In the movie Patch Adams, the Patch Adams character meets a man in a mental institution who holds up four fingers and asks “How many fingers am I holding up?” Patch replies “Four,” and the man grumps away. Later Patch makes his way to the man’s room to find some kind of understanding, to see what he was missing beyond the obvious. The man point’s out to Patch that the problem most people have is the fact that they focus on the problem and do not look beyond. In the case of this problem of the fingers and many problems, that means that you cannot see past yourself, but when you look beyond yourself you open your heart and mind to a new reality. (here is a link to the second part of the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKLQBuSPVwQ.)
In the passage we have this week, Jesus is asking those who are listening to this speech to come to a couple very real and central understandings. First he wants us to understand that our place is that of a student learning from the master. Second that our master is the only one to fear, and finally our ability to see the master is completely dependent on our ability to see past ourselves.
This is key and one of those central Christian dilemmas we face. This is also one of my great frustrations with the pop-theology teachings. First we see how some traditions, in order to lure people in, offer the promise of elevating them to another place. We know of traditions like Mormonism that gives a vague promise of being a ‘God of your own planet’ in the afterlife, but even on a more simplistic level there are thousands, if not millions of traditions that offer a greater role based on perceived spiritual connection. In fact, this is one of the great reformed critiques of the Catholic Church and why the Pope was seen to be more evil then good. This is because we understand that no person could take the place or even speak for God except for God.
This leads to the second part which asks the question “Who do I fear?” The fact here is that when it comes to fear, the only real fear that we should ever have is the Fear of God. Because, as Christ points out God is in control of the soul, and whatever might happen to the body in comfort or strain in this world is temporary, but and life in God is permanent.
The problem of all of this is that it hinges on faith. Again, this is very difficult for many believers, since faith is often described as a personal experience. Interestingly, like the pop-theology, which creates an elevated status, the pop-theology often takes one’s spiritual life to focus inwardly: how do you feel, what do you know, see, etc. The problem is that what we see is never the solution; rather, it is often the most apparent problem. Most importantly, this state by its very nature keeps us from fully seeing the glory and promise of God.
Altogether, what this passage gives us is a way for us to find comfort in the reality that we will never be God and should live life always as a learner and servant. Secondly, to live life, and we must not fear life because this life is temporary and out life with God is forever. This means that more than anything else we are called to live beyond ourselves, seeking not what we can see in front of our face, but rather what we see when we look beyond.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen