After reading today’s gospel (Luke 12:49-56), I have a bone to pick with Jesus. I understand he might have felt frustrated with those who didn’t see what he saw, who didn’t understand what he understood. I imagine he might have wondered if he’d ever get through to the knuckleheads who wanted to be his disciples and were clueless about what he offered and what it would cost. I understand why he might have spoken harshly to the crowds.
“You hypocrites!” he called them. The word says a lot about what he values and what he has trouble tolerating. The Greek word used here in the scripture refers to an actor, someone who speaks from behind a mask. In Greek drama, the audience never saw the actor, only the mask the actor wore to identify the role he played. Jesus uses the word for people who wear their faith like a mask, superficially, and never reveal or express their true selves, their true nature. They may be honest, truthful, and loving; they may appear to be godly, praying, attending worship regularly, and giving generously of their time and money. But they lack one thing: an inner transformation of life, like a new birth. They’ve been born of water but not of Spirit (John 3:5).
Jesus had trouble with such people; so did the growing church in the first century. As such people began entering the fellowship, they became a source of weakness and spiritual disease in the community of faith. They could answer the question of identity – “What are you living for?” – but they could not identify, much less come to terms with, what kept them from living fully for the thing they wanted to live for. They lacked integrity; their spiritual and temporal lives were out of harmony. They loved others only within the limits of their self-interest. They were unwilling to take up their cross and follow wherever God would lead them. They were hypocrites, and I understand why Jesus and the early church might have had trouble with them.
But it’s what comes next that gives me pause. “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky,” Jesus said to them, “but why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?” (v. 56), as if to condemn their spiritual blindness. You know how to tell when the weather is changing, and you know how to respond to that; why are you so clueless and unresponsive to the changes coming in the way we are called to live in the world? Why do you persist in the old way of life, the way the rest of the world lives, when God is calling you to a brand new way of life? I really need to get past his harshness to find the point he was trying to make, because I may be one of the hypocrites. I may not really get his message; I may not really see what he tried to point out; I may be living behind a mask of faith and not really living the way the gospel calls me to live. I may hold too dear the things that keep me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. I need to know he doesn’t dismiss me with a contemptuous: you hypocrite!
In one of his best-known prayers, Thomas Merton recognized the possibility of his own dullness of mind, even his own hypocrisy. The prayer begins, “I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me and cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so.” Like Merton, I can’t see the road ahead of me, and I have no idea where I am going, despite all the images I claim from the literature and traditions of our faith. And all my confident intentionality about following God’s will may be nothing more than an elaborate self-deception. I may hope to see God face-to-face one day, but now, like St. Paul, I see through a glass darkly, like looking at dim reflections in a mirror (1 Cor. 13:12), worshiping an indistinct reflection of myself. I may be able to tell when it’s going to rain, but can I recognize signs that the kingdom of God has come near? “The kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “is not coming with things that can be observed” (Luke 17:20-21). It is spread out upon the earth, he said, and people don’t see it (Gospel of Thomas, log. 113).
Is Jesus condemning us for failing to see what he says cannot be seen? Or like a Zen master, is he trying to confuse our logical minds and startle us into a different way of seeing? “And now here is my secret,” said the fox to the little prince in the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye” (The Little Prince). Like St. Benedict encouraging members of his community to listen to his teaching with the “ear of the heart,” Jesus tries to get us to see life from a new perspective, with the “eye of the heart.” His is not a rational, logical, scholarly approach to new life; we won’t lay hold of that life by thinking it through, reading enough scriptures, practicing the right disciplines, or following the right rituals in our worship and devotions – though all those things can help.
We recognize the new life Jesus offers, the life that’s already spread all around us, when it reveals itself, or when God reveals it, in the ordinary details of our daily lives. No one can make it happen, this vision of new life; no one can control it when it happens; no one can tell others how to see it. We can only try to be open and receptive, attentive to the ordinary details that fill our days, where the new life is hidden in plain sight. Every faith and wisdom tradition tells us that what we need is right in front of us, if we can open our eyes to see it. We cannot do that when we’re concerned about other things: regrets about the past, concern for the future, or the clamoring clutter of too many things to do. We do it when we turn around and look deeply and unflinchingly at our present life.
Here’s a poem by William Stafford for such a day as this. It’s called “You Reading This, Be Ready.”
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. The interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life —
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?