New Year’s Eve. Last day of the old year; looking forward to the new.
There is something in us that makes us reflective at this season. We think through the past year and often make resolutions for the new.
This year, things will be better. Life will be better. We will be better.
Humans being complicated, this general optimism—or at least desire for improvement—is countered by cynics (they would call themselves realists) who confidently predict that it won’t last. Some of them seem irritated that anybody’s even trying. The most obvious example of that, I suppose, is at the gym, where the regulars are frustrated that for the first week or two of every January they can’t get to their usual machines because of the crowds—and their irritation is increased by the fact that the interlopers don’t even know how to use said machines.
I feel their pain—though I’ll admit that I haven’t done much at the gym this last semester, mostly due to schedule constraints of my first-semester teaching schedule. If I were going to start an exercise program, I think I’d start in December—or any time other than January. But as it happens, my gym is closed for 2 weeks precisely at the end of December, so that’s out.
Anyway, while recognizing the inconvenience that the optimists are to the cynics, at least at the gym, I’d like to suggest that they lighten up a little. If history is any guide, a lot of people will set out on a course of self-improvement this week, and the great majority of them will apostatize before the month is out. But does that mean that they shouldn’t even try? Or that they shouldn’t at least aspire?
Isn’t aspiration, the desire to get better, the desire to succeed, an essential part of being a healthy human? Isn’t it part of the image of God in us?
And if it is, shouldn’t we start down that path, and encourage others to do the same? Is that hopelessly naïve, or is it just healthy?
God certainly knew that we would fail when he created us, and he went ahead and did it anyway. He knew that Abraham’s descendants would be unfaithful lovers in the extreme, but he chose and blessed them anyway. He knew that Moses would strike the rock in rage, and that the same Israel who stood at Mt. Sinai and cried—with one voice—“All that the Lord has spoken, we will do!” (Ex 19.8), would refuse to take the land when God gave it to them. He knew that David would sin with Bathsheba. Jesus knew that Peter would deny him—and that Judas would betray him. And God chose them all anyway.
The Judas story is particularly intriguing. The Scripture doesn’t tell us Judas’s motive for the betrayal—though earlier it describes his motive at Bethany as greed (Jn 12.6). Some have speculated that like some of the other Jews, he wanted Jesus to overthrow the Romans and establish a political Messiahship. Maybe he did. If so, Jesus’ treatment of him is interesting.
It appears that Jesus set up a “buddy system” among the Twelve; we know that he sent them out in pairs on at least one preaching tour (Mk 6.7), and the accompanying list of the apostles appears to list them in pairs—Peter and Andrew, James and John, and so forth (Mt 10.2). If this is a “buddy list” of long-term “roommate” relationships, with whom does Jesus pair Judas?
Simon the Zealot (Mt 10.4).
And what’s the significance of that?
The designation Zealot is a reference to an activist group of the day who opposed the hated Roman occupiers with what we would call today “asymmetrical warfare.”
Simon was a guerrilla fighter. He was a terrorist.
But a changed one. He followed Jesus, and unlike Judas, he stayed true to that commitment to the very death.
So maybe—maybe—Jesus paired Judas the malcontent with Simon the (converted!) Zealot to let him see up close what a redeemed terrorist and Roman-hater looked like.
Maybe he was giving Judas a chance.
In any case, the God who knows all doesn’t go all cynical on us just because he knows we’ll stumble or even fail spectacularly.
We shouldn’t think like that either.
So make your plans, and your resolutions, for the new year. Set off down that path, with determination.
And if you proceed unevenly—you will, you know—get up and keep going.
For what it’s worth, I’m rooting for you.