Yesterday I talked about how Jesus’ teachings provided an alternative to the other types of Judaism being practiced at his time. In an anxious world that was predicting its own destruction, Pharisees worked at mutating their religion so that it could survive, Sadducees doubled-down on the old ways and traditions, Zealots sharpened their weapons and prepared for revolution, and Jesus looked and saw all of these choices and realized that they were united by one thing. Each was an attempt to avoid the coming destruction, to somehow deflect the coming suffering. If only we follow the rules closely enough, the Pharisees said, we will not suffer. If only we maintain our power and privileges, the Sadducees said, we will not suffer. If we are successful in tearing down a corrupt and evil system, the Zealots said, we will not suffer. Jesus saw these beliefs as illusory. Suffering cannot be avoided, he said. The question is not whether we can escape suffering. The question is whether we can suffer and still love.
The disciples assume that they’ll be saved from suffering. After all, they belong to Jesus’ in-group. And, since the Kingdom of God is a vision of the world where there’s no suffering at all, it’s easy for them to assume that they can follow Jesus around the suffering. That the Kingdom of God is, for them, a kind of escape hatch. Yet when someone asks him if only a few will be saved, he tells them that there are no guarantees. “Try to enter by the narrow door,” he says, and then he goes on to talk about his own coming suffering in Jerusalem. The narrow door is cross-shaped. It is not an escape from, but a journey through, suffering, and not everyone is very good at accepting and living through suffering. Many will try to escape it, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots do.
I am one of those who is not very good at accepting suffering. Suffering always feels like an insult to my capacity for control. When I suffer, my prayer practices tend to fall away. I grow sad and angry. I eat too much. I know this about myself, yet it always takes me by surprise. I pray through the good times, dedicated to my devotions, and I expect them to support me in the bad times. They don’t. This is mostly because they are mine, an effort of my own will. My ego is involved in them, and suffering strips the ego away. I strive to enter through the narrow door, but in the end, it is only grace that brings me through. Far from being the first, I am invariably the last to come to terms with suffering and let it shrive me.
Our world right now abounds with Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. They’re entwined in our political and religious lives. I am often one of them, or at least I let my mind travel down hallways of expected self-perfection, authority, and dominance. Yet these are the very things that have to be stripped away if we are to enter through the narrow door. We all journey to Jerusalems of our own making, and our crosses will find us eventually. There is no just and loving way around suffering. There is the only the passage through it.