Tom Harpur died in January. A graduate of Wycliffe College in Toronto, he was a leading evangelical. He even did a stint teaching New Testament at Wycliffe. Somewhere along the way he began to travel in a very different direction from the early days of his ministry. He wrote the book The Pagan Christ: Is Blind Faith Killing Christianity? (Walker Books, 2006), in which he dismissed much of what he had once affirmed and argued that Jesus was a myth and not a real person.
How can a person who has led in the Church, who is very knowledgeable, who appears to be committed to the historic Christian faith, end up so completely rejecting what he once affirmed? While the full answer to that question is between Tom Harpur and God, there is a hint in his last book, Born Again: My Journey from Fundamentalism to Freedom, in which he discusses the commitments that shaped his thinking. It reminds us that our thinking will always reflect our commitments in one way or another.
In Mark 12 there is a fascinating encounter when the Pharisees and Sadducees try to dismiss Jesus as a fraud. A scribe comes along and asks Jesus what commandment is first of all. Jesus responds with the Greatest Commandment. When the scribe praises Jesus’ response (to the horror of the other scribes), Jesus commends the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” But then Jesus tears a strip off the scribes.
Jesus’ harsh criticism of the scribes and the Pharisees might lead us to believe that they were frauds in an obvious and public way. Indeed, they have often been described as the archetypal hypocritical or corrupt leaders whom everyone despised. In fact, they were venerated as wise, devout leaders. When a scribe showed up at a special meal or event, he was welcomed warmly; it was a great honor to have a scribe present. And if a scribe walked through the marketplace, people stopped what they were doing to greet him with respect.
We cannot gain a sense of Jesus’ encounter with the scribes unless we recognize that the scribes, like most biblical scholars and theologians, took their roles very seriously. The scribe, in post-exilic Israel, would be the person described in Psalm 119, the one who loves the law, who delights in the word, and meditates on it day and night. Scribes were experts in biblical interpretation who were also committed to watching over, guiding and helping others as part of preserving the faith for the faithful.
Yet, Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who … love to be treated with respect.” And with that simple claim he exposes their false motivations. In spite of their stated intention to honor the Great Commandment, they aren’t doing that — they aren’t seeking to love God with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength. They were more committed to receiving honor and respect. The evidence of their displaced allegiance is brought to light in how they treated their neighbors, and specifically the neediest among them: “They devour widows’ houses.”
The desire to be respected, admired, and liked are second nature to us. And there are some healthy aspects to those desires. The problem is, like the scribes, we so often seek to have our desires met or filled in ways that will never bring satisfaction. Winning accolades or recognition doesn’t leave us satisfied, but leaves us wanting more.
Frederick Buechner writes of once being disheartened upon entering a bookstore and discovering that his books were not in stock. Buechner is an acclaimed author and he has received many accolades for his writing, but he craves more. A friend of mine wrote in response: “What are the roots of the human craving for affirmation and recognition, especially in cases where considerable recognition has actually been given?’
That craving is rooted in desire. As James K.A. Smith argues in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, our desires order and shape our lives: we worship what we love, so our loves shape who we are, what we value, and how we think. When our desires are disordered, they inevitably misshape our thinking and actions. To make it worse, our disordered desires don’t just affect us, but wreak havoc and destruction in our families and in our communities. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis noted that human history “is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
What is particularly pertinent, in our contentious age, is that these disordered desires, and our refusal to acknowledge these underlying commitments, prevent us from learning from one another. This is one of the reasons we so often talk past each other. In his book Learn or Die, Edward Hess argues that our ego is a huge liability to our learning and our growing up. He contends that ego gets in the way of empathy and listening, both critical skills for learning. More often than not, we are the last to recognize that we have a problem with our ego. The destructive power of our egos cannot be unmasked until we acknowledge the underlying and distorted desires that fuel the ego.
The scribes are examples to us not because they are archetypal hypocrites, easy targets for us to avoid, but because they were doing everything right except the one thing that is most important of all. The scribes claimed to be, and believed themselves to be, the kind of people who were seeking God. But the truth is that underneath their focus on God was something quite different. They were seeking fulfillment through honor and recognition, but didn’t recognize it.
In his conversation with the scribes, Jesus exposes that their biblical learning or expertise was in fact leading them away from God. They invested a lot of time and effort in becoming competent biblical scholars, but they did not recognize God.
Because they were blind to the way their desires were disordered, they ended up working against God to the point that they were desperate to be rid of Jesus. And that was exactly what Jesus tried to warn them about in the parable of the vineyard at the beginning of Mark 12. That parable frames Jesus’ conversation with the Jewish leaders while also defining Jesus’ relationship to the Father. But the scribes and Pharisees couldn’t see what was right in front of them because their hermeneutic, shaped by the way their desires were ordered, would not let them hear Jesus’ message.
Jesus exposes the disordered desires of the scribes just as he exposes our disordered desires: not simply to condemn but as an act of judgment, compassion, and ultimately redemption. The question isn’t whether the scribes or Tom Harpur, or you and I, have disordered desires. We do. The question is whether we allow Jesus to expose the truth of our desires in order to set us free.