Jeremiah, writing in the years preceding the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE sees doom and destruction everywhere. He warns against it, he rages about it, and it breaks his heart. “My anguish, my anguish… oh the walls of my heart” he cries. It is like he stands in the ruins of every city before and after – Jerusalem, Hiroshima, Aleppo. Jeremiah tries to tell the people of God’s own lament. “My people are foolish, they do not know me… They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” Jeremiah attributes the impending destruction of the city to God’s fierce anger at being spurned, but we all look at history from the point of view that makes sense to us. At risk of over simplifying the incredibly complex, I think it has more to do with what Jesus calls `being lost’ than it does God having a big hissy fit.
History is filled with groups of people or individuals getting lost in their ego, and causing tremendous destruction – the Christian inquisition against Jews and Muslims, the Muslim extremists against moderate Muslims and Christians, even an extreme Buddhist sect against Muslims, and that’s just for starters in the field of religion. Then we add race and class, gender and sexual orientation. We all risk getting lost in our ego – our small self which creates an `us and them’ mentality. The ego, important in establishing a separate identity, gets in the way when the identity means I must be better that you; my wants and rights are more important than yours. This human failure causes Jeremiah such distress.
The gospel also addresses our brokenness, our sinfulness when the ego gets to rule.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, writes of how Jesus responds to this human failure. He writes: “It is really shocking how little Jesus is shocked by human failure and sin. In fact, it never appears that he is upset at sinners at all. He is only and consistently upset at people who do not think they are sinners. This momentous insight puts him centuries ahead of modern psychology and right at the center of rare but authentic religion. So much so, that most Christianity itself never notices or addresses this pattern. It is an “inconvenient truth.”
Early-stage religion is largely driven by ego needs: the need to be right, the need to feel morally superior, the need to be safe, and the need to project a positive image to others. At that point, religion has little to do with any real search for God; it is almost entirely a search for oneself, which is necessary—and which God surely understands. But we do this by trying to repress and deny our actual motivations and goals. These are pushed into the unconscious and called the shadow self. The shadow is not the bad self, but simply the denied or rejected self, which is totally operative but allowed to work in secret—and never called to accountability from that hidden place.
In my 42 years as a priest, it is clear to me that most people (not just religious people) focus on denying their shadow self—to keep feeling good about themselves—and their ego then enjoys a perpetual holiday. It is a massive misplacement of spiritual attention. You can be a (priest, a minister, a Pharisee) … with a totally inflated ego, while all your energy goes into denying and covering up your shadow—which then gets projected everywhere else. What yu don’t transform, you will transmit.”
Well, life is full of transmitted messes! So it seems, as I read Luke 15, that Jesus is dealing with some well- meaning rule-makers who very unaware of their shadow side.
But Jesus has a way of bringing the shadows into the light of day and exposing them for what they are.
I could learn a thing or two from Jesus… for one thing, he never justifies his actions; he never complains that the Pharisees just don’t understand his job, or explains that God wants us to be nice to each other. He tells a story that is more like a slap-stick cream pie in the face of his opponents. He has a certain `coolness’ factor.
In response to the complaint that Jesus wasn’t keeping with the high and holy, but hanging out with and eating with the undesirables in society, he tells stories of lost sheep and coins, and children gone astray. The prodigal son story follows directly after the story of the lost coin. He catches them off guard and appeals to their compassion.
He doesn’t say, “I know these are the sinners, and I’m hanging out with them in the hopes that one of them will repent.” He just says, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than in 99 who have no need of repentance.”
Maybe he’s hoping the leaders themselves will repent, for at present they are lost in their self-righteousness.
What if we were found? I mean really found?
Not just in the usual way of thinking of someone who obviously `sinned’ seeing the light and turning their life around like Saul who became Paul – from persecutor to apostle. That’s good, but what about someone finding their true beauty – someone who could learn to be compassionate to themselves and therefore to everyone around them.
What if we were `found’ in terms of Jesus’ words that what you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters you do to me – not just metaphorically but because we are all made of the same physical and spiritual stuff. Found, in terms of rejoicing both in our humanity and divinity. Found, in realizing that what we do affects for good or ill, other beings – human, animal, other ecosystems, the environment. Wouldn’t that be a reason to throw a party!
A wee story… To get to Lindesfarne, the tiny island off the north east coast of England you can walk across two miles of sand and mud when the tide is low. There are poles stuck in the sand, about every 100 yards or so, so that if the fog rolls in, you can see just far enough ahead to get to the next pole. And isn’t that how it often is, as we recover our spiritual sight, we see just a bit at a time, a new aha, a lifting of the veil of fog that has obscured our way for a time.
There are also, along the pilgrim poles, a couple of `crows-nests’ along the way, so if you are foolish enough to set out at the wrong time, and get caught as the tide rolls in, you can climb up into the nests and wait out the high tide. The parish priest from Lindesfarne, who, as if reading the minds of those who would say to themselves, ”Well, I’m certainly not so stupid as to not read the tide schedule, and get myself stranded and have to be rescued,’ said, “ If you’ve never had to be rescued – get a life!”
God longs for our rescue, our enlightenment. Jesus uses the image of a party – three times! – for the lost sheep, the lost coin, and we know what comes next – the prodigal son – the lost child. It’s not like the angels are standing around, arms folded, glaring and say, “Well, it’s about time you cleaned up your act. That’s far too much like a self-righteous human response; it’s where it’s easy to go if you’ve never had to be rescued yourself. No. Jesus says, God throws a party – and we are all the guests. Get rescued, get found, get a life!