Six weeks in the desert
Tony Lawless 28.02.2021
It seems to me that the Spirit leads everyone of us, all the time. If there is a way we can improve on this it is to become over the years more attentive, more responsive - and more courageous.
I like the emphasis on the human in Jeshua. It leads me to daydream my way through the desert experience, avoiding the old-fashioned 'tempted [tested] by the devil', and instead looking at it as typical of the anxious times we all go through in making life's decisions. Some of us may move forward with little trouble; others may work long and hard working through options. I've been thinking of Jeshua doing it his way.
He wasn't in the first groups who hurried down to the river, excited with the prospect of seeing a real prophet in their own day. Mark seems to imply he was not one of the Baptiser's enthralled disciples when he writes: And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came... and was baptised by John. Jeshua, almost reluctant, not seeing the point of all the excitement. And then he got the surprise of his life: He experienced the "anointing of the Spirit" as it's called. A conviction filled his mind and he saw clearly his relationship with the Father. He saw that he was like a loved and treasured child who belongs!
As long as he lived that insight never left him. Day and night he just knew that this God they fear and worship is really their father whose greatest concern is to look after us, each of us. It struck him as incongruous that people didn't always think of God in this way. In fact in their religious culture God was positioned far away, atop a mountain they had to climb though the way was thick with tangles of commandments and laws. Surviving legal regulations had become their major preoccupation. Just getting through with life left in you was an achievement. A common question in the weekly synagogue voiced this concern: Are only a few to be saved?
John's preaching was at home in that mentality, telling people they were damned unless they made themselves more faithful in their practice of the law. Somehow Jeshua had come to know this is the wrong approach. It's time for a 180 degree turn around in our thinking. We should be facing God with a confident smile, hopeful and happy - not like subjects always in debt, cringing in fear, scared to look up.
Every day he found himself worrying more about this, until he came to see he needed time out to work it all through. One day he took leave of mother and family and walked out, making his way into the rough dry desert areas, to be alone to think. Six weeks he stayed there, never too far from a well but keeping out of sight when a camel train came past. Determined not to allow uncertainty turn into anxiety, he stayed with the moment and worked through the issues one by one. What was he meant to do? If change had to come who would bring it about? And how? Maybe he could start something. What would it take? What would it cost him? The family wouldn't be too happy if he stopped working. Could he leave them and go on the road, or go up to Jerusalem to get an education. Was it his job anyway? Perhaps he should just help to find the right person.
Then he went through the different ways to make an impact that might spark some fires of change. You could start with what people want, start organising them to work together to improve their living conditions. Sharing food was a long tradition that could take the edge off need and not have people starving to death. If their lives were more comfortable they'd be more content. There would be less anger, less crime, less suffering all round. That's obviously the greatest need, to lift the poor folk out of misery, to give them some dignity, something to hope for.
You start where people are at. Give them something to hope for and they'll listen to you. Explain your plan and they'll follow when they see the picture of a better future that you draw for them.
And then what? Is that the goal, to lessen the suffering, to eliminate hunger and the disease that is rampant among the poor, and maybe when they've got more time they'll learn to read and widen their view of the world - and then happily relate to God the way children are with father and mother when they know they're loved and cared for?
Hmmm. What's that old saying: “Not on bread alone...”? What does that mean? Food for the body is not enough; there's got to be food for the spirit too. “The Word of life.” “It's the spirit that gives life, not the flesh.” Not the body but the mind, that's where the focus has to be. For all our animal needs, the most painful hunger we experience is for some understanding of how the world works, of what life means and of how we should relate to God. Not many have what it takes for this search; most of us bury our anxiety in the day to day.
A carpenter's dreams
I could be a teacher, he thought. He knew he could teach; in fact everybody knew it. He could explain things. He had discovered that when the men were yarning in the long summer evenings, griping about Roman oppression and Temple taxes and occasionally confused by some new proclamation. If he happened to understand its purpose he would explain it in a few simple words. Sometimes they would ask him to show them how something worked.
The family often ribbed him about that weird episode in Jerusalem when he was just growing out of childhood and flexing his limbs as a precocious young man. Somehow he'd missed the family when they set off on the journey home and for a few days he was on his own, at a loose end in the city. Exploring the temple he wandered into a great room where a group of important looking gentlemen were talking earnestly together. He listened for a while, unnoticed. What he heard brought questions to his mind; he couldn't resist the urge to ask them. As was the style of the day, they in turn put some questions to him and they seemed impressed with his replies. The parents walked in then and spoiled the moment with their fussing, but the feeling of that first encounter with big ideas had never left him. Perhaps he was meant to be a teacher.
Dream on, young carpenter. And dream he did. He dreamed of going to Jerusalem to study, of joining the learned teachers of the law, of being one of those who visited country regions like Galilee. He could teach in a way that would make things different. He dreamed of becoming famous, of having crowds crushing in to hear his lectures and share the excitement of his debating. Dreamed of changing how the Jewish nation saw its relationship with God, for that was surely the problem embedded in the very structure of the institution with its temple-centered worship and crude sacrifices of propitiation to make God not be angry with them any more. He shuddered at the incongruity of it all. God is spirit, he thought, and real worship, true worship would have to be the spiritual worship that is expressed in the truth. We have to become fully human, fully alive to our spiritual reality; then we will be true to ourselves and the Creator will be honoured in us. The dimensions of the transformation needed stirred ambition. He could do it. He saw himself for one mad, proud moment standing on the pinnacle of the temple's fame, teaching the crowds packed in the courts below, men and women, learned and illiterate shoulder to shoulder, pushing forward to hear his teaching and just to see him, the light of God shining in his face.
Wait on a bit. He shook himself out of the dreaming. Apart from all the vanity in that ambition, what if disciples start to follow him? They could set up a foundation; they might make a new Judaism, or a new religion with a grand temple on another holy mount with a leader who might claim authority to interpret God's word with infallible certitude! Or they might build a crystal palace large enough to contain crowds as large as this and more, with choirs and dancers, and a preacher of golden eloquence. What if it came about that Kings, Emperors and Presidents declared in his name their divine right to decide what's right or wrong and demand everyone obey?
Would not this way of fame become a way to make yourself like God, standing where God stands? “Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test.” The ancient word echoes down the ages. Don't try to make yourself too important or so “necessary” you become “too big to fail”. Make sure you're never more than the messenger, avoiding every attempt to lionise you or load you with honours. He must keep that in mind for later if crowds ever did start to follow him; it could happen because people loved to have a hero. The path of glory leads to a dead end at the grave.
How does it work then? he wondered. Helping people to a better standard of living is a good place to start, but then you don't need a special mandate for that. Anyone can do it and everyone should be doing it, but even so it's only a first step. Education is good as the second step, but if experience is any guide it has its limitations and dangerous pitfalls. The one who thinks he knows everything might bring people to listen to him, but will his teaching bring anyone to the essential integrity that is needed. To help and to teach, he can do both of these, but are they enough?
Leverage in the circles of power
Time dragged on out there in the barren hills, exposed to the harsh sun and wind.
Searching for fruit or berries occasionally he saw an animal slinking through the spiky scrub. Or a snake. With the coming of the third Sabbath he recognised the value in marking off the weeks with a holy day. Endless sameness was disorientating. Careful to observe the law, Jeshua put on hold his steady methodical work of analysing what he was to do with his life. Instead the day was spent in stillness. Soaking in awareness of the empty desert land stretched out around him; listening to the hushed whisper of the wind; watching the occasional eagle circle silently in the vast pale blue sky. He had a sense of being within Being. He could feel the divine within, and himself one with all around him, a son embraced in the father's gentle love.
By the fourth week he was determined to reach a solution of some kind so he could come out of this long retreat with a path to follow. The common people and the educated are the lower layers of society. On top of these levels, running it, are the governing elites. They have the power because they control the money. If you would change the world you've got to change their attitudes, for left to themselves they seem unable to resist the opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest.
Poverty in fact is not a natural condition for any human. It results from what some people do to others. To retain a privileged position you keep others down. Imagine a tribe where everyone in need had their needs taken care of. Each one contributes what they can, all differently with their different talents and abilities, but each one respected and looked after with friendship and love. Just to have people stop using others for their own enrichment would be a tremendous improvement. However it will never happen because the governing classes believe it is their rightful place to be on top and their duty to keep others down. How to teach them better ways? Their ears are closed to admonitions.
What if he worked his way into the governing circle and eventually got himself in position to influence policy? He'd be like Joseph in Egypt. He would educate the leaders, change attitudes and ensure policies of fairness, restoring Israel to integrity as prophets demanded. He could have influence across the nations – and he pictured himself living in a grand house high on a mountain. From the front deck you could see all the nations of the world and he would know he had influence in them all. He would bring the world into harmony through his influence, his power and his prestige. If you've got the money people will look up to you, kings and queens will visit you, they will follow your policies, and the richer you grow the more you can do.
That's the way to change the world. Become part of it, but be a good part, be different. I wonder, he thought, if the rich and powerful who control things now would allow him to be different, or would they require him to play their game which was essentially to accumulate wealth by taking from the underclass every penny they could get. You told them the taxes and charges were for the good of the nation, of course, but at every step you take your own large portion as reward for being the leader. That's the very devil of a deal, he thought. You'd replace the God of truth and compassion with the god of money. You'd try to beat the devil at his own game but from the start you'd sell your own integrity for the power money gave. Money is the root of social evil because if you accumulate enough nothing can stop you. No! You can't serve God and money! You'll either love the one and hate the other, or despise the one and worship the other. “Get away, Satan,” he said aloud. “You'll worship God and him alone will you serve.”
By week's end his mood had changed and he spent the fifth week reviewing all his options. You could be a well-loved hero to your own people if you looked after their needs, caring for those who were sick and working on ways to support everyone in poverty. You could have a group of friends working together and they would be a powerful force. What ever else, that's where he should start, but it didn't resolve any of the big issues. People would still be poor because others made them poor. The rich use money not for fair trade but as a tool to secretly steal from each other and from the defenceless working people. People are conditioned to see this as normal but he was sure it's not the way it should be.
Never had he seen so clearly the need for education. People lived in a fog of ignorance, performing rituals of worship because they didn't know any better. They remained enslaved because they did not know how to think thoughts of freedom. He would teach. He knew his own insights were true and he would show people that life was more than being faithful to standards formulated in the law. You had to live by the values. The law itself was only a teacher so he would teach the way to live within the meaning of the law.
The ultimate 'law' was the law of love, to give yourself to others as the Father gave his Self to his children, to all of us. He sent forth his Word and he'd seen it twisted out of shape, tortured and despised, and still he gave and gave. He poured out his Spirit and saw people shut their eyes, close their ears, shut the doors of their hearts to love that would reach outwards, preferring to lock themselves in and put their energy into self, self, self.
But education is only sowing seeds. The masses still need leadership but different to the usual government by the rich and powerful. You can teach the way and it will be grasped by many, each with their own personal understanding of it. The way they respond too will be entirely personal, and there will always be different approaches. A teaching that would require blind adherence to exactly what is taught would be a new form of slavery, a new poverty for people to be liberated from.
Trekking homewards he was weak from starvation and made slow progress. Being that hungry made him aware of the way it was when famine struck. He remembered the prophet's diatribe against the rich and powerful who horded stores of grain to inflate the price and make even more profit, and they let the people starve without a moment of self-doubt and he got very angry. He promised himself to lead a simple life so he would feel at one with every person.
If he got a team together they would all need to understand this, though he couldn't force it on anyone. He could only set an example and hope they would follow close enough to get a feel for it themselves. A simple life meant there were no barriers separating you from anyone else, and of course no fence to hide behind or keep anyone away. You hardly belong to yourself, yet you always do, so you would have to get away by yourself from time to time just to be alone. On the other hand a simple life means you have nothing to lose. You can speak up to power and there's nothing they can threaten you with. They can't exact fines in money or a bigger slice of your harvest; they can't even send you into exile because you don't belong anywhere in particular. Above all you don't belong to them. The only way to shut you up would be to kill you.
So it all had come together, he thought, as he set out on the final day's walking that would bring him to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Attend to the peoples' needs, teach them about basic integrity that excludes all lies and double-dealing, keep well clear of the structures of power, form a small group who would become leaders in a movement to transform the world from the bottom up...
Final piece of the jigsaw
What's missing? he wondered. He was uneasy about something. Had he taken everything into account? It seemed a little too simple. From somewhere deep inside came a humbling question: What is God's role in this? Had he imagined he could achieve change in the world simply with a plan of action? Would that change anything, or would it be a flash in the pan lasting a moment and dying with him? The job has to be seen for what it is: it is ALL God's work! It is the power, the energy of the Spirit who energises all that is. It is pushing humankind through the painful learning phase that would eventually become one total response of love to the Father who gives life itself in love.
He, Jeshua Bar Josef from Nazareth, will take on the role of prophet to announce the next step being taken in the program of divine Love. Powered by that Love the world moves towards its ultimate end, total communion in the Divine. But as a prophet he must make sure he keeps to his task which is to voice a proclamation. Nothing more than that. The proclamation will be an invitation for people to take a new direction. A new start will involve an about-turn in their thinking. Rather than negotiating ways of compromise to get through life they will learn to say YES from the core of their being. Deals, minimalist conformity to the law, casuistry, half-truths and double-speak are all excluded. No more reservations. Like in a marriage: if you vow yourself to belong to the other for life but keep just a little back, not only will it not work but it is in fact a total fraud.
Strange how these deepest ideas became clear only in the final hours of his retreat. He could not turn around and go back into the desert for another week because he was at the end of his strength. The scarce tucker he'd found out there had left him seriously undernourished and he knew he had to make it to a town tonight or he'd collapse and die. Strange, yet perhaps that's the way it works for everyone. We have to put time and effort in doing the spade work, getting to see our own precious ideas for what they are, human strategies that go only so far and have no source of energy in themselves. The Father's plan is to guide the whole world to its final culmination by the power of love energising every living thing.
That night, after some warm soup and a small bread roll, he lay down on soft bedding, dreaming now of the steps ahead. He had an exciting message of hope and joy and he'd allow his excitement come through in his voice. No scary threatening like John had used, but warmth and kindness, and an enthusiasm that would still be matter-of-fact and sober. And he would leave the outcome to the Spirit, for success or failure was not his business to worry about. The Father's plan would go forward in the way the Father willed it, irrespective of our concerns or fears. His confidence restored, Jeshua slept soundly in the Father's arms.