Saturday, February 13, 2010

What the locust has eaten

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law,
do by nature things required by the law,
they are a law for themselves,
even though they do not have the law,
since they show that the requirements
of the law are written on their hearts,
their consciences also bearing witness,
and their thoughts now accusing,
now even defending them.

Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

Ernest Hemingway carried his readers to far more places than most men witness in a lifetime, from war in the Pyrenees to the African Savannah. As he wrote of exotic places, he also wrote of human emotion and motivation. His characters appear real even though they are often privileged and self-obsessed. When I read Hemingway as a youth, I noticed how his tragic heroes, though they were flawed, were never the source of their own undoing. In Hemingway's universe, mere men may have been created equal but his protagonist's existence is altogether stellar, tragic, and accidentally so. Hemingway, it seems, would blame the sun for Icharus' destruction rather than holding Icharus to account for his ambition. We are most blinded by our own weaknesses, so the blindness of Hemingway's heroes makes them seem autobiographical. The reader is swallowed by the writer's pity for his broken creatures. We see their faults, but we sympathize with weaknesses we might otherwise revile because we recognize them as human.

Recently, it occurred to me to read "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" again. We searched the house for the book until we were satisfied that we no longer possessed it, and then Lisa checked it out from the local library. Hemingway begins his story on the last day of his protagonist's life. Harry knows he is dying. Although Harry has lived a bawdy and selfish life, he does not regret hurting people who trusted him as much as he regrets that he will never live to write about it all. He knows that he has eroded as a person, but he believes that by writing, he might redeem himself. As he drifts into unconsciousness, Harry's vignettes seem to be a catharsis of Hemingway's own unwritten memories and imaginations. As Harry comes to an end, his regrets fall short of remorse, and true to Hemingway's prose, Harry feels cheated.

In the preface of his story, Hemingway frames Kilimanjaro as "Ngàje Ngài," or the House of God. He writes, "Close to its western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." If you have not read "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," its fewer-than-30 pages accelerate toward this summit and the answer to this riddle in ways the reader would not expect. It is well worth the read.

As I read the story again, I was stricken by the religious symbolism. Harry's demise begins with a scratch from a thorn bush: From Genesis 3 through Hebrews 6, thorns are a symbol of the curse of sin. Harry is merely scratched, and he does not understand the severity of his wound: likewise the deceptiveness of sin. By the time Harry knows he is badly infected, it is too late.

As Harry's leg succumbs to gangrene, it symbolizes the creeping moral decay of his life to the point where he is useless, feels nothing, and is repulsive to others. As a symbol, gangrene is powerful expression of self-loathing. Yet the imagery takes on religious overtones, as well. The Apostle Paul, speaking of his own sin, asks, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" Romans 7:24 (NIV) The prophet Isaiah quotes, the Lord, saying, "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind." Isaiah 66:24 (NIV)

In the story, a hyena personifies death or the messenger of death. Likewise, Isaiah speaks of the destruction of Babylon saying,

Hyenas will howl in her strongholds,
jackals in her luxurious palaces.
Her time is at hand,
and her days will not be prolonged.

Isaiah 13:22 (NIV)

As Harry passes, he finds himself in a vision where he is flying above the savannah. He sees a vibrant earth lush, green, full of life symbolizing his past potential. In his vision, he sees "a new water he had never known of;" perhaps this is Hemingway's allusion to what might have been. As Harry continues climbing he sees clouds of locust symbolizing the erosion of all this potential and the squandering of his life. The prophet Joel wrote long before Hemingway,

What the gnawing locust has left,
the swarming locust has eaten;
and what the swarming locust has left,
the creeping locust has eaten;
and what the creeping locust has left,
the stripping locust has eaten.

Joel 1:4 (NASB)

In the end of his vision, Harry realizes he is approaching Kilimanjaro – the House of God – unrepentant and having already condemned himself by his own standards and expectations.

Some believe Kilimanjaro symbolizes the pinnacle of Harry's aspirations, and in a sense this is true. Yet Hemingway drew early attention to Ngàje Ngài, and so there must be an accounting. Harry, like the frozen leopard in the prologue, is unequipped to make the ascent into the House of God though he is drawn there in his vision by primordial impulse.

The heart of man was designed to fellowship with God. Yet hamartia both separates us from our Creator and causes us to fall short of our potential. The Apostle Paul wrote, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Paul also writes:

We will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written:

"'As surely as I live,' says the Lord,
'every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.'

So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.
Romans 14:10-12 (NIV)

In this regard, Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" employs religious symbolism to speak universal truth.

Yet Paul carries us where Hemingway cannot. Paul tells us that although we fall short of God's glory, we "are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." Though Paul felt tormented by his wretchedness, asking, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" He answered his question, declaring, "Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" The prophet Joel speaks of reconciliation to God saying,

Then I will make up to you for the years
That the swarming locust has eaten,
The creeping locust, the stripping locust and the gnawing locust,
My great army which I sent among you.

"You will have plenty to eat and be satisfied
And praise the name of the LORD your God,
Who has dealt wondrously with you;
Then My people will never be put to shame.

"Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel,
And that I am the LORD your God,
And there is no other;
And My people will never be put to shame . . .

. . . And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD
Will be delivered;
For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
There will be those who escape,
As the LORD has said,
Even among the survivors whom the LORD calls

Joel 2:25-27, 32 (NASB)


Monday, February 8, 2010

Blessed are the meek

There is a church sign near our house which this week reads, “Blessed are the meek.” Claire asked Lisa the meaning of meek, and Lisa deferred to me. The typical connotation of meek in our experience is sheepish or mousy. Meek isn’t a compliment, but in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) Jesus alludes to Psalm 37:11 when he says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The word translated meek in Matthew 5, only appears in the New Testament six times including both forms of the word. Immediately before the account of the Triumphal Entry Matthew quotes Zechariah 9:9, saying, “This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

"Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’"”

Here the word is translated “gentle” rather than “meek.” James uses a derivative word a couple times saying,
  • Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. James 1:21 (NIV)
  • Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. James 3:13 (NIV)

In 1 Peter 3:4, Peter uses the word to describe “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit,” and again in 1 Peter 3:15 in an admonition to share our faith with “gentleness and respect.” Although the word appears only a few times, translators have chosen a variety of English words to encapsulate its meaning: meek, gentle, gentleness, humbly, and humility. The list of synonyms conjures passivity, and in this respect I think the meaning of the word is lost. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the passive,” but sometimes I think we infer something similar to this.

James puts action behind the word referring to “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Thankfully, the Septuagint gives us a wonderful illustration of meek. In Numbers 12:3, it tells us, “And the man Moses was exceedingly gentle, above all the men [that lived] upon the earth.” Moses was hardly passive. Early in his life he killed an Egyptian who was mistreating a Hebrew. Likewise Moses, after fleeing to Midian, defended Jethro’s daughters and helped them water their flock. Moses was a man of action. Later Moses with his brother Aaron confronted Pharaoh, and led Israel away from Egypt. Moses was the meekest man on earth, but he was not passive.

What quality did Moses and Jesus share that the word meek or gentle encapsulates? What character quality inherits the earth? What character quality are we supposed to emulate? Neither Moses nor Jesus was passive. Rather they were passionate. Moses defended the weak. Jesus cleared the temple of moneychangers. The meekness both men demonstrated was in their attitude toward their actions. Moses spent his life shepherding Israel through the desert of Sinai even though Moses never realized the fulfillment of the Promised Land. Jesus offered his blood as the propitiation for sin. Both men expended their lives for others in obedience to the will of God. They did not assert their own will, but rather they obeyed. The meekness of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 5:5 is not passivity but rather passionate obedience to the will of God.

The meekness of Jesus Christ is illustrated in his prayer from the Garden of Gethsemane. Before his arrest and crucifixion, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

When we read the Beatitudes and teach them to our children, we need to understand that meekness is not passive rather it is passionate obedience – even unto death.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.