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The Lord is my light and my salvation—One day, as a seamstress was sewing while sitting close to a river, her thimble fell into the river. When she cried out, the Lord appeared and asked, "My dear child, why are you crying?" The seamstress replied that her thimble had fallen into the water and that she needed it to help her husband in making a living for their family.
so why should I be afraid?
The Lord is my fortress, protecting me from danger,
so why should I tremble?
When evil people come to devour me,
when my enemies and foes attack me,
they will stumble and fall.
Though a mighty army surrounds me,
my heart will not be afraid.
Even if I am attacked,
I will remain confident. Psalm 27:1-3
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. Matthew 4:12-23
The Lord dipped a hand into the water and pulled up a golden thimble set with sapphires. "Is this your thimble?" the Lord asked.
"No,” said the seamstress.
The Lord again dipped a hand into the river and pulled up a golden thimble studded with rubies. "Is this your thimble?" the Lord asked.
"No,” said the seamstress.
The Lord reached down again and came up with a leather thimble. "Is this your thimble?" the Lord asked.
"Yes,” admitted the seamstress. The Lord was pleased with the woman's honesty and gave her all three thimbles to keep, and the seamstress went home happy.
Some years later, the seamstress was walking with her husband along the riverbank, and her husband fell into the river and disappeared under the water. When she cried out, the Lord again appeared and asked her, "Why are you crying?"
"Oh Lord, my husband has fallen into the river!"
The Lord went down into the water and came up with George Clooney. "Is this your husband?" the Lord asked.
"Yes," cried the seamstress.
The Lord was furious. "You lied! That is an untruth!"
"Forgive me, Lord,” said the seamstress. “It is a misunderstanding. You see, if I had said 'no' to George Clooney, you would have come up with Brad Pitt. Then if I said 'no' to him, you would have come up with my husband. Had I then said 'yes,' you would have given me all three. Lord, I can’t take care of all three husbands, so THAT'S why I said 'yes' to George Clooney!
We can’t really blame that poor woman, can we? Most all of us have been in that spot. We make up a little lie, a delicate deception, to protect ourselves. It’s what we do to help us feel more secure when our world seems unsteady, when our place in the world seems precarious. Have any of us ever spent more than a couple of minutes considering how simple it would be to cheat on our taxes and fool the government in order to benefit financially? Is there anyone you know who has ever been less than completely honest on a resume for a choice job they are pursuing?
Our spiritual ancestors understood this impulse. One of the first stories in our Scriptures is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They eat forbidden fruit and then lie to God in the hope of finding some security; wanting the light of wisdom in a world that darkened when they began to doubt God.
It’s a scenario as old as human time – one that we see played out in cartoons and sitcoms. A person with a moral dilemma has a decision to make. Then the battle for the conscience begins. A figure in a red suit, with barbed tail and pitchfork, appears in a poof of smoke on the person’s shoulder. The devil on the shoulder tells the decision-maker to follow one’s indulgences. The figure is called a Shoulder Imp. If you grew up watching Tom and Jerry cartoons, you might remember Jerry has a Shoulder Imp, a wicked version of himself with green fur and horns who tempts Jerry to make Tom’s life even more miserable. Disney’s dog Pluto has one, too. The Shoulder Imp symbolizes the moral darkness within all of us. While it is often cartoonish in appearance, it is always a dangerous and ultimately self-destructive force.
Believe it or not, Judaism has a version of the shoulder imp. It’s known as the yetzer hara. The Evil Impulse. Yetzer hara is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil. It’s more like an impulse toward pleasure or security. It is the seat of our selfishness, our ego, and our hatred. If left unchecked, it can lead us to the shadows.
For some ancient Rabbis, the job of humanity was to eliminate this inclination. Evil Impulse was seen as a form of idolatry. Evil Impulse represent our suspicion that this life is all there is. We become afraid and want to build monuments to ourselves and our families. We want these monuments will survive us so our legacy lives on. For some, this is also the definition of idolatry. Idolatry is the desire to create and worship human monuments, rather than God. Some teachers blamed Evil Impulse and idolatry for the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. When some Rabbis imagined the Messianic Era, a time when the world as it is turns into the world as it should be, they wrote that God will, “bring the evil inclination and slaughter it in the presence of the righteous and in the presence of the wicked."
Other Rabbis took a more moderate approach. It is said that two thousand years ago, a group of Rabbis encountered the Evil Impulse, yetzer hara, amidst the destruction of Jerusalem. Knowing that the evil impulse was to blame for the devastation of their Holy Temple, they grabbed it and wrestled it into a chamber pot where they held it captive. While some were ready to destroy the yetzer hara, one Rabbi said. “Who knows what will happen if you destroy it? Hold it for three days and see what happens!” The Rabbis waited patiently for three days and then began scouting the city. Immediately, they noticed that the world was beginning to rot away. People stopped doing business. Chickens stopped producing eggs. Families stopped building houses. They knew what they had to do. They let the Evil Impulse go, knowing that the world could not be sustained without it.
Judaism acknowledges that the engine of the world is not humanity’s quest toward good but rather our selfishness. As poet Don Marquis wrote:
A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.His poem goes on to suggest that if it weren’t for this unrest, if not for an urgent desire for change, for growth, the universe would grind to a halt. We humans have within us a perpetual hunger for more. It’s this hunger – this greed – that is responsible for every creative act. We want things that we don’t already have. We want things that we don’t need. We want to insert ourselves into spaces where we don’t already exist. It’s why we have children. It’s why we build things, learn things, and try new things. It’s why we try to crawl and walk, why we get married, why we get divorced. It’s why we fight for freedom, break records, take risks, and make New Year’s resolutions. The yetzer hara is trouble for us because we’ve been taught to erase it from our lives, while at the same time it is at the very root of life. Our impulses for personal advancement, our need for bodily satisfaction, the desire to leave your husband in the river in an exchange for George Clooney, may bring problems into the world, but these same desires also move it forward. Sometimes, the Evil Impulse, this carnal, selfish urge in us, gives the push we need to create our most full selves.
It was the eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings.
There throbs through all the worlds that are this heartbeat hot and strong.
And shaken systems, star by star, awake and glow in song.
Consider this example. In one situation, you treat a person with an average amount of compassion but your compassion is genuine. In another situation, you treat a person with unparalleled kindness, but you have secret motives like wanting the other person to like you or wanting to feel good about yourself. Which is better? According to Sages, the answer is to embrace the selfishness. Go with the less-than-perfect motivations. Why? Because the end result is better. And so Rabbis instructed their students to push away the Evil Impulse with the left hand while bringing it near with the right.
Of course, if it is left unchallenged it will destroy us. So there’s a balancing force. In Hebrew it’s called yetzer hatov. The Good Impulse. Yetzer hatov pushes us to do good in the world. It inspires us to do charity. It is the engine of compassion. It is the instrument of our loving kindness.
I want us to consider that the moral life is not so much about making distinctions between good and bad motives. It’s about balance. There can be too much Evil Impulse, but there can also be too much Good Impulse. People who always act out of selfless love may end up hurting the people for whom they care. Think about it. If a moral saint is spending all her time marching for social justice, healing the sick and packing peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless, then she’s not taking time to read a good book, play a game with her kids or go enjoy God’s creation. If a moral saint is giving all of himself to save the world, he has no time to be an artist, or a good parent, or a skilled listener. There’s no chance for a truly selfless person to have the time or moral permission to develop the skills and relationships that make us interesting, well-rounded people. So, the goal of the moral life is balance – that middle way between pure selfishness and solitary saintliness.
I’ve been talking about Evil Impulse and Good Impulse. There are all kinds of other metaphors we use to make the same distinction. For instance, we talk about walking upright and being low. “She's an upstanding citizen. He's on the up and up. That was a low thing to do. He’s the meanest, dirtiest, most low-down varmint in the West.” To remain upright, one must be strong enough to "stand up to evil." These are moral categories.
Another way to talk about the moral life is with the metaphors of light and darkness. We see it in the writings of Dr. King: Every one must decide whether to will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. The Psalmist insists, “The Lord is the light of my salvation. Whom shall I fear?” Or as Matthew says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Light and darkness function like Good Impulse and Evil Impulse. They help us see that the need for security and safety are part of the human experience. Understanding that humans are often motivated by fear, will we shine and arise above oppressive patterns of behavior? Understanding that we have the desire to build monuments to ourselves, what will we build on behalf of God’s justice-loving realm?
In Matthew’s text, Jesus has just been baptized and then he battles the devil in the wilderness. We will circle back to the temptation of Jesus in a few weeks from now. Let me say here, I don’t think Jesus battled an actual cosmic Satan. I think it’s the yetzer hara, the carnal mind, the Evil Impulse. In the wilderness, Jesus decides what kind of Messiah he has come to be – what kind of kingdom he’s going to create. Now he’s ready for ministry. His first sermon is on a text from Isaiah: "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." Then Matthew goes on to tell us, "From that time Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'"
Of course, if we are willing to be part of this new era, we have to admit there is such a thing as sin. There is darkness. There are times we are motivated by selfish gain and brought low by ambition. There are times when Evil Impulse gets out of balance and out of control. I don’t know about you, but the sins that really affect me are the times when I betray love and fellowship: “I didn’t notice. I didn’t care. I forgot. I lied to you…” Jewish mystics had a term for sins like these: cutting the shoots. The plants in the garden of life belong to God. Uprooting them, tearing greedily at their leaves, destroying their growth, poisoning them off, these are sins against both life and God. I know that when I cut the shoots of relationships and community, I feel lost. I want to do better. I want humanity to do better. What can we do for the good? What healing can we contribute to the world? As we recognize that we can be flawed people with uncertain motives, can we turn and find some hope?
As I’ve been hammering home over the past few weeks, the word “repent” means “to turn”. Turning to God means offering our whole selves, the good and the bad. We follow God with our virtuous inclinations as well as our selfish, difficult impulses. Turning to God means confessing the mistakes of the past. It means apologizing to those we have wronged. We can turn to connect with our true selves, our best selves. We can turn and show love to another. We can turn and treat someone with compassion. We can turn listen to their concerns, open our minds and hands to their plights. We can turn give them space in our busy lives. We can turn to heal the wound in the other person. We can turn and consider how we can give more, care more, heal more, repair more and love more. And maybe, just maybe, even if our motives are not wholly pure; even when we act out of pride, selfishness, or sycophantism; even if there are glimmers of the yetzer hara in our actions; even if we, at times, are still attracted to the darkness, maybe, just maybe we have still brought more love, more compassion, and more presence than if we had not acted at all.