The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with Jesus seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” Then he left them, got into the boat again, and went off to the other shore.”Mark 8:11-13
Our high school religion text, which could never be accused of subtlety or nuance, described the Pharisees and Scribes as “The Temple Gang.” Its presentation of the gospel was in the manner of the “western” movies of the time in which the good guys (in this case Jesus and occasionally the disciples) wore white hats and the bad guys (all who rejected Jesus and his teachings but especially the religious and secular authorities of the time) wore black hats. As I read today’s gospel passage, I found myself wondering if the Pharisees really wanted a sign from heaven. I suspect they would not have asked for one were they not certain there would not be one.
Often in our imaginations we can think that we would like a sign that would confirm our faith once and for all. But if I’m honest, I think a powerful and overwhelming and indisputable sign of God would terrify me. For, the announcement of the love and holiness of God is often far too much for us, even when it comes in all of its subtle and ordinary manifestations.
The contention of the Pharisees with Jesus is likely the result of their fearfulness and timidity. Now, as we see throughout the gospels, their behavior does not often reflect timidity; it is far more likely to be arrogant. But, what is our pretense of arrogance and control but the result of our fear. The last thing we want is some kind of external and powerful manifestation of God’s love and life, because even that which we have within us is often being ignored or repressed. In all the ways we seek to be and to act as gods, we are refusing the very life of God that dwells within us. We readily speak of the evil of which we are capable, and there is no doubt of that. But perhaps the greatest evil is our refusal of the goodness that we are.
Recently I was watching a film in which a young man was being badly bullied by many other students. When one of those who had bullied him, found himself the object of the scorn of the other students, it was the student he had bullied who invited him to sit with him in the cafeteria. The assailant become victim asked his victim why he was speaking to him after the way he had been treated, and the response was noteworthy. “Just because you can’t understand me doesn’t mean I can’t try to understand you.”
Were God to become manifest by means of a powerful and undeniable sign, the pettiness of our ordinary ways and motivations would probably overwhelm us. Our inner and outer pretenses to superiority and self-righteousness would humiliate us. Our ways of judging and degrading each other would become mortifying. Most of all, our refusal and failure to live out in humility and gentleness our true life and identity as unique image of God would be unbearable.
As the Pharisees, we know our own falseness, our settling for recognition and privilege of our social selves rather than the generous expression and offering of the small but precious gift that we are. On December 2 of last year, the great theologian Johann Baptist Metz died. The life and thought of Metz was greatly influenced by the incomprehensible reality of the holocaust. How was it possible, he asked, that the deeply Catholic population of his small Bavarian village went on living apparently unaware of a concentration camp merely 30 miles away? He struggled with “What sort of faith it must have been that allowed us to go on believing undisturbed during the Nazi time.” He came to describe that faith as “bourgeois Christianity.” Bourgeois Christianity is what characterizes much of what we call Christian faith in our country. It is not faith in Jesus, as Jesus is, but rather in how our culture has come to adapt and interpret faith. Metz wrote: “It is dangerous to be close to Jesus, it threatens to set us afire, to consume us. And only in the face of this danger does the vision of the Kingdom of God that has come near in him light up.”
But, if Christ dwells within us, then we are always close to Jesus. And so, to live a truly human life is to live with the constant threat of being “set afire.” It takes a lot of energy to repress this reality, to make it about successful cultural and even religious adaptation. The Pharisees are afraid not only of Jesus but of the truth of themselves. And so are we.
When another truly loves us, he or she evokes in us the dangerous memory of who we really are. They are not the least interested in our pretenses to competence and our displays of power. They instead summon out of us what is at once most beautiful, most holy, and most vulnerable. The Pharisees could not bear to be loved by Jesus because their own bourgeois religion, the only faith they had, would be seen for what it was. To be loved by Jesus and so become who they truly were would mean to reveal that they were frightened and broken and sinful like everyone else.
Recently a confrere confided in me that he felt we brothers were not closer to each other because we could not share our vulnerability. I think he is precisely correct. Friendship requires shared vulnerability, not because we want the other to take care of us but because the truth of our divine image is at once the source of our strength but also that which is most vulnerable in us.
There are constant signs of the truth of God and of God within and among us. It is because we are so vulnerable in what is most originally and truly ourselves that the signs need to be gentle and even subtle. In The Genesee Diary, Henry Nouwen notes how sensitive many of the monks are. His interpretation is that this is the case because of the life of silence and interiority that they lead. Who they most truly are is much closer to the surface than it is for most of us.
Community is an inextricable aspect of the living out of faith, of our own depth, because we need a space to share that vulnerability. Unfortunately far too often it fails to be such a space. It is easy for our fear to become the determining factor in how we live and work and relate to each other. So, it can even become the motivation for the kind of aggression and power dynamics that take over in our communities, local, national, and ecclesial. It is from the place of power and not openness and gentleness that the Pharisees ask for a sign. But they don’t really want one, because if they had a sign they could comprehend, they would have to change. They, as we, would have to dispense with our bourgeois religion and dare to encounter Jesus in truth. As Metz says, to do this means to subject ourselves to the fire of purification of all that is false in us, to lose what we take to be our lives and to be left with the Self we have spent our lives avoiding.
I think of the book as continuous with another one I wrote, Sweet Heaven When I Die, in which there’s an essay about the life of Cornel West. I found his idea of hope to be so moving. Hope, in the deepest sense, is rooted in despair. It’s when there is no worldly reason to think that things are going to be all right.
I’ll go ahead and be sentimental. There are beautiful people in this book. You said you liked that picture of Mary peeking through the door—that picture shows you how hard this is. She’s been hurt by a lot of people. And, by God, she still opens the door.
Just a little bit though . . .
Yeah, there’s no pretense here, like “Sure, I’ll open the door, because we are all the family of man.” No, it’s like, “I know what you are, I know what I am, I know that I have been hurt and I’ve hurt people, and we hurt one another.” Well . . . maybe let’s talk. Then you have a story.David O’Neill, “How the Light Gets In: Jeff Sharlet on Photography, Empathy, and Solidarity,” Bookforum, Feb/March 2020.