Nowhere to lay His head

I’ve been exhausted lately, and this verse popped into my head:

And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

In context, this verse occurs when Jesus is explaining the “cost of discipleship” to a potential follower. Ever since I wrote this and this post, I’ve been rethinking what it means to be a follower of Jesus. More specifically, I’ve been wondering if following Jesus is something that is distinct from “the good life.”

If this is interpreted in a certain way, this is a ridiculous thing to wonder about. How can following Jesus, the very embodiment of Goodness(?), lead to a life that is less than the Good life? What I’ve been wondering about, however, is not whether following Goodness leads to the Good life. Rather, I have been wondering whether “the good life” that I’ve been told about (and have taught myself about) is actually the Good life with a capital “G.” In other words, there seems to be at least two (on some points) competing conceptions of the good life, and I’ve been wondering which one is Real. Interpreted in this way, musing about this potential distinction is the opposite of ridiculous. It is the most important thing I can wonder about.

But back to the issue at hand (the above verse), for it is not only more pertinent than the abstract issue of separating these strands of the good life but also serves as an illustration of the abstract issue itself. So, here we see Jesus saying that he has no where to lay his head. He is exhausted from serving his efforts to usher in the Kingdom. The question that immediately should arise in our minds (as followers of this Galilean peasant) is this: Are we supposed to feel similarly?

There are two quick “pat” answers that threaten a full exploration of this question. Allow me to plant the smallest seed of doubt regarding the adequacy of these answers so a full exploration of this question is not stifled from the outset. (The Answer to this question is probably not the answer that I express below, but perhaps you have – or will find – a piece of the Answer and would be willing to share.)

The first answer might say something like, “Jesus was God, so we are not expected to live up to His standards in every respect.” This particular phrase can be meant in a way that appears quite wrongheaded and in a way that is appropriate,² and it seems like this answer, in this instance, is an erroneous expression. It seems wrongheaded to mean this phrase as a way of saying, “Following Jesus to the T is too lofty and idealistic of a goal. It is unrealistic and a naive chasing after the wind to aspire to such a goal. God gave us grace precisely because God sees that God’s standard is impossible. We are to rely on it (grace) rather than attempt to realize impossible dreams.” (This is the epitome of “cheap grace.”)

Something fowl is going on here. Grace is important, but it seems like grace has been twisted into something less than Beautiful in the above sentiment. Consider a problem with this view. It seems very unlikely that when Jesus said “Follow me,” he meant “Do the easy things that I do and don’t try and do the hard things, that’s what ‘grace’ is for.” I’m willing to admit that this is possible, but apart from a conversation containing some miraculously convincing hermeneutical points, this interpretation seems to guilty of  some doctrinal eisegesis, i.e., it is an interpretation formed by an improper insertion of a doctrinal concept (grace) into text.¹

Here’s a second pat answer: “God would not want us feel exhausted or feel badly about our lives.” But are we sure this is true? The sentiment found in this answer seems to run counter to a central part of Jesus’ ethic: We are supposed to loose our lives for the sake of the kingdom. We are supposed to die so that we can live. I am not claiming to know exactly what these phrases mean, but it seems clear that “death” to ourselves might entail living some days of our lives where our “self” is exhausted and overwhelmed by the tasks of the kingdom. After all, Jesus was called by God to do the things that caused him to be exhausted in the first place.

If I’ve successfully batted away these “pat” answers (even for a second), then hopefully we can see something interesting going on: there is potentially a split between the ethic found in some churches and Jesus’ ethic (big surprise). The split is, in this case, a subtle one, but in other cases, its pretty huge. Here’s my impression of what some churches teach regarding rest: God commands that we sabbath because he knows that we need rest, and he knows that rest is a fulfilling time where we can be re-energized. Moreover, some churches motivate this prescription by pointing out (rightly) that life will be more enjoyable and you’ll have less heart attacks/melt downs/moments of exhaustion if you sabbath.

This is where the split comes in. The motivation for sabbathing shifts from “do this so that you’ll have less heart attacks/melt downs/moments of exhaustion” to “do this only insofar as it furthers the kingdom.” This shift in motivation is the difference between living a life during which I say to myself, “I am tired, so I will lay my head down here” and a life during which I say, like our Christ, “There is nowhere to lay my head.” There is nowhere to lay His head because Jesus’ subversive sagacity reveals “what is in man” and alienates all places and persons of rest.

The difference, then, is a big one. Jesus’ happiness (I mean “happiness” in “the good life” sense of the word.) is secondary to Jesus’ obedience, which is the Good life. Surprisingly, I found this idea expressed best in the words of a 18th century moral philosopher, Immanuel Kant

To secure one’s own happiness is a duty, at least indirectly; for discontent with one’s condition, under a pressure of many anxieties and amidst unsatisfied wants, might easily become a great temptation to transgression of duty.³

Our happiness, then, is only relevant insofar as it allows us join God in ushering in the Kingdom. If this is true, then the Way is even narrower than I thought.

Footnotes:

1. There is a another point that could be made on this issue. It is best expressed with a series of questions: Do we not believe that all things are possible in Christ? Why, then, do we say that becoming like Christ is impossible? And even if it is impossible, is it not worth all of our being to strive for such a Beautiful goal?

2. One can say this appropriately by pointing out, for example, that we should not imitate Jesus in his capacity as the Judge of all things.

3. Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Groundwork_of_the_Metaphysics_of_Morals

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