In the classic movie, "Jeremiah Johnson," Robert Redford comes upon a pioneer family decimated by Indians. Everyone, except the mother and one boy, has been killed. The woman, obviously driven to insanity by the massacre, insists Redford take the boy with him while she stay behind to "care for" the rest of her family.
Redford eventually gives up trying to talk her into going with them to safety. But as he's ready to leave, he assures her the Indians won't harm her. "You're tetched," he says, "and the Indians don't kill crazy people. They think they're close to their gods."
Students of Scripture smile when they hear Redford's words. Our sacred authors would also smile. Those who wrote Scripture always understood they were leading people to the "edge of sanity," gently nudging them to the brink and encouraging them to take just one more step.
Beyond limits
As Rudolph Bultmann once said, "They're on the `other side,' writing for us who are still on `this side.'" Because of their deep relationship with God, they're seeing reality from a perspective most people never approach -- always asking us to go beyond our own security, past the limits society and religion set for its members.
Prophets merit the insanity label more than any other biblical groups because they're God's mouthpiece, saying and doing things which make normal humans uncomfortable. Because God is completely "other," those who speak in the name of God must also be "other." We see some of that "other talk" in each of Sunday's three readings.
Third-Isaiah begins the sequence with the unheard-of proclamation (Is 66:18-21) that not only will Yahweh one day "gather nations of every language to come and see (Yahweh's) glory," but also that Yahweh will take some of these Gentiles and make them "priests and Levites." In a religion in which people are born priests and Levites, not called to be priests and Levites, such a concept is insane. Jews regarded ministry as a tightly controlled domain, no exceptions, no outsiders -- and no respect for the word of God breaking into their secure sanity.
Jesus, the prophet, finds the same rigid, religious mentality (Lk 13:22-30) in the person who asks, "Lord, are they few in number who are to be saved?" Refusing to answer the question, He reminds the questioner about His teaching on the "narrow door." Many self-righteous will try to gain salvation through the wide door, only to find their way blocked.
The irony of Jesus' image is that His narrow door is the proper way precisely because it's wide enough to receive all people, while the wide door is so narrow, it excludes anyone who isn't a card carrying member of the accepted religion.
"There will be wailing and grinding of teeth," Jesus promises, "when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the prophets safe in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves rejected. People will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and will take their place at the feast....Some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last." This certainly isn't a statement for the sane.
Crazy road
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews gives a different twist to this narrow door theology (Heb 12:5-7, 11-13). For him, the road less taken is the path of God's discipline. The pain Christians experience can only be appreciated by those who regarded their relationship with God as that of a child to a parent, a parent who sees things from a different perspective, from an angle the child has yet to experience. Only be walking this crazy road of suffering are we certain to achieve peace and justice.
Last week, I was removing my vestments after having witnessed the marriage of two friends in a rather well-endowed church, located in a very public place. The sacristy door suddenly opened, and a rather strange looking woman walked in and asked, "Why do priests always keep the churches locked? Why don't you just take all the valuable stuff out of them, sell it and give the money to the poor, and let us come into church whenever we want."
The priest who was with me started to reason with her. I simply thanked her for her insight, walked past her into the body of the soon-to-be locked church and wondered where, out of this world, she'd got such a crazy idea.