GREATER DEEDS THAT THESE

Heaven measures, not by size, but by weight. I’m using ‘weight,’ of course, as a metaphor or stand-in, because we have so little understanding of what it is. But Jesus Himself tells us that feeling anger towards someone, though it be hidden deep in one’s soul, has the same ‘weight’, in heaven’s measurement, as committing violence in a public square.  And by parity of reasoning, a murderer’s kindness to a cockroach in his jail cell may have a greater heavenly ‘weight’ than a saint’s ministrations to thousands.

That’s the same way of understanding what Jesus was modeling when he advised his followers that they would accomplish even greater things than He had done. The point was not that they would minister to larger numbers than he could manage, but rather that anything, however small, that they as fallen creatures might do because Jesus had gone to the Father – that they might do in His name – would have a ‘weight’ unlike anything else heaven had ever contained.

GOOD MEASURE

It is certainly the case that when a farmer sows wheat, he may expect to harvest wheat, and not carrots. When it comes to farming, like produces like, and it would be a poor and quickly disappointed farmer who operated according to any other principle.

And it is equally true that the size of a farmer’s fall harvest will depend on the amount of seed sown in the spring. Sow sparingly, reap a modest harvest; sow generously, reap in abundance. Slightly different from the first, but still an application of the general principle of like producing like.

These rustic illustrations of a general principle are often carried into the realm of religion. Sometimes their use in that realm is quite coarse, as when they are employed in appeals to donate generously to one’s church. In other cases, it finds application in giving religious sanction to an almost universal human appreciation of ‘aptness’ in punishment.

But do these applications about financial generosity being rewarded in kind, or criminal behavior meriting an equivalent response, really get at the heart of what Jesus is teaching when, in many different images, he points to a relationship of correspondence between our behavior and the consequences of our behavior? (Luke 6:38; Mark 4:24; Matthew 7:12; and elsewhere.)

Clearly not.

As for the first, the whole tenor of Christ’s teaching is to the point that following Him will not result in worldly reward. The rich young ruler is to dispose of his wealth, not with the expectation of a larger fortune, but because it is a hindrance to following Christ. Do what I tell you, He teaches his disciples, and the world will hate you. And so on. It is consistently Christ’s emphasis that one must not seek or expect worldly reward for one’s activities on His behalf, that such motivation in fact diminishes their spiritual weight. And to respond that the monetary reward will take place beyond the Pearly Gate is descending into inanity.

As for the moral application of the principle, suffice it to say that Jesus explicitly rejects it: You have heard it said, Eye for eye…but I tell you… Whatever sort of case – moral or prudential – can be made for equality or correspondence of punishment to infraction, it cannot find its warrant in the thought of Christ.

Which only brings us to our real interest. How then are we to understand good measures pressed down and running over, bearing fruit a hundredfold, and all the rest of Christ’s imagery?

STORIES

Of all the many exercises of distinctively human intelligence, the one unfettered to reality is story-telling. Amassing a fortune, attaining influence, traveling in space, building a house, having a successful marriage, or any of the other infinite variety of distinctively human things we do are very largely bound in many ways to reality, to how the world actually is. Great intelligence is poured into sending a rocket into space, but that intelligence is largely engaged in testing the actual tensile strength of actual materials, the actual amount of thrust provided by actual fuel mixtures, the fixed mathematics of geometry, and so on. The application of intelligence to space travel is strongly fettered to and by reality. And similarly for almost all other exercises of the great human distinction of being intelligent.

Storytelling is the exception, because it does not wield or shape or employ material provided to it, as do the other embodiments of intelligence. Neither does it conquer, polish, or cherish reality, nor is it frustrated or destroyed by it. Uniquely among the human gifts, it floats far above reality, less bound by it than the moon is by a butterfly’s gravity.

If we are careful not to lead ourselves astray by saying so, we may say that storytelling creates its own separate reality, what we might (carefully) call a fictional reality.

The activity itself is as mysterious as it is unique, and it is fundamental to all the special pleasures of human intelligence. There is nothing recognizably human that does not tell stories. What manifests in us in storytelling is pure creation and as such, were there no God, would exhaust divinity in the universe.

But as great as is its distinction, equally so is the danger it poses. The danger is that we are very prone to confuse fictional with actual reality. No end of human tragedy, both intimate and civilizational, results from that confusion. Nations tell themselves stories about war, and come to believe war itself is tolerable.  Individuals tell themselves stories about loyalty, and are devastated by betrayal. Christ’s frustration with His disciples was almost always because they confused their human fictions with their human reality.

The avoidance of such tragedy, to the degree it can be avoided, lies in recognizing what is fictional and what is real. That doesn’t negate the callousness of the real, but it does prepare us for it. It is the Way at the heart of Stoicism, the highest purely human philosophy.

But the Son of God brought us a higher philosophy.

We have spoken of reality and fictional reality, but there is another: the reality of God. We may call it spiritual reality, though we must not think we thereby understand what that means.

Until the Son of God became flesh, there was no way of knowing the reality of God in any way, at any level. There were stories about gods as there were stories about demons and sirens and talking serpents and turtles holding up the creation. But they were simply stories, more or less pleasurable exercises of this amazing human capacity, and the tragedies they occasioned were of a kind with the others, the tragedies of taking the fictional for the real.

The Son of God came to tell us about this other thing, God’s reality, and to tell us something about that reality. He came, not as a story teller, but as a reporter. I speak what I have seen with my Father… He used stories to tell us about God and God’s reality because we have no better vocabulary to communicate such things, but that does not mean He was telling stories in the way we’ve been describing.

He described a reality that in some sense lies under and supports and is prior to our reality, one which functions in certain ways and imposes certain responsibilities, offers certain incentives. These are the great revelations of the Word, offered to us for prayerful meditation.

Our privilege as Christians is to receive the Word of that reality; our great opportunity is to explore it, to open our eyes to it. But our great danger, as before, is that we begin to tell stories about it, stories of our own invention, and that we confuse those stories with a spiritual reality  that is almost certainly far less comfortable than our stories about it would imply, that we confuse them with the reality of God, who is a consuming fire.

When Jesus said that He himself was the truth, he was, among other things, warning us of the danger posed, not by lies, but by stories.

ABIDING IN LOVE

The three pillars of our relationship with God are faith, love and obedience, but what these words represent in the New Testament is very different from what they represent in our ordinary ways of thinking and speaking.  Much that is misguided in religious thought arises from a mistaken assumption that meaning is exhausted by language, when the truth is that language only occupies a small region of meaning.

Thus God’s love is something very different from human love. And the problem is not removed by substituting a word from an older language than English, and saying something like “God’s love is agape love.”  That only substitutes an older inadequacy for a younger.

We learn about the pillars of our relationship with God, not by focusing on the ‘meaning’ or nature of human love, faith, and obedience, but by focusing on Jesus, who is God’s meaning, the Word, made flesh.

If we do that, we begin to learn, for example, that Christian obedience is filled with faith, that Christian faith is filled with love, and that Christian love is filled with obedience.  (John 15: 10)

DOUBT

We cannot reason or think our way out of true spiritual doubt, because we do not  think or reason our way into it. There are a few mental states we can and do arrive at through a so-called rational process – ‘proving’ is another name for the process – but these mental conditions are few and, outside of the lecture hall, relatively unimportant aspects of the lives of virtually everyone.

The beliefs that matter to people, that is, that give direction to their emotions and energy, we sometimes refer to as convictions, and we may be convicted to doubt as well as affirmation. Convictions as so understood are almost entirely due to processes that are not rational in this strict sense. They find their genesis in environmental influences, peer pressure, genetic proclivities, and so on. Our political convictions are not birthed by our logic, although, once birthed, the various mental filters that define our ‘politics’ do most certainly guide the application of whatever forms of intelligence we possess. Our ethics, our taste, virtually all the important motivational elements congregated under the umbrella ‘personality’ arise from unknown depths and enlist our native cleverness into their service.

The same is true of our religion, understood as out spiritual convictions (including our doubts). Two people of equal intellect can look at the same tragic elements of human life. One sees them as confirmation of a belief in atheism; the other as elements to be incorporated into a trust in God. Both can argue eloquently in defense of their points of view, but simple observation reveals that no one has even been debated into convicted belief or disbelief in Christ, though many come to Christ and many fall away.

Is this an argument against evangelism? Not in general, but it helps us to understand why Paul avoided “lofty speech.” He had come to see that the infection of Christ passes, by the power and grace of the risen Christ alone, from spirit to spirit, and not from intellect to intellect.

THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL

These are three figurative ways of referring to the elements of  human life that resist and oppose the accomplishment of God’s purpose for each of us. The first figures the seductions of the social milieu within which we find ourselves. The second figures the seductions of the animal appetites. And the third, the devil, personifies the most venomous seductions of all, those deriving from self-consciousness, and the prideful desire for self-sufficiency it entails.

The parable of the sower and the seed illustrates each of these: the thorns of the world; the energetic superficiality of animal desire; the intransigence of self-esteem.

The parable of the temptations in the wilderness focuses entirely on the third, because it is the stronghold – the strong man’s house – that shelters all the rest.

THE FALSE EQUATION

Human forgiveness and divine forgiveness are not the same. Human forgiveness accomplishes the improvement of the one doing the forgiving, regardless of its effect on the other. When I forgive my neighbor, a wound is healed in my spirit, even though my neighbor remain oblivious.

Divine forgiveness is different.  God’s forgiveness accomplishes the improvement of the one being forgiven, even if the one being forgiven remains oblivious.  God’s ways are not our ways, and our language so often obscures that reality.

Divine forgiveness is an ongoing blessing, a constant availability of God’s ministration, of the application to the individual of God’s loving concern for the condition of his or her spirit. Human forgiveness is the means of opening oneself to that ministration. The only means.

When we forgive, God’s love can bathe our spiritual wounds, whether self-inflicted or circumstantial. This does not make God’s love conditional on our behavior, it makes the agency of God’s love conditional on our attitude towards others. Jesus makes this point over and over.

The sin that’s unforgivable (in God’s reality), is being unforgiving (in our reality), that is, being unavailable to God’s ministration.