A Reflection on the readings for Lent 3B: Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and John 2:13-22 By Janine Goodwin
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
In the great interweaving of relationships that is the communion of saints, I’ve always felt a particular closeness to St. Paul. Even when I needed to argue with him, with the help of many wise women scholars, over his first-century blind spots about the role of women, it’s been a family fight. We are both deeply verbal and fond of long, rolling sentences with many clauses that build slowly to a thundering point (one of my hopes for heaven is that I will be able to listen in on a conversation between him and Henry James, another master of the dependent clause, then hear Jane Austen cut through it all with an aphorism). For awhile in my youth, I shared with him a confidence approaching arrogance in the sheer power of using words well. I’ve projected on him my own assurance that saying things convincingly meant I was right, and have only lately begun to notice the deep humility that runs beneath his confidence.
This passage, for me, is Paul at his most authentic, humble, lovable, and prophetic. It reminds me of the passage in Philippians in which he lists his reasons to boast, his credentials, and then says they are nothing in comparison to knowing Christ Jesus. In this passage, I see a man who is powerful both in his world and in his soul, a man who turns from his position of privilege to empower others. He tells those who have not had his advantages that God chooses them and calls them to offer God’s good news to those in power. This is a passage that I find easy to reconcile with feminism, which has been brilliantly described by Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler as “the radical notion that women are people.” Paul is proclaiming truths that must have been profoundly difficult for him to learn and understand; he is deliberately setting aside his own claims to power and prestige and placing himself in the company of those who are called foolish, weak, low, and despised. This is someone giving up power-over and seeking power-with. This is what it looks like for someone to put aside privilege. It’s not something we see often. It is a beautiful and frightening thing to witness: beautiful because it is what God called him to do and gave him the strength to do, and frightening because even those of us who have seen ourselves been foolish, weak, low, and despised probably have someone else we’ve seen as foolish, weak, low, and despised and need to recognize as our equals.
Being a first-world Christian feminist is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, I know what I have suffered from sexism, as well as from class prejudice and ableism; on the other, I know that racism, classism, and many other injustices have injured others while privileging me. Even in an economic downturn that leaves me wondering how my spouse and I will keep and maintain our house, we are more physically comfortable, better fed, and better housed than most people in the world will ever be.
I feel a conflict within me as I read Paul’s words: I can’t help noticing that he is speaking to those who do not have his reasons to boast, but he is speaking from his experience of privilege. He says “not many of you,” not, “not many of us.” Recognizing that, I can see myself both as one with those to whom he gives those rather unflattering labels, and as one who needs to show more respect to those whom my society gives those labels. I have to grow into my stature as a child of God, and I have to admit I have claimed superiority over my sisters and brothers in an unjust way. The first task is sometimes difficult to imagine, but far easier to embrace: I look at the second and mutter to myself, “Yep, it’s Lent, all right.” The roots of the word “Lent” are in spring and growth, and growth is not an easy thing. I need to sit with Paul and hear him accept me as an equal in the work of spreading the gospel not because of my degree in theology or even my experience as a woman in a sexist world, but because I am his sister and we are all called. I need to value my experience and my education, but never to use them as a reason to put myself in a superior position to another person who is also called to be a co-creator with God. I need to admit that the latter task will involve painful discoveries and confessions I don’t want to make.Here I find that this passage resonates with my Lenten discipline, which came to me a little after the beginning of the season. I’d been noticing over the past few years that my Lenten discipline had been undergoing a mid-course correction: I’d think it was going to be one thing and the thing I chose would quietly and steadily lead somewhere else. This time, I decided to just wait for it to show itself, though I did so somewhat nervously and with the fear of laziness nagging in the upper left-hand corner of my mind. The pattern appeared almost immediately, though I did not recognize it until late last week. Like other disciplines that came clearly from within, it will be with me when this Lent and many more have gone by. It is the daily practice of a saying beloved of recovery groups: “If you spot it, you got it.” (I present it in the ungrammatical form in which I learned it, though it pains my editor’s soul to do so.) When I see a fault in someone else, I need to realize that I share that fault.
I hear the echo of “if you spot it, you got it” in Paul’s implicit recognition of the way his own experience has been transmuted by the gospel. He was a seeker after signs and a defender of worldly wisdom, too. In my own life, I am beginning to see how God uses that simple recovery sentence to set aside the ways I’ve defended myself against the knowledge of my own humanity by setting up false oppositions between my own actions and those of others. God has chosen my real, human weakness, of which I have no reason to be ashamed, to challenge my perception of strength as a false sense of superiority and to lead me into the real strength of love, faith, compassion, and acceptance. God is pointing out to me exactly how judgmental I am, and how ridiculous that judgment is. Whenever I feel the quick flame of open anger or the flash and fading of an ember of resentment against another, I see the quality or the behavior that angers me in my own soul, with an example ready to hand. This does not negate the perception that others have acted badly, or that I have been hurt, but I can no longer claim to be a spotless victim or a superior being. If I spot it, I got it. When I see Paul’s arrogance, I see its reflection in my assumption that I’m better than he is because I’m a twenty-first-century feminist who understands things he didn’t. Yes, I have insights that he didn’t, as he has things to say that I have not yet learned: no, that doesn’t mean I have therefore won some kind of point in some obscure competition. As the sons of Zebedee once learned, there is no way to one-up each other in the kingdom of God. I’m in the middle of a difficult life, muddling along with everyone else. I am, simultaneously, a radiantly gifted being with great potential, a miserable yet forgivable sinner, and a frequently embarrassed learner. A customer at the store where I work preached the gospel to me recently in the words, “It’s a good thing crow tastes just like chicken.” The laughter of recognition overtook me at that moment.
I need to say here that I do not believe in forgiveness as some kind of universal solvent that makes the consequences of our sins disappear. Forgiveness is the work of healing, not of excusing or of glossing over. Healing is slow and may remain incomplete in this life. We are all responsible for all our actions: that is the dignity of free will. Part of the pain of “you spot it, you got it” is realizing that I have inflicted many of the very hurts that have hampered me, and that I have confessions and amends to make, as others have made (or not made) them to me.
I’ve begun to see that what I called wisdom was frequently my own defense against the call to know that weakness, an attempt to use knowledge and talent for status rather than for service. Real wisdom seems to be a humility that is not self-abasement, but the quiet assessment of my own real gifts and the beginning of the hope that I can use them authentically and wisely in the service of God and others while living a healthy life, rather than presenting them as reasons to think myself special in order to cover my deep griefs and insecurities or offering them indiscriminately to my own hurt and neglect. The call of God turns out to be a call out of codependence and into an entirely different way of understanding relationship, and I find myself a beginner as I approach my fiftieth year.
That good news is not always a warm and fuzzy thing; today’s gospel reminds us both that Jesus is not always kind and patient, and that the gospels of the coming weeks will show us the downward spiral of fear, envy, hostility, and insecurity in response to the Jesus that will lead to his death. The good news is the gospel of life, a life that comes back in a new and glorious way even after three days in the tomb. It is that good and difficult news that Paul proclaims as he finds God calling him out of familiarity and putting him in fellowship with the foolish, weak, low, and despised. Thanks be to God.