Imago Dei

Sunday 14th July 2013
Year C, The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Genesis 12:9.30
Mark 7:1-23

Here is the story of Jacob. Once upon a time, there was a boy born named Jacob, the second of twins but destined, in spite of strict dynastic law, to take precedence over Esau, his very slightly elder brother.  One day, Jacob was cooking stew when his hard-working brother came in from the field exhausted and Jacob said he would only sell a bowl of the stuff in exchange for Esau's birth right which Esau said wouldn't be worth anything to him if he died of starvation. So the deal was done, giving to Jacob what the Lord said he should have in any case. Then when his father was dying Jacob, with the connivance of his mother, pretended to be his older brother and received his father's blessing; but he was so frightened that he ran away. He worked for relatives and, just to show that the double dealing wasn't all on one side, he worked in the hope of getting Rachel as his bride but her dad slipped her sister, Leah, into the marriage bed. Jacob bore this bravely and got Rachel a week later, along with their two maids, and fathered twelve sons, the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. He got his own back on his double-dealing cousins by fiddling the allocation of the flocks and when he was in high disfavour he ran away with all his goods and possessions. And so, our reading finds him on his way back to Esau, not knowing how he will be treated. And, just to complete the picture, they all live happily ever after.

What makes this story fascinating, particularly in the context of what is supposed to be a holy book, is the degree of cunning, apparently sanctioned by the author, to enable Jacob to achieve God's proper dynastic end. It's all about not being found out but facing down the opposition when you are.

Now you know what I am going to say by way of contrast and this is where we run into great danger. Jesus says in his remonstrance against the Pharisees, his own people, that it's what happens on the inside that counts, your motives and the inner workings of what become your actions. It isn't what people see that counts, it's why you do what you do.

The problem with this simple reading is that it leads to a black-and-white contrast between the good and the bad, the cunning and the transparent; but we all know that as people we are not like that. We know in our reflective moments that human beings are capable of persuading themselves of almost anything. For example, it's often said that politicians are liars, not to be trusted, but I believe that their most important attribute isn't their tendency to lie to us but their ability to lie to themselves, to persuade themselves that what they are doing is right. And, at a lower level of intensity, we lie to ourselves about the past because it's the only way we can get through, it's why time heals. We re-write history to keep us sane and we do it so well that it becomes very hard after a while to de-construct our experience to get back to the original truth because we are so familiar with the story of layered truth that we tell ourselves. The line drawing of an incident might be eminently lucid but the layered paint of reflected experience is much more satisfying at every level.

At one level, then, the demand of Jesus for transparency is just too big an ask because we could not survive in a life of sequenced line drawing; it would tear us apart. Honesty is just too painful to be taken in large doses. But this picture of ourselves as self-conscious humans is built purely on ourselves as ourselves, it speaks of what we can manage to tolerate when we stand or think alone, when we are self-reliant. The problem for all of us is that we find ourselves vastly short of emotional and spiritual resources when we try to go it alone; that, in essence, is what is meant by pride, the notion that we are self-standing. But if we consider how we might face the truth in the comfort of Jesus, then the picture changes. No matter how we wrap the truth in retrospective comfort it is nothing to the warmth in which Jesus wraps us. If we soften the lines to make ourselves more acceptable to ourselves, it is nothing to how Jesus  can soften our lines so that we are more acceptable to ourselves through him. If we think that our experience can be made more acceptable through an elegant application of paint, that is nothing to how acceptable our experience will be if it is offered in plain humility to Jesus. Rather than elaborate, we would be better to take the stark, line drawing that is our experience and offer it for what it is.

This offering of ourselves to Jesus is, needless to say, radically different from what is supposed to have replaced Christianity, namely cultural expression, because while painting can offer something to us, we cannot offer anything back to it, except our reflection on it; but we can offer back to Jesus our reflection not only on him but of him, for we are made in God's image. But if this is to be real to us we have to take it seriously; we know that we will never reach a state of perfection while we are on earth for here we are an imperfect reflection of god, but at least we can be models of application, always trying to simplify our approach to life and to God so that we are to ourselves line drawings rather than elaborate images.

And so, whereas Jacob could play games with his family and himself, for us life is more than a legal fencing match. We know that we have immense powers of self-delusion but they are worth nothing. In Jesus we can tell ourselves the truth, knowing that we will be comforted past our own imagining; and nobody can ask for more.