This week and last, the readings for Morning and Evening prayer have been wending their way through the book of Judges. I have to admit, I have been less than enthusiastic. Usually, I love these stories, which tell of the time after the Hebrews entered the Promised Land, but before they became a monarchy. Samson and Gideon, Deborah and Barak, the grotesque humor of Ehud and Eglon: they are particular, funny, deeply human portraits of people trying to do their best with a tough set of circumstances.
This time, however, I find myself yearning for something more peaceful, more nourishing, more obviously “spiritual.” I understand for the first time why St. Benedict did not allow his monks to read these stories right before they went to bed; it’s just that I don’t particularly want to read them first thing in the morning, either. They are too much like the headlines in our papers, too much like the news on the airwaves: the hungry crying for food, the poor for a protector, the oppressed for freedom, the powerful for control. I want my faith to allow me to yearn for a better world, not for more of the same. I want a God who is less lenient with our failings, more willing to intervene and change things for good. To change us for good, me included.
If it is this hard for me to look at the pictures in the news, pictures of people I do not know and do not (if I am honest) care about as I should, what must it be like for God to look at the real thing, at the people God loves hurting one another, day after day after day? Where does God’s patience come from? What form of kindness waits behind the ground that does not open up, the thunderbolts that do not come from heaven? And what kind of charred dust would I be, if they did?
The thing about Jesus that made so many people angry was not that he judged them and found them wanting. It was that he refused to condemn. The woman caught in adultery, the men who sold out and worked with the Roman oppressors, the sick woman who touched him while she was bleeding (even though she knew it would defile him) — all these walked away having tasted, not condemnation, but mercy. Some of them even walked away with Jesus.
Jesus lived in this world, with this mess, with these people. He knew about political campaigns, smear tactics, war, all of it. He tasted their bitterness himself. And yet, he did not wipe it away. If he, from his perfect love, managed to engage with it, it is not for me to turn away.
At the end of the Book of Judges, there is a damning sentence: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Jud 21:25) The author was speaking of utter lawlessness, but so much of what seems “spiritual” is no more than the same: turning away from real people and their needs, closing our eyes to distress so that we may seek peace, seeking enough time to become “authentically ourselves” before we try to give to others. This not the way of Christ, and it cannot be our way, either.
Christ’s way was to open his eyes, and see. Not just our need, but our beauty, too, all of it mixed in together.