Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/14 Post

This teaching of Jesus is right out of the Hebrew Scriptures. Asking hearkens back to Deuteronomy 32:7, “Ask your father, and he will show you;” and Psalm 2:8, “Ask of me, and I will give you.” Seeking suggests Proverbs 8:17, “And those who seek me diligently shall find me;” and Jeremiah 29:13, “And you shall seek me and find me.” Knocking may be unique to Jesus, though he may have the passage in Song of Songs that says, “It is the voice of my beloved that knocks saying, open to me” (5:2). So there is nothing in the teaching itself that is startling to Jewish ears.

Your notion that Jesus offers us this teaching to calm our fears that the program of action prescribed in the Sermon is impossible to live up to, however, is intriguing.

First, I am struck at how Pauline it sounds. Paul saw the Torah (or Law as he insists on mistranslating the Hebrew for “instruction”) as an impossible burden designed to condemn rather than save. For him faith in Jesus was the antidote to damnation under the law. Now I hear you saying that asking, seeking, and knocking are the antidote to the impossibility of living up to Jesus’ Way set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. This may not be what you meant, but before you correct my misunderstanding, consider for a moment that you may be on to something.

My reading of Jesus suggests that he is imagining people on the edge of total despair who franticly cry out, grasp, and tear rather than respectfully ask, calmly search, or politely knock. I think that Jesus, like other spiritual geniuses, sets forth a plan of salvation (enlightenment, God-realization, etc) that is designed to fail. Why? Because we cannot transform ourselves. The very ego that needs transforming is the ego that is asked to make the transformation. It cannot be done. The ego must be surrendered by our failure so that God can transform us through grace.

Paul was right about the commandments—they are designed to condemn, for only the condemned are ready to be transformed by God. His mistake was to offer the condemned another escape from the reality of condemnation.

Just as you cannot meditate yourself into enlightenment, or earn your way into heaven through the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah, so you cannot get to heaven through the Sermon on the Mount. What you can do in all these systems is exhaust yoiur ego, and bring yourself to the point of absolute despair. Here you have no choice but to cry, grasp, and claw at Heaven’s door just as a drown man cries, grasps, and flails. And then God changes everything. To me Jesus is saying, “When you finally realize you can’t walk the path to Heaven, storm the gate! God will let you in. He doesn’t care how you get to Him, just come home, come in!”

This is similar to Kafka’s parable of The Law. A man spends his entire life waiting to be invited into the Gate of the Law (salvation) only to find at the moment of his death that there is no invitation, this gate was for him alone to walk through. He just lacked the desperation needed for him to do it.

Of course all this may be another example of the nonsense written about this section of Matthew, but it speaks to me. Nonsense always does.

Your second point is also interesting, but no less troubling for me. To say that God always responds to our beseeching, but not in the way we like, seems like a cop-out to me. All I hear is that life happens regardless of what I want and don’t want. I have no problem with the theology. I believe God when he says he creates light and dark, good and evil (Isaiah 45:7). But if I ask for a bike and God sends me cancer, what’s the point? If I didn’t ask for the bike, would God not have sent me cancer? Did my asking for what I want trigger God to send me what I need?

Ascribing reality to God’s will adds nothing to my experience, unless I assume that God always acts for my good, something that Job and I cannot accept.

This is not a problem unique to Christianity, of course. The ancient rabbis also believed in that “whatever God does is entirely good,” (Berachot 60b); and that “God never deals harshly with his creatures,” (Avodah Zarah 3a). So you are in good company, but I’m not among them. I find Job’s God more accurate and comforting: God does what God wants, and human ideas of good and evil have nothing to do with it. What I have to learn is how to live gracefully without knowing which is coming my way next.

No comments: