Not too long ago, I came across a writing by Jewish rabbi, theologian and philosopher, Abraham Heschel (d. 1972). His name stood out because I previously studied one of his books on the Hebrew prophets as a student and recalled wrangling with the depth of his thinking. His was what I fondly and respectfully call a ‘big brain.’
In this recent writing, he was speaking of the human heart, GOD’s desire to possess and rule it fully, and the myriad obstacles that stand in the way of that happening in each individual life, including those constructed by the person being sought by GOD. These last obstacles are what Heschel calls the “lofty ideals” we maintain when in actuality our choices put us in the mold of “the ass that carries gold and eats thistles,” a simile he borrowed from a 16th century German proverb.*
The message of the proverb is not that the ass is unaware of the gold it carries, but that it has become so accustomed to eating thistles that the gold and the better fare it could purchase has little appeal. In the human life, it is the appetite that has been trained to prefer what is coarse and unhealthy over what is truly nourishing.
As a young believer, I would listen intently to the teachings of my first pastor. Although many years have passed since those days, I easily recall his style, the tenor of his voice and a number of the things he said. One of the latter was his challenge that we not “live beneath our privilege.” He said this often. In other words, we are not made to spiritually subsist on thistles, when GOD has put before us His full bounty of good things, beginning with Himself. He is the gold.
We’re living in a day when the need to make clear distinction between thistles and gold is of paramount importance. We can’t control most of what is external to us. Certainly, we can’t control the duration or severity of the pandemic. What we can control is what we are taking into ourselves. Since we are already carriers of gold, let’s subsist on what is best.
* Taken from “God In Search of Man” (Abraham Joshua Heschel) found in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Church Workers, p.134 (1983).
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