Anything that is true and lovely is good. Anything that is lovely and good is true. Anything that is true and good is lovely.
A mother’s love surrounds her baby whether the baby is awake or asleep, whether it’s sick or well. Her love doesn’t fade or withdraw when the baby is being difficult or presenting challenges. It’s not stronger when she’s hugging the baby to her bosum than when she’s asleep and dreaming of her own childhood. A mother’s love doesn’t name an emotion or a mood of the mother; it names a spiritual orientation between a woman and her child that nothing in the material world can effect.
Some say that El Shaddai means God of two breasts.
In the summer, the fair-complexioned must be respectful of the power of our neighborhood star. A few minutes on the first outing, a few more on the second, and so on. Eventually, if all goes as planned, even the palest among us can spend the day delighting in the outdoors, under the unfiltered sun, without fear of the aftereffect.
The good news is that God loves us. But that doesn’t tell us much, because we have only a very opaque vision of God or of God’s love. What we have instead are a few words, vague and amorphous things, each residing in our individual vocabularies as products of our own identities, like autobiographies in our personal libraries. To say God loves me has a distinctive personality each time it’s uttered or thought, even by the same speaker.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even an unfiltered glimpse of God’s love in its reality – which is God, John tells us – would overwhelm us, scorch our spirits. We may even, if we like, think of our spiritual growth as becoming more and more able to experience and enjoy God’s love, without pain.
After he returned from the period of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus did something quite remarkable. He told someone about it. We don’t know who it was he told, of course, or whether there was more than one. But he told someone, or we ourselves would never have learned about the temptations.
And since he told somone, he must have wanted the nature of the temptations and his rationale for resisting them to be known as well. Why?
Surely not to communicate how he had overcome unique and uniquely powerful temptations, temptations available only to him: to change stones to bread by miracle, to exercise a privilege of protection as God’s Son, to rule the world. The only possible motive for his telling someone for that reason would be pride.
The answer must be that each represented a category of temptation to which we are all subject, and which we must be especially diligent to resist, for the reasons given in Christ’s several responses. Thus the one teaches us not to desire shortcuts in our journey towards God: to embrace the difficulties of the journey; to be wary of easy answers and gaudy promises; to live through faith rather than sight.
And another warns us against both spiritual complacency and spiritual arrogance, against neglect of prosaic duty and humble responsibility, against pride in its most subtle embodiments.
And the third?
The temptation for Jesus was not to rule the world: he created the world, for goodness sake. Nor was it to save the world; he’d already accomplished that in eternity.
So what was there between the world and Jesus that finds counterpart in each of us, and would explain why Jesus described this temptation to someone?
I think it must be the spiritual ignorance of the world, and the temptation to remove that ignorance by any means but the truth, the gospel truth.
There are two ways to reach the top of a mountain. One is to climb the mountain. The other is to be transported there, by helicopter, say.
The vista from the top in either case is the same, but that’s all the two experiences have in common. The most obvious and important difference is that the former is an accomplishment, and its view from the top the culmination of that accomplishment. It’s like the leaf that emerges from the effort of the tree, its own vitality and identity an outgrowth, its own meaning bound up with that of the living tree below. The stops and starts of the climb, the difficulties overcome, the moments of rest and contemplation, are all parts of the experience of looking out from the summit, as are even the contemplation/anticipation/dread of the climb back down.
Think of the journey towards God as an endless series of climbs to accomplish. The climbing itself is what gives vitality and identity and meaning to whatever you see or think or feel at the summits.
That’s why Jesus would not turn stones into bread.
This winter, like the rest, brings reports of ice fishermen stranded out on their lakes and of mountain climbers buried under unexpected onslaughts of snow. Most of these perilous adventures have happy endings, almost always due to the bravery and energy of others coming to their rescue, usually at considerable risk to themselves. We admire and applaud these heroes as we should do. But at the same time, there is a corresponding desire, usually unexpressed, to chide or even berate the fishermen and mountain climbers who, for the satisfaction of their own desires, necessitated heroism on the part of others.
This could be the model for the most serious of sins, those that flow from spiritual pride. The sportsmen knowingly put themselves in situations from which they might need rescue. The spiritually proud do the same, although their confidence rests on God saving them from the evil consequences of their own choices.
And the source of their confidence? Their sense of self-worth.
That is spiritual pride.
Aside from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, all proposals and offerings are conditional upon the differences among individuals.
In the non-religious realm, this is obvious. Athletic success presupposes health and genetic endowment. Artistic achievement lies within the purview of those natively gifted and with the opportunity to train and exercise their gifts. In business, accomplishment rewards those of discipline and application, or sometimes the lucky, or sometimes the socially advantaged, or sometimes those without conscience.
Where we are born and what opportunities we have there, the nature of our culture and education, our skin color, our friends…all the accidents of time and place that make us distinct from one another provide the conditions for the various possibilities of material life.
And the same is true in the realm of religion. Hinduism is only viable to those exposed to its mythology and capable of rigorous asceticism; Islam, like Orthodox Judaism, requires rigorous observance within a cultural milieu; even the ‘social’ religions like communism and capitalism, offer their appeal to subsets of humanity, subsets defined by their differences. A seventeenth century Eskimo could never be a Marxist, as an Egyptian laboring on the pyramids could never practice Catholicism.
Unlike these, the gospel of Jesus Christ is responsive to what every single human being has in common: sin and helplessness – the sin of deviating from the light, and the helplessness of being unable to return to it. That condition has been dealt with for the communist and Catholic alike, for the Hindu and the Moslem, for the isolated Eskimo as well as the ancient Egyptian.
When the Son of God emptied Himself and took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7), he limited himself to the knowledge and the language and the cultural framework of an individual in a certain time and place, first century Galilee. That has many implications, but one is that the concept of a ‘covenant’ between God and the Jewish nation was the vehicle available to Jesus to communicate his revelation of God’s character in its aspect of seeking something from His creation.
In the Jewish tradition, the covenant relationship is between God and the nation of Israel. But of course, nations can’t agree to or enter into contractual relations, only individuals can do that. So throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we find the basic covenant being enacted or renewed between God and some individual: Noah, Abram, David, etc. This in turn requires accepting some individual as effectively representing the rest of the people of the nation, in such a way that what is agreed to by that individual is binding on the other individuals represented.
In the Jewish tradition, therefore, every Jew, simply by virtue of being a Jew, was obligated to fulfill the terms of the covenant with God. The terms of that agreement, from the Jewish side, were obedience to God’s expressed will. In the early period of Covenant history, this was thought of largely in terms of ritual observance, with the prophetic period shifting the emphasis towards moral behavior. But the central truth never changed, that the whole nation – meaning every Jew – was duly obligated.
Understanding His own work in that sense, Jesus sought the responsibility of representing the Jewish nation as Messiah, the perfected Jew, sinless under the (properly interpreted) Law. But more than that, much more than that, Jesus Christ sought the responsibility, as Son of Man, of representing all of humanity, every single individual, of living the life of the perfect human being, sinless in never deviating from perfect Love.
This is the ‘eternal covenant’ between God the Father and God the Son referred to in Hebrews, that the Son of God might become representative of all humanity by entering into humanity, and leading the perfect human life, culminating in perfect human death.
The perfect life and death of Jesus was the achievement of that mission, his resurrection and glorification the proof of God’s accepting its success. At death, Jesus became the representative of every individual, and the terms that God the Son agreed to with God the Father became binding on every human being.
But what were those terms? What are the terms of the new covenant?
Under the Jewish covenants, the terms were always reward of one kind or another on one side – God’s – for obedience of one kind or another on the part of every Jew.
In the covenant between the Father and the Son, the covenant sealed by the life and death of the incarnate Son, the reward on the Father’s side is forgiveness, and the qualification for the reward on the human side is the same: forgiveness.
This can be put in another way – though it still uses Galilean concepts – by saying that Jesus enabled reconciliation with God for everyone.
Under the Jewish covenants, such reconciliation was possible only in response to perfect obedience to the Law, and such perfect obedience was humanly impossible. That’s what Paul is lamenting throughout Chapter 7 of Romans.
Under the Eternal Covenant, the covenant sealed in Jesus’s blood, any and all are offered that reconciliation, and it does not require any action on their part. It only requires forgiveness, that is, absorbing the harm done to oneself without retaliation, without publicity, without rancor.
As we have noted on other occasions, forgiveness is the key to everything else. Both in parable and in direct discourse, Jesus makes the point again and again. Unless you forgive others, your Father will not forgive you.
Is that unfair? In a way, yes. Every Jew became obligated to obey the ceremonial law simply by virtue of being born a Jew. Every American becomes obligated to obey the laws of the United States by virtue of being born of American parents.
So also, every human being is obligated to forgive. This is what for most people makes Christianity hard, hard to accept and hard to live out. The difficulty of it lies at the heart of the reality that “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:19). In the fullness of time, our God will refine out of us every element that makes it hard to forgive.
But remember. This is only one way – the Galilean way – of inquiring after God.
Complainers and judgmentalists make the most intolerable company. Who can remain in comfortable proximity with someone rehearsing aloud an endless stream of grievances, or directing scorn – not always moral, but often enough – at the shortcomings of others, however much it might be deserved? Of such noisy horns of self-righteousness, whatever their other merits, one eventually begins to dread the sound of their knock on the door, to find reasons for declining their invitation and excuses for escaping their conversation. All the more so as one’s own nature tends towards forbearance and forgiveness.
And now recall that God is love, and that love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. And recall that God knows the heart. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus instructs us to cleanse our hearts, first and foremost? How else could God tolerate our company?
The problem is that our interior life is not under our control. Our conscious experience arises from depths of personality to which it is impossible for us to descend, from foundations of our life which we did not lay, and which we cannot change.
It is instead the work of the Holy Spirit to reach those depths, and to pursue the cleansing and fortifying work there to be accomplished. That is, in fact, the accomplishment of Christ, to enable God’s Holy Spirit to tolerate and do its work in the company of the sinful human heart.
A sure sign that Christ’s Spirit is working in us and making progress is when we find ourselves, in our outward behavior but much more importantly in the inward theater of our consciousness, making a joyful noise unto the Lord.
I enjoy clowns, and one of the things I like best is to watch a clown who’s pretending to be some very important person: a flag waving politician with a constantly growing nose, perhaps, or a severe judge with a gavel the size of a sledgehammer, or a lascivious doctor putting his stethoscope to questionable use with a pretty aerialist, and so on and so on. They’re always very sure of themselves and they comically expect deference and respect from the people around them.
When we see this in real life, it doesn’t strike us as funny, but it does when we see it from a clown because, after all, it’s a clown! With a big red nose and orange hair and baggy trousers and size 50 shoes!
It’s very plausible that God – who invented humor, after all – looks at each one of us the way we look at clowns.