Jesus’ Yoke

eucharist1Jesus’ invitation to come to him with our burdens so that he can give us rest and take his easy yoke upon ourselves sounds like an irresistible blessing. But the troubling words skipped by the lectionary suggest that Jesus’ offer is highly resistible. Here, he bemoans the rejection of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Given the horrifying hardness of heart shown in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, it boggles the mind that Jesus thought those people might have responded better than the people of Capernaum who witnessed Jesus’ first miracles of healing.

How can Jesus’ offer to free us of our burdens be so resistible? We get some hint of this in the powerful, if dense, passage in Romans 7 where Paul cries out against the burden of sin that makes him do what he does not want to do. Most of us think the problem is that the burden of sin renders us powerless. There is something to that, especially in the case of addictions. But the deeper problem is that we have great difficulty knowing what we really desire. The French thinker René Girard has helped us greatly towards an understanding of this problem with his insight into what he called “mimetic desire.” That is, although we tend to be addicted to the illusion that our desires originate from within ourselves, Girard suggests that our desires originate from without: i.e. from other people. That is, we copy the desires of other people. Since the same is true of other people, they are imitating our desires as much as we are imitating theirs. No wonder desires are so complicated. It is telling that Paul says: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7: 7) Covetousness is precisely the sin most driven by mimetic desire. This phenomenon can lead to a spiral of desire that reinforces each others’ desires in love. This is what Jesus us getting at in offering to relieve us of our burdens and take his yoke upon us. But usually, we imitate each other in a downward spiral of rivalry, anger, and vengeance. In this spiral, we become more and more convinced that our anger and rage are our own even as the rage and anger of others overtakes us like a flood. When this happens, we are yoked to our rivals and they to us. This is the yoke Jesus would relieve us of.

Girard argues that a society caught in a downward spiral either implodes into mutually assured destruction (MAD) or channels its common rage against a victim who is scapegoated. The latter is the story told in the four Gospels. However, it is not only the story of the Gospels; it is the story told numerous times in the Hebrew Bible starting with the dawn of humanity. The establishment of violence as the engine of society is what Jesus was getting at when he said, in another verse not included in the lectionary: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” (Mt. 11: 12)

Although we are prone to clinging to the illusion of our individuality, Girard has shown us that we are yoked to others through the matrix of our intertwining desires. Where we can take some responsibility for our lives is to choose how we wish to be yoked and to whom we will be yoked. In rabbinic literature, the yoke is used as an image for a Jewish student’s relationship with his or her rabbi. Jesus, as a rabbi, offers such a yoke. Being yoked to Jesus means being yoked to a Messiah who rides on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The Greek word translated as “gentle” is praus, the same word used in Matthew’s quote from Zechariah to describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Jesus’ yoke may be easy but it is challenging. The temptation to give way to fear, anger, and vengeance, especially when that is all around us, is very strong, but the yoke of vengeful anger is very heavy and it entraps us in the power of sin within us that prevents us from doing what we really want to do. Escaping this trap can seem impossible. As Paul discovered, it is impossible without the grace of Christ who offers us his yoke in place of the yoke of sin. The harsh words against Capernaum and neighboring towns actually offer us hope. If Jesus could envision the possibility of Sodom and Gomorrah converting to Jesus’ yoke if they had seen the wonders done at Capernaum, although the people in these towns united to persecute Lot and his guests, surely Jesus can envision the same for our persecutory society. Can we cast the burdens of fear, anger, and vengeance on Jesus and accept the yoke he offers us, a yoke that burdens us with compassion and love?

[For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

Advertisements

Setting Our Hearts on God’s Treasure

purpleFlower1Jesus’ teachings on the right and wrong ways of fasting are true and important but I would rather talk about treasure and our hearts. Treasure is a much brighter and exciting thing to think about then renunciation and fasting. What child doesn’t like a treasure hunt? Why else is Treasure Island such an archetypal novel?

What is the treasure we should seek? A treasure is whatever we set are hearts on. If we desire diamonds, then diamonds are our treasure. But even if we find a diamond mine in our back yards, we won’t have the treasure Jesus is talking about. Jesus’ admonition to “store up treasures in heaven” sounds like we store them for an after-life. But let us remember that this verse comes roughly in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount which outlines the real treasure we should seek: “Do not resist an evil doer” (Mt. 6: 39) and “Love your enemies.” (Mt. 5: 44)

We call these treasures? If we set our hearts on these teachings, they do indeed become treasures, treasures we have in the here-and-now, treasures that “neither moth nor rust consumes.” (Mt. 6: 20) These are treasures that remain safe as long as we set our hearts upon them. How about that as a challenge for Lent and on into Eternity?

The Process of Forgiveness (2): Letting Go

purpleFlower1Owning the hurt of injury is the beginning of letting go of the hurt that strangles us. For some people some of the time, letting go and forgiving happen simultaneously so as to seem like one movement.(See The Process of Forgiveness 1)  For most of us most of the time, the two are distinct, though closely related. This is most clearly the case when a kind of reverse psychology allows a letting go that leads to forgiveness. I have already noted that pressuring somebody to forgive horrendous injury such as childhood molestation because it is the “Christian” thing to do intensifies the pain of the injury with guilt for not being able to forgive it. In such cases, absolving the victim of forgiving the hurt allows that person to let go of it. Letting go removes the hurt from the center of our lives where it has been a major, often the central organizing principle of our lives and gives us the freedom to move on. Letting go does not mean that the hurt doesn’t hurt, but letting go loosens the hold the hurt has on us.

The most important element in letting go is non-retaliation. Here is where the famous admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount come into play: turning the other cheek, walking a second mile etc. It is important to note that non-retaliation, in itself, is not forgiveness. Withholding a counter punch that one is capable of delivering does not necessarily mean that one has forgiven the injury to the cheek. What non-retaliation does is push the pause button on violence that keeps it from escalating out of control, a scenario that makes forgiveness harder for everybody.

Letting go, especially in its form of non-retaliation, is a renunciation of trying to “win” a situation and instead assumes the position of the “loser.” This also makes the renunciation of retaliation a renunciation of mimetic rivalry. Remember that seeking revenge is fundamentally an attempt to “win” a struggle against the other and thus it perpetuates mimetic rivalry. In the heat of battle, winning is everything. When the battle is over and we are scarred more than ever or worse, winning turns out to be nothing but the burden of holding on to the hurt. After all, we haven’t let go and so the hurt keeps us in its relentless grip.

This is where humility comes in. Humility is the willingness to be a “loser” in the hope that we might win the person injuring us. Humility is particularly important here because not retaliating tempts us to think we have taken the higher moral ground. The tricky thing is that we have taken the higher moral ground but if we pat ourselves on the back for that, we become obsessed with ourselves and so turn the situation back into a contest of wills, which is mimetic rivalry. This is a case where it is important that the right hand not know what the left hand is doing.

Proceed to The Process of Forgiveness (3)

The importance of non-retaliation is that it gives us a tangible means of letting go that tells us if and when we really have let go of the hurt. If we slug the person back or sincerely wish we had, we have not let go. If we refrain from slugging the person back and don’t wish we had done it, we have let go. Simple as that.

Non-retaliation has been extolled by some, most notably by Walter Wink, as a strategy for resistance to the Empire. Wink suggests, for example, that turning the other cheek puts the aggressor in the awkward position of having to strike back-handedly. This take is attractive to many and it may be right, but insofar as turning the other cheek is intended as a strategy to muck up bullying behavior, it is not forgiveness. On the other hand, insofar as imperial politics requires reciprocal violence, any act that opens the way to forgiveness is an act of resistance to any Empire.

The most important thing to realize about letting go is that we are not cutting the connection between us and those who injure us. Trying to do that is futile. Our mirror neurons see to that. What letting go does is loosen what had been a tight, strangling connection to the other. Letting go gives each of us room to maneuver and to change the situation. We can’t, of course, take responsibility for what the other person does with the room this loosening gives. We can only take responsibility for ourselves. That is all we can handle anyway. More important, non-retaliation provides room for God to enter into the broken relationship and fix it.

After letting go of the hurt, the next step is to make sure we don’t grab it back and that we leave ourselves open to the mystery of forgiveness itself.