The voice of the prophet is rarely is an easy one for us to receive and to heed within our lives. Prophetic voices have a way of making us look at the self in a way that creates a feeling of discomfort, and it is a voice that pushes us to look deep within the self to recognize the ways in which we need to repent if we are to be in right relationship with God and with each other. The prophetic voice is the voice of challenge to change our ways, to listen to the call of God, and to recognize the ways in which we fall short of living a Eucharistic life inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
In today’s world, perhaps the most ubiquitous image of the self is increasingly going to online platforms that have been grouped into the category of social media. Through this new medium we have the opportunity to present a particular view of ourselves to the world. In essence, we are able to present a curated version of who we are as a person, and it is quickly becoming another way of how we define who we are as persons within the broader context of creation. Through social media, we are able to share the glamour shots of our lives, the new events that are taking place, and the ways in which we are experiencing success. Like no other time in history, we have the ability to create a public persona that speaks only to our strengths and highlights the very best part of ourselves to the public. We are encouraged by these outlets to put more and more media of ourselves out for public consumption in order to get the “likes” that we need in order to grow followers on different platforms, to boost our self esteem through those likes, and to establish ourselves as people that are well connected precisely because of the number of friends or followers that we have on the different social media networks. The pressure to become popular has morphed into something that now reaches across the nation and the world through the ubiquity of social media likes and follows.
Of the course, the shadow side of the social media phenomenon is that we can begin to believe in the image of the self that we are putting out for public consumption a little too much. We begin to forget about the ways that God calls the entirety of ourselves into relationship with God and with each other, and we begin to believe in what has been termed the “culture of me” to such an extent that it is possible to become like the crowd in the reading from the gospel this evening. The difference is that instead of it being a crowd that is pointing towards another people group, we begin to look out at other individuals and compare them to the self image that we have created by way of social media. Suddenly, we are in a position to think that no other person on the planet is nearly as good as the self, and we are in a position to begin judging others against the curated image of the self that we have created over years and years of curating the self in our online personas.
Though it might seem that none of this is inherently harmful to the flourishing of the self or of humanity at large, I think that it is a dangerous pattern precisely because it means that we are creating idols that we worship in a new way. The idol is no longer something external to the self; instead, the self has become the idol. In a blog written for the Seminary of the Southwest, Academic Dean and moral theologian Scott Bader-Saye described an idol saying, “An engagement with an idol is not shaped by receptivity to the gaze of another but by the desire to control the object and keep distance. Idolatry is an ocular exit and return in which the object does little more than reflect ourselves back to us with an aura of holiness, thereby hallowing our own biases and blind spots.”1
It is the image of the self that we have created, the image that we sell to others, and the image that we ultimately begin to believe in a little too deeply. The idol of the self is an idol precisely because it ignores the part of the self that is less than perfect. It ignores the ways in which we fail to live a life according to the cruciform pattern of Christ. It ignores the fact that each one of us has shortcomings and need to live a life of repentance for those moments in which we have failed to love God and each other. The idol of the self enables us to select who we will be in relationship with and who we will deem as worthy of being a friend or a follower – either online or in our embodied lives. It is the very creation of the culture of me that enables us to select communities and people that only agree with what we think is the right way, which cheapens our experience of humanity because it has silenced the voices that challenge our own views of the world.
In today’s reading, Jesus is cast as the prophetic character that calls the crowd to think differently of itself. The opening of the reading is about a group of Galileans that are killed by Pilate, and the crowd presents the information perhaps as a way for Jesus to affirm their worldview and their righteousness. Not unlike the current wave of populism sweeping across the world and sweeping through our own political discourse in the United States, the crowd likely is seeking affirmation that the death of Galileans is a way of setting themselves over Pilate and the Roman authorities.2 Instead of agreeing with the crowd, Jesus turns the example upon them to look at themselves when he asks the question, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” (Luke 13:2 NRSV) Jesus is challenging the notion of the idol of self and of the idol of being in single-minded communities. Instead of looking at the other as lower than the self, Jesus is challenging us to accept the other as a gift – a gift that challenges us to think about things in a new way precisely because we take the time to engage in relationship with individuals that have different opinions than our own. Jesus turns this story brought to him as a challenge to recognize the ways that the members of the crowd also need to repent lest they “all perish as they did.” (Luke 13:3b NRSV)
Jesus finishes the section with a parable involving a fig tree that has yet to bear fruit even though it has had three years to bear fruit. The owner of the vineyard finally turns to his gardener in disgust and tells him to cut it down so that it is no longer wasting the soil in the vineyard, but the gardener encourages the owner to give the fig tree one more year before it is cut down. Although this tree has had 3 full years to produce fruit, the gardener has pity on the tree and encourages the owner to give it one more year – to give it even more time to produce fruit.
In the season of Lent we are called towards a life of repentance – not simply a season of repentance. It is a call to recognize the ways in which we have created idols out of our self images and, through the idol of the self, the idol of single-minded (or at least seemingly single-minded) communities in which we exist. The scripture today calls us to create icons that draw us even deeper into the reality of God’s being through the lens of creation and through the diversity of that creation that we find all around us. The season of Lent is a season in which we are taught the importance of recognizing the many ways that we are not the perfection that we wished we were, and it is a season that teaches us that it is okay not be the wholeness of perfection. Indeed, the season of Lent encourages us to bring the whole of our being – including those bits that we would like most to ignore – into relationship with God. A life of repentance challenges us to walk the cruciform way of the cross and to recognize the ways in which we need the other to help us see the depth and the beauty of the image of God in the faces of people. It is a challenge to shy away from the easy scapegoating, something that is all too prevalent in the current political discourse in our country, and to approach the other as a gift that enables us to comprehend the spectrum of God’s love, albeit only dimly.
Just as the fig tree was given more time to bear the fruit of the tree, we are being given more time to bear fruits worthy of repentance. Though the axe now rests at the root of the trees, time is still on our side to enter into a life of repentance that bears fruit reflective of God’s love. We have the time to listen to Jesus’ call to find security not in the ways in which we are better than others but only in God’s love for us. The cruciform life of Christ is our model not only in this season of Lent but also throughout the entirety of our lives. Christ is calling us to repent our sins and to turn from the idol of the culture of me in order to see the icon of the imago dei. Christ calls us to listen to the words of God being spoken into our hearts; Christ is calling us into a life of repentance, a life of love, a life of self-giving, and ultimately, to a life that may end in crucifixion because we set our ways on the ways of God – the way of love that we find in Christ.
- Bader-Saye, Scott. “Icons, Idols, and Campaign Porn.” SOWING HOLY QUESTIONS. Seminary of the Southwest, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. <http://www.sowingholyquestions.org/icons-idols-and-campaign-porn/>.
- Robert C. Tannehill, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)