on heroism: Luke 8

read Luke 8.  I just saw the trailer for Sascha Cohen’s new movie, Dictator.  I didn’t laugh, I didn’t laugh, and then we see the Dictator running in a race, surrounded by other runners in little shorts.  Someone yells, “on your mark, get set,” — and the Dictator takes off before the word “Go.”  The Dictator gets a good head start and only then fires the starting shot for the others.  They take off behind him.  The Dictator looks around and realizes the others are catching up, despite his lead.  He shoots a front runner in the knee cap.  He shoots a referee.  They collapse, clutching their knees.  The Dictator beckons to the two people holding the finish line.  They run toward the Dictator, bringing the finish line closer to him.  The Dictator stretches out his chest in delighted victory as he crosses the line first.  I died laughing.

Why?   Why do we laugh at comedies?  Is it just because they bring out truths about other people?  Or do we see something of ourselves in narcissistic dictators who take out the competition?

Consider the benefits of being a dictator in the real world, as evidenced by Kim Jong-un.  You don’t have to tell anyone your age.  You can be called a “military genius” by your state run television without actually having served in the army.  You can be called “dear leader” within a month of ascending to office.  You can make people sob uncontrollably at your father’s funeral – even if they never met him.

But there’s nothing actually funny about North Korea, other than the Sacha Cohen-esque absurdity of its propaganda machinery.  It’s an impoverished oppressed nation with a nuclear bomb.

And here is where we move into the real-life realm of the Bible.  The Bible is neither a comedy or a tragedy, in the sense that we usually understand those genres, because it provides the same insights into the human heart, but it doesn’t make us laugh, nor does it make us depressed.  Instead, the Bible both convicts and also elevates us.  Something about the Bible draws us – the way water in a well draws a person dying of thirst.

If you look at the eighth chapter of Luke, for instance, everyone except Jesus who is featured in the stories and parables here is like a character in a comedy.  They are irrational, passionate, stubborn, fearful, and mocking – with occasional touches of sheer beauty.  Perhaps the strangest part of the chapter is the crowd’s fear of Jesus.  A “great wave of fear” overtakes the crowd after Jesus heals the demon possessed man, and they beg him to leave them; the rational thing to have done would have been to thank Jesus and beg him to stay.  When Jesus asks who touched him in the crowd, everyone denies it; the woman who had been bleeding begins to “tremble”.  Why are they so afraid of a man who heals them?

And yet the crowds’ fear of Jesus is perhaps not so hard to understand, after all.  Don’t we sometimes reject people who adore us?  Don’t we feel our hearts get hard – for no reason we can understand – in the face of “too much” love?  Maybe there is something inside each of us that pushes away love.  It’s as if we sabotage ourselves, casting off the thing we most want.

Why do we do that?  Are we afraid of losing ourselves?  Of being swallowed up?  Of having to be vulnerable ourselves?  I’m not sure.  I only know that we need a solution, because on our own, we sabotage ourselves, casting off the thing we most want.

There really is no hero here except Jesus – at least, not in the way we understand heroism.  Perhaps the problem lies in our definition of heroism.  In our way of thinking, a hero is someone who does the right thing against all odds.  He is someone who does something brave, or who saves a person, village or nation.  He is, by definition, someone who acts.

But in this chapter, the only positive beautiful action a human can take is to “cling” to Jesus.  Clinging seems to us the last refuge of a desperate person.  Someone shipwrecked, for instance, clings to driftwood until they are rescued through no actions of their own except desperation.  A clinger seems the very antithesis of what we expect in heroism, and yet this chapter suggests that clinging is the most beautiful heroic and praiseworthy thing we humans can do.

Look at the people who cling to Jesus here.  The woman who had been bleeding for twelve years clings to the hem of his robe.  The disciples scream for help when the storm hits.  The demon possessed man “came out to meet him.”  Jairus “came and fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading with him to come home with him” because his daughter was dying.  These people were not to proud to seek God, and He helped them all.  Clinging opened them to receiving.

And look at Christ’s entourage in the first paragraph: Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene.  How can you have seven demons?  I can only imagine.  And yet she is traveling with Jesus along with other women who have the means to support him.  There is an equality to these women that stems from nothing but their common desire to be with the Son of God.  Jesus is taking with him an Entourage as diverse as the one surrounding Vinny Chase in the t.v. show of the same name – a motley flawed crew heart-warming only for its quality of loyalty.

Jesus says that anyone who listens and obeys Him like this is his “family.” That used to trouble me.  Do we really have to “obey” Jesus to be part of his family?  We don’t obey Jesus – not all the time, and if we’re honest, not even most of the time.  Here is where the parable of the sower in this chapter provides a snapshot of our hearts as stark as the truth brought out in a comedy like The Dictator.  We are all of us the poor kinds of soil mentioned here by Christ.  Sometimes we dismiss God’s word out of hand – God didn’t really mean it, we think, when he told us not to lie if our careers depend on it, or to sleep with someone we love when we’re not married to them.  No matter how hard we resolve to obey God, we do fall away when temptation comes.  We remember that God’s words are all too often crowded out by the cares, riches and pleasures of this life – and I love the insight that pleasures, not just cares, can prevent us from relying on God.  When we hear that fertile soil represents those who “cling” to God’s word and “patiently” produce a huge harvest, we cannot say we’re always like that.  The best we can say is that we would like to be like that.

So if the parable of the sower reveals a true snapshot of our hearts, where does that leave us when Jesus says we’re his family if we “obey” Him.  Are we only His family if we’re “good”?  If so, no one is part of Jesus’ family – and yet we know that’s not true.  Jesus’ family, as his entourage in the beginning shows, is anyone who asks Him for help.  So what kind of obedience is Jesus talking about here?

Perhaps the obedience that brings us into his family is obedience to the way of the cross.  It is obedience to accepting that we need Jesus.  It is obedience to accepting that we need help.  It is having the courage to sacrifice our pride and consistently, daily, beg God to help us.

So to be a hero in God’s kingdom, all we need to do is beg.  We need only cling.  In asking this of us, Jesus allows us room to be human.  He knows how irrational and fearful we have been, and how irrational and fearful we will be.  But if we cling to Him, He begins to change us – from the inside out.  God’s love makes us want to be with Him; it makes us long to obey; it makes us start to surrender.  Obedience follows naturally from grace – they are inseparable.  But we humans have it backward: we think we have to obey first in order to deserve God’s love.  Good luck with that one.  God asks us to realize we need His help first.  He asks us to want to be in the relationship with Him for which we were made.  Just as we could not save ourselves from a shipwreck, so we humans could not transfer ourselves from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.  God doesn’t ask that we be “good” in order to be “worthy” of His help.  He asks only that we want to be in His entourage.  Jesus welcomes us all in.

And once we’re in Jesus’ family, we find that both laughter and tears come more easily. We stop having the weight of the world on our shoulders – because we have given that weight to the only shoulders made to carry it.  We laugh because cares don’t restrain our joy; we cry because we know we are loved beyond deserving, and anytime something reminds us of this undeserving love, the floodgates break open all over again.  Life becomes neither comedy nor tragedy, but yet beautiful.  God’s love makes our hearts more fertile.  We slowly begin to obey more, because we miss the fellowship that comes from being close to Jesus.  Sin separates us from intimacy with Him, and so we ask God’s help in fighting sin. Even when our own family rejects us – God’s family is always open to us.  Jesus was the one true hero – dying for us when we didn’t even love Him back – so that his love can slowly turn us all into heroes, no matter how badly we want to kneecap the competition.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on January 10, 2012