When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”Matthew 9:11-13
Sometimes I wonder if we created our particular idea of “heaven” because of the realization that the ideals of Christianity are so unrealizable on earth. In the more difficult moments of confrontation with my own failure and weakness, I sometimes have the image that heaven is the place where we finally stop banging our heads against the wall. Perhaps eternal rest is basically the experience of relief from the experience of Sisyphus of pushing the rock up the hill each day, and having to begin all over again the next.
As the Pharisees in today’s gospel, don’t I perhaps always need there to be some “out group” if I am ever to feel “in”? In On Balance Adam Phillips references the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones’s insight that it is not the person we hate the most that we want to kill but rather “the person who arouses in us the most unbearable conflict.” The great paradox here is that the idealistic inner person who dreams of universal love and harmony is the same one that arouses in us the unbearable conflict that is our own rage at those who stand in the way of our aspirations. If this is so, then the harder we work for those ideals, for that unity and harmony, the greater is our rage at those who thwart it.
As I reflect on my own thoughts here, they seem to be more akin to those of Albert Camus than to those of Jesus. What is left, given this irresolvable conflict, other than “resistance, rebellion, and death”? So often I find myself resisting, if not repulsed by, much of the preaching at funerals. The happy resolution of what is described as heaven seems to me to say nothing to the conflicts and struggles of life here on earth. The tenor is often something like: “Well, she or he suffered so much, or was treated so badly, or inflicted all kinds of pain on others, but now she is at peace in eternal rest.” If that is true, then what’s the point of having lived? And how does this square with the mystical tradition that speaks of life with and in God, even in this world, as the experience of deep enjoyment?
It is perhaps the unexpected convergence of the teaching of Jesus and the psychoanalytic insight of Ernest Jones that can help us. Jesus makes clear that he has come to pitch his tent among sinners, not the righteous. His table is one of inclusion of all, of every kind and quality (as we measure it) of person. Jesus teaches that we are to be with and invite to eat with us those those who arouse “in us the most unbearable conflict.” Sometimes today we speak of the one in us who suffers this unbearable conflict as our “inner child.” To be hospitable and inclusive, as Jesus teaches, requires us to learn to attend to, live with, and have compassion for this inner child that we are.
Usually I have read this call of the gospel as a means to peace and harmony. In other words, at least in my interpretation, it was a call to overcome, if not kill off, that in me that was conflicted by the presence of the hated others. All this leads to, however, is the living of a pretense of harmony and unity. it requires the suppression or repression of the that hatred which their presence arouses in me. Yet, Jesus makes clear in the gospel today, that the person I am whom I hate and would like to kill is the sinner for whom he has come.
It is not easy for me to admit the anger and rage, the degree of hatred I feel for those who, even if it be only for moments, I cannot stand. There are not sinners and non-sinners. There are not really the righteous and the unrighteous. These are judgments that are no less true of ourselves than of the world at large. This is not a denial of the reality of evil; in fact, it is just the opposite. It is to realize that there is no escape from sin and evil in the human condition, and that every attempt to escape it, to create a “purified” way of life will inevitably descend into despotism or totalitarianism. To look around Jesus’ table is to begin to doubt my interpretation of what the communion and harmony of the gospel means. It may not at all be as pacific and gratifying as my images of unity and of heaven.
To really hear the gospel begins to challenge my own idealizations of it, and my own operative fundamentalist perspectives. Jesus has come for sinners because it is sinners who will welcome and receive him. It is the sinner in me that knows my need for Jesus because every over-exertion of mine in attempt to perfect myself and the world only arouses in me a greater rage at those who resist me. The normal reaction to this is yet greater exertion, which only makes the rock heavier, and so increases the rage. This is sickness in me that requires a doctor.
I want things to cease to be messy. I want myself to cease to be messy. I want eternal rest, both in the afterlife and here. The only but illusory way to that in this life is to invite only my own kind to dinner. We know, however, that it won’t take long to discover that even this selective group is not “my own kind.” Jesus says it is when we dare to confront the ones who arouse in us our unbearable conflicts, and who dare to bear the same that we arouse in them, that we are receiving the doctor. Every refusal to do this, every attempt to dissociate from those whom we hate and that which we hate in ourselves, will only result in a false harmony and unity. It is our attempt to perpetuate this falseness that has us constantly batting our heads agains the wall. The gospel today calls us not to wait for death to rest but rather to rest more now as we humbly and trustingly begin to let go of our prideful exertions for our own paradise.
It is as though the project of civil influence, of coexistence, of the conciliating of rival claims, is plausible only if you keep the hard cases out of the picture. ‘Dialogue’ between, say, the capitalist fundamentalism of the West and Islamic fundamentalism sounds like the kind of thing that could only be dreamed up by people working in universities, or people who watch the news and hope for the best. It is as though we have had the wrong picture of what people are really like; of what people are really like about those things that they take to be fundamental. Having seen the strife between people, the unfathomable conflict they can elicit in each other, we have replaced this perception with fantasies of harmony. The more horrified we are, the more committed we become to the dream of unity. People can get on with each other, but not for very long; and more and more we see that people can’t bear each other. We don’t want to kill the person we hate most, the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones once remarked, we want to kill the person who arouses in us the most unbearable conflict. More and more people now are living lives of unbearable conflict.Adam Phillips, On Balance, pp. 76-77