(90) S5E12 SOTM: Jade

Continuing the Sermon on the Mount working through Mt. 6:25-34, 7:7-11.


  • Richard Rohr's "Sermon on the Mount": https://www.amazon.com/dp/B003A0IASQ/ref=cm_sw_r_em_api_uOXEFbGCN7ASQ
  • Dallas Willard's "The Divine Conspiracy": https://www.amazon.com/Divine-Conspiracy-Rediscovering-Hidden-Life/dp/0007596545/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=dallas+willard+divine+conspiracy&qid=1601907374&sr=8-1


Jade
 
In life the only certainty we get
Is that death for each of us is assured
We, like the gods, insure through jade rabbit
Our destiny’s sufficiently ensured
 
But pestle and mortar cannot concoct
A cure for pestilence which mortifies
Impending doom, our sacred lives, defrocks
And minds, in time, to lunacy it drives
 
What can we prize in life's vap'rous glory?
Truth - a lowly and humble parapet
Our choice, to bay as beasts in furore
Or put truth into our pipes and smoke it
 
Worry not for tomorrow is its own
And emperor is seated on his throne


 

[Mt. 6:25-34, 7:7-11]. While jade can have a number of colors, green is the most well known (along with white). Especially in Asia (particularly China), jade was thought of as scholarly and imperial. It could supposedly increase the longevity of your life and heal.
 
The “Jade Rabbit” (or hare) is a shape ancients in the East saw in the moon. If you look it up, you can find the shape of a rabbit who appears to be grinding up substances with a mortar and pestle. This rabbit supposedly mixed the elixir of life for the gods. I reference it here because of the reference to “jade,” but also because jade has an association with nobility and status – which the gods certainly had. We set ourselves up as gods as we seek to immortality the same. The last line with “Destiny” also makes this stanza a nerd reference, as the “jade rabbit” is an exotic weapon in the Destiny franchise of video games.
 
There is a wordplay going on here, as the “pestle” and “mortar” the jade rabbit uses has as its roots “pest” and “mort.” We see these roots come back in “pestilence” and “mortifies.” This isn’t a mere repetition of root words, but rather a juxtaposition of ideas. Whereas the rabbit uses his “pest” and “mort’ to perpetuate life, we see that “pest” and “mort” are the ultimate takers of life. This doesn’t mean that it is the rabbit in the moon that kills us, but rather that placing our hope in such things is the opposite of true life. There are also a lot of things going on just with the word “mortifies” here, as there are a number of definitions coming into play here. In short, it means that it brings about fear (I’m mortified), it brings about decay, and it is death (mortem in Latin is death) to us mortals. 
 
The knowledge of our demise, in time, disrobes our vain and lofty beliefs about ourselves. No matter how great someone is in life, they are made equal in death. We stand naked in front of the world with this truth, and it hurts. To dwell on this truth and acknowledge it, in time, can drive us mad. “Lunacy” here is yet another tie-in to the moon which was introduced as our jade rabbit’s home. 
 
This is nearly a direct quote from an ancient Chinese poem called “The Old Dust” by Li Bai (or Li Po, or Li Bo). The line referenced is the final line of the poem: “What is there to prize in the life’s vaporous glory?” I only changed it to fit the iambic pentameter of the sonnet format. Bai’s poem is largely about how short our lives are and how the finitude of our lives seems to make them purposeless. 

 
So what can we prize in life if everything about our lives is fleeting? Well, it seems the one thing that is not fleeting is truth. What is true now is always true. If it is 10:12 right now, while it won’t always be 10:12, it will always be true that it was 10:12 at the point at which I said it was 10:12. Truth is immutable, though truths about mutable things change as those things grow, age, learn, etc. I could truthfully say that I will be 33 tomorrow, and I could say that each day for about another month. But one day, I must stop saying that because it will no longer be true. The truthfulness of my statements haven’t changed, but my position changes the need for me to recognize a new truth which corresponds to my situation. But as I discussed in line 8, the acceptance of truth, particularly the truth that death is inevitable (and according to Bai, the vanity which comes from this truth), drives us to lunacy. That’s why here I refer to truth as being a low “parapet.” In my mind I’m imagining our lives as like traversing a high, narrow bridge. If truth is our guiding purpose, it’s an awfully low parapet to protect us from either falling over or choosing to jump over the edge. Hedonists and suicidal nihilists aren’t anywhere different on the spectrum of their understanding of truth, they simply differ as to how they live in light of that truth. Truth in and of itself isn’t helpful. Alvin Planginga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism raises this same problem as he shows how truth is irrelevant for (and it can also be logically followed that it is sometimes even harmful to) survival. 
 
There are three meanings in here. First, to “bay” should once again bring ideas of the moon back into play, as wolves bay at the moon. Second, English readers commonly read “Bai” (as in Li Bai) as BAY, though I believe it’s actually pronounced BY E. So this is a reference back to Li Bai. Finally, I unpack the first option we have living in meaninglessness. First, we can become like beasts and throw off rationality. We can choose to believe that love, free will, and purpose exist in a physical world though we know they can’t. We can absolutely ignore the implications of the truth and suppress it. See Appendix 13 for discussions on truth and love on a naturalistic system. 
 
There is a ton going on in this line. 1) This line references two other options we have at our disposable to deal with purposelessness of a finite life. One is that we can turn to drugs (represented in the pipe), which is simply a reference for turning to pleasure and substances to numb or ignore the truth. Rather than act like irrational beasts who don’t seem to know the truth, these individuals know the truth but defy it. They seize the day and try to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The second option  is that you can simply deal with it, whether you like it or not, making sense of the idiomatic line: “you can put it in your pipe and smoke it.” 
 
2) Jade was particularly thought to add longevity to life if smoked through jade pipes. This reference to putting it (truth implied) in your pipe and smoking it is that the acceptance of truth will actually add longevity to your life. Since I believe the truth is the Christian truth, I don’t think it is a low parapet. I think it is our sustaining hope. I answer how this is the case in the final couplet. 
 
The ultimate truth above all truths is that God is on his throne and reigns in power. This life is a vapor, as James and Bai say, but Christians also know that there is resurrection. The truth that God is in control, that God is love, and that God provides in that he will ultimately preserve us, then we don’t have to look to the past or the future, like Bai, and be depressed. The truth gives us hope, and hope allows us to live today in security. In this sense, we are the most free. Whereas the hedonist is controlled by her fate, being forced to cram as much pleasure into their lives, we Christians are not controlled by our future. We are freed by it to live today as today, and not shackled to tomorrow.

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