Indeed they will come from east and west, from north and south, and they will recline in the kingdom of God. Look, those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last.
Luke 13: 29-30
At the height of the human and global policy disaster that was the Iraq War, a “senior advisor” to President Bush said to the reporter Ron Suskind: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Today the gospel of Luke reminds us once again of its major theme of “the great reversal.” The mighty are brought low and the the lowly are lifted up; the last will be first and the first will be last. What we call the great reversal in the gospel is, in fact, no other than the re-orientation of humanity to reality. What is reversed is the innate human tendency, as Reinhold Niebuhr puts it, “to transgress the bounds of human creatureliness and to imagine [ourselves] God.”
In the eighth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus praise the Roman centurion as possessing a greater faith than any Jesus has seen in all of Israel. What evokes this confirmation from Jesus are the words the centurion speaks: “For I myself am one under authority . . . ” (Matthew 8:9). Now the centurion is speaking of his experience as a soldier and commander of others, yet he is applying that to an ultimate authority he is experiencing in Jesus. It is fair to say that as human beings we are forever transgressing “the bounds of human creatureliness” and imagining ourselves to be God. And ultimately, as the United States experienced in Iraq, the result is always disastrous; those who see themselves as first become last, the mighty are cast down from their thrones.
The ever present question is whether or not we are willing to be subject to authority, to realize that we are responsible to Reality and not to our self-promoting and self-asserting interpretation of it. Every sin we commit is some version of a refusal to respond to the Truth of things, of our attempt to “create our own reality.” A somewhat extreme example of this is the current President of the United States. Whatever one’s political persuasion, it seems impossible not to pose the question of why he seems driven to lie so frequently, even at times when his argument would not require it. Perhaps it is but an extreme example of the experience of all of us. The more we insist on maintaining our own illusions, the more we must lie to do so. We must lie not only to others but to ourselves, because we must keep at bay the intrusions of Reality, of the truth, which is always threatening to bring down the walls of our own fabrications. It is little wonder that the building of walls becomes such a potent symbol (“a big, beautiful, powerful wall”) for the President.
The humble person, the honest person, is one who always recognizes that his or her judgments are tentative. They are always subject to whatever adjustments an unfolding reality would demand. Such a person is always subject to the higher authority of the Truth of things. As the Tao Te Ching teaches:
High Integrity never has Integrity
and so is indeed integrity.
Low Integrity never loses Integrity
and so is not at all Integrity. (#38, trans. David Hinton)
To be “under authority” in daily living is to become a disciple, of the Lord and of Reality. It is to stand before the world and to act on the world in such a way that one remains open to the world’s response and call to one’s presence and action. Our refusal to be disciples of the Way and rather to insist on our own way, all evidence to the contrary, is the source of all evil and disaster. For example, for a very long time now the planet has been telling us that ways we are living and acting is destroying our common home. Yet, those in power, and in truth many of us as well, maintain a stance of denial of that reality for the sake of our own comfort and greed. Long before we got to the place of crisis we are now in, the plight of the poorest in the world was telling us that the way we insisted on living that consumed far more of the world’s resources than we are entitled to was not living in the truth. Yet, we managed to ignore their plight as if it were not also our own. So obstinate are we, in this regard, that even as the results of our consumption and greed impinge on our own lives, we continue to deny the truth. We act as if we were not subject to the authority of the Reality and its Creator.
In a recent edition of NYR Daily, there appears an essay by Edward Mendelson, “What Thucydides Knew About the US Today.” He concludes the essay with an extended quote from the “History of the Peloponnesian War.” In part, Thucydides writes:
Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colors, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself; for, if it had not been for the pernicious power of envy, men would not so have exalted vengeance above innocence and profit above justice. Indeed, it is true that in these acts of revenge on others men take it upon themselves to begin the process of repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give a hope of salvation to all who are in distress, instead of leaving those laws in existence, remembering that there may come a time when they, too, will be in danger and will need their protection.
We human beings are always, for the sake of our own illusions, prone to “repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give a hope of salvation to all who are in distress . . . .” To varying degrees we all “filter” reality through the lens of our own self-interest, as we interpret that at the moment. Yet, we violate those “general laws of humanity,” the truth of Reality, at our own peril. Ultimately, even be it the cost of our own apparent destruction, the truth will out. Adrian van Kaam speaks of “love” in its deepest meaning as “consonance.” Consonance, for him, is a sounding together of all the parts. We know love, and so joy and peace, only when we sound with, live in harmony with, Reality.
As a young person, I became aware at one point, that I would sometimes lie about things even for no particular reason. At moments, I would be compelled to hide the truth, even when the truth was not particularly shameful or painful. In time I realized that I did this because it had, since childhood, become habitual. I felt that aspects of the truth of my own and my familial reality were not bearable to the culture or to me. In a sense, I came to feel that my very survival in the world depended on my creating and projecting an alternate reality to the truth of things. Variations on this are a generalized truth of the human condition.
Just recently a friend has raised the question, “Why does President Trump have to lie about being privileged in the way he was? Why does he have to maintain that he is self-made?” It’s a very good question, and one that applies to much of life. One could equally ask, “Why couldn’t the Church hierarchy be truthful about the crime and sin within its ranks?” Wherever there are human beings there will be failure and sin. So why not be honest about it and bear the responsibility such honesty requires?
Thucydides suggests that the reason is “the pernicious power of envy.” Put another way, we want to be seen as other than we are. It is difficult for us to trust that it is by living in consonance or harmony with the truth of ourselves and the world that we shall experience that we are loved in the truth of who we are. Jesus tells us that “the truth will make us free.” But before it can, we must have the faith to face it. We must acknowledge that we are not God, and so we must be subject to the authority of Reality, of the truth.
We do not create our own reality; rather we are subject to it. This is true no matter how powerful we want to be or think we are. To fail to live that subjugation or better that responsibility will, in time, bring us low. When we know and live from our true place, we shall be raised up. This is how, in God’s world, the first become last, and the last first.
Yet the mighty stand under the judgment of God in a special sense. They are, of all persons, most tempted to transgress the bounds of human creatureliness and to imagine themselves God. The degree to which the mighty have deified themselves from the days of the earliest priest-kings and god-kings to the contemporary Hitler is an illuminating indication of the temptation to which the mighty invariably succumb. The perennial sin of humanity is their rebellion against God, their inclination to make themselves God. All are tempted to this sin; but the mighty are particularly subject to it. In an interesting book of Wall Street gossip entitled They Told Barron, published some years ago, the story is told of a man who came with a wry face, from an interview with one of America’s financial overlords, and explained his discomfiture with the words, “I have just been subjected to the unconscious arrogance of conscious power.” The religious prophet sees this arrogance of the mighty as primarily a sin against God. The mighty one is incapable of the humility which all sinful persons should have before God. Consequently God will assert God’s power over them. Therefore Isaiah prophesies that ‘The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, shall be trodden under foot,’ and ‘in that day shall the Lord of hosts be for a crown of glory and a diadem of beauty, unto the residue of his people.’
Reinhold Niebuhr, “Transvaluation of Values,” in Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, pp. 97-8