Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosurgery at Stanford University studies how our brains process metaphors. It seems our ability to understand metaphor is embedded in the parts of our brain that handle our reactions to physical stimuli like smells, sounds, and sensations. For instance, if you smell or eat something disgusting, the neurons in an area of the brain called the insula are activated. Similarly, if you think about or read about someone eating or smelling something disgusting, those same neurons activate. Now, say you read in the newspaper about an old widow whose home was foreclosed by a sleazy mortgage company, her medical insurance was canceled on flimsy grounds, and she got a lousy, exploitative offer at the pawn shop where she tried to hock her wedding ring. You start thinking, those people are scum, they’re worse than maggots, they’re cockroaches…and the same insula activate. Think about something shameful or rotten that you did once, and the same thing happens. Not only do the insula manage sensory disgust, reacting to bad smells or tastes, they manage moral disgust as well.
Another example: when you stub your toe, a part of your brain called the anterior cingulate activates. When you see someone in pain, say your child getting a shot at the doctor’s office, the same region lights up, as if you were actually in pain yourself. And if you read an article in the paper about suffering halfway around the world, again, your anterior cingulate responds. The higher functioning levels of the frontal cortex can usually sort out the difference between the three situations, but at a basic level, the brain responds to them identically.
This way that our brains mix the literal and the metaphorical is demonstrated in several really interesting experiments. In one, volunteers were asked to recall either a moral or immoral act in their past. Afterwards, they were offered a token gift of appreciation of a pencil or a package of antiseptic wipes. The folks who had recalled an immoral act in their past were more likely to go for the wipes, their brains confusing the difference between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. In another experiment, volunteers holding a hot cup of coffee were more likely to rate an individual as having a warmer personality than volunteers holding iced coffee, even though both groups were reading the same description of the individual. Similarly, volunteers evaluating job applicants were more likely to rate the same resumes as belonging to more serious candidates if they were on heavier clipboards.
I found all of this information about how our brains mix and sometimes confuse reality and metaphor fascinating, partly because it I think it might let us off the hook a little bit. You’ve probably had the experience of being unable to shake a gloomy mood when it’s dark and cloudy outside, or being unable to respond in a sunny way to a friend’s good news when you were feeling under the weather. Those responses are at least in part due to the way our brains are wired; they don’t have to be our final response, because the more sophisticated parts of our frontal cortex can reason through the situations and adjust, but maybe we don’t have to feel bad about them. So, in reading this morning’s gospel from Matthew, I wonder how John the Baptist’s physical environment played into his attitude about and his question to Jesus. Our reading finds John in prison. I imagine him thinking back on his life. Things had seemed so clear out in the desert. God had called John to proclaim repentance, to urge the people to be baptized and confess their sins, and he’d been good at it. Great crowds had come out to the desert to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, they had confessed their sins, they had made themselves ready for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. The people really responded to John, especially when he called the religious elites hypocrites and a brood of vipers, intimating that their time was coming. The crowds kept coming, and John got a bit more confident, maybe a little over-confident. Not only are the Pharisees doomed, he preached, but Herod the King himself is a sinner because he has married his brother’s wife. Now, it’s one thing to criticize the Pharisees, but another thing entirely to preach against the king, and John finds himself arrested, bound, and imprisoned deep in Herod’s palace. It’s dark down there in the dungeon, and damp, and John is depressed. The presence of God that had filled him with such confidence, the fire of God that lit him up inside so bright that he was beacon to thousands of people who came to see him in the desert, that light has deserted him. In the gloom of his cell, John is facing the truth: he’ll either die here in prison of starvation and disease, or Herod will execute him. In growing despair, he wonders why God called him to preach only to abandon him.
Then one day, some friends of John come to visit. They do their best to cheer him up, and he tries to respond and be positive, but he’s not real successful. Finally, one of them tells him about the strange stories people are telling about this fellow Jesus. John perks up a little, remembering that odd day at the Jordan river when Jesus had come to him and asked to be baptized. John hadn’t felt comfortable, somehow sensing that Jesus should have baptized him instead, but Jesus had insisted. After that day, Jesus had faded from sight again; some folks said he was off in the desert praying. Now John’s friends tell him he’s re-appeared. This Jesus has been touching and healing lepers, and curing epileptics and paralytics and those in pain. He’s been casting out demons, and he even raised a young girl from the dead. And such strange things he says! Blessed are the poor in spirit! Blessed are those who mourn! Blessed are meek!
John thinks back to that day at the Jordan, to that strange feeling he had about Jesus. And not sure what he hopes the answer will be, he tells his friends to go find Jesus and ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Maybe, John doesn’t even dare let himself hope, but maybe, Jesus is the one, and any day now, he’ll be taking his winnowing fork out and judging between the wheat and the chaff. Maybe, John lets himself think, just maybe Jesus is about to put his ax to Herod’s rotten tree, chop him down, cast him into the fire, and free John from this prison. Maybe the kingdom of heaven has really come and his life will be saved.
John’s friends do what he asks, they go find Jesus, and pose John’s question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus answers them: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” But that’s no answer at all, John thinks when he hears it. He’d already heard about the miraculous healings, about the dead being raised, about good news preached to the poor. John wants to know is Jesus the one who’ll free him from this prison? Is Jesus going to get on with the job of separating the good and the evil? And anyway, John knows what Jesus is saying, he’s quoting Isaiah chapter 35, the same reading we heard earlier this morning. John can quote Isaiah, too: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” “When a trumpet is blown, listen! For before the harvest, he will cut off the shoots with pruning hooks, and spreading branches he will hew away. They shall all be left to the bird of prey of the mountains and to the animals of the earth.”
John’s friends can understand his skepticism; they’d been skeptical themselves, but then, they’d actually seen Jesus in action. And with the way John keeps ranting, they’re relieved they hadn’t told him the rest of story. Jesus not only healed the leper, he actually touched him, making himself unclean in the process. And Jesus healed the sick, yes, but sometimes he chose the strangest people to help, like that servant of a Roman soldier. And he hangs out with such weird people, people like tax collectors and sinners, the very people they’re pretty sure John thinks will be cast into the fire when the kingdom of heaven comes.
I suspect that John was unable to see who Jesus really was both because of the physical prison Herod had put him in, and because of the metaphorical prison he had built for himself out of the beliefs and expectations he had for the kingdom of Heaven. Expecting that the kingdom would be a time of separating the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, he was confused by Jesus’s inclusion of everyone. Expecting the kingdom would come along like a tidal wave and wash away all the evildoers in one fell swoop, John can’t understand Jesus healing one leper here, one sick person there: I mean, John thinks, there are hundreds and thousands of people in need! Expecting the kingdom would mean good thing for good people and bad things for bad, John can’t figure out why he’s still in prison. It’s easy for us to fall into the same sort of trap. Our lives, the pressures of work, of making ends meet and keeping up with our busy schedules can become prisons; our certainty that life will unfold according to a plan we think we see can limit our ability to be open to other opportunities, to appreciate how God is working in the world around us. Jesus’s reply to John’s question is good advice: Look, see the broken made whole, see the dead brought to life, see the lost who have been found. Listen, hear the good news of a table big enough for everyone, hear the good news that those who are last will be first, hear the good news proclaimed that there will be comfort for the afflicted. And when you have looked and seen, listened and heard, go and tell your friends, that they may know, also. It seems to me that this process of seeing, hearing, and telling is an especially appropriate and important thing for us to do during this season of Advent.
In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge is trapped in prisons physical and metaphorical, all largely of his own making. A man of great wealth, he lives huddled near the fireplace in his bedroom, eating gruel, cut off from the world, bitter and alone. He declines invitations to join family for dinner, he chases away people asking for assistance, he knows nothing about the life and struggles of the family of his employee, Bob Cratchit. His journey through that long Christmas Eve night is really an Advent journey. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows him that his life wasn’t always this way: he had opportunities for loving relationships with others, chances he squandered in his blind pursuit of wealth. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him yes, the hardship of those around him, but also the joy they take in their simple celebrations, and the care and concern they express for him, albeit sometimes grudgingly. And the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him his death, unmarked and unmourned. The Ghosts help Ebenezer to look and listen to his life, to see through the prison he had constructed for himself. In that way, they helped him free himself, flinging wide his windows on Christmas morning to greet the day, buy a turkey for the Cratchits, and make plans to visit his nephew for dinner. You and I are unlikely to get help from ghosts of this sort, but this process of examining our lives, past and present and future, of identifying those prisons of addiction, unhealthy relationships, and other behaviors and beliefs that are trapping us, is a healthy exercise, a good exercise for this Advent season.
As I’ve thought about my own life this past week, I’ve found it helpful to let metaphors guide the process. Where in my life do I feel trapped? What smells dead or rotten? Who has me running in circles, chasing my own tail? What am I clinging to for dear life, and what, in that process, am I letting slip through my fingers? Where are the trees I’d like to lay an ax to, the branches I’d like to prune and leave out for the birds to pick at this winter? What little sprouts of new growth do I want to be sure I’ve protected from the icy winds, what am I mulching carefully, planning for a resurrection of new blooms in the springtime? Maybe some of these questions are helpful for you, or maybe you have your own. I pray that we’ll will follow Jesus’ advice this week, and look for the places in our lives and our world where the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. May we look and see, listen and hear, and go and tell. Amen.