Hold the hot sauce

I heard about a recent episode of “Brain Games” on the National Geographic Channel, where a social experiment was conducted to measure compassion. The experiment was to be conducted three times with the same group of people. And participants were to be paid separately upon the successful completion of each stage of the experiment.

For the first round, the subjects were asked to sign in at a reception desk, then enter through a closed door into a small room and sit at a counter. In front of the counter was a window that they were told was a two-way mirror; anyone looking through from the other side couldn’t see them, but they could see who was on the other side.

On the counter in front of the subjects was a tray containing a small bowl of chilli, and three bottles of hot sauce, labelled from left to right: “Mild,” “Medium”, and “DEATH!!”

The three were instructed to season their bowl of chilli with their choice of hot sauce. The seasoned chilli would then be given to another subject sitting opposite them on the other side of the glass, who would then have to eat all three bowls of chilli. Because here’s the catch:

The person receiving the bowl of seasoned chilli would have to finish the bowls if he or she were to be paid for that stage of the experiment. If they couldn’t eat all the bowls, everyone would leave empty-handed for that stage.

As you can imagine, for the first time, the group came in and dropped a few drops of the mild sauce into the bowl, and proceeded to watch the other guy eat the chilli. Easy! These people were nice! Or probably just motivated by getting paid, right?

But for the second round, the experiment changed a bit: Between the time the test subjects registered and got to the counter with the choice of hot sauce, they were hassled. A big, strong man walked through the room, head buried in his phone, and practically walked through each one of them. Not only that, he then blamed them! “Watch it, buddy!” “Two lanes!!!” he said rudely.

The disturbed, disrupted, subjects entered the room and followed the instructions to heat the chilli. But not before looking through the glass and seeing ‘mr.big and rude’ sitting there! He was going to have to eat their seasoned chilli, or suffer the consequences – no paycheque!

No one chose “mild.” At least one grinned wickedly as he poured “DEATH” on the chilli. They were getting their revenge. None of them were showing any compassion whatsoever. They didn’t care about getting paid. No one did.

In the third and final round of the experiment, ‘mr.big and rude’ did his thing again. This time he upped the ante with personally offensive comments aimed individually at the subjects waiting in the reception room.

But between the offensive words and the hot sauce, the instructor welcomed kindly each subject with a smile and a compliment. Each was offered a glass of water. And the instructor asked if they were comfortable and ready to begin.

When ready, the man they might have wanted to burn entered the room before them. What sauce do you think they chose? Most chose the ‘medium’ hot sauce. It seems the main difference this time was accounted for by the instructor’s insertion of compassion into the experiment. This compassion tempered, if just a little, their desire for revenge.

A smile, a glass of water, and a compliment. Small and seemingly insignificant acts make a difference, either way. Like a contagion, our behaviour affects the lives of others with whom we come into contact. Even a random act of kindness can breed more compassion in the world.

I suspect when we read a text from the bible like Saint Paul’s in his letter to the Philippians, our first thoughts are heaven-bound. He writes, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (chapter 1, v.21). ‘Dying is gain’, in other words, means ‘heaven’.

We would be like the hungry Israelites wandering through the desert but motivated solely by the goal of the “Promised Land”. The Christian life, therefore, would have very little to do with the challenges of the world in which we live. Leave that for the politicians and social workers, right? “Ours is a heavenly kingdom!”

You’ve heard the argument, I am sure: When it comes to caring for suffering people, working for justice for all, tending to our fragile environment — these things are not a priority because we’re in the business of ‘saving souls’ for ‘heaven’ nothing more nothing less. The assurance of our salvation in Christ can lead us very easily into a mistaken disengagement with the world. This echoes the gnostic heresy from the early centuries, whereby ‘spiritual’ folk held a contempt and disregard for anything ‘in the flesh’.

“I am just going to hide in my corner, here, ignoring the plight of others. As long as I can eek out a comfortable existence for myself and people I want to love, then who cares about everyone else. I don’t want to bother because I am scared. And I am going to heaven, anyway. What’s the point of it all?”

Well, the point is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is very much about living in the world, faithfully. While the Israelites lived in the hope of arriving at the Promised Land, God did not ignore their plight, and sent them food and water (Exodus 16:2-15).

The second half of the first chapter to the Philippian church is all about how to live with one another in this world, not the next. There’s no mention at all of heaven in the first chapter after Paul decides to “remain in the flesh … for you” (v.24). Rather, Paul emphasizes: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (v.27) and calls the church to live in harmony with one another, in order to bear faithful witness to the world.

Especially when I meet with people in the second half of their life, the subject of our conversation often revolves around the purpose of their lives. They may have come through a difficult time, survived a risky operation, experienced a miracle of healing, or simply lived a very long life — and they wonder why God still keeps them around despite their ill health or age or whatever limitations they face.

And then I think of Paul’s message that, even though he suffers, he doesn’t give up because this world and the people in it matter. I think of Moses and the Israelites in the desert, wandering, hungry, complaining — and they don’t give up, because this world and the people in it matter. I think of Jesus who while suffering death on the cross still prayed that God would forgive the world (Luke 23:34). He doesn’t give up, right to his tortured end, because this life on earth matters.

When, like in the ‘Brain Game’ experiment, a focus and unity of active love towards others — however small the action — can make a difference in world, then our life has a great purpose.

What’s the point of it all? The purpose of our lives is to show love to others, and our behaviour affects the world in ways we can’t always measure or see right away. But affect it, it does! Even in the midst of our suffering. Even though it isn’t easy.

When the 30-year-old rock group U2 partnered with Apple they did something never before done: A couple of weeks ago U2 released their new album free of charge, if you have an iTunes account. Whether or not you wanted this new album, it was automatically downloaded into your playlist.

At first, as you can imagine, the reaction was mildly positive. Fans say the album is ok to good. And, hey, it was free! But the backlash has escalated after the first week of its release. Why? The last time U2 released a new album a few years ago, five million people bought it. Now, there are some 500 million (half a billion) users of Apple’s iTunes. That means, assuming that approximately 5 million worldwide would have purchased this new album, that leaves some 450 million people who would very likely not really want it.

This action for most may very well be an imposition. It is an intrusion into someone’s personal collection of music, like an unwanted guest. And who likes that?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ can be disruptive to our lives. The Gospel of Jesus Christ may call us out of our comfort zones. Our baptism in Christ calls us out of our selfish kingdoms justified by a ‘heaven-centred’ theology that may minimize the importance of life on earth, in the flesh. The Gospel of Jesus Christ may intrude into our hearts, yes. God’s call may at first feel like an unwanted guest, and create an inconvenience for us.

But God places immeasurable value in this created world, including you. On that first Christmas when God entered this fleshly existence as a human being, God demonstrated just how much God loves what He creates. A perfect world? No. A sinful world, yes. But to a world where we are freed to love all, with small acts of kindness and generosity and grace, every day? —

This lovely intrusion makes life on earth a worthwhile adventure.

Thanks to Rev Margo Whittaker for the ‘Brain Games’ illustration

Cultivating God’s imagination in us

Cartoons today are not like the cartoons I watched on TV when I was a kid. Back then, the story lines were straight forward, and characters behaved in ways that were expected. Even though their world was animated, it was easy to relate to the real world. If you ran off a cliff, like the coyote did chasing the road runner, you would pay the price and fall to your doom. Yes, these cartoons were funny and often the characters made mistakes — and that was entertaining.

But today, when I watch the Teletoon channel, it is crazy! More often than not the characters behave in ways that are unpredictable, excessive and even absurd. When you expect a certain consequence for a behaviour, the opposite happens! And this style gets kids laughing. This medium has little if no connection to the way people normally operate in the real world. It is meant to shock, and display the impossible rather than convey the probable.

At the same time, this is precisely the style of the story presented in our Gospel text today (Matthew 18:21-35). Yes, it is! Bear with me. Jesus tells a story in response to Peter’s question about how often should he forgive someone who has done him wrong.

Reading in between the lines, it’s as if Jesus answers Peter’s question with another rhetorical question: “How could you ask such a stupid question?” So Jesus tells an extreme, over-the-top parable to startle Peter into recognizing the absurdity of his assumptions and to call him to a new way of seeing and living (Charles Campbell in “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, p.71).

Jesus’ story is really excessive, when you think about it. First, Jesus says that we should forgive always, without limit, certainly more than seven times. And yet, the king in the story (who for some interpreters is analogous to God and therefore an example to us) — how many times does he forgive his slave? Just once! The king doesn’t give his slave a second chance, doesn’t forgive him more than once, even though that’s the moral of the story, right?

Then there is the matter of the ten thousand talents that the slave owes the king. In Greek, “ten thousand” and “talents” indicate the largest possible number; the amount is so absurd that in some early Greek manuscripts of this text reduced the number (Lewis Donelson, ibid.). There is no way that any slave would ever have ten thousand talents to begin with — otherwise he would not be a slave if he did. How could a slave even get to a position of owing that incredibly huge amount of money, and then pretend that he could pay it back in his lifetime. Absurd. We really can’t take this story too literally.

The rest of the parable continues in this vein: The slave who was forgiven this unimaginable debt load refuses to forgive the comparatively minuscule debt of another slave. He acts in an extreme way, seizing the debtor by the throat (v.28).

All in all this parable reads just like a modern-day cartoon. It’s excessive; it doesn’t follow the norms of social interaction — in Jesus’ day as much as in our own. We are left shaking our heads, “Ridiculous! Impossible! How could anyone do such a thing?”

But that’s the point. What we consider here is an imagination that is beyond earthly probabilities and rationalizations. The parable turns on us, as it surely did on Peter: How often should I forgive?” As the church, we should know better. For we know how much we have already been forgiven.

What we encounter in the Gospel text today is a Godly imagination that is presented in contradistinction to the world’s. Most of our lives operate according to probabilities and possibilities, measurable criteria, tit-for-tat, and certainties. Not so in God’s kingdom of grace. Mercy, forgiveness — these are undeserved, incalculable. Yet given.

How do we forgive? Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a woman in his congregation who is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. Since her husband walked out on them, every month, she says, it is a struggle to pay bills. She says, “I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”

The Rabbi answers, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically. But you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”

Presbyterian Minister, writer and retreat leader Marjorie Thompson gives a helpful definition of what it is to forgive. She writes: “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgement, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such retribution may seem …

“Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behaviour. The behaviour remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.”

You’ve maybe heard the story of one prisoner of war, after being freed, who asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
“I will never do that!” the second one answered.
“Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first one replied. (These stories are recited in Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, ibid., p.71-72)

The ability to forgive has more to do with ourselves than it has to do with the perpetrator of our wounds. This realization makes the impossible, possible; the improbable, probable. Holding on to resentment and a desire for revenge keeps us stuck in the false belief that somehow we can change the other person.

But perhaps who needs changing is ourselves! Peter got an earful from Jesus as Jesus held up a mirror to Peter when he asked the question, “How often should I forgive?”

We are not alone on this journey. Jesus talks about forgiveness in the context of the relationship of people in the church, among his disciples as they jostle for power and deal with in-house conflicts. We are not alone in this struggle to forgive our debtors. After all, the Body of Christ, the church, has a role to recognize the sin together, demand accountability together, and exercise forgiveness together. This takes time and it isn’t easy.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them,” said Jesus just before Peter’s question (Matthew 18:20). God surprises us, yes, even sometimes shocks and startles us with undeserved love and steadfast faithfulness. This is the imagination, the hope, and the longing that motivates us to keep on.

Of God’s forgiveness, we can be sure.