Thursday, April 09, 2009

We Have to Come to Our Senses

From the recently deceased Richard John Neuhas' Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross:

Forgive them, for they know not what they do." But now, like the prodigal son, we have come to our senses. Our lives are measured not by the lives of others, not by our own ideals, not by what we think might reasonably be expected of us, although by each of those measures we acknowledge failings enough. Our lives are measured by who we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by the One who creates and calls. Finally, the judgment that matters is not ours. The judgment that matters is the judgment of God, who alone judges justly. In the cross we see the rendering of the verdict on the gravity of our sin.

We have come to our senses. None of our sins are small or of little count. To belittle our sins is to belittle ourselves, to belittle who it is that God creates and calls us to be. To belittle our sins is to belittle their forgiveness, to belittle the love of the Father who welcomes us home.

From the same Latin root come "complicity" and "complexity." Only the dulling of moral imagination prevents us from seeing how we are implicated in the complex web of human evil. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was fond of saying, "Some are guilty, all are responsible." We rightly condemn the great moral monsters of history--the Hitlers and Stalins and Maos and lesser mass murderers. Justice requires the gradation of guilt. Distinctions are in order. In important ways, we are not like them, and they are not like us. Yet complicity and complexity alert us to the ways in which their crimes find corrupting correlates in our own hearts. "He who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Such words of Jesus encourage not scrupulosity, but candor. Contemplating the unspeakable crimes of Stalin's gulag archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, "The line between good and evil runs through every human heart."

We would draw the line between ourselves and the really big-time sinners. For them the cross may be necessary. For us a forgiving wink from an understanding Deity will set things to right. But the "big time" of sinning is in every human heart. We make small our selves when we make small our sins. Fearing the judgment of great evil, we shrink from the call to great good. Like Adam, we slink away to hide in a corner. Like the prodigal son, we hunker down behind the swine's trough of our shrunken lives. But then he came to his senses. He remembered who he was in his former life, in his real life. There is no way to have that dignity restored except through the confession of that dignity betrayed.

Still we hold back from confession, holding on to the tattered remnants of our former dignity. The more Adam hides from his shame, the more he proclaims his shame. What ludicrous figures we sinners cut. It is all so unnecessary; it only increases the complicity that we deny. We act as though there is not forgiveness enough. There is more than forgiveness enough.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes, we were there when we crucified our Lord. Recognizing the line that runs through every human heart, no longer do we try to draw the line between "them" and "us." Who can look long and honestly at the victims and the perpetrators of history's horrors and say that this has nothing to do with me? To take the most obvious instance, where would we have taken our stand that Friday afternoon? With Mary and the Beloved Disciple or with the mocking crowds? "Know thyself," the philosophers said, for this is the beginning of wisdom. "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom," wrote the Psalmist. Knowing myself and fearing God, knowing a thousand big and little things that I have done and failed to do, I cannot deny that I was there. In ways I do not fully understand, I know that I, too, did the deed, wielded the whip, drove the nails, thrust the spear.

About chief of sinners I don't know, but what I know about sinners I chiefly know about me. We did not mean to do the deed, of course. The things we have done wrong seemed, or mostly seemed, small at the time. The word of encouragement withheld, the touch of kindness not given, the visit not made, the trust betrayed, the cutting remark so clever and so cruel, the illicit sexual desire so generously entertained, the angry answer, the surge of resentment at being slighted, the lie we though would do no harm. It is such a long and tedious list of little things. Surely not too much should be made of it, we thought to ourselves. But now it has come to this. It has come to the cross. all the trespasses of all the people of all time have gravitated here, to the killing grounds of Calvary.


Joe said...

Thank you for sharing this today. I unfortunately see myself in a lot of that last paragraph, and what Jerry Bridges calls "respectable sins". And if I were honest, I act much more like the Pharisee than the tax collector in Luke 18 than I should.

This was much needed today...thanks again...

Laurie M. said...

Wow! Thanks for sharing that.