Monday, September 17, 2012

The Question and the Choice

The gospel referred to is Mark 8:27-38.

Remember reading the story, "The Lady or the Tiger?" In 1882 Frank Stockton wrote of a semi-barbarian king who comes up with a unique version of trial by ordeal to solve questions of criminal guilt. The accused is put in an arena in which there are two doors. Behind one is a hungry and ferocious tiger; behind the other is one of the most beautiful women in the land. If the accused chooses the door with the lady, fate has declared him innocent and he must instantly marry the woman, despite his current marital status. If he chooses the door with the tiger, fate has obviously judged him guilty and being torn apart is his sentence.

A problem arises when the king finds out that his daughter has a lover who is a commoner. The man is put into the arena. The king's daughter has used her wealth and power to find out which door conceals which fate. Her dilemma is that she knows and hates the lady behind the door and doesn't want to lose her lover to her. Is she jealous enough to want him dead instead? She loses him either way. So when he looks at her from the arena, she quickly and subtly indicates the door on the right. He strides right up and opens it. And the story leaves us with the question of which fate did she consign her lover to: the lady or the tiger?

The question has become proverbial. There are times when we must make momentous decisions with incomplete information. And we know the consequences of our choices may be good or bad. Should I keep my crappy job or take a chance on one that may be better--or worse? Should we try to keep mother living at her home or move her into a nursing home? Should I accept my boyfriend's offer to move in with him though we haven't known each other very long? Occasionally, but not often, the choice is a matter of life and death, as it is in the short story. Unlike the story, such a decision is seldom that stark nor does it present only a single clue. In fact, rarely do we have as little information as the young lover in the story does.

Of course, the story would not be so memorable were the choice offered not so dramatic. The title would not be quoted today if the man was choosing between taking up a habit that would eventually kill him or a date with an average girl who may or may not make a half-way decent wife.

But it would be more realistic. Most of the big choices we make have consequences that play out over the years. Nobody would smoke if it killed you immediately. Nobody would have sex outside marriage if the result was you might have a kid the very next day. Any idiot would make the right choice in such a simplified world. The problem is most foolish or bad choices have an immediate reward, usually in the form of a good feeling, and adverse effects may not emerge until years later. Wisdom consists in seeing the value in certain actions and choices where it is not readily apparent and avoiding actions that will have unacceptable negative consequences down the road.

The Bible makes much of the desirability of wisdom. It usually leads to prosperity, good health and a long life. Fools usually will get their comeuppance and suffer a painful and shortened life. Notice that I say usually. We all know wise people who have been overtaken by circumstances beyond their control and who did not achieve or who lost wealth and health. The Book of Job is a big reminder that bad things can happen to good people. And we know of people who make bad and foolish choices and yet somehow continue to prosper for many years. I keep wondering when a certain real estate mogul will run out of people who are willing to be partners with him in ventures, from vodka to airlines to mortgages to casinos, that frequently underperform and repeatedly lead to bankruptcies and his either being bought out or losing control of properties that bear his name. Yet people think of him as a financial genius. Although, considering the quality of thinking displayed by Wall Street, this should not surprise us.

Still, in the majority of cases, living wisely has rewards and living foolishly will lead to bad outcomes. And the Bible points this out again and again. Small wonder the disciples are flummoxed by what Jesus says in today's gospel.

The Gospel of Mark begins by declaring Jesus the Son of God. It ends shortly after the centurion overseeing his crucifixion says the same thing. And the whole gospel builds to this passage, the exact middle of the book, in which Jesus asks "Who do you say I am?" To which Peter responds, "You are the Messiah." That word is loaded. On the surface, it simply means the anointed, which in Greek is Christos. But there were 3 vocations for which the Jews anointed people: prophet, priest or king. The Messiah could be anyone of the three (or all three) but in his day most people saw him as God's anointed king. And that's probably what Peter and the disciples thought.

As Mel Brooks famously pointed out, it's good to be the king. And a divinely appointed and anointed king should have no problem making short work of the oppressors of God's people. Jesus was a descendent of David, who was a holy warrior king. All Jesus needed to do was give the rallying cry and his fellow Jews would flock to him and follow him into battle against the godless pagans. That was the popular idea of what the Messiah would do: defeat the Romans and inaugurate a literal Kingdom of God on earth.

Which is why the disciples were totally unprepared for Jesus' next words. Right after Peter correctly identifies Jesus as God's anointed king, Jesus says that he would suffer, be rejected by their religious leaders and killed. He would rise again after 3 days, if that was any consolation.

This was definitely not what the twelve expected Jesus to say. This was crazy talk. The Messiah triumphs. He doesn't suffer and die. As for the resurrection, that's way off at the end of the present evil age. What Jesus is saying to them makes no sense. And Peter, never reluctant to speak up, tells Jesus so. Nor does he see any irony in telling the guy he just declared to be God's Anointed that he is flat out wrong.

Jesus' rebuke is pretty harsh, even taking into account that Satan in Hebrew means "adversary." Peter is going against what God intends to do, making him, if not The Adversary, an adversary. But Jesus needs to nip this kind of thinking in the bud. Even if they don't totally buy the idea that he has to suffer and die, he needs to emphasize it enough that come Easter, they will recall it and it will make sense looking back. If they continue to harbor ideas about a political uprising, they will misinterpret his cleansing of the Temple, overlook his response to the inquiry about paying taxes to Caesar, and just generally see everything in an adversarial, us-against-them, can't-wait-to-fight kind of way. As hard as it was to hear, Jesus needed to plant the idea of his death and resurrection in their minds so that they would at least recognize what happened at the right time.

But it was not just the idea that he would die that he had to get across; it was the idea that they might have to as well. His way of triumphing through not fighting back was to be adopted by his followers. He meant all that "turn the other cheek" talk. General Patton was not revolutionary in his idea that wars are not won by dying for your country but by having your enemy die for his country. He may have only been unique in stating it that nakedly. Ironically, Old Blood and Guts has paved the way for modern warfare in which one side sits at a video screen in safety and sends a drone to take out the enemy by remote control. Some military leaders are afraid this ability to make others die with little risk to one's own side is going to make wars more likely rather than less. Because there will be less casualties for those who use drones and robots. Until, of course, the other side catches up and it escalates into a world where nobody under the sky is safe anywhere.

Jesus is the true revolutionary. He says that in following him you should write off keeping your life first. That's a better understanding of what Jesus was saying than the traditional translation of "deny oneself." It's not like giving up chocolate for Lent. It's more like "disown yourself," "give up all rights to yourself," "relinquish your life and self." As usual Eugene Petersen's loose but astute translation, The Message, really captures the essence of what Jesus said. "Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat; I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how."    
The only thing Petersen misses is the element of not just suffering but death. Jesus said, "take up your cross." That's like saying "get prepared to walk the last mile to the electric chair." Or "bring along the poisons for your own lethal injection." Or "carry the bucket of water with which you will be water-boarded to death." It was that harsh. Harsher, really, because everyone then had seen real crucifixions, slaves and traitors hanging naked by their nailed wrists and ankles on stripped trees along the road side. The Romans did it that way to say, "This is what happens if you defy the Emperor." The Roman Emperor was called King of kings and Lord of lords; he was worshiped as a god. Jesus was saying, "If you follow me, you're going to run afoul of that; be prepared for the worst."

Not much of a recruiting speech, is it? "Follow me to a likely death." And what's more it goes against the usual outcome of being wise. Follow wisdom and you are probably going to have a long life with appropriate earthly rewards. Jesus is saying, "You can forget about that." But does that mean that following Jesus is the opposite of wise? Does it mean being a Christian is foolish?

Certainly there were those who thought that way. Paul said that "we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." Jesus on the cross was so far from the triumphant Messiah expected by Jews that many just couldn't get past that. And Gentiles, for whom humility was not a virtue, thought any person so foolish as to be executed in such a humiliating way by the Emperor was no example to emulate. So, yes, following Jesus was not considered something a wise person would do.

So on what possible grounds could following Christ be considered reasonable? Jesus says, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it." For this to sound like a smart thing even to consider, you have to accept that Jesus was who Peter said he was: God's Anointed Prophet, Priest and King. If he is the person our creator has designated as the ruler of creation, then it makes sense to do what he says, no matter the cost. Then it makes sense to spend your life serving him and not yourself. Then it makes sense to choose Jesus over every other earthly allegiance.

And if Jesus is the one to restore all things corrupted and distorted and deformed and infected by our sins, our self-inflicted wounds, then what Jesus says next makes sense, too. "For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give to in return for their life." The Greek word translated "life" here in the NRSV can also be translated "soul" and I think that better states what is at stake. Listen to how Petersen translates these 3 verses: "Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?"

One big reason to follow Jesus is that he is the image of God unmarred, not ruined by sin and self-will. God made us all in that image but we now resemble God the way a fun house mirror reflects us or the way a vicious political cartoon resembles a political leader. And we realize that, deep down, we are not the person we could be, that we should be. We feel the loss of the person we used to be, before fears and desires and ambitions and lusts and disappointments and cynicism changed us. By connecting our lives to Jesus, the very embodiment of the Spirit and image of God, we can get that back. We can begin growing again, in the right direction, becoming more and more Christlike and, paradoxically, more and more ourselves, the selves God intended us to be.

Let's make it clear. If you don't buy into Jesus being God's son and the one God anointed as our king, then this is all nonsense. Following Jesus would be a very foolish thing. Giving up all rights to yourself would be stupid. You might as well look out for yourself. Oh, yeah, you can be reasonably good, good when it serves your purpose, good to a certain extent and only until it costs you more than you're willing to pay. But if trouble comes, if people stand in the way of your dreams and desires, if all the other individuals looking out for themselves thwart you,  then to hell with them. And to hell with you. Because that's how you will feel eventually, when you've chipped away enough of that image that it doesn't even look like God anymore, when you no longer can feel his Spirit, when you are just a lump of flesh, a mass of wants and demands and grievances and regrets, hardly human and definitely not divine. That's damnation: the decay of the soul, the deterioration of the self, into something less. 

But if you want to be more than just a brief occupier of space and time, if you want to be the real you, freed from the depredations of sin on the self, if you want to be connected to the true life that nourishes the soul, that renews the mind, that refreshes the heart, that grows the person, then you need to dispossess yourself, take up the rough unyielding cross on which the old you will die and follow Jesus. Unlike "The Lady or the Tiger?" you are fully informed of the choices before you. Both sooner or later lead to death. But one leads beyond that, to a new you with a new life in a new world, where crying and sorrow and pain and death are no more. Because Jesus the Anointed, God's son, has taken those upon himself and given us in their place his joy.

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