Gentle Jesus meek and mild/ Look upon a little child/ Pity my simplicity/ Suffer me to come to thee.
When I was very young we used to sing that before going to bed at night. I won’t comment on it except to say that I am sure it is good for children to know that Jesus is loving and caring before they learn anything else. But where did that picture of Jesus come from? Is it anywhere in the Gospels?
Certainly not today’s gospel where we see Jesus really angry in fine prophetic mode, driving out the money changers and overturning their tables. This is not the only time Jesus gets angry. In one of his other speeches he calls the Pharisees “You snakes, you brood of vipers.” He gets pretty cross with the disciples too and their lack of faith, “Oh faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?”
Of course, he’s not always angry. He is wonderfully compassionate and heals lepers and blind men without a fuss. He casts out demons with a word of authority. He goes to visit a sick girl because her father loves her and he heals a Roman centurion’s slave. It is true that he welcomes mothers with their children and blesses them. He breaks all sorts of social boundaries. He eats with tax collectors and sinners and evidently enjoys their company. He talks with a Samaritan woman of very dubious morals. He also enjoys himself. He is at a wedding feast when the wine ran out, so he made some more; a lot more! Compared with John the Baptist he is a glutton and a wine bibber.
Despite what he said about Pharisees he went to dinner with them, and embarrassed them by what he said. He taught a lot. He told marvellous stories which have a way of getting under your skin. He was a prophet who revealed things about God. He summoned people to repentance. He prophesied the end of Jerusalem, weeping over the city, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem. How often would I have gathered you under my wings as a hen gathers her chickens, but you would not.” He proclaimed the Kingdom of God, but what kind of a Kingdom was it? Was it a kingdom on earth, or a Kingdom in heaven, or somehow both? We don’t really know. He seems to give answers to questions but when you press the answers they dissolve in mystery.
So what was Jesus like? Well, of one thing I am sure: he was great fun! People were fascinated by him. Young and old, rich and poor, Jews and Greeks, Pharisees, scribes, men and women, sinners and saints. They all gathered round him, listened to him, argued with him, loved him, hated him, crucified him. They were never bored by him. The Jesus we modern Christians present is often very boring. Sometimes too he is very nice and harmless, according to a certain kind of liberal Gospel. You wonder why the authorities bothered to crucify him. No, Jesus was uncomfortable. We love his stories but do we let them change us? Whenever I walk past a beggar in a London Tube station I know I am not like the Good Samaritan. Whenever I read the story of the Prodigal Son I know I cannot forgive as that father forgave.
So what was Jesus like? We don’t know? He is lots of things in the Gospel and he is other things too. We can’t pin him down with one or even two images. That would be idolatry. We who live the monastic life have come into this life to find Jesus, to meet with him, to learn from him and to become like him, but we struggle to find him. We can’t settle down with a nice picture of Jesus. He comes to us in different dress: sometimes with white skin, sometimes with black, sometimes a poor woman, sometimes a rich man, sometimes a refugee. In monastic life, particularly, we have to be constantly watching, expecting him in the unexpected. “Keep watch,” says Jesus. “You do not know when the master will come.” And you don’t know what he will look like; well, not exactly, but if we have read the Gospels well and tried to listen to him we will recognise him when he comes. We must try to understand his message; try to understand the Kingdom of God, but there is a lot we won’t understand and that doesn’t matter.
We are like the disciples. In all four gospels they are pretty clueless. They are with Jesus all the time for three years. We are told he was teaching them, but they kept getting it wrong. They didn’t understand about the death and Resurrection. They were scandalised by some of his teaching – that they would eat his body and drink his blood. In Luke’s gospel even at the Last Supper, they are still arguing about who was the greatest. They got so much wrong, but they got one thing right. They stayed with him. When Jesus said to them “Will you also leave me?” Peter said, “Lord where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So they stayed even when it got dangerous. The knew there were plots to arrest him. They knew they could also get killed. Dear doubting Thomas said “Let us go with him, so that we may die with him.” So they went to Jerusalem, and they protected him in the temple while he was teaching. They heard what he said about pouring out his blood at the Last Supper, but they still went with him to Gethsemane. They were there when the soldiers came. Mark says they forsook him and fled. Luke doesn’t. He implies the Lord let them go. He didn’t want them killed. This part of the journey was for him alone. So the disciples followed at a distance. They stood at a distance with the women and watched him die. Even then they didn’t leave Jerusalem. They stayed in hiding until the news came that Jesus had risen. Even then they didn’t believe it until finally Jesus came to this frightened group of loving, faithful men and women and showed it was really him. And most extraordinarily it was this group of frightened, sometimes clueless men whom he chose as the foundation stones of his Church; because they stayed.
Monastic life isn’t easy. We all know that. It’s a lot of fun. It is often fascinating. We meet wonderful people and have amazing experiences. But there are sorrows and mistakes and disappointments. There are regrets, and times when we feel that we got everything wrong. But there is one thing we can get right; we can stay, and we have stayed out of love, and loyalty and faith, sometimes out of sheer bloody mindedness. IN that we have come to know Christ so that when Christ comes for us, or we go to him, we will know him for who he is. And of one thing I am certain, when he takes to himself, it will be tremendous fun! TS Eliot describes it well:
Wait Without Hope
By: T.S. Eliot
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
Fr Nicolas CR