There’s a funny phrase going around Facebook that I’ve taken a liking to. It goes like this: “Not my monkeys. Not my circus.” It seems to be a Polish saying that, in a playful way, reminds people not to get involved with things that really do not concern them. These things are usually the sort that get us fired up. We become emotionally invested in somebody else’s business, and then can’t disentangle ourselves from the drama that ensues.
It’s like the monkeys from the traveling circus have gotten loose and are running amok causing chaos all over town. Now, it’s part of my nature to want to jump into the fray when things go wrong. The temptation is there to do something – to try to restore order, to keep the monkeys from hurting themselves or others. There’s just one problem: I have no idea how to handle monkeys.
A troop of primates on a freedom spree would make a monkey out of me. Before I know it I’d be calling for help myself and contributing to the chaos rather than resolving it.
The people that know how to handle the monkeys are the circus people – where the monkeys came from. It’s up to the circus people to corral their beasts and to be responsible for their crazy-making monkeys. They’re the best ones equipped to fix the mess they’ve made – not me. The best thing I can do is stay out of the way so they can do their job. They’re not my monkeys. It’s not my circus.
How often have you found yourself running around, trying to solve other people’s crises, only to find out it’s making you crazy?! I’m willing to bet we’ve all had the experience of trying to make someone happy who simply cannot be pleased no matter what we do. It’s a no-win situation. Creative people that we are, we try to satisfy every possible need. Stubborn people that we are, we don’t know when to quit. Naïve people that we are, we often fail to remember that we are not responsible for making others happy. Trying to please everybody all the time is not your monkeys. It’s not your circus.
In our Gospel today, Jesus ran into this same kind of situation. The people around him complain that he’s not satisfying them. No one likes to be criticized. None of us wants to hear people say that our best isn’t good enough. It must have been particularly hard on Jesus to hear these put-downs when Jesus is trying to save them – he’ll soon give his very life for these same people in a last act of giving all that he has to give. “You didn’t do what we wanted you to do!” They said. They don’t seem to appreciate what he’s trying to do for them. But Jesus isn’t rattled by their harsh words. Instead, he calls out the no-win situation.
They compare Jesus to John the Baptizer. They decided John was a demon because he neither ate nor drank. How could someone call himself a man of God and not spend time sharing a meal with others like civilized people do? John isn’t good enough to have a connection to God. That’s what the people say.
Then here comes this Jesus guy. Sure he teaches and heals in the name of God, but he’s clearly a glutton and drunkard because he both eats & drinks with people – and you know what sort of people I’m talking about. How can he call himself a man of God if he goes around eating other people’s food and drinking so much wine all the time? Jesus isn’t good enough to have a connection with God. That’s what the people say.
This is a clear case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s no way Jesus can reason this out with them. They’ve already made up their minds that this is how things are. They’ve set the crazy-making monkeys loose and have no interest in bringing them back to their circus. They would much rather be entertained by watching Jesus try to catch them all. To their dismay – and to our great relief – Jesus doesn’t take the bait.
Jesus did what Jesus was there to do, and nothing more. He came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. He wasn’t there to live up to other people’s unreasonable expectations of him, or play their games, or to try to make everybody happy. Remember how people said they expected the Messiah to be a mighty warrior, or a great king, and how perplexed they were that he was born into poverty?
It was clear within Christ from the beginning what his goal and purpose was, and that’s where he kept his focus. Had he tried to conform to everybody else’s expectations, Jesus might never have gotten beyond the stable in Nazareth.
In our Gospel, we learn from the master what it means to exercise healthy self-differentiation. But this lesson isn’t exclusively in the Gospel. Today we get to see a range of the progression to this very healthy state of being.
In our first reading from Zechariah, we meet up with the people of God as they return from exile. One of the big reasons God’s people find themselves in exile is because they lost focus on themselves: they are God’s people; they are to be distinct among the surrounding nations; they are to maintain the integrity of the people they became when they entered the Promised Land. The Exodus was a long process of learning to understanding themselves, and God wants all that work of formation to continue.
But God’s people became wooed by all the fancy things they saw in the nations surrounding them: great armies, flashy temples, lots of bling. They saw all the trappings of others and began to think that if they didn’t have those things too, they were somehow lacking. So they began to mimic what they saw. In the process of this monkey-see-monkey-do (I say that ironically), they also took on the self-destructive tendencies that were not so apparent.
Now we pick up the story of Israel after their realization that God made them just right in the first place. They finally understood that their value was purposely unique – not lacking because it didn’t look like or act like the people all around them. Hallelujah! and thanks be to God for realizing that healthy self-differentiation is a great gift from God!
The amazing and grace-filled feat of getting to this place of self-awareness is easier said than done, however. If you’ve ever tried to assert yourself to a dominant personality, you know how hard it is. In our Epistle, we find Paul working out the difficulty of this.
Paul frames this tension as a struggle within himself. The things he wants to do, that he characterizes as desires of the flesh, are those things that his culture deemed perfectly ok. Not everything that culture says is perfectly okay really is. I’m sure you can think of lots of examples of that within our own culture. For Paul, he personalizes it to an interior struggle between what he knows God is calling him to be and do, versus what the dominant culture would prefer of him.
The interesting thing to note in this lesson is that Paul doesn’t come to a resolution about it. He remains in the lifelong tension between these two competing forces. What he concludes though, is that his relationship with God in Jesus Christ is the only reliable way of living with the tensions of life. It is by keeping the teachings of Jesus in the forefront of his thoughts and actions that he can find that delicate balance of successfully living and working with the people all around him, and maintaining the integrity of discipleship to Christ.
Paul really is speaking in very practical terms – even if it reads more like his typical round-about logic. We’re all stuck in the tension of staying true to ourselves and discerning God’s unique call for our lives, while living with the expectations of others. They’re not necessarily the same thing. The trouble comes when we confuse unreasonable expectations for reasonable ones, or think that our entering into another’s chaos can somehow fix it.
I want to underscore an important detail about this lifelong process of maintaining a healthy self-differentiation. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he writes, “I have become all things to all people.” This is one of those lines people like to throw out when they think they can successfully manage the lives of everyone around them. What we read from Romans was written some time after 1st Corinthians. So somewhere along the line Paul realized that it actually isn’t possible to be all things to all people. It isn’t possible to please everyone all the time. It was pretty arrogant of Paul to say that. Even Jesus didn’t go that far.
And that brings us back to the Gospel. We are called to imitate Jesus, as his disciples. What we learn today is how to call out no-win situations for what they are, and to avoid getting caught up in other people’s drama. Some people will never be happy no matter what you do, so do your best to not get sucked in to no-win situations that will only leave you exhausted: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It’s not possible to corral someone else’s troop of escaped monkeys, and unreasonable for others to expect you to.
We witnessed the joy of Israel when they finally learned this powerful lesson. But the difficulty of imitating Jesus in this way is affirmed by Paul. Learning to recognize your own limitations, and set healthy boundaries for reasonable expectations is not a lesson mastered once and for all. We all will spend our lifetimes re-establishing where our responsibilities end and others’ begin. The good news today is especially for those of us weary from carrying heavy burdens.
It’s not always easy to see when the Master uses humour in his teachings, but today we get a good look at it. Jesus brings a little levity to the teaching by comparing the unreasonable people to children. It’s a little bit of an insult, but more playfully drawing their attention to the boundary infraction that are the games they expect him to play. He adds a little lightness to the situation. If Jesus can get away with a gentle jab like that, surely we can make light of our burden with a playful calling out invitations to get involved with other people’s chaos: not my monkeys – not my circus. And that’s the good news.