Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. - Matthew 23:1-12
When I hear the text about those "who humble themselves" I think of the iconic moment of Saint Francis disrobing in the town square, publicly disengaging himself from his family, his culture's values, his associations and friends. And who is a more exalted saint than Saint Francis? Francis had a gift for archetypal actions: kissing the leper and "marrying" Christ's Widow, Lady Poverty, are only two examples.
My mind then widens to think of other holy fools, showing up, in one way or another, the status quo of corruption, greed, hypocrisy, like Jesus characterizing the Pharisees of his day. Every culture has holy fools: men and women who dress the part, who invite derision but shock us into our senses.
Today's prompts draw you to consider reversals expressed in the "way" (Tao) (Meditation One). Two stories poke at Zen and Sufi equivalents of religious elites Jesus satirized (Meditation Two). And a holy fool invites you to give alms to beggers and monks (Meditation Three).
Foolishly yours, Suzanne
Meditation One (Introit) Reversals
To yield is to to be preserved whole. To be bent is to become straight To be empty is to be full. To be worn out is to be renewed. To have little is to possess. To have plenty is to be perplexed. Therefore the sage embraces the One And becomes the model of the world. He does not show himself; therefore he is luminous. He does not justify himself; therefore he becomes prominent. He does not boast of himself; therefore he is given credit. He does not brag; therefore he can endure for long. It is precisely because he does not compete that the world cannot compete withhim. Is the ancient saying, "To yield is to be preserved whole" empty words? Truly he will be preserved, and all will come to him.
-Tao Te Ching 22
The Renunciation of Worldly Goods by Francis, Giotto, 1297
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. -John 13:12-17
Be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time. -1Peter 5:5-6
For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. -Mark 10:45
For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves. -Luke 22:27
The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. -Matthew 23:11-12
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, "Give this person your place" and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. -Luke 14:8-9
A ship cannot be built without nails, so a person cannot be saved without humility. --Amma Syncletice
Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. Do you plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? First lay the foundation on humility. -Augustine
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
The Emperor's New Clothes, Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1932
What does the Lord require for praise and offering? What sacrifice desire, or tribute bid you bring? Do justly; love mercy; walk humbly with your God.
Rulers of earth, give ear! Should you not justice show? Will God your pleading hear, while crime and cruelty grow? Do justly; love mercy; walk humbly with your God.
Still down the ages ring the prophet's stern commands. To merchant, worker, king he brings God's high demands. Do justly; love mercy; walk humbly with your God.
How shall my soul fulfill God's law so hard and high? Let Christ endue our will with grace to fortify. Then justly, in mercy we'll humbly walk with God.
-Albert F. Bayly (b. 1901)
(a holy fool), The Boyarina Morozova, Vasilij Surikov, 1887, detail
Meditation Two (Insight) Two Stories
It is related of Ibn el-Arabi that people said to him: 'Your circle is composed mainly of beggars, husbandmen and artisans. Can you not find people of intellect who will follow you, so that perhaps more authoritative notice might be taken of your teachings?' He said: 'The Day of Calamity will be infinitely nearer when I have influential men and scholars singing my praises; for without any doubt they will be doing so for their own sake and not for the sake of our work!'
-Idries Shah Wisdom of the Idiots
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup fill, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!" "Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
-from Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki Zen Flesh Zen Bones
Meditation Three (Integration) Show Love
I beg you, never disregard a single soul, especially when it happens to be a monk or a beggar. For Your Charity knows that His place is among the beggars, especially among the blind, people made as pure as the sun through their patience and distress. . . . Show love of your neighbor through almsgiving. For this virtue, above all, will help us on the Day of Judgment.
- Simeon the Holy Fool 6th century, patron of holy fools and puppeteers
The Last Word
We descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility.
Jesus exposes the religious leaders as hypocrites.
They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats, to be greeted with respect, to have people call them by their titles.
Cruel, stupid, or merely shallow? Crafting policies that make people poor and them blaming them for being poor seems to be the order of the day, just as in Jesus' time. But I'm also a hypocrite, through sheer lack of involvement and maybe purposeful ignorance.
Jesus' calling us out on our hypocracy reminds me of The Emperor's New Clothes, the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale in which a couple of con-artists take advantage of a sovereign's vanity. The out-of-town tailors “weave” the finest garments in secret, promising that only stupid people will not be able to see the magic fabric. From time to time the weavers show the emperor their progress, which, of course, the emperor can't see, but not wanting to let on that he's a fool, goes along with what he never suspects is a hoax. Finally the day comes for a great public parade where the Emperor will show off his new clothes. After dressing the Emperor in his fine garments, the weavers, having been paid handsomely, slip away. All the townspeople pretend to admire the emperor's new clothes as he struts through the crowd, naked, for all to see. But one child, having no fear of being thought foolish, cries out that the Emperor has no clothes! But the Emperor keeps on, although fearful that the child may be correct, and that he's been exposed for his own foolishness.
The story worried me when I was young, because I rightly assumed I would not be like the innocent, truth-telling child, but I'd go along with the crowd, admiring the non-existent garment on the vain king. Or, worse, I was the king himself parading around in false finery. But I suppose to my credit, that meant that I “got” the point of the story.
Jesus says directly, you are not to be like the hypocrites. Don't let anyone call you teacher. There's one teacher. The greatest among you must be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Take responsibility, for heaven's sake !
Similar to The Emperor's New Clothes are the countless oral stories where the beggar on the road is found to be Christ or Elijah. These stories pour a different fear into my heart; that I will miss the coming of Christ by ignoring the hungry, thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoners (Matthew 25:31-46).
All I can do is watch warily, and be helpful to everyone I can, knowing what I see isn't necessarily the whole truth.