15 December 2009

A Closed or Hardened Heart: The Essential Blindness

I wrote this for last Friday, but didn't get it posted there in time. I am putting it up here instead for the time being.

Today's Gospel is sometimes trivialized. We think perhaps that people were upset because Jesus was some sort of "party animal" and that they contrasted that with the asceticism of John the Baptist and other prophets only to take exception to Jesus --- as though the Scriptures are really contrasting two different approaches to spirituality. But what Matthew is getting at in today's Gospel is that very often we are unable or refuse to see with the eyes of our hearts, and we therefore reject the very revelation of God that stands in front of us --- no matter the guise. We act childishly by refusing to admit either our needs or to humble ourselves in a way which allows God to respond to them as he wills (rather than as we will!). We neither repent nor do we celebrate God's presence in true faith; instead we concern ourselves with conforming the world (and the God who is its creator and Lord) to our own (often religious) demands and expectations.

Jesus has just finished a long exposition comparing and contrasting himself with John the Baptist. He is speaking to his own friends, family, and neighbors (Bethsaida is a center of Galilee and so, a center of Jesus' own home-life). And, as always, his speech is honest and challenging! He is reminding them they thronged out to see John and have now rejected him precisely because he WAS what they were supposedly looking for, and he does so by putting some sharp questions to them: What did you expect to see? A reed blowing in the wind? (Did you go out looking for someone tossed about by the wind of current fashion and concerns, or were you looking for something less transitory?) Did you go out seeking someone dressed in the clothes of nobles and Kings or someone dressed as a prophet, a true desert dweller and messenger of God? Were you seeking a prophet or not? Jesus completes his series of questions by affirming that indeed John the Baptist was precisely what people were looking for, and more in fact --- the greatest of the prophets and the forerunner of the messiah! And yet, a fickle people turned away from John and said he had a demon instead --- the surest religious way to denigrate and dismiss someone and the most effective way to be sure others don't follow him!

At the same time, Jesus has come with news of the arrival of the Kingdom of God and acts accordingly. No mourning ascetic He celebrates with his disciples by feasting and drinking! And so, his friends and neighbors label him a drunkard and a glutton --- an accusation, we should remember, a Son's family could accuse him of to Temple officials in order to have him stoned to death! [There was a precise formula in this matter and we read it today in Deuteronomy. The parents would come to the Temple and say, "This son of ours. . ." and accuse him of being a drunkard and glutton, disobedient and willful. If the charges were sustained, the Son would be put to death.] The fear was that through his disobedience, etc, this Son would bring evil upon Israel and perhaps even show himself to be a false prophet who would lead her seriously astray. Better deal with such a person in a preventative and definitive way than risk such damage!

Jesus uses the story of children at play with make-believe games to characterize the immaturity and hardness of heart of those he is addressing, those he calls, "this generation." He describes two groups of kids, one who tries to get the other to join in the games, and one who simply will not. The first group plays the wedding game and pipes a joyful tune, but the second group stands off refusing to be moved by the music, the song, or the comraderie. When this fails, the first group switches to the funeral game and sings a dirge --- something perhaps more appropriate to the second group's mood, but again, the second group of children are recalcitrant and simply refuse to be moved or join in. It is hard to imagine a symbol of something which is able to move us more completely than the music at either a wedding or a funeral. One form moves us to dance and the other to deep sorrow. This music speaks to our hearts, that is, to the core of ourselves and to that which symbolizes our whole selves in Scripture. And yet, John the Baptist came preaching repentance, moved by mourning over a badly sinful people, and was rejected by many of those Jesus now addresses as being moved by Satan. Jesus himself came "piping a song" -- so to speak -- of celebration and tremendous joy, and he too is labelled a false prophet, demon-possessed (later also in Matt), a danger to authentic religion, and set up for execution!

But perhaps there is one thing which moves us to open our hearts even more than the music mentioned: the birth of a baby, the appearance of an infant swaddled in his parents' arms or trundled around in a stroller. I don't think I have personally ever seen someone incapable of being moved by a newborn baby --- though of course there are stories where humanity's worst attrocities are marked by a hardness of heart to even these most helpless and fragile among us. In the NT we have the story of the massacre of the innocents. In contemporary history we have slaughters and holocausts which seem never to abate. Still, when I reflect on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ which we are each preparing to celebrate it seems clear that a huge part of our God coming to us in this way is God's desire to touch our hearts, break them open anew and rescue us from any essential blindness that afflicts us. Advent gives us readings which echo John the Baptist's "piping of songs" of repentance and mourning intertwined with Jesus' "tunes" of celebration and feasting. Christmas gives us the birth of an infant meant to break open even the hardest of hearts with gratitude and wonder so that we can begin to consider and shape our lives according to a God whose power is truly perfected in weakness.

Will we resist or join in wholeheartedly? Will we remain untouched and blindly cynical as the children in Jesus' parable, or will we "play the games" and dance to the tunes of authentic faith which allows God to reshape our lives as his true children and people of real vision? Will we see what stands right in front of us or turn away uncomprehendingly? My prayers to all for a good Advent as we each continue to prepare our hearts for the coming anew of such a surprising and challenging God!