Saturday, July 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on this Matter of Gouging Out One's Eye

Recently in the midst of some off-hand chatter, a friend made reference to a Scripture in a way that was quite jarring to me, like the proverbial needle ripped off the record. I've been turning over in my mind just why it struck me that way.

You see, there are the "hard sayings" of Jesus, and then it seems there are the "weird sayings" of Jesus. And to me, what my friend referred to was one of these weirder ones:  "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." (cf. Mt. 5:27-30)

I'll chalk it up to the fact that I'm not a man that I've not spent a lot of time meditating on this particular passage. But the way these words struck me put me in memory of the seasons in my life when I agonized over the meaning of "If anyone would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me." (Lk. 9:23)

Let him deny himself. Gouge out your eye.

What in the world is wrong with Jesus, anyway? It sure sounds like He'd be quite pleased if we destroyed ourselves for His sake.

And you know what? I've tried that. I've tried a religion that was all about holding my stinky humanity at arm's length while I got out the gasoline and the torch, determined to get rid of the culprit, which was essentially me. I think of it now as simply a spiritualization of an emotional tendency I had some years earlier towards suicide. I think of it as the basic form of my struggle against grace, this idea that God made some sort of heinous mistake when He made me, and that to right the wrong He made, I should make myself go away. Salvation, Marie's way, is self-destruction.

Religion turns into a mess when I start with my own twisted self-evaluation and work from there towards making me right myself. This religion starts and ends with, and completely revolves around, me. Me, in all my wretchedness, still convinced I should be able to get myself happy. And always failing.

The ever-patient Blessed Trinity looks on, heart about to explode with love, waiting for me to just look upward toward heaven, where I think I'm propelling myself.

Let's go back to that eye gouging verse. I'm no Scripture scholar, but it seems to me that Jesus is trying to get folks to recognize the disconnect between a do-it-yourself, me-centered approach and a Father, madly in love with His creation who has sent the Second Person of the Trinity in the flesh to look them in those eyes and announce Himself to them and beg them to come home to Him. Note carefully to what Jesus says:  "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out." If... your eye causes you to sin. Another time when the disciples just don't get it when he talks about the law and defilement, Jesus makes it pretty clear: "For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy." (Mt. 15:19) It's pretty clear that it isn't your eye that produces sin, it's your heart. You want a program to save yourself? the Lord says, I've got a logical one for you. Here's a knife. Have at it. If you can't see anything, your sin will be resolved, right? Reading this, it sure seems to me the hearers are supposed to recoil from his suggestion, and say No Way!

But then what? That's the question I think Jesus is begging by His presence, by His Incarnation. But if you want to get at the root of the issue, if you want peace(Mk. 10:17), then know your eyeball is not at fault, it is your heart. And I am here because I'm calling to your heart! (Jn. 7:37) I'm saying, Come, follow me (Jn. 1:38-39). That tug that you feel when you hear me preach, (Jn. 1:41) that amazement (Jn. 7:21) you experience when you see me heal someone (Mk. 7:37) -- that 's divine in origin (Jn. 10:37-38). Answer the tug! (Mt. 11:28) Give me your heart! You want your heart fixed?(Jn. 14:15) Well, I made it. Give it to me, run after me (Jn. 7:37-38). Together, we'll go Home.

And what about this whole matter of denying oneself?  It cannot mean that God's desire is that I hate, mutilate, destroy, or kill myself, literally, or just hate myself a bit seasonally, like during Lent. Jesus teaches us that it is the evil thief who "comes to steal, kill and destroy," but that Jesus comes that His flock "might have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). It's not just that God doesn't want us dead. It's that He really, really wants us to be fully alive!

As I see it, to deny myself, as Christ teaches me, is to forsake my privately produced program for salvation. God, I've had so many. They're like potions. Take this much religious stuff, pick this group of people and figure out how to feel two steps morally superior to them, interact with people in a way that makes me feel all smug, mix well and take two gulps daily. Feel terrible in these prescribed ways. Ignore that reaction your heart has to all this; it doesn't matter. What does it know? Measure up against a standard you have decided, whether impossibly high or ridiculously low. On and on, ad nauseum.

It's all idolatry. It's all the deadly religion of me and has nothing to do with Christ. And Jesus says, deny it. Leave behind all your attempts to save yourself. It's all a bunch of shit.(Phil. 3:8) Follow Me! I'm the one who made your heart, who knows your heart, who loves your heart. If you want your heart back and you want to live from it, then come, follow me. That's what I want, too. I want you to be you, to be happy, to be whole, to be alive, to be human. With two eyes, to see My face!

Today I was listening to a teaching John Michael Talbot gave his community a couple of weeks ago. He said, “When you die to yourself, you are not going to become nothing. You are going to become something new.” This is the promise of Christianity, and we each have to test it with our lives. The process, of course, is not instantaneous. John Michael went on to talk about how the Potter goes about fixing us (remember, it's His way, not mine!). When we are cracked, in a wrong shape, the potter will re-wet the clay by His Holy Spirit, make us malleable again and then take us down to nothing. We become like a lump. And then, He reshapes us, resurrects us into something new, and (this is my favorite part) nothing is wasted. Every single bit of us that is from God gets put back into that new creation that He makes of us when we give our lives to Him. God did not make a heinous mistake in creating me who I am. I just need to let it all go into His hand, especially the bits I wish I didn't have to think about putting into His hand because I hate them so much. As I give it all over, He makes of it something of His glory. Then I live His life here, and share in His life for eternity.

If we do not live as if glory is real, are we not living as Christian agnostics, and missing all the good stuff?


Dcn Scott Dodge said...

Jesus certainly used rhetorical devices, as does any good teacher. The plucking your eye out, cutting your hand off kinds of sayings are what know as hyperbole. Jesus also uses irony in his teachings. Because these are clearly hyperbole, they are not to be taken literally. After all, we have no stories of the apostles, after they denied Jesus and ran away, multilating themselves in various ways. For example, Peter didn't cut out the tongue he used to deny Jesus 3 times.

Perhaps the most dramatic story of someone mistaking hyperbole for something else is Origen, who castrated himself.

Marie said...

Poor Origen! JMT had something to say about him in his teaching I heard yesterday as well, that he considered himself the "champion of conservative orthodoxy." Hmmm.

One of my difficulties of having arisen from Protestantism is that I truly lumped together all gospel sayings of Jesus as impossible, and therefore ignorable. Like 'whatever you do to the lease of these my brethren, you do to me.' 'Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.' Christianity becomes very interesting, shall we say, when one can ignore everything Christ said!

The puzzle, the quest, then for me became figuring out why the Holy Spirit would bother including something in Scripture that seems so bizarre. What was ticking inside Jesus for him to say such a thing? I just extrapolate from what I find ticking in Jesus in the times I do get it :)

(And why does this all remind me of "Blessed are the cheesemakers"?)

Dcn Scott Dodge said...

There was no such thing as conservative or liberal in Origen's day, even the whole concept of orthodoxy is somewhat anachronistic when applied to Origen and his day. He lived before the Council of Nicea. In fact, for many, many centuries (after there was such a thing as orthodoxy) he was considered quite heterodox. It was not until a cache of his writings were found that he was re-considered. One of the first to pull him back into the Tradition was Von Balthasar, with his Origen: Spirit and Fire, which is anthology of O's writings.

Nonetheless, Jesus' saying is a challenge, it is radical, it is meant to be. As you know very well (being one yourself) being a disciple of Jesus demands everything. You always pick the very best things to think, write, and pray about.

Marie said...

I'll have to go back and re-listen to JMT's comment about Origen. Even as I wrote it it felt a bit anachronistic, but I'm pretty sure I remembered the right name, just don't remember the context of the comment. I think his basic point was that he (Origen) felt himself very correct even while he was so enamoured with Plato that he fell off into a bunch of heresy. As I recall, the "take-home" point of what he was saying was that if one doesn't balance prayer, study and service rightly in the light of living in truth, one can go off despite "feeling right."

And, thank you for your encouraging words. :)

Dcn Scott Dodge said...

I would just say that Origen is not a heretic. Balthasar's book has this quote from O as its epigraph: "I want to be a man of the Church. I do not want to be called by the name of some founder of a heresy. But in the name of Christ, and to bear that name which is blessed on earth. It is my desire, in deed as in spirit, both to be and to be called a Christian."

Dcn Scott Dodge said...

The rest of the quote, very apropso to your starting point, or origin:

"If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called presbyter and seem to preach the word of God, if I do something against the discipline of the Church and the rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, the Church, then may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and throw me away"

Marie said...

That's great! It doesn't scandalize me when people get things confused, especially when they are consistent in their reasoning about it.