Then all the trees said to the buckthorn, “Come you reign over us!” But the buckhorn replied to the trees, “If you wish to anoint me king over you in good faith, come and take refuge in my shadow. Otherwise, let fire come from the buckthorn and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”Judges 9: 14-15
“What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?” Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.Matthew 20: 15-16
To begin to absorb both readings from today’s liturgy is to have one’s very way of thinking about things challenged. In the First Letter to the Corinthians (2: 14-16), St. Paul says:
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.
There is a spiritual mind (“the mind of Christ”) and, for sake of a better term, a material mind. If being distinctively human involves thinking with our spiritual mind, then it might be fair to say that most of the time we are out of our minds. The parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel is among the most difficult of his sayings for us to comprehend. It is only common sense, and we would probably say only a matter of justice, that those who work for an hour should receive less pay than those who work all day. Isn’t this the kind of thinking that underlies most of our public policy? If ambition is the energy of our economy, it is necessary to have policies that promote ambition, of excelling by means of exceeding the production of others.
In the passage from Judges, Jotham, the one survivor from the purge of Abimelech so that he could become king, warns the people of the unholy alliance they have made with the ambitious Abimilech. The olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine all refuse the role of king over the trees because it would require them to abandon their true place and the gift that they offer by being who they are. The wildly invasive buckthorn, on the other hand, invites the other trees to take refuge in its shadow, or else be consumed by fire. Jotham is warning the people not to hand themselves over to Abimilech’s power, for only destruction will ensue. The people have made Abimilech their ruler and allowed the destruction of all the remainder of Jerub-Baal’s family because Abimilech was related to them, is one of them, as we might say today. As it happens, this alliance is short-lived and soon the people are rising up against him, with a resultant blood bath on all sides. We human beings are forever displacing God with other persons or ideologies that seem to offer us more immediate gratification. As the scripture says, “Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelek had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also made the people of Shechem pay for all their wickedness. The curse of Jotham son of Jerub-Baal came on them” (Judges 9: 56-7). The wickedness of the people of Shechem is, at least in part, due to their inability to recognize reality. One of the harshest rebukes of Jesus in the gospels is to Peter when he counters Jesus’ assertion that he must suffer. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16: 23).
Yesterday I was listening to a Hidden Brain podcast entitled “Rebel With a Cause.” It spoke of how it is the “rebel,” that is one who dares to think differently and break the rules of the “common sense” way of seeing things, who can often be the more creative person. The great obstacle to this way of being, it was suggested, is our sense of becoming an “expert.” With difficult intransigent problems, it is often the expert who is stymied. An example offered was that of Chesly (“Sully”) Sullenberger who landed the crippled airliner on the Hudson River some years ago. By the time this happened, he had piloted many different kinds of aircraft and he had worked for some time with teams investigating aircraft accidents. He definitely had the credentials of an expert. Yet, it was not this that allowed him to consider the radical response of landing in the river when the only advice he was receiving was to return to Laguardia. As framed in the podcast, what it was that allowed him to look at the problem in such a wide-ranging manner was that he at all times had the attitude of a beginner. Every time he would enter the cockpit of an aircraft, he would ask himself what new lesson could he learn in this flight. He had what the Zen tradition would call “beginner’s mind.”
It is, no doubt, a manifestation of our pride form that beginner’s mind is so difficult for us. We value competence and expertise, and so we want to be seen as possessing these in some regard. Yet, when we come upon any difficulty in life with the mind of the expert, we are most likely to be limited in terms of recognizing possible responses. The distinguishing aspect of “the mind of Christ” is that it looks on life and world out of the primordial disposition of awe. It is able to question our taken-for-granted perspective that the first should be first and not the last. It asks us to open to the possibility that the greatest gift to us in personal relationship may not be the member of our own clan but one who seems foreign and alien to us. In short, to begin to think with the mind of Christ, to begin to see as God sees requires first of us a moment of doubt and humility regarding our own certitude or expertise.
“Sully” Sullenberger would enter the cockpit at the beginning of every flight hoping to learn something new by even the smallest occurrence. He was not puffed up with his own sense of control and competence. He was, in fact, competent, but he was so competent that he could live with his need to learn more. So, when a truly critical moment occurred, he met it with a confidence born not of his own expertise but with a willingness to respond to the reality before him. If there had been the one solution of getting the plane back to Laguardia, it could well have meant total disaster. So, on the voice recorder he can be heard saying, as the controller tells him to get back to the airport despite his total engine failure, that he is putting the plane down in the river.
To have the mind of Christ requires of us, first of all, that we perceive the reality before us. Research has established that much of our perception is filtered by what is now termed “confirmation bias.” That is, we tend to see and interpret the world in such a way as to have it confirm what we already believe. This is the appeal of media outlets who tell their devotees that they are the real news and everything else is fake. Confirmation bias is what the wisdom traditions have long called pride. As a capital sin, pride can have an overwhelming power in the development of our personality. We are actually capable of coming to see and to admit into our consciousness only those things that support our illusory self-identification. And worse, we can attempt to impose that limited self-serving view of reality on others and on our situations.
We hear in the gospel of how both Jesus and John the Baptist are seen as mad by those around them. This occurs at moments where their words or behavior do not conform to the perspectives of their families or situations. That is, they refuse to reinforce the “confirmation bias” of their situations. I often wonder if PTSD, what we see as a mental disorder, is not often, in fact, the most sane of responses. The conventional wisdom that is to be confirmed in military situations, for example, is that for the sake of one’s own country’s cause it is perfectly human to kill others, including any “collateral damage” that may occur. Yet, this is in fact a horror. It seems to me often more insane that we would think that a truly human, well adjusted person should not be severely disturbed and impacted by such an experience.
As the polar ice caps are melting at a rate far exceeding predictions, and as world-wide we live through yet another warmest year on record, we continue to wait for the experts to solve the problem of climate change we have created. When Pope Francis spoke of this as the spiritual issue that it is, he was attacked by many for daring to speak about this as a non-expert. While we need expertise, we must also acknowledge that our own expertise, our own failure to develop “beginner’s mind” has been the cause of the place in which we now find ourselves. I often think of the film The Graduate in which at his graduation party Benjamin is told by a wealthy CEO that he has one word for him: “plastics.” In 1967 when the film was released, it was quite true that plastics were the future. Well, now we are suffocating in plastic. The tunnel vision and confirmation bias by which we see the world allows to us produce new products without a thought as to how we dispose of them.
We may not seek kings, but we as readily look for those persons or ideologies or customs that will save us from our responsibility for our lives and the world as we participate in it. True responsibility requires that we receive reality as it is, as God has created it. We learn in the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel that all is the generous gift of God and that the Puritan ethic is not the last word. It can take courage to dare to open to a consciousness that feels dark because it is releasing all of its conscious and unconscious certitudes. The last thing we want to be in our culture is unknowing. Yet, we are reminded today that to begin to know “what comes from the Spirit of God” requires first of us to admit our not knowing. When we take off our cultural and unconsciously constituted blinders, we may begin to see in a new way, a way that would lead us to respond more in accord with the will of the Creator.
W.S. Merwin, Garden Time, p. 33
The Laughing Child
When she looked down from the kitchen window
into the back yard and the brown wicker
baby carriage in which she had tucked me
three months old to lie out in the fresh air
of my first January the carriage
was shaking she said and went on shaking
and she saw I was lying there laughing
she told me about it later it was
something that reassured her in a life
in which she had lost everyone she loved
before I was born and she had just begun
to believe that she might be able to
keep me as I lay there in the winter
laughing it was what she was thinking of
later when she told me that I had been
a happy child and she must have kept that
through the gray cloud of all her days and now
out of the horn of dreams of my own life
I wake again into the laughing child.