Fish and Eggs, Snakes and Scorpions

"As he finished praying, one of his disciples said, 'Lord teach us to pray as John taught his disciples to pray.'" The disciple approaches Jesus as a matter of observation and comparison.

This one disciple articulates what we all know privately within ourselves; we are an ambiguous construction of earth and spirit.  We are as grounded as the adamah (the red clay) out of which we are drawn and we are as free as the nephesh (the wind) that fills our lungs.  We are grounded spirits, the middle point of creation as Plato describes us.  One testimony to this inner ambiguity is our felt anxiety over how we should then live.  There seems to be no inner gyroscope to provide balance and orientation in our human life. 

Animals have long astounded us with their ability to find their way.  For humanity there is a strange void as though we are observers who look out on the world with a question mark as to our place in it.  We lack the assuredness of a place; as Walker Percy notes, we are "lost in the cosmos."  Inevitably, our eyes turn outward in the hope that the one we observe has something we do not.  Hasn't the whole advertising industry been built on this inner ambiguity, this moment when we are poised in "reconsideration?"  This unnamed disciple asks Jesus, "Is there a model we can follow?"  

We hope to find in others what we need to know and sustain ourselves.  This disciple was no different than any one of us at any given point in time.  This unnamed disciple unmasks a perennial concern of the human condition with a simple question, for:

  • We imagine who we are with reference to others;
  • We imagine how we should live by the judgment of others; and
  • We develop our self identity by our reflection in the eyes of others.

Jesus navigates the disciples' dilemma. The ancient principles of navigation serve as analogy points for understanding this condensed model prayer.  Explorers in a new region must find their way.  As others follow, a path is made and signposts are set up.  In staccato-like fashion, Jesus identifies a model prayer to establish coordinates that navigate life for this and successive disciples: 

The address "Father" is a statement of affirmation, of relationship, and a web of belongingness.  The very evocation of the familial term presupposes ensconced connection.  "Father" provides the mirror for our looking glass, albeit still unclear as to judgment.  For how is the disciple to understand this "father"?

"Your Kingdom come" is a statement of orientation, priority and anticipation.  We move through the world of becoming, the ever-changing world of sensory perception, guided by "a way,"  "a path."  For some, this way is never a matter considered; it simply happens.  For others, this way is created out of the randomness of existence--a way domesticated by human invention; and for still others this is a way discovered among the traditions of our ancestors and consciously chosen. 

Jesus relativizes all these competing ways with this statement of intention and commitment: "Your Kingdom come."  The world has followed the paths of many lords. From kings and prime-ministers, presidents and chiefs, to datu, czar, and warrior, the titles of these lords have marked our history, all of whom have claimed to be a lord in each generation they lived.  Yet, for all of these lords, time itself became their master .  Jesus calls his disciples to a lord that never resorts to the sword to muster loyalty.  Jesus never demands that you follow this lord, he invites you to come.  Jesus never imprisons you for the sake of compliance; he calls forth forgiveness so that we might be healed. 

" Forgive us as we forgive" is the statement of character and action.  In a radical reconstruction human life, Jesus reveals that the "eye of cosmic judgment," the truly significant Other, the one with whom we are deeply connected, is none other than the "longing and compassionate eye of forgiveness."  This has revolutionary significance for us in a world which at times seems poised on the brink of apocalypse less by natural disaster than at the hand of human fear, violence and avarice. 

"Give us each day our daily bread.... and lead us not into the time of trial" are both statements of sufficiency, low impact, and defined limits.  For a species that finds no internal sense of satisfaction, these petitions are important boundary markers for our living.  As the famous Russian Christian and novelist Leo Tolstoy puts it:

Seek among men, from beggar to millionaire, one who is contented with his lot, and you will not find one such in a thousand.  Each one spends his strength in pursuit of what is exacted by the doctrine of the world, and of what he is unhappy not to possess, and scarcely has he obtained one object of his desires when he strives for another, and still another, in that infinite labor of desire which destroys the lives of men.  He who makes 300 rubles would rather have 400; he who makes 4000 rubles would rather have 5000; and he who makes 1 million rubles would climb after 2 million, and so on to the top of the ladder.  And so goes the life of men, they sacrifice their lives for this same God--Greed, and then they die, without realizing for what they have lived!

These words could not have reached a more readied audience.  Scientists estimate that the current rate of human consumption and destructive activity will lead to the loss of half the species of plants and animals on Earth by the end of the century.  Life on this planet can stand no more plundering.

Jesus does not conclude with the model prayer; he returns to the opening theme.  The sage realizes that the question of orientation is still the deep seated dislocation of the disciple's soul, so he returns to it. "Which of your fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?"  The great divide within our soul is almost crippling.  There is a world within our heads where origin, purpose, destiny and love all make sense, that world expects "fish and egg"--and there is an equally real world beyond our human life that shows little sign of caring, planning, love or joy; that world fears "snake and scorpion."  We live in the tension of a meaningful and meaning-ruptured existence.

Ego psychologist Eric Erikson's once observed that each individual must learn how to hold the extremes of life-stages in tension with one another, not rejecting one end of the tension or the other.  It is only when both extremes in life are accepted as both required and useful that the virtues of life surface. Thus, basic "trust" and basic "mis-trust" must both be understood and accepted, in order for real "hope" to emerge.  Jesus places his disciples in a narrative tension, a wager they will have to make good on, "How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"  Would-be disciple are invited to become co-creators with Jesus in the arrival of God's kingdom, and in the process they discover their place in the cosmos.

Let us pray.

God of infinite horizons, by your Spirit you are opening new places for our journey as your people.  Give us a newborn's eyes to see your kingdom.  By your untamable spirit, energize our souls for communities of promise and hope beyond the borders of language, skin color, economic or social position.  Touch our lips to be the voice of grace and forgiveness.  Use our hands and our feet with a passion of your testimony till in harmony we grow together into the fullness of your Christ.  Amen.