(photo of Massada courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 218
Many of you know my Lenten study disciplines this year include working my way through each of the Lenten collects in our Book of Common Prayer.
The phrase "...which may assault and hurt the soul," jumped out in the forefront of my mind the first time I read this collect through, and never let go of me. For some reason the ancient fort in Masada came with my thoughts.
If you've ever studied the history on this, Masada was a fort made famous in Josephus' historical account of "The Great Revolt," now known as the First Jewish-Roman War, from 66-70 CE. What's interesting is the Romans were not the original instigators in this war. It started because some Greeks were sacrificing birds in front of the synagogue at Caesarea. When the Romans did not intervene to the resulting Greco-Jewish tensions that emerged from this, Rabbi Eliezar ben Hanania ceased prayers and sacrifices to the Roman Emperor at the temple...and, as they say, "...and that's when the fight started." The Jewish citizens there started attacking Roman citizens, and not paying their taxes, and Rome stepped in.
At first, Emperor Nero's attack strategies made sense, but as Nero deteriorated, so did the war. But eventually Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans, and its walls were breached in the summer of 70 CE. Jerusalem had fallen. What remained of the Jewish resistance holed up in several forts in the region, including Masada.
The years 71-73 CE became "mop-up" operations for the Romans as they tried to crush what was left of the resistance. By the year 72 CE, the last remaining Jewish stronghold was the fortress at Masada. The Romans besieged them and offered terms of surrender, but they were rejected. When the fortress was finally breached in the year 73, the Roman army rushed in to discover that 960 of the 967 defenders of Masada had committed suicide. As a result of this, the Roman military leader Titus refused to accept a victory wreath for his merits. He said that there was "no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own God."
Now, my take on that story is not so much that the Jewish defenders at Masada were forsaken by God, but that, frankly, their souls had been so repeatedly assaulted, ending it all by their own hands seemed preferable to yet another assault to their already soul-sick existence.
We really don't know what happened inside the walls of Masada. Was this an ancient "Jim Jones-People's Temple" story where they had been brainwashed to "drink the Kool-Aid," so to speak? Or were they simply so collectively weary as a community of defenders they just wanted the pain of defending who they were to stop? Or did something else in between happen? Quite honestly, in situations like this, the other side of the story dies with the victims, and the "winners" are left to write the history. There's no doubt the main account by Josephus is influenced by what he heard from the Romans. Despite the fact Josephus was once the Jewish commander at Galilee, he had been captured and the end result of his captivity was release and Roman citizenship. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize there was ample reason for him to patronize the Roman point of view.
One thing we know for sure; it wasn't exactly the Alamo.
Once in a while, the story of Masada haunts me. In recent months, it has haunted me in light of the various bullying-related suicides. I have to confess, a collect that should engender hope in me, carries with it an undertone of tearfulness and soul-sadness. Perhaps it's because I don't think any of us make to adulthood without our soul being assaulted at least once. Some pour souls are constantly assaulted, and some of those folks don't even make it to adulthood. Sometimes these remaining assaulted souls live their lives into adulthood and their life situation is such that their souls are assaulted again and again until, frankly, they're not so acutely in pain like people on the brink of suicide, but they simply become "hollow." They become without hope. They become so hollow they can't even feel God filling the void. They are the homeless, the largely ignored poor, the forsaken elements of society. They are the "unemployed, who need not apply," as our economy roller-coaster rides its way into the next decade.
I find myself incredibly troubled by this recent rash of job ads in this decade that are allowed to sport that "unemployed need not apply" clause in the ads. Frankly, it assaults my sense of all that's right about the dream we have for America. It seems to me it's the unemployed who ought to get to be at the front of the line, and they are told to remain in the street. As a person who's been privileged to spend 20 years of my life doing what I have felt called and content to do, and even having the luxury to ponder another calling in my life with a paycheck still in tow, it seems unconscionable and inexcusable that this can happen in America.
I realize that it's "legal" to post such ads, but is it right? In an America where we've come around to recognizing it's wrong to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, age, disability, and sexual orientation (yet still have some kinks to work out on all of them,) why is it we haven't recognized that ultimately, these all have their roots in "protecting the forlorn?"
The teachings of Jesus tell of a world turned upside down in an economy that is totally opposite of the economy of Adam Smith. The lowly are lifted up. The last shall become first. The poor are blessed, not despised. All of my heart tells me the forlorn, in this economy, have earned a right-hand seat at the head table...the choicest cuts of the meat...the biggest glass of the best wine.
No, they "need not apply." They are allowed to be pulled out of the street and placed at the head of the line, in the employment office of Christ!
As with Masada, it gets to a place where it doesn't matter who started the fight, or as my late grandmother used to say, "I don't care who did what to whose dog for how many 'green stamps'." The fact remains, it is here. The forlorn, when it comes to unemployment, are everywhere. Some are even technically working. They are the ones working three part time jobs with no benefits. Some of their souls have been assaulted just as surely as those of the chronically unemployed--and I am not lily white here.
There was a time in my career as a business owner, I felt I was not in a position to offer health insurance. I tried, once. Tried diligently. But when it was said and done, my employees only desired it if I paid all the premiums, and they wanted the same amount of their profit-sharing. If the choice was something in between, not enough of the employees would opt for the insurance, and I could not reach the minimum number of employees to constitute a "group."
I said "I did the best I could," and called it done. I had to make a decision between the doors of my practice remaining open or not, and I could not keep the doors open if I did as they wished. Every attempt I made at an alternative met resistance from somewhere. Ultimately, I think I made a reasonable business decision. I don't think I did anything "wrong." But I don't think I did "right," either.
But did I do enough?
To this day, I'm not sure. But subsequent decisions--like realizing the era of small private medical practices are pretty much over, and aligning myself with a bigger business entity, finally gave them better choices with their pre-tax money. I had to give up a huge piece of control. I had to go from being "the" boss to "a" boss. I had to give up on my dream of totally owning my own business and being totally in charge. Overall, it's been an "okay trade," but it has not been the easiest or most satisfying trade, frankly.
But it's a trade I can live with for the most part. I've come to learn "getting everything we want" isn't the most important thing in life; it's "being able to live with everything we ultimately do." I could feel the pressure of the weary world of unemployment, under-employment, and under-benefited starting to hollow me out, and I have had to survive that hollow-ness before. I have come so dangerously close a few times, it is but for the grace of God I number myself with the survivors. Ultimately, in middle age, I chose to live in the fullness of a Christ-centered life. But these choices are not always easy; nor do I always sense the fullness and richness of my potential menu of choices right away. I grew up well-schooled in the economy of scarcity. It's taken almost a decade for me to even believe that there was an economy of abundance in the life outlined in our Baptismal Covenant. Once I chose to live in it, all the old roads got washed out behind my back. I could only move forward, like the Israelites into the wilderness, into the desert. When my Red Sea closed back up, all the old roads were gone.
But knowing how these things have assaulted my own soul and my own sense of fair play, I simply pray that some day we don't wake up to a modern-day Masada that we created with the almighty dollar.
In this season of Lent, Lord have mercy on us all.