In 1773 the French philosopher Diderot wrote of how, during a dinner at the house of Joseph Neckar, the influential statesman, his views were sharply criticised and he found himself unable to think of a smart reply until he was on his way out of the house, at the “foot of the staircase.” This confession must have touched a cord with others because there soon developed a French expression, “l’esprit d’escalier” or “staircase wit” which referred to the smart replies we can all invent when it’s too late. Genuine wits are always relaxed enough to provide an immediate response. Charged with having failed to attend the funeral of a man he disliked, Mark Twain replied, “I didn’t attend the funeral but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”
Our chagrin at not being ready with a smart reply is linked to a much more serious regret: at being unready to respond as we would have wished to an important test of our humanity. I wanted to speak up for the victim of abuse, but I didn’t want to be unpopular…….I meant to offer significant help to a friend in trouble, but we were about to go on holiday……..I knew what was happening in our workplace was wrong but I didn’t blow the whistle because after all my job supported my family………… I wanted to stand up for someone who had been disgraced but then I wondered if they’d expose my secrets as well…….
This kind of unreadiness is serious because often the chance to do the right thing passes and all I can hope is that I’ve learned from my failure. But then the next test attacks a different weakness and once more I’m left telling myself afterwards, at the foot of the stairs, what I ought to have done. That’s why I have such an admiration for those who live boldly and are ready for the tests when they come.
I realised recently that Jesus was like that. It’s not a theme much examined by bible scholars or theologians, but Jesus as a man subject to frequent tests which he was always ready to meet, is a theme of the Gospels, and of the Letter to Hebrews. Matthew, Mark and Luke present Jesus as being put to the test by the Adversary, the Power of the world’s wrongness, at the outset of his ministry (with temptations) and subsequently by his opponents, ( with trick questions) by needy people, (with demands to become a village healer) and even by his disciples ( when he had to rebuke Peter as a Satanic voice). These are integral to Jesus’ battle against the evils that afflicted people, including the evils they brought on themselves and others.
In one way or another, almost all the encounters of Jesus’ ministry are presented as tests. Can he heal this person? Should he heal her? Will he condemn this one or forgive that one? Can he expose covert opposition and how can he withstand it when it becomes overt? How can he trust disciples who have so little trust in him? When the time comes, how will he face torture and death?
The gospels record a Jesus who is always adequate, always fully present, always ready with a sharp reply, an appropriate story, a shrewd question, an utterly compassionate response to need and an iron opposition to bullies. And none of this is credited to some supernatural inspiration. Jesus, the man, is grounded, unafraid, balanced, humourous, with a terrible desire to do what good he can, even to his opponents. For him this is the meaning of God: to be present in the world. This is the meaning of eternity: to be ready in time.
There were occasions when Jesus was not ready. The Gospels hint as much in the story of his struggle in the garden of Gethsemane, where in the course of rediscovering his own readiness, he warns his disciples that they have to find theirs. “Watch and pray” is an injunction which comes from someone who knew the importance and the difficulty of being ready. Doubtless he also failed sometimes, as for example in the way he dealt with a Canaanite woman whom he initially dismissed as a Gentile dog. He was able to learn from her witty willingness to be a dog, how wrong he was, and to make her readiness his own.
The book of Hebrews depicts Jesus as a high priest for all humanity who has offered his life to God as a sacrifice for human sin. The author asserts that it was essential that such a person understood human weakness. “The high priest we have is not incapable of sympathy for our weakness, for he has been put to the test in the same way as ourselves, apart from sin.” (Hebrews 4:15). Here the benefit of the testing is said to be that Jesus can understand his fellow human beings. Another benefit is that his fellow human beings can trust him.
Jesus’ readiness is an essential part of his offering to God. He does not hide his life or protect it but readily pours it out to meet the test. I am given the opportunity to learn from him how to stop ducking and diving and to face the tests of my life honestly. I can do this because I sense that his offering of life is for me and not against me, to enable me, rather than to condemn. And if I still fail, as of course I shall, then God says to my self-condemnation, “Don’t be so egotistical. I no longer see you as a separate life but only in company with my son Jesus.” I hope I can be ready for that test.