Patience is queen of all spiritual skills

  • December 10, 2007

Third Sunday of Advent (Year A) Dec. 16 (Isaiah 35:1-6, 10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11)

People can bear almost any negative situation if they believe that it will come to an end. And if they are being oppressed, this hope for deliverance is tinged with fantasies of revenge and retribution, especially at the hands of a heroic liberator.

For the exiles in Babylon, a joyful return to the land of Israel was at the very core of their hope. Fear will cease; courage and strength will take its place. Healing and wholeness form a part of the vision, especially the removal of human limitations such as blindness, deafness and lameness, all of which are likened to the involuntary constraint that they were experiencing.

The Israelites shared similar images of the divine with their ancient contemporaries. Gods were not only meant to be powerful and even violent, they were expected to display that strength in favour of their people on the battlefield and against their enemies. A god who could not or would not flex his muscles could not really be considered a god. The exiles believed that God had allowed their enemies to prevail because of their collective sins. But after a period of chastisement and purification, God would once again deal out “vengeance” and “terrible recompense” in order to set them free. God did not live up to that part of the vision, for as we saw in a previous column liberation came at the hands of Cyrus the unwitting messiah. The prophetic vision is still a source of inspiration, for God is certainly to be found wherever there is freedom, new life, hope, courage and joy. These are just some of the divine traces that disclose the nearness of God. One can only hope that we have begun to understand God in terms that do not include zapping our enemies and enforcing our thirst for revenge.

Patience is the queen of all spiritual skills, for it is nothing less than learning how to harmonize oneself with God. It is interesting to watch the behaviour of people waiting in line. Some are quite peaceful, using the time to ready, pray, think or talk to other people. Others become quite quarrelsome and aggressive, and can even begin to vent their rage on others. When we have our immediate desires and expectations thwarted, we discover who and what we really are. Are we at peace with ourselves? With God? Patience is radical trust in the wisdom and kindness of God and the renunciation of always having to be in control. 

Jesus seldom gave “yes” or “no” responses to questions, but often replied with another question. John poses a poignant question to Jesus through his messengers, and it comes from one under sentence of death for his life of witness. Are you the one? Is the price I am about to pay worth it? The only reply Jesus will give is: examine the evidence and reach your own conclusions. He runs through the usual prophetic list of divine actions: lepers cleansed, deaf hear, blind see, dead raised and the poor have received good news. Who or what else could produce these dramatic effects, for they are far beyond normal human capabilities? Even with the miracles that people have witnessed, gnawing doubts analyse and explain them away. Jesus has to remind them of what these miracles actually mean.

The reality and authenticity of God claims can be measured by their effects in the lives of people and on human communities. In His address to the crowd, Jesus takes them to task for expecting the flashiness and glamour of a prophet. If it is fancy suits and hairstyles they want, to put it in contemporary terms, they can find those near the centres of power and wealth. John’s witness had nothing to do with those things — he was the promised Elijah to prepare the way for God’s visitation. Jesus insisted that as great as John is, he is still a notch below the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. It does not imply any disrespect towards John, but highlights the radical difference between the old order and the new. Jesus is not exhorting people merely to be good, but to be godlike, and this is only possible when one who lives and breathes the principles that He proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount.