By John Rieping | Published 19 March 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
In the philosopher Plato's great work "The Republic," his elder brother Glaucon is described as proposing an extreme test of morality to their teacher Socrates in the ancient city-state of Athens.
Glaucon felt that laws forced respectable men to walk "the same road" of justice due to fears of being punished as an evildoer or being powerless as a victim. Remove both fears and "the actions of the just would be [the same] as the actions of the unjust" -- immoral
There is only one way, he claimed, to test whether a virtuous life was better than a wicked one. We must compare the happiness of an "entirely unjust" man who has "the greatest reputation for justice" with another man whose situation is the opposite.
"Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst ... and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust.
"When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two ... The just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound ... Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not be, just."
Half of Glaucon's test would become reality more than 400 years later in the life and execution of a wandering rabbi, Yeshua (aka Jesus). In the eyes of Christians and Muslims, he was an entirely just man.
A superficial hearing of his final words would seem to support Glaucon's position however. According to one record, they include, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Mark 15:34)
This plea is a reference to a hymn from the Jewish "Tehillim" (Hebrew for "songs of praise"). It begins, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief." (Psalm 22:1-2)
Echoing Glaucon's test, it later continues, "But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they who see me laugh me to scorn: they stick out the lip, they shake their heads, saying, 'He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!' " (Psalm 22:6-8)
"I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted within me." (Psalm 22:14)
Does that sound like happiness to you?
Yet, for Christians, these are not the final words. For beyond the agony of the cross we see a resurrection. The rabbi's cry was heard.
Near the end of the same song, the singer promises: "I will declare your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation will I praise you ... For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither has he hid his face from him; but when he cried to him, he heard ... The poor shall eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD shall praise him ..." (cf. Psalm 22:22, 24, 26a)
An unappreciated life and undeserved death can end far better than Glaucon imagined if God is one's hope. But in this we find a paradox. For don't Christians say Jesus is God and, if so, isn't his rescue by God a hoax? And who among us can claim to be so worthy of help?
Strangely, the answer to both concerns is the same: emptiness.
As the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the Macedonian city of Philippi: "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant ..." (Philippians 2:5-7a)
The life of the one Christians consider to be both God and man was like his death. For both involved radical self-emptying (in Greek, "kenosis").
Why? For the same reason we seek an empty cup when thirsty: so we can fill it.
Let us be humble enough to accept and lift up our own emptiness to God in prayer and in service. We can embrace God no other way than with empty arms.