Reconciliation: The More Excellent Way
By Charles Rush
March 16, 2008
Matthew 21: 1-11
(mp3, 6.2Mb) ]
e first twenty chapters of Matthew follow Jesus from the point of view of the people that encountered him, the crowds, his disciples. The last 7 chapters that record his turn towards Jerusalem and his eventual death, are told in such a way that we are imaginatively invited to view his betrayal, his trial, and death, from God’s point of view.
We mortals had
wanted a Messiah that would vindicate our cause. God wants us to be reconciled.
We would be disciples forcing Jesus hand, trying to provoke him into becoming a
mere political Messiah and we unwittingly betray him. Through this unjust trial
and his suffering unto death, we are given this contrast between God’s
steadfast patience for reconciliation, which is willing to absorb violence
rather than overpower it, and the fickle whim of the crowd, who lauds Jesus as
a savior and then turns against him. And there is the familiar expediency of
power, represented in Pilate, the religious leaders and the disciples-
compromise, violence, tragedy, dispatch, and shame. There is a brokenness in
the heart of God. Reconciliation, so healing, so needed, and so elusive in our
Last week I was
in a seminar in Jerusalem that was being led by a professor at the University
of Tel Aviv. He happened to mention the Institute of Advanced Study in
Princeton, so after the lecture I told him that image brought back fond
memories of Princeton and that my wife actually taught nursery school at the
Institute. He looked at me and said, “Kate Rush?” I said, “Yes”. And then we remembered each other, standing
around at back to school night, drinking cheap wine out of paper cups, talking
international politics. He was a professor and I was a graduate student, both
studying religion and power politics.
We caught up on
our wives, our lives, our work, our kids. Towards the end, he asked me about my
younger son, the one that was always playing Army in nursery school. ‘Whatever
happened to him?’ I said, ‘Yes, he did become a soldier and served in
Afghanistan and he just got out of the army.’
He nodded and I said, ‘your youngest
son, he must be getting ready for college. What is he doing right now?’ He
said, ‘he is in a tank, headed for Gaza’.
We stood there
looking at each other but neither of us could speak. We were sharing that
anxiety and worry that parents of soldiers feel but it was more than that. We felt guilt that we had failed as fathers.
Our generation, so optimistic in the 60’s that we would be different… But the
truth is, we have failed to do the things that made for peace and our own sons are paying
the price. There is a line in the Torah that says, ‘the sins of the
fathers are visited upon the children, even unto the third and fourth
generation’. It is not a statement of the way things ought to be, but it is an
observation of moral fact.
For me the most
moving part of going to the Holy Land this time around was not standing at the
Wall and praying, although I am grateful for that. It was not walking down the
paths that Jesus walked, although that is important also. It was something very
simple and short. A grandfather was walking by a series of photos of his
family, explaining them to me, and when he went by a picture of his grandson. The
boy was in his early 20’s so handsome, so strong. I asked about the picture. He
explained that it was taken two days before he was killed in the Second
Intifada. He walked over to the picture, pressed his fingers to his lips and
kissed the photo. So much pain, so much sadness… What are we doing?
is a striking young woman, her brunette hair tucked under a head scarf, her
polite graceful demeanor as she is introduced, she is someone you would gladly
hire right out of college to represent your firm as she is both courteous and
She grew up in a
small town on the West Bank in a largely segregated world. Most of her
childhood memories of Israeli’s were of soldiers that would come in the middle
of the night and roust everyone on her block from their beds, forcing them to
stand in the street in just their nightgowns and robes, sometimes for hours
without water or food, sometimes very cold, always very uncomfortable. The
soldiers would ransack the house looking for insurgents and information. She
hated this routine but this was just the life of her people. As we would say,
‘it is what it is’.
Her family was
committed to education and even the girls in her home were expected to attend
college as far as her parents were concerned. All five of the children were
quite close but her older brother, the second son, was her favorite. When they
were kids, he sometimes disguised his sister as a boy so he could take her to
see some things that she wasn’t supposed to see. He walked her to school and
protected her. He was quite bright and was accepted into college where he
graduated with honors and was planning to attend law school.
A couple of
years ago, he was out with his friends at night, when they were caught in a
military operation in the street. It all happened so fast, he was shot and killed
before anyone could figure out that it was a case of mistaken identity.
Her favorite brother, the smart one, the handsome
one, killed by accident. She was just devastated. What happened in those next
few months was so personal and painful that she could not give it words.
She started to describe it but then she
would just look down and shake her head. After a long silence, she could only say, ‘We
could not see any reason for living. We
just wanted to die’. There is simply no joy in living any more. This went
on for many months.
One day, the
strangest thing happened to her. The doorbell rang, she looked through the
glass and saw an Orthodox Jewish man standing at their door. This had never
happened before. And she had no idea what to make of it. She opened the door
just a crack.
explained that he only came to talk, that if they would not receive him, he
would completely understand. He had read about what happened to her family. He
too had lost a son. Could he come in? Her mother called her father home, they
let him in the house.
The man asked some questions about
her brother and asked the family if they would tell him how the boy died. Her
parents talked for quite a long time while Shireen translated for them when she
had to. They shared honestly and bluntly the bitterness that they carried
towards the Army and towards Israeli’s. The man simply received what they told
explained that he was part of a group called the Parent’s Circle that
brought together families that have lost
children because of the Arab/Israeli conflict to meet with one another and to
share with one another because the suffering that they have both borne binds
them together. And the hope of this group is that out of this shared loss might
come some shared compassion, some shared humanity, and some shared resolve to
keep this pain from becoming corrosive for another generation of retribution
next to Shireen as she relayed this story was Aharon Barnea. His arms crossed,
his chin supported by his hand, he does not move. In his late 60’s, he could be
mistaken for one of Norman Mailer’s cousins. Like Mailer, he has that bearing
that suggests he was probably a fighter as a young man. Indeed, he is a classic
Israeli Sabra -- tough on the outside like a cactus and soft on the inside.
But when he sits
next to Shireen he assumes a posture that he only learned later in life. He
comes obviously bearing a heavy load that reminds you of the lines in Isaiah 53
that are often read this time of year with reference to Jesus, “a man of
suffering and acquainted with sorrow… Surely he has borne our infirmities and
has carried our diseases.” The lines are long in his face. When Shireen talks,
his stolid downward gaze, almost motionless, exudes an intensity of a man
really listening, a man who needs to hear…
He is secular, a
socialist, an incisive mind that is broadly educated. He has little patience
for the likes of President Bush or Ariel Sharon and the Likud party. He is
capable of a detailed, passionate critique of our present political situation
but that is not what he has come to talk about.
describes a day last year in his apartment. His wife was looking out her front
door and saw three representatives from the Israeli army get out of their
vehicle in formal attire. She let out a gasp that he heard from the kitchen
table where he was working. He got to the foyer just in time to catch her as
she fell to the ground faint.
Aharon and his
wife had three sons, two of them grown and married. The baby was still in the
Army when they invaded Lebanon. He had only three days left in the army. His
mother wrote him every day to stay out of harms way. She was passionately
opposed to the invasion of Lebanon and was part of an organization of Mother’s
that protested against it. Indeed, in one of her last letters to her son, she
had sent him a button from her group that said something like, “Out of Lebanon
When Aharon and
his wife went to identify their sons body and collect his clothes, they found
that the pin his mother sent him, he had worn on his uniform the day that he
died. There as here, you can’t wear political pins on your uniform or anything
else for that matter. Only his CO made an exception this one time because the
kid was getting out in a couple days, they were in the middle of nowhere, and the
kid clearly loved his Mom. A random rocket just happened to hit him on patrols.
said it, probably because it would just be too much, but he was worried that
his son had died for nothing- nothing, at any rate, that he could believe in,
nothing that would console his wife or his sons. This is the kind of thing that
can literally plunge you into a cynicism from which you cannot escape. And you
can see that this is the path that he should have taken but he didn’t.
listening to Shireen, he would occasionally shift his gaze from the floor to
study her expression. Listening to her was clearly healing for him. Opening his
heart in compassion was drinking in the fresh air of life itself after months
of the fetid odor of deadening grief. I cannot begin to contemplate the myriad
of emotions going on in his soul, but from a distance his eyes appear soft
towards her almost as if she is the daughter that he never had.
Whatever else he
may have been thinking and however complex and contradictory it really is, the
fault lines of religion, culture, gender and war that separate these two people
were momentarily bridged as they share their suffering compassionately. They are meeting in that miraculous oasis
of shared vulnerability. Even if
you know that it can only stay briefly, like a mirage in the desert, what a
moving moment it really is.
My friend, Rabbi
Gershon, says that our world is defined by people carrying around unresolved grief.
It comes out in all sorts of destructive ways -- revenge, displaced anger, the interjected
anger of drug abuse, extremist political movements.
And all of these
just channel this unresolved grief, they do not deal with it. The only way to
actually resolve it is the more excellent way of reconciliation. This is what
God wants for us.
Reconciliation is not easy and it is
not quick. In truth, it is the most profound dimension of our spiritual life. But
it is possible. It is the road only rarely taken. But, ultimately, it is the
truly profound way we can become healed and we can heal others. And there is no
short-cut way to do it. We will need to do it one by one by one by one.
But what a
beautiful thing to watch. It drives out cynicism, darkness, death, aggression.
And it opens a door to a new humanity, a warmth, understanding, meaning… And
finally, creativity… We have to break the cycle. We know where this cycle
leads. Our problem is not a lack of knowledge. We can stop doing what we are
doing. We can’t stop ourselves.
My brother and
sisters, God wants you to come home. God wants you to be healed. God wants you
to choose the profounder way of reconciliation- for your peace and the healing
integrity and peace of those around you. I hope you can stumble on the oasis of
shared vulnerability, if only for a while. I hope you can start becoming whole.
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