…But they would not listen, they were more stubborn than their ancestors had been who had no faith in the Lord their God. They despised his laws and the covenant he had made with their ancestors, and the warnings he had given them. They pursued emptiness, and themselves became empty through copying the nations round them although the Lord had ordered them not to act as they did.
2 Kings 17.14-15
Will you utterly reject us, O God,
and no longer march with our armies?
Give us help against the foe:
for the help of man is vain.
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get, and the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given. Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own? How dare you say to your brother, “Let me take the splinter out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own? Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.’
The RSV translates emptiness as ‘false idols’ that make ‘false’ those who worshipped them. But I prefer the Jerusalem Bible’s rendering, though the RSV may be more faithful to the Hebrew. We are so used to Old Testament references to ‘false idols.’ We remember the golden calf and the unfaithfulness of the people, who turn aside to false gods. That language applies to ancient Israel, we think. We–I at least–tend not to see how it applies to us.
But we know emptiness. We know what it is to be spent, to be worn out and alone. We know about pursuing what does not really satisfy us. This language speaks to the deepest recesses of my soul in its most tired moments. I must admit that I tend to do precisely what the Hebrews did in the time of the kings: I pursue emptiness. Sometimes my emptiness is vanity, sometimes popularity or importance. Why can I not be the indispensable one or the lucky one? When I set my heart on being liked or being valued in the little circles, I am often disappointed. Empty.
The gospel reading for today reminds me what I ought to do. I find fault with others for not regarding me as they ought. But do I really see so clearly? Perhaps not. I have mistaken the covenant that gives life for the idols that drain my soul. I can neither fill myself nor clear my vision, and there is only one thing left to do. With the Psalmist I must plead with God, ‘Give me help against the foe: for the help of man is vain.’ I will call upon the Lord in the day of trouble–even such petty, insignificant and selfish trouble–and he will answer me.
Let me see clearly and love rightly and give praise to the God who saves.