“What are you looking for?
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s awfully hard to know who to ask for help in finding it!
And yet so many people, unhappy, dissatisfied, unsettled, will go off in search of answers without having formed good questions or made a reasonable investigation as to what it is they lack.
Were I to turn the key in my car’s ignition to no effect, I’d look under the hood. Even with my limited grasp of today’s automobile mechanics, in seeing an empty void where the engine ought to be, I’d know what I needed.
Obviously, what the spiritual seeker is after is both more subtle and more profound than that.
It’s always struck me as a little odd, this encounter we read about in today’s gospel. Jesus’ question is certainly the right one, but not the “natural” one.
To briefly recap this pericope (fancy biblical studies word for “episode”), we see John the Baptist with two of his followers; and then Jesus walks by. John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
John’s two disciples then begin to follow Jesus, literally. One of them, we quickly learn is Andrew, a future apostle and the brother of Simon (later Peter) who will be the chief of the twelve apostles.
These two trail after Jesus, and perhaps disturbed by this, Jesus turns to challenge them. I suppose in the current vernacular, the question would be, “Can I help you?” but at the very least the presumption would be that they are looking to speak to him, or someone they suppose him to be. And so, the question ought then to be, “Who are you looking for?” Or “Are you looking for someone?”
However, Jesus instead asks, “What are you looking for?
And that, as odd as it strikes me, this is a more incisive question. It comes from the recognition that in so much of human history, people follow leaders, masters, gurus, messiahs, and rely upon them to solve their problems, rather than ask of themselves, “what am I looking for?” and then making the answer to that the basis for all future action. The genuine answer, sought through careful discernment, is that we are looking for truth to live by, and an authentic love to express. Christians are convinced that this is found in Jesus Christ.
However, when we instead set our sights on finding who can fix our world, our lives, and so on, there’s a bad tendency among human beings to forget what it was we were looking for and to fixate on a person and what he says is our problem. We buy what he’s selling, and we’re sold on something as a solution that more often than not has little to do with our real problem.
Through that failing, we have people come into our lives to take advantage of our desires and longings, leaving us the poorer for it. These can be salespeople who through their charm have us buying something shiny, new and expensive, an automobile, perhaps, well in excess of anything we actually need to get us around—the high of the “prestige purchase” is a temporary fix for what ails us. Now, I don’t blame the car dealer for this, or any person who sells for a living. Good salespeople are those who actually try to help us identify our need, and then to meet it with a product they offer.
We are taken advantage of by the politician who promises to lead us all into sunny days without really offering much detail as to what this sunlit paradise will actually look like. I can vaguely recall from my youth a politician being asked what he promised Canadians, and his answer was, “Jobs, jobs, jobs” (it’s been repeated by many).
Now, there was little detail as to what kind of jobs, how well they would pay, how secure they might be, whether part time or full time. But I know a lot of people were hooked by the simplicity of that answer. Many wanted a job (I think I was looking for work at the time!), and too many responded to this promise as if that politician knew what job each of us wanted, and he was promising me and others to deliver those specific jobs.
Of course, that was nonsense; and to be fair, that was not the promise.
Going back two millennia to the banks of the Jordan River, we have today’s gospel story. What’s going on is rather difficult to ascertain from the text alone. What we can surmise from our knowledge of that period, is that it was a time of great spiritual ferment. I don’t want to draw to much of an analogy with the “the Sixties” that saw a great many young people “drop out” of society to go in search of answers, but for us it is likely the closest we’ll come to something analogous.
We find ourselves in an encampment by the river; a makeshift community that has come together around John the Baptist. They come for baptism, to hear him preach and teach. People from all over the region, even as far away as the Galilee have come in search of answers to the great problems that beset the Jews, the people of Judea and those beyond. They had been disappointed in their leadership for a very long time, they want change, but are groping in spiritual darkness as to what that change ought to be. Their gathering is about figuring out what it is that they need.
At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two intuited desires: to find the Messiah, and to establish (or re-establish) “Israel”.
One is about answering the question of “who” to follow, and the other “what” they should be working toward. There is a debate about what the process of national regeneration will look like. Does it all hinge on finding and following the Messiah? Or can the work of rebuilding Israel begin with the Messiah/leader emerging at some point in the process? A further set of questions arose: what kind of Messiah are we looking for? A military leader? A spiritual man? And, what do we mean by “Israel”? Is it merely a political entity? Is there something more to it than borders, a king, an army and a measure of autonomy among the competing empires of the world?
Jacob Neusner (1932-2016) was a Jewish scholar who specialized in the study of the development of Judaism in the Christian era. Neusner tells us that we must be careful about projecting too much onto Jews of the time of Jesus from our own time. How central was the concept of the Messiah to most Jews? Likely most had very undeveloped ideas about that. When people spoke about “Israel” what did they mean? The political entity? Here there would have been a fairly sharp division: for many “Israel” is a political project, but for a significant number of Jews it is a spiritual reality first, a matter of politics only secondarily. That is, the goal for them was not political independence for its own sake, but rather to realize Israel as that divinely constituted community of fellowship with God, and through God to each other. As Neusner put it, modern Israel is a secular state, and so its citizens are Israelis as distinct from Israelites, meaning the faithful of Judaism (p. 92, Judaism When Christianity Began, 2002). Neusner isn’t disparaging the modern political state of Israel by this observation. It is an acknowledgment of a key distinction that persists to this day within the Jewish community, between Zionists who champion the political state, and the many Orthodox who put little stake in the Jewish state as presently constituted; they instead wait patiently for God to establish the true New Jerusalem.
What we sense from the men who would become the apostles is a desire to be true Israelites—faithful, but quite often they are tempted to settle for being Israelis—members of a strictly temporal and material community in which they are its leaders.
As Christians we face a similar temptation. We make the grave mistake of allowing our eternal destiny to be overshadowed by our worldly preoccupations. Where Jesus told us to be in the world, but warned against being of the world, we become both in and of the world.
This does manifest itself in the decisions we then make, as consumers, as voters, as parents, as students, as employees, as employers, etc.
As the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain reminds us at length in his classic, Man and the State (1951), the created common good is always subordinate to the eternal and supernatural personal good. Our Lord put this rather succinctly, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
So, we must be careful not to make ethical/moral compromises merely to fit in with the surrounding culture. We have to be careful of choosing the convenience or the lower cost in buying from companies that have dealings with fascistic, oppressive regimes like that of mainland China (e.g. Disney, Nike, Apple) or are actively compliant in assisting in the suppression of dissent, initially in places like mainland China and Russia, but now even here! (Google, Apple, Amazon). We have to be careful not to sell our vote, our political allegiance to those who will throw us the sop of a social program, or a “green” initiative and yet do nothing to address the deeper problems of our society rooted in the dysfunctional and destructive economics of the last forty or so years. We cannot make any deals with those who push the idea that abortion is foundational to the dignity and equality of women.
We need always to revisit what it is that we really want, indeed need, to satisfy our spiritual hunger for God; and that won’t be found in our society continuing down its present path.
If as individuals first, then as a community of faith, we order ourselves to the goal of being truly a new Israel, a community of communion with God, and through Christ with each other, that will be truly transformative of the world.
It is a matter of heeding Christ’s invitation to join Him, to “come and see.”