Saturday, 13 March 2010

Martin Scorcese, Job, and the Lilies of the Field

By now, my regulars are accustomed to my 'strange bedfellows' tendency, and would express no shock at the peculiar association in the title. I'm smiling, as usual - one may study the scriptures in depth but, unless one is utterly devoid of imagination and sensitivity (of which I fear I've all too much), one cannot help but identify with particular passages - and in a negative fashion at times. I'd be the first to say that no scripture passage should be considered without careful exegesis, and that no one chapter or section should be seen 'unto itself.' The most cursory glance at, for example, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary would make it plain that, when Jesus spoke of considering the lilies of the field, he happened to be addressing an audience which was prosperous and inclined to making an idol of things material. Surely there are enough indicators elsewhere that Jesus not only had no place to lay his head but that he was all too aware of the plight of the destitute and outcast - and the 'lilies of the field' passage, had it been addressed to those begging in the street, would have been incredibly bad form.

Yet I suppose (though neither of my parents would have been inclined to scripture study) that I have a genetic pre-disposition to challenging passages. The single parable my dad remembered was that of the labourers in the vineyard - 'that is such a stupid thing!' (It hit rather too close to home, of course.) My mother, a neat freak and hypochondriac, had no tolerance for the dogs licking Lazarus' sores (that was the only line of the parable she remembered.) She also found cheeky adolescent Jesus, showing off in front of the doctors in the temple whilst ignoring his parents' woe, to be exasperating. I tend to forget Jesus' audience when he spoke of the lilies - and it doesn't matter that I am perfectly capable of exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount and what precedes and follows, and that I could prepare a thesis about elements of wisdom traditions and eschatology in that context. :) A part of me wants to reproach Incarnate Wisdom with, "From what planet do you come?"

Some years back, there was huge controversy (unfortunately, largely on the part of those who looked like utter fools because they were criticising a film they had not seen) over The Last Temptation of Christ. Admittedly, I didn't like it at all. It wasn't the temptation sequence which troubled me - heaven knows that, considering to what Jesus' ministry had led, and that, sinless though He was, he took on our humanity fully and surely had many temptations, confusion over the path he'd taken and whether he'd have done better to make other choices is the least of what He'd have had on his mind. (Though that invariable dilemma strikes all of us, it usually is a little later than age 33... but I dare-say would be more than intense when one happens to be hanging on the cross at the time...) What grated on me is that, through most of the action in this odd film, Jesus seemed to be a paranoid schizophrenic.

Too many years have passed for me to be able to quote the source or remember the author, but, when The Last Temptation was produced, I recall reading an interview with Martin Scorcese. The interviewer was a film expert and also a Jesuit priest, who was puzzled that Scorcese spoke of Jesus as focussed entirely on survival - hardly any stance that has basis in the scriptures or traditions. Yet I understood, all too well. Though, by then, Martin Scorcese was very far from destitution, he'd come from a background (as I had) where just about everything is based on just surviving. It boils down to many years taking any work one can find - hating it intensely in many cases - but having to endure anything (including contempt and abuse at times) from those in authority, just hoping to keep a roof over one's head. Both Martin and I have 'roots' in a culture where we indeed would have appreciated the aesthetic - and would have admired the lilies indeed - but we would hardly have been thrilled to beg for the privilege of fertilising the garden (meanwhile hoping that no one would come along who would do it for even less.)

Switching gears - recently, I attended an adult education discussion, where the speaker asked the group what follows the words "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Every one of us knew the answer (and looked a bit puzzled in adding) - "Blessed be the Name of the Lord." The book of Job terrified me in youth (fear not, I'm not going to explain Job in depth here.) It wasn't until I heard a rabbi explain Job, when I was a young woman, that I could see its wisdom. I very much liked an insight I read in Jon Levenson last month - that Job's error was in seeing hellish suffering as God's last word. Job's plight (or Israel's) is not hopeless - divine providence can replace despair with hope, and gloom with light.

For my cheeky inclination to add here "yes, but Job made out pretty well in the end...," a display of cynicism nearly on a par with how I think that "the Prodigal Son may have been welcomed warmly and had a cool party, but he was still broke and probably ended up having to tend the pigs anyway," I ask some leeway. I'm irritable since my back hurts worst in cold weather... and, if you'd had to bow and scrape to as many authority figures as I did just to survive, your back would ache as well..

Materialism indeed can lead to idolatry. It can blind one to justice (in daily life - most of us are not politicians), often leading to scoffing at others, bitterness, seeing everyone as opponents - denying their dignity, as created in the divine image and deified in the Incarnation. We poor kids aren't exempt, even if it works in the opposite direction. We well may be puzzled at what the wealthier sorts consider to be necessities (or that they'd neglect important areas of life just to acquire more), but our view can be a different side of the same coin - and we must take care not to be smug in envy and covetousness.

I did consult several commentaries about the 'lilies of the field' passage, but I've rambled at too great length to get off on that tack here. I'll merely mention being 'anxious.' In this context, "anxious" means pre-occupied. R. T. France, in the Tyndale commentary, mentions that: "The objects of our anxiety are... less important than the life and body (emphasis in original) they supply - since God provides the latter, he can be trusted for the former." France amplifies about how the mental attitude to which Jesus refers is one where a conflict with faith arises." The passage demands a commitment to ally oneself with divine purpose - an undistracted pursuit of our true calling (as sons and daughters of God), to which lesser concerns, however legitimate, must give way.

I'll save treatment of eschatology for later, but I noticed that Jesus' comments about anxiety are wise indeed. :) I cannot be alone in that my personal 'pagan temple' is where I tend to worship at the altar of the wicked goddess Fear. I'd mentioned how the Jerome commentary spoke of the passage as reflecting wisdom traditions. That commentary further explained (though not in that section) that the style of wisdom literature (which, in its present form, post-dates the exile, when Israel had seen everything the 'old gods' were supposed to provide as not on Yahweh's agenda - see my comments on Isaiah below) recognises uncertainty, and offsets any simplistic view. The sages were certainly aware of ambiguity and paradox.

"The goal of wisdom is the good life, here and now... A necessary ingredient is a proper relationship to God; indeed fear (awe) of the Lord leads to wisdom." "Experiential wisdom is a human response to the environment, and attempt to understand and cope... Compared to the commandments of the Torah, the teaching (of the sages) deals with the grey area of life which has to do with a formation of character." The created world is the source of wisdom's insights. "Human experience, how humans interact, becomes the basis for the sages' comments... (It) cannot be left unbridled. One must learn from it how to live, and thus ensure development of character."

Which of us hasn't seen how anxiety (though many fears are all too legitimate) can lead to sins of all kinds, and at best lead to an inability to develop such virtues as justice and compassion? It was essentially fear on the part of others that sent a 'threatening' Jesus to the cross. And, though I cannot claim to understand divine providence, I can testify (as could we all) that each day has enough trouble of its own.

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