Better to Sleep

February 23, 2010

Better to Sleep

There was a child who was deeply pious and devout. One day he kept vigil through the night with his father, the sacred scriptures nestled on his lap. Many gathered in their home that evening. However, as the night drew on everyone else in the room grew tired. Soon, all had fallen asleep except for the child and his father.

The child turned to his father and said, “These people sleep instead of pray, it is as if they were dead.”

But his father simply replied, “Beloved son, I would prefer that you slept like them rather than slandering them.”

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This parable and the last are connected similarly to the first two, although the connection is more subtle. On the surface of it, this is a warning against extreme piety. When Jesus made this point he compared the Pharisees to clay pots that had been cleaned on the outside but not on the inside. These pious people’s obsession with keeping even the most obscure commandments meant they looked shiny and clean on the outside, but that piety allowed them to ignore the dirt on the inside. They (we) let their pride convince them that what really counted was appearances and strict devotion, but the end result was a profound lack of empathy for the world around them.

This lack of empathy cuts you off from the rest of the world.

That’s what this boy, and all of us who can see ourselves in him, are suffering from. We’re disconnected, cut off by a mechanism of our own making. Our rush to saint ourselves, to prove our devotion, makes us blind and deaf to the needs of people around us. The people in this story aren’t even “sinners.” They’re devout believers themselves who happen to feel the human need to shut their eyes at night, no matter how devoted they may be. Let’s take that shutting the eyes off metaphor a little further, shall we?

Going to school at Northwestern meant I was around a lot of very pious people. That wasn’t a huge deal most of the time, but every once in a while the folks I was around couldn’t shut off the Jesus talk for even five minutes and actually deal with a human problem staring them in the face. I cannot even count the number of times that I asked people for advice or counsel on matters and got the response, “Well, have you brought your concerns to God?” I know these people meant well, but their advice could not have been worse in that situation. Along with not helping at all, it served to make me– and others like me– feel spiritually inferior. Instead of having the apparent broadband connection to Jesus that my classmates had I felt like I was stuck using dial-up, and it would have been really helpful to have support staff there willing to walk me through things. Instead I got the Christian equivalent of, “Is the power on?”

If I’m honest I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, my example is used as a convenient illustration. It is much harder to give a person a few minutes of time and engage with them honestly. The temptation is always to reply with a prepackaged answer. Sometimes the solution is not more of heaven; instead you need to come down out of the clouds and get dirty dealing with human problems. It is messier and more difficult, but ultimately much healthier.

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