Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"To thine own self be true." The Challenge of Encountering Christ

A lot of people must have found Jesus to be a rather annoying character. He was not only Mr. Vague to his disciples on a number of occasions, preferring to speak in parables than plainly; he was also Mr. Smartypants to many others, particularly, the Pharisees, scribes, chief priests, and elders of the community. Indeed he seemed to have mastered and perfected the art of annoying or perhaps unsettling people.

Interestingly enough, the “father of western thought”, the philosopher Socrates whom many in his day found hard to deal with on account of his unsettling ways—and who was likewise condemned to death for speaking the truth—is recorded (by his student, Plato) as saying: “If I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, I am a gadfly, given by God...and all day long and in all places I fasten myself upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you”.

All of us of course have a certain image of Jesus that sticks out in our minds. It could be the compassionate Jesus, the indignant Jesus, the Jesus who wept for Lazarus or the widow of Naim’s dead son, or the angry Jesus perhaps, who drove the money changers from the Temple, and so on. I for one, cannot help but laugh at the clever and sometimes even cutting Jesus that we encounter every once in a while. In today’s gospel reading, for instance, as he was pronouncing all woe upon woe on the Pharisees, and a lawyer comes forward and says, “Master, when you say that, you condemn us too.” To which he responds, who knows, perhaps with a wide grin on his face: “Well, woe to you too, you lawyers.” If you think about it, you just can’t help but laugh.

There’s no question about it, Jesus was certainly an unsettling character. We see this again and again in the gospels. In once instance (recounted in Lk. 20:1-8), the chief priests and elders, perhaps irritated at the audacity of this newcomer, approaches him and ask: “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things?” Instead of answering them directly, however, Jesus instead asks them a question which confronts them with a dilemma and puts them in a very uncomfortable position. “Tell me,” he says, “was John’s baptism of heavenly or human origin?” Now if they answered, divine, they would have no choice but to recognize that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, since John had borne unmistakable witness to this fact at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. On the other hand, if they said it was merely human, the people would surely turn against them since they were convinced that John’s message was from God.

The chief priests and elders were silent for a moment, and then gave the lamest of all lame answers. “We don’t know.” If ever men stood self-condemned, these supposed teachers and leaders of Israel certainly were. For it was the duty of the members of the Sanhedrin to discern true from false prophecy, and they were saying that they were unable to make this distinction. The dilemma led them to shameful self-humiliation.

But you see, the problem with the chief priests and elders was not so much their dislike for Jesus—that was quite obvious. Nor was it simply that they disagreed with him in their hearts. Their real problem, for which they stood condemned again and again, was that they could not even be true to themselves.  It wasn’t so much their dislike for Jesus nor their high-mindedness that was the issue; it was their refusal to acknowledge the truth and commit to it.

There is such a thing as deliberately assumed ignorance and cowardice. If one were to consult expediency rather than his own principles, his first question will be, not “What is the truth?” but, “What is safe to say?” The chief priests and elders are those who prefer to sit on the fence while things get messy and rough and refuse to put their lives on the line. Refusing to take a stand, because this would make them unpopular, they’d rather sacrifice their integrity at the altar of untruth. The Gospel never ceases to warn us of this danger, and reminds us that while integrity and popularity do at times coexist, when they run into conflict, a Christian must choose the path of truth and honesty, most especially with himself, with the core principles that direct and orient his life. This isn’t always an easy prospect, for commitment to the truth is oftentimes painful, but there is no other way.

The message of Christ is truly unsettling, and commitment to him is both a joy and as well as a cross. But unlike the non-committed response of the elders and chief priests which is founded on nothing but cowardice and leads only to shame, the Christian’s commitment to the truth, unsettles only so that he may find himself on a more secure and a much more authentic foundation. Christ’s truth does sometimes pull the ground from under our feet, but it does this, only to establish a new, stronger, and lasting one.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)