Fear is a funny, contextual thing. If you were to listen to the current presidential debates you’d imagine ourselves under the imminent, credible threat of ISIS or North Korea destroying us all. The irony is that during much of the second half of the 20th century the threats were far greater. We actually have a very disproportional sense of threat. Someone may be very careful about what they eat in order to avoid heart disease in old age and then decide to take up sky diving or rock climbing as a hobby. This is the kind of creatures we are.
Oh, So You Want to be Happy?
Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis notes that as a species we are remarkably poor at “affective forecasting” or imaging how happy or miserable we’ll be, while being remarkably good at adapting to new circumstances.
If I gave you ten seconds to name the very best and very worst things that could ever happen to you, you might well come up with these: winning a 20-million-dollar lottery jackpot and becoming paralyzed from the neck down. Winning the lottery would bring freedom from so many cares and limitations; it would enable you to pursue your dreams, help others, and live in comfort, so it ought to bring long-lasting happiness rather than one serving of dopamine. Losing the use of your body, on the other hand, would bring more limitations than life in prison. You’d have to give up on nearly all your goals and dreams, forget about sex, and depend on other people for help with eating and bathroom functions. Many people think they would rather be dead than paraplegic. But they are mistaken.
Of course, it’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but not by as much as you’d think. Because whatever happens, you’re likely to adapt to it, but you don’t realize up front that you will. We are bad at “affective forecasting,” that is, predicting how we’ll feel in the future. We grossly overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions. Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness. The lottery winner buys a new house and a new car, quits her boring job, and eats better food. She gets a kick out of the contrast with her former life, but within a few months the contrast blurs and the pleasure fades. The human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels. The winner’s pleasure comes from rising in wealth, not from standing still at a high level, and after a few months the new comforts have become the new baseline of daily life.
Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (pp. 84-85). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
What you discover is that generally speaking, a year after winning the lottery, or a year after suffering the dramatic loss of health or one’s limbs, most people return to their baseline level of experiential happiness which for more people is primarily determined by inherited brain chemistry given to you by your DNA.
Large, Aging Preschoolers
Are we really aware of what threatens us? Are we really able to make sober judgments regarding our lives? What both pieces of data suggest is that we are not much different from a small child who freaks out over losing an ice cream cone imagining that this ice cream cone is what is at the center of the universe. Parents knowing the child has little sense of proportionality manages the situation waiting for the child to grow up.
The Righteous Rider
Another interesting human dynamic is how our sense of individual justice often tags along with our sense of fear responding to a threat. We noted this when we read about Jesus preaching in Nazareth. Why did the crowd turn on Jesus so quickly? Because he challenges their sense of righteous entitlement based on their narrative of victimization.
Most stories of justice are premised on a narrative and assumed values. If we are poor judges of our sense of threat or our affective forecasting is it a surprise we are poor at also figuring out what narratives we ought to live within?
We live withing our narrative bubbles often possessed by our glandular based sense of righteousness and justice. We imagine we are righteous because we feel righteous and we feel righteous because we make a determination about our fears and options for happiness. Everything we know about this, however, suggests that we are actually very poor at doing these evaluations which leads, as we can most often see by observing humans, that we are all over the map, today on one thing and tomorrow on the next. Yesterday we freaked out about the bomb, now we freak out about ISIS, all the while nursing cherished personal hopes of winning the lottery and evading catastrophic personal injury, all the while the clock on our decay keeps ticking.
If you read CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters you very much get the impression that the best way for Wormwood to capture his quarry would be to keep the poor little human in his or her tiny bubble of private conveniences and annoyances, don’t let things get particularly good or bad and just let them waste away their lives in years of quiet desperation.
The lenten text this week comes in the middle of a longer conversation. Jesus is clearly trying to re-orient his listeners from their matrix of fears and opportunities into a different narrative.
Luke 13:1–9 (NET)
1 Now there were some present on that occasion who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.2 He answered them, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered these things? 3 No, I tell you! But unless you repent, you will all perish as well!4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem?5 No, I tell you! But unless you repent you will all perish as well!”
6 Then Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the worker who tended the vineyard, ‘For three years now, I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and each time I inspect it I find none. Cut it down! Why should it continue to deplete the soil?’ 8 But the worker answered him, ‘Sir, leave it alone this year too, until I dig around it and put fertilizer on it. 9 Then if it bears fruit next year, very well, but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
If you want to understand verses 1-5 it’s important to understand 6-9 and have a sense of what’s gone on in Chapter 12 too.
In verses 6-9 Jesus hyperlinks to one of the most important passages in the entire Bible. It should be made into cute pictures for Facebook but it isn’t because it tells a rather dark story.
Isaiah 5:1–7 (NIV)
The Song of the Vineyard
5 I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
5 Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
6 I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
7 The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
With seven short verses Isaiah sketches out the story of the world through the lens of Israel. Christianity asserts that the story of Israel in the Old Testament isn’t so much a story about an ethnic people, but it embodies and concentrates the relationship between this world’s creator and its people. The vineyard is Israel, but it’s also the whole world.
In chapter 12 Jesus will working his parables of banquets and waiting for masters. This invokes the vineyard narrative and sees Israel as the Isaiah Servant of the Lord. Will she be a faithful servant or an unfaithful one? Will the master find her doing his work or using the goods of the master in dissolute ways?
Now we are ready to see 13:1-6. As we noted last week Jesus is not ambiguous on divine hazard. The world belongs to someone. All actors within it are subject to the judgments of the owner. Jesus asserts that this is the dominant narrative and whether we ignore it willfully or out of ignorance it will impinge itself upon our futures as moral agents who will endure beyond the decay of our physical bodies.
Even while we as a secular society are skeptical about after-life hazard we’re easily dogmatic about justice. While we respond to the religious pluralism with a skepticism that says “how am I supposed to choose between competing religious” but we have no such skepticism when it comes to our imagined ability to decide what is right and just.
Even in our North American context where we have constructed for ourselves a place where life for many is secure, comfortable and free we zealously guard our accomplishments. Politics becomes “what really matters”.
I can’t help but notice all of the political candidates saying again and again “this election will determine the future of America. The time is now or everything may be lost forever…” Do they imagine I have no memory to not recall that they same thing was said of 2012 and 2008 and 2004 and back and back? We are encouraged to live in the bubble of the moment and make all such calculations based on it.
So when in 13:1 some Galileans, people who looked at Jesus and said “he’s part of our tribe, surely he must rise to the political call” Jesus does the unpatriotic unthinkable.
Kenneth Bailey was an American Bible scholar who taught in Lebenon during the worst of its civil war in the 1970s. He learned a lot about reading Jesus while that part of the world tore itself apart.
In studying Luke 13:1–5 with Middle Eastern classes, the present writer has often had students marvel that Jesus was not physically attacked on the spot. This call for repentance is thrown in the face of nationalistic enthusiasts who stand in opposition to Roman oppression. Those who fight for a just cause often assume that the struggle for the cause makes them righteous. It does not. The more intense the struggle for justice the more the oppressed tend to assume their own righteousness. This assumption of righteousness at times expresses itself as an arrogance that refuses any criticism. The subconscious rationale seems to be, “Our cause is righteous, thus we are righteous. Furthermore, after all that we have suffered, how dare you inflict any more wounds on us by your criticism.”
Bailey, K. E. (1983). Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Combined Edition, Vol. 2, pp. 78–79). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
And so this is the pattern of the world. Endless cycles of nursing our grievances, finding power in one way or another, rising up against our enemies in order to bring justice on the world.
If you were to read Josephus on the war that would follow less than 40 years after Jesus would say these words you’d find that it follows the familiar human pattern. All of the towns in the region had to choose sides, to be with the Romans or the Jews. If you choose wrong you would be destroyed by the other side if they could. Eventually the Romans would come and destroy the whole thing and the cycle would repeat itself.
Jesus confronts the political salvation story and suggests that it isn’t any different from what is common to us, a tower falling which even in this secular world an insurance company would consider “an act of God”. Do those who die for political causes somehow earn more merit before the great jaws of then those how slip in the tub or are eaten by cancer?
Jesus makes the same insider turn in this text as he does with the “will only a few be saved?” question. Jesus declares “look at yourself and turn your life around rather than getting involved in the petty bubbles of the planet that distract and divert!”
A word of mercy comes in the parable of verses 6 through 9. In Isaiah the hedge was torn down and the wilderness invaded the vineyard. Justice demands that the cruelty be stopped. God should end this all ASAP so the suffering will stop. Mercy and Hope intervenes with Justice and suggests, just give it more time.
Lent is the season of repentance. Where Jesus asks us to shake off the doldrums, open our eyes and awaken to the great monotony of our banal dreams.
Our expectations would be that Jesus would here launch some sort of political campaign or self-improvement effort that would put us on a road to fixing ourselves and organizing each other to fix our world. He does not. What he does do is continues on towards Jerusalem where he knows the confrontation will occur.
The truth is that we are in bondage and no amount of self-improvement program or political leadership will break us out of it. All our self-salvation strategies lead us into are the kinds of revolutions that inspired the Galileans to rouse their ethnic allies towards killing Romans through inflaming their own self-righteousness. The Romans were of course doing the same thing.
Jesus goes to Jerusalem and manages to become the victim of Jewish religious nationalism and the victim of Imperial Rome in the same execution. Would could have imagined such a thing?
The Christian church believes that this act he unseats the power of judgment that bound political rebels and unpolitical commoners alike.
In his resurrection he destroys the threat of nuclear war and common cancer in the same moment.
In the freedom of this cruciform-redemption and Easter-restoration the followers are free to play with politics or not. They are free to embody their liberation in the kinds of costly love that Jesus exhibited. They are free to no longer fear nuclear annihilation or common decay because they know that the death that takes by political sword or common calamity no longer reigns over our stories.
This is a life well worth waking up for.