During the period of time I was at USF as the Catholic campus minister I was very fortunate to be on friendly terms with the three Rabbis who were the successive Directors of Hillel. The Catholic Student Center at USF in Tampa is directly across the street from the USF Hillel. As with all campus ministry centers, the Hillel building was utilized continually, and was often too small to meet the needs of students.
The Rabbi at Hillel ministered to both Conservative and Reformed students. This turned out to be quite a challenge because of the differences between the two groups. Reformed Jewish worship uses musical instruments to accompany the congregation’s singing; Conservative worship prohibits the use of musical instruments. The Rabbi had to put the two groups in opposite ends of the building, and hope that they didn’t interfere with one another.
Most Christians tend to think of Judaism as a single, unified religious group, but there is quite a lot of diversity in Judaism today. This was all the more true during Jesus’ lifetime. When sociologists of religion speak about Judaism in antiquity (the period of time during which Jesus lived), they tend to speak about Judaisms (plural). There were quite a large number of divergent groups, all of which claimed to be the legitimate version of Hebrew religion. We are familiar with some of those groups. The Sadducees, Pharisees and Zealots are mentioned in the Gospels, but there were many others.
John the Baptizer is sometimes identified with a group called the Essenes, although there is no indisputable proof of the association. The Essenes, in turn, are often identified with the Qum Ran community, although there is no conclusive proof of this, either. The diversity of religious opinion at the time is almost too complex to catalogue. The single opinion that was shared by all was a general dissatisfaction with the state of their religion.
This general dissatisfaction manifest itself in many ways; principal among these was the large number of religious reformers. John the Baptizer was one of those reformers; Jesus was, as well. At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel John the Baptizer is depicted as preaching in the Judean desert, east of Jerusalem. He attracted quite a lot of attention, not all of it beneficial. In today’s Gospel reading John the Baptizer sent some of his disciples to talk to Jesus. John was imprisoned at the time. He had been arrested by Herod Antipas, King of Galilee, a province located roughly a hundred miles from where John began his ministry.
After his conversation with John’s disciples, Jesus asked the crowd following him, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (Matthew 11:7-9)
The crowd giving their attention to Jesus on this day had previously given their attention to John the Baptizer. When John was arrested by Herod, and put in prison, some of those who were attracted to John began to follow Jesus. The people during Jesus’ lifetime who were attracted to non-traditional religious leaders had quite a wide variety of alternatives to consider. At times Jesus expressed deep sympathy for these people who searched for spiritual renewal. (Matthew 9:36) At other times, such as the event related in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus challenged them to make a commitment of faith. (Matthew 11:6)
Just as in Jesus’ time, many people today feel disenfranchised from conventional religious practice. This is partially the result of an ubiquitous cultural value that leads people to distrust all institutions, including government and religions. However, the spiritual needs of individuals have not dissipated as a result of society’s abandonment of organized religion. If anything, those spiritual needs are felt even more acutely in the (perceived), absence of a credible source for spiritual guidance. Even those who have continued to practice the religion of their youth often feel a nagging worry that something irreplaceable is missing from their lives.
Perhaps there is something to be learned from those who went before us. Perhaps the experience of the crowds who went first to a firebrand reformer, and then to a preacher of reconciliation, can give us some guidance about where to look for a renewal of our own religious practice. There are some commonalities between those who sought religious renewal during Jesus’ lifetime and those who seek an adequate spirituality today. I’d like to suggest two of those common experiences as sources for guidance for those who consider themselves religious or spiritual or both or neither.
The first common feature of religious experience during Jesus’ lifetime and our contemporary experience is dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction with the status quo sent people to hear the preaching of John the Baptizer, and later, to hear the preaching of Jesus. However, not all dissatisfaction is created equal. There is a type of dissatisfaction that leads people to distance themselves from other individuals or society. We see a great deal of that going on in American politics today. This type of dissatisfaction is nothing more than judgmentalism, and provides no positive guidance for any aspect of life.
There is another type of dissatisfaction; it is dissatisfaction with the status quo in one’s own life. A measured amount of dissatisfaction with one’s faith or spirituality or relationship with God or relationship with others can be quite beneficial. It was their own restlessness and yearning that led people to John and Jesus; a similar restlessness led Jesus’ followers to give fearless witness to his Resurrection. It is helpful, I think, to cultivate a dissatisfaction with the status quo of one’s own life, as this leads to growth and transformation.
The second commonality between ourselves and our predecessors is the need to be able to trust. I’m sure that the dissatisfactions of Jesus’ contemporaries made them slow to trust, but at some point, one must make a decision, a commitment, an act of faith. Those who put their faith in Jesus experienced God’s power to heal and reconcile.
Today, willingness to trust is at a low ebb. It’s difficult to know whom to trust but, at some point, one must make a decision. As there is no possibility for any sort of relationship in the absence of trust, all people today (believers and non-believers alike), must learn to get past their unwillingness to trust. Being willing to trust does not really require a leap of faith; rather, it is truly a logical necessity. In the absence of trust we are less than human, and entirely separated from one another.
If you are looking for guidance for living a life of faith, God provides that guidance within easy reach. You have only to pay attention to your own desire to be better and to do better, and then make an act of faith. Jesus gave John’s disciples evidence that God’s power was at work in his ministry of healing and teaching. (Matthew 11:5) Then, he said, “blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:6) There is an obvious path to a blessed life for those who pay attention to the guidance God gives.