and that such answers are unassailable; what’s missed is that the hermeneutic, not given in scripture, is also assumed to be unquestionable.

Confession being said to be good for the soul, allow me to do myself further good. I confess that I don’t always know which of the multitudinous subjects crying for attention I ought to choose for comment. Just a brief listing of candidates for the next post would include the following: a conversation (way overdue, in my opinion) about the juvenalization of Christianity (see Christianity Today) and what to do about it; the political races and the subjects around which they revolve; the pronouncements of the Supreme Court due this week on immigration law (given Monday) and health care reform; the continuing conversation about homosexuality and same-sex marriage and what it means for the church; the effects of social media on the emerging generation and one the human psyche. I’m quite sure you can supply many more. Where to begin? Maybe with the fact that we no longer practice confession very well, in any form?

I confess that I wish this blog were far more subscribed than is the case; but that would also be confessing a need for greater importance than has been granted. I confess that when I read other blogs (no names will be given) I have a hard time understanding why so many people take them seriously when they really don’t know what they’re talking about. But I’ll stop confessing for the moment and thank those of you who have encouraged the resumption of the page; I ask only that you contribute your thoughts and ideas. And maybe a confession or two of your own. I feel better already.

Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

Another week-ending entry surveying several topics having no necessary or intended connection to one another. Give a shout if any of them need further reflection on this blog; one such request spawned the most active exchange yet for “What’s the Story?”

Speaking of that topic—poverty and wealth—what should I take from the fact that it was an issue concerning money and wealth that created more fire from the troops than any other topic yet addressed on this page? I’m hoping that it doesn’t indicate what really engages us, in spite of our stated opposition to focusing on money. Just asking.

It is discouraging to think that the general election is still more than six months away. Rhetoric, innuendo, name-calling, accusations, character assassination, and other forms of uncivil engagement must be yet another spectacle that we really shouldn’t be so willing to put on display for the entire world. It becomes ever more difficult to have much confidence in either side when the rules of engagement are themselves so foreign to the way Christ would have us present ourselves and evaluate others. On the other hand, it might serve as a reminder to not put our trust in princes or kings. Or presidents. I love what John Wesley said in defense of the early Methodists against all manner of false accusation. Paraphrased, he indicated that it is the way of the world to criticize others; it is our way to criticize ourselves. That criticism of self was not in the way of self-flagellation, but of improvement as examples of Christ. I continue to be dismayed at the level of vitriolic comment made by Christians against political leaders. Yes, there is corruption and deceit; it’s about power, not truth. But should we not be more attuned to our deficiencies, our inability to present a better way of life than we are to pointing out the failures of others?

This week delegates will begin gathering for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. As a mainline denomination, it has some of the same struggles and challenges as others in that category; but as the major organized descendant of Wesley, it has resources within its heritage to guide the way through the difficult choices that inevitably arise when a church body is trying to maintain unity with parties who cannot agree on important matters. For those of us outside this particular expression of the body of Christ, prayer for them and for their deliberations would be appropriate.

I’m not sure what to make of the reaction of Yankee fans at a game last played last week. There was a Tim Tebow sighting during the game, and the ever alert video crew at Yankee Stadium put Tebow on the large screen beyond the outfield seats. The response was a chorus of booing. Is that an indication of just a few New Yorkers that he is not really wanted? And if not, why not–the guy hasn’t done anything in a Jets uniform to this point. Or is it an inhospitable reaction to Tebow’s well publicized conservative Christian views and attitudes on a wide range of topics he has been asked about? I’m just curious.

Here’s one to ponder—but not too deeply. Do we make the faith too complicated? In a class session this week the topic was eschatology, the doctrine of last things—where is the world heading, what is the expectation for a return of Christ, what is the nature of the kingdom which will follow his return, who will be involved in what sorts of ways, etc. This topic is one about which a small segment of believers becomes extremely engaged and often intractable; nothing will sway their conceptions, and anyone not sharing them will run the risk of being portrayed as outside the faith. Other. perhaps the majority of Christians, have only confused thoughts about the topic—or no thoughts at all. One student in particular was distressed over the topic because of encounters with some people within that small segment. But the encouragement to focus our attention on the doing of justice, the loving of mercy, and daily life of humbly walking with God (Micah 6:8) came as a new revelation to this student. How is it that the simplest, clearest word from the Bible, repeated in various ways by Jesus and Paul, becomes lost in so many other things (like politics and ecclesiology and economics)? Wouldn’t it seem to occupy our minds and spirits sufficiently to find and enact the ways in which living rightly, extending mercy, and maintaining godly humility might happen in the world we actually live in, rather than the world we think ought to exist?

Enough straying for this week. May God bless you in your 6:8 living.

“That’s Not Who We Are”–Are You Sure?

This has been a bad week for the public image of the United States. The negative impressions are well deserved; one can only hope, though without a great deal of confidence, that the events now well publicized will be the occasion of some serious soul-searching. Secret Service agents having a very busy time with Columbian prostitutes; American soldiers in Afghanistan posing with body parts of suicide bomb carriers and (perhaps) slain combatants. Not the stuff the land of the free and home of the brave ought to be posting on the shingle at the front door.

In both cases Washington officials were quick to point out that this is not who we are, not what we are about, not consistent with our values. I believe they genuinely believed what they were saying. I’m not so sure that what they said and believed was entirely true. There is a very real and quite legitimate question about whether these acts were really far off the mark we currently aim at in our culture, by default if not by intent.

Both the Hillary Rodham Clinton (Secretary of State) and Leon Panetta (Defense) are part of a generation that takes a given moral order for granted, whether or not their actual beliefs adequately account for or uphold that given order. According to that order, some actions are just plain, self-evidently wrong; and the actions that have made the recent headlines fall very clearly within the category of the forbidden. They are disturbing actions, in one case because, while prostitution is certainly nothing new, employing prostitutes while engaged in the doing of the country’s business in a foreign land obviously disrespects one’s fellow citizens, let alone one’s own family members; in the other case, the actions seem so heinous that many of us cannot comprehend anyone thinking it, let alone doing it and documenting it. It’s not the stuff we would expect anyone to treasure for home viewing in their later years.

But much has happened to undermine the assumptions on which Clinton, Panetta, and the entire generation they are part of, uncritically relied. And the failure of that generation (my own) to think through and validate the moral law with sound reasoning has led to the virtual demise of even its most basic ideas of decency, civility, and discipline of both self and offspring. When the only virtue remaining is a badly warped sense of tolerance, we mistakenly and tragically lose the power to draw lines other than by political force. And among the first to take advantage of this void was the entertainment industry, which continued to push the boundaries with ever weakening resistance. The result has been music, movies, games, and conversation about the same which devalues decency, civility, and discipline. And now we face the generation which such an approach has spawned, and we find ourselves in disgust, yet with no recourse other than to lament.

I am going to venture an opinion an opinion here against which some readers may well scoff, bristle, or rail. It seems plausible, however, to lay some of the responsibility for our moral situation at the feet of a political agenda which includes the leveling of the religious landscape. That is, when a governmental position is adopted, as undoubtedly and avowedly has been done, holding all faiths to be of equal value, it actually holds none of them to be truly worthwhile. And in so doing, it has removed any constraint against on the (im)moral impulses of its citizens other than those imposed by law. This serves the government well in that it allows no room for other lords than itself. If that is too strong a statement, consider the real meaning of religious freedom, including the freedom of grounding morality in a transcendent reality, when government itself defines religion, as the current president has done. It does so in order to control and shape citizens in its own image.

But if the truth about mankind includes a fallen nature along with our undeniable wealth of potential for creativity, watch out for what we create and the purposes for which we do it. And I submit we are reaping the consequences. Or am I just an old curmudgeon?

Short Break

In case anyone was looking for the remainder of the Holy Week series, I’ve had to curtail my writing for a few days. Medication has the side effect of turning letters on the keyboard into moving targets. Hope to be back on Monday, 4/9.

Radical

G. K. Chesterton once noted that the problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting; the problem is that it has never been tried. I think of that as I read again Mark 12. I’d encourage you to read the entire chapter, which is not printed here, but perhaps is summarized by the familiar passage below:

12:28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

I doubt that Jesus said anything in the days between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday that he had not said before. Perhaps a different shape, a different context, a different poignancy is given to the words because of where the gospel writer now locates them. The version of events as given by both Matthew and Mark shows that challenges were coming at Jesus from various interest groups. They seemed intent on having him answer one group in a way that would show him to be completely wrong in the eyes of another. Scribes, Pharisees, Saducees, Herodians, and just plain skeptics and unbelievers wanted their turns at asking the question which would expose Jesus.

“After that no one dared to ask him any more questions.” That’s the conclusion to the challenges, except that Jesus continued by adding some positive teachings of his own, demonstrating his wisdom as superior to that of his erstwhile interrogators. Should we have to pay taxes to a foreign occupier; is resurrection a coherent idea; what’s the most important command? This was followed by his own question, one which challenged assumptions about ideas that didn’t normally receive challenges—concerning what type of messiah they were anticipating, what kind of salvation they expected. The section closes with the example of a widow who got it; she trusted God implicitly with everything she had. She knew what the love of God with heart, soul, mind, and strength really meant.

What I’d like to suggest for our thinking is that what Jesus provides in his encounter with all of the challenges presented is an example of what we should be in our apologetics and in our living of the faith. There is nothing in what he had to say that relied on his divine insights beyond what was already in the revealed word of the Hebrew scriptures. His manner was one of calm assurance that comes from the knowledge of the truth—not of particular phrases from the text, but from the whole of the text. Wisdom. And it’s the kind of wisdom that stood out then as radical. Not irrational, not non-rational, but radical. At the root. Not asking about anticipated consequences.

The radical love of God with all of our being and of our neighbors as ourselves is radical. It’s in the widow in a way not found in the scribe. It isn’t often tried. I doubt that it will be found wanting if it is tried. The matter before us is to reflect on where it will take us today.

Trees and Temples Under Attack

Continuing the walk through Holy Week with the man Jesus, as seen in Mark’s account of the gospel.

Mark 11:12-25 (ESV)

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

One of the more common human experiences just might be frustration. We all feel it, though it is surely true that some of us fall into it far more easily than others. I wonder—was Jesus exhibiting frustration in the two incidents recorded as taking place the day after Palm Sunday? Is this how the one hailed as king would act in his reigning capacity? Cursing fig trees, overturning business in the temple? Acting impulsively and exhibiting his authority over things and men, just because he could, or just because he was momentarily frustrated and wanted folks to know that his desires really needed to be tended? That would be disastrous—human frustrations linked to divine powers to act on them.

I confess that I haven’t fully comprehended what was going on with the fig tree. Without borrowing from the other gospel accounts of the incident, I’m at a loss to see fully the connection between the cursing of the tree and the explanation given in the latter portion of the text for today. It appears to be a simple demonstration, an arbitrary one, of the principle later spelled out: the normal limitations of nature, the things that often cause us momentary frustrations, do not apply to the people of faith. Things that are apparently impossible need not be seen as such when we trust the power that made nature more than the power of nature. And the power to forgive sins falls into seems to be linked to that which is impossible by nature, yet possible for the person of faith because of what the ruler of nature is about to do in the coming days.

And perhaps that’s the problem in the temple. The power and wonder and transformation of human life through the forgiving desires of God had been obscured by the day-to-day business of conducting ceremonies and observances. The very power of prayer to enact and enable the forgiveness of sins, the one world-changing activity for which all of the system had been designed to draw attention to had been lost in the shuffle of making change, providing the right offerings, and, oh by the way, turning a profit.

We’re quite adept at experiencing frustration over the things that seem to get in our way as we walk along roads and look for some good and pleasant things; are we frustrated similarly by the things of God put to mundane use, removing the transforming power of the grace of God we think we’re all about? It’s Holy Week. It’s time to think about such things and ask such questions, not of the other, but of ourselves.

The Beginning of the End of the Beginning

Matthew 21:1-17
English Standard Version (ESV)
21 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

5 “Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt,[a] the foal of a beast of burden.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
12 And Jesus entered the temple[b] and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise’?”
17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.

Palm Sunday. The beginning of Holy Week for Christians. The beginning of the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The prelude to the beginning of new life for that same Jesus and for those who are “in Him.”

In this week-long series of reflections on this very special week, the recounting of which occupies a seemingly inordinate portion of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, we will be looking at Jesus in his humanity, hoping to learn what it means for us to be in the Second Adam rather than the first. I’m struck by many things when adopting this perspective, things missed when we focus on very legitimate matters that center on his divinity, such as the preparation of the animals to be used and of the disciples who were involved; to an extent, the references to the prophetic announcements also fall under this category.

But what about the human nature of Jesus, from which we gain our understanding of what the new nature does and how it responds in this world? The imitation of Jesus is something commonly and rightly enjoined on believers through the New Testament and recounted from countless pulpits and books on spiritual direction. What does it look like?

The Palm Sunday account shows many possible emphases, and I invite any who read this to offer their insights in the comments. What I see in Jesus is the single-minded knowledge of who he is and what he needs to do. That’s easily said and can apply to his life in general. But here is where the pressure is on in a way that was not the case on previous occasions. Sometimes it is more difficult to maintain focus when things are in one’s favor than when they are not.

Think about it. Do we not all crave for approval? Psychologists tell us we all seek our parents’, and specifically our father’s approval, and when we do not have it, we seek for it elsewhere, usually in unhealthy fashion. If we can get a crowd behind us, cheering us on, we are so mightily tempted to think that we have reached the goal, attained the epitome. Athletes, rock stars, actors, politicians, and every other category of persons who hold recognition award ceremonies are big events on the calendar. And once people get their moment in the sun they usually want to do what is necessary to keep it. The attention becomes addictive, and it is hard to imagine living without it. So we’ll do what is needed to stay in the spotlight.

Jesus has another goal in mind, one which will dispel his own adoring crowd within a day or so. He is focused on the telos, the end toward which everything must be oriented. And such a focus will prove costly. We in our imitation of Jesus must similarly know who we are and where we are going well enough to take momentary applause in stride, understanding the fickleness of the cheers and the all-excelling value of the goal. Not always easy; seldom painless; eternally worth it.