Friday, September 14, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 10, “What Was Lost”

Dear friend,*

In this chapter, Guardini recounts four incidents in which Jesus associates with sinners and publicans. In Matthew there is the case of the Gospel-writer himself, whom Jesus called away from his position as a tax-collector for Rome. In Luke, Jesus asks to dine at the home of Zaccheus, after the chief tax collector climbs a sycamore tree just to get a look at the Lord. (I love the story of “this little man strangely caught up in the excitement that ripples through the city,” as Guardini describes him.)

Then there are the fallen women: the adulteress of John 8 and the harlot of Luke 7 in a “divinely beautiful account”: She washes Jesus’s feet with her tears, then “wastes” an entire jar of precious ointment on them. As in the other three cases, Pharisees, watching this, are scandalized.

What’s going on here? Guardini notes a common modern interpretation, that Jesus was siding with the poor against the rich, a sort of Nazarean Robin Hood. Was the Lord demonstrating a “certain romantic ‘anti-bourgeois’ tendency”? Guardini warns the reader that “any such conception is entirely modern and was undreamed of in Jesus’s day.”

Let’s go to the text and Guardini’s conclusion:

“Here is no romanticizing of sin, no siding with passion against law and order. The Savior demonstrates sharply that for him one thing only is important: the human being, whether its name is Mary Magdalen or Simon the Pharisee. Both are addressed here, not as they measure up to worldly standards, but as they measure before God. . . .

“He possesses the godly power that springs from divine freedom, power to see all manner of men: the poor and lost simply by accepting them as human beings and bringing them the tidings of God’s mercy; the great and admired by making them realize that they dangerously overrate themselves and risk losing their salvation.”

My friend, I can relate. At boarding school and college, where we were dorm mates, I remember vividly some conversations I had with “publicans and sinners,” though terms used by Guardini are more to the point: “outcasts” and “untouchables.” I’m sure you can recall one or two guys at Exeter, for example, who were so far from cool they were cold. None of us “in the know” hung out with them; they were obvious losers.

And yet. I experienced a quiet inner freedom when I sat down in the dining hall with one of these fellow students and gave him my attention. In fact, I was emotionally more comfortable talking with an outcast than I was with the class president or editor of the school newspaper. With the hot shits, as we class leaders considered each other and especially our own selves, I always felt fear, social worry, potential threats to pride and vanity. With the losers I was free of these feelings.

Granted, my freedom here was something less than “divine.” Jesus was able to meet with the mighty and the lowly with the same degree of freedom. Making him Jesus, and not me.

Best wishes,

This series of letters continues here with chapter 11.

* This letter is one in a series to a former and very real schoolmate of mine. Each letter discusses a chapter in Romano Guardini’s book about Jesus, The Lord. 

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