Monday, October 22, 2007

Temptations and Service / Politics and Religion

Newton Garver in his pamphlet Jesus, Jefferson and the Task of Friends juxtaposes two passages from the Gospels: the temptations in the desert and the final message of Jesus before his trials and eventual death. On the one hand we are presented with a refusal of power, power to heal, power to provide for all, power to ensure justice:

"The first temptation was the power to turn stone into bread; with this power Jesus would have been able to prevent hunger and starvation. The second temptation was the power to avoid bodily injury; with this power he would have been able to prevent the woes which stem from human frailty and mortality — at least for himself, and perhaps for others too. The third temptation was ultimate political power, with which Jesus would have been able to prevent all oppression, all injustice, and all war.
"Overcome want — overcome injury and death — overcome injustice and brutality! Since these are the sources of nearly all human misery, it is not easy to resist such temptations. I do not fully understand how rejecting these temptations opens the way, but I accept that it does; and I find that deeply moving."

On the other hand Garver presents Christ's recognition of service, even of the most humble kind:

“You have my Father’s blessing; come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been ready for you since the world was made. For when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home, when naked you clothed me; when I was ill you came to my help, when in prison you visited me.” Then the righteous will reply, “Lord, when was it that we saw you and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and took you home, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison and come to visit you?” And the king will answer, “I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:31-40).

"The more I think about this passage the more difficult it seems. For one thing there doesn’t seem to be any room for provisos — for focusing on the “deserving” poor or the “unjustly” imprisoned. So here the mere fact of human misery and suffering overrides all the notions about justice and merit we normally live by.
"But I remain deeply moved by the simplicity and straightforwardness of the message, and this insistence on loving service to those in need seems one of the keys to the enduring power of the gospel. I have found the truth of this message confirmed by a depth of loving fellowship that, in my experience, flourishes uniquely and a bit mysteriously in workcamps, service projects, and other Quaker activities. Without fully understanding, I accept that such service is the primary requirement for walking in the steps of Jesus.
"If each of these passages is puzzling in itself, they are all the more so when considered together. This is for the simple reason that the sufferings of those we are called on to serve are the result of precisely those brute facts which the tempter proposed to give Jesus the power to eradicate: human need, human frailty, and institutional oppression. It must occur to everyone to ask why Jesus did not simply accept the power to overcome the sources of these human miseries so that there would be no more want, no more sickness or death, no more murderous or oppressive institutions. Surely the best way to address human ills is to eliminate their source rather than to attend to their symptoms. And yet this seemingly simple and sensible question must be brushed aside: the way opens by refusing to attack the sources of human suffering, and the way is followed by loving attention to the sufferers.

"All that seems clear is that there must be these two domains, because Jesus turns from the one and insists on the other. To deny that religion and politics lie in separate domains therefore seems to involve a denial of the example of Jesus."

What is clear to me is that the 'tempter' really didn't get it. The parable of the temptations is a portrayal of what Jesus was -not- about, what the life and message of Jesus, our inward teacher, does -not- address.

What Jesus was about, in addition to the beautifully expressed Sermon on the Mount (Matthiew 5-7), is put to us directly in Newton Garver's second example: service. Service to the poor, the afflicted, the emprisoned, the suffering.

In my mind this leads to particular queries. Have I heard the tempter lately? Have I met recently with those who still don't 'get it'? Is it really better to treat the symptoms rather than address the causes?

Newton Garver not only addresses these questions, but is led to conclude what these lessons from Jesus might mean to Friends.

View the complete Pendle Hill pamphlet number 250:
Jesus, Jefferson and the Task of Friends

No comments: