This is the beginning of the analysis of Matthew 24, and is the first of three paragraphs that looks at the phrase "Immediately after the oppression of those days". It's a long one, as we're sure you've noticed.
To make it easier for you (well, really to make it easier for us), we're going to break it down into five little sections. The first sentence outlines the whole issue at hand. The next 3 sentences point to the "foolish leaders" of religion, ending with "hath been made manifest". The next 4 sentences talk about what they do, ending with "flee from the latter". This is followed by 7 sentences of explanation of why they do what they do. And it concludes in the last sentence with a statement of the reality of what is happening.
To start, let's look at that first sentence. There appears to be something of a crescendo in the clauses that Baha'u'llah uses:
- the time when men shall become oppressed and afflicted,
- the time when the lingering traces of the Sun of Truth and the fruit of the Tree of knowledge and wisdom will have vanished from the midst of men,
- when the reins of mankind will have fallen into the grasp of the foolish and ignorant,
- when the portals of divine unity and understanding -- the essential and highest purpose in creation -- will have been closed
- when certain knowledge will have given way to idle fancy,
- and corruption will have usurped the station of righteousness
It starts with everyone feeling that sense of being heavily burdened by troubles or anxiety, and continues with that pain or misery. This was obviously the case in His days, as it is in ours. Normally, feeling oppressed or afflicted does not necessarily mean that you are. It just means that you feel that way, and those feelings are real. But here, Baha'u'llah says that this oppression and affliction are real. It is the reality.
He goes on and, in the second clause, points out that the traces of the Sun and the fruit of the Tree are gone, although the Sun and the Tree are still there. Like winter-time, the fruits are gone, as is the heat of the sun.
In the third phrase, it seems that because these traces and fruits have vanished, the foolish and ignorant have been able to usurp the reins of mankind. To picture this, you only have to imagine a horse-drawn cart. We, humanity, are like the horse, and the driver is no longer that good and wise husbandman. He has been replaced by someone who is foolish and, perhaps, reckless.
In the fourth point, we begin to realize just how depraved this new driver is. Because of this foolish driver, the team of horses is no longer united, nor are they confident that the driver knows where he is going. Let's not forget, this divine unity and understanding are, as He says, the essential and highest purpose of creation.
But it doesn't stop there. In the fifth point, we now know that the driver truly does not know where he is going. His supposed knowledge has been proven to be nothing more than his own imagination. The horse cart is out of control. The driver is now like the car thief who steals the car to go on a joy ride, before crashing and burning it.
Finally, He says that it is corruption that has taken over. The moral authority that is supposed to be in charge has lost its position to corruption. The good driver has been replaced by someone without a driver's license, with no right to take the car, or the cart, to go back to our original metaphor. In the end, we feel robbed.
This is where we are now. This is the state of affairs we see in the world today, and something needs to change.
The Foolish Leaders
At this point in the paragraph, Baha'u'llah further explains who it is that He is referring to: the foolish leaders. The adjective here, "foolish", is very important, for if they were not foolish and corrupt, then they would be good and wise leaders. If this were the case, then there would be no reason for a Messenger of God to correct the situation. And let's not forget, Baha'u'llah is not condemning everyone. There are many places in which He praises the good leaders, and exalts their station. Here, though, He is focusing our attention on those foolish ones who seem to be quite prevalent.
What are some of the qualities of these foolish leaders? Baha'u'llah gives us a number of characteristics of them. They "lead after their own whims and desire", God has become an empty word in their mouth, the Holy Word is meaningless to them, and conscience and reason have been overshadowed in their hearts by their desires.
How this could happen is something of a mystery, though. After all, the portals of the knowledge of God are open, the essence of all things has been illumined and inspired by the light of divine knowledge and heavenly grace, and every atom contains a trace of the sun. In short, they are completely blind to that which is self-evident.
We only need to see how the lust for money, or sexual gratification, have led some of these leaders astray. Or we can look at how many leaders are denying such obvious realities as climate change, otherwise known as global warming, as they still try to push through their own corporate agendas.
What they do
Baha'u'llah gives us a few examples of what it is that these foolish ones are doing. He says that they imagine the door of knowledge to be closed and that His mercy has stopped flowing, as if such things were ever possible. They cling to their own silliness, instead of looking at the guidance found within the Sacred Texts, the Urvatu'l-Vuthqa, that "sure handle" and "firm cord". They prefer to seek after earthly wealth, because the other path leads to self-sacrifice. And interestingly enough, Baha'u'llah seems to understand this, for He says that it is "natural". This is something that we all can relate to. It is far easier to seek after something as simple and shallow as money, while it is much more difficult to strive to grow spiritually. Getting to know yourself, and aligning your behaviour with the standard set forth in the Holy Books is no easy task and requires a sacrifice of the ego. Even Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
But what does this mean to us, for we are surely not religious leaders? We think that it's a reminder to not be attached to dogma or surface things. For example, remember the story of Muhammad when He suddenly turned away from Jerusalem and faced Mecca during His prayers? This was a huge test for many of His followers. They were so attached to the idea that they had to face Jerusalem that they forgot to be obedient to the new Messenger.
This also applies to us. There are many things that we do in our life that are nothing more than a custom, tradition or a part of our culture, and yet we tend to think of it as being the only way to do it. In this day of multiculturalism, and the mass migration of humanity across the face of the planet, we are encountering more and more people who do things in a different way than we do. By keeping this awareness in our mind, we will more easily see the underlying unity in our actions. For example, when the Aboriginal American washes the smoke over them in a smudging ceremony, that is no different than the Catholic dipping their fingers in the Holy Water. This is also the same as the Muslim or the Baha'i performing their ablutions by washing their hands and face. All are a way of preparing oneself to encounter the sacred.
When we think that our way is the only way to do something, then we are forgetting to be detached, forgetting to see the variety and beauty of the many ways of doing that same thing. By admitting that our way is only one of many, we demonstrate a degree of self-sacrifice and humility. And, as Baha'u'llah says, many flee from this.
Why they do it
Now there are two questions that come up. The first is why do people, in general, flee from this?
In one sense, it's not that difficult to understand. By clinging to "idle fancy", we can do very well for ourselves, but by striving to follow a Messenger of God, we are called to a station of sacrifice. We sacrifice our time, our money, and sometimes our very lives. At the very least, by striving for the things regarded as worthy by society, by trying to live up to those shallow and hollow standards, we may have what others call a successful life. But by endeavouring to walk that path of faith, we will generally be ridiculed and find many obstacles and tests thrown in our way. So, in one sense, it is not difficult to understand why people flee from this.
From the vantage point of religion, we can see how shallow those standards of society are, how fleeting the accolades and riches are. We understand that the true life is that of the spirit, and it is this for which we should strive.
The second question is why do the foolish leaders do what they do? The simple answer here is because of their ego. Even though they are aware that all the religions come from God, and that the Law of God is the same everywhere, they still issue their own decrees. Why? Because they see the important thing as being in a position of leadership, as opposed to promoting truth. We see this happening around us all the time. In politics, for instance, one politician will often deride another no matter the merit in what they propose. They feel that they must stand against it if it doesn't come from themselves or their political party. If they don't, they somehow feel that this may erode their political influence, even though this is nothing short of foolishness.
While this may seem a digression, this is a point that stood out to us. Baha'u'llah uses the interesting word "collyrium" to describe the knowledge of God. Collyrium is an eyewash, used to clean out the eye that is infected with a foreign object. Without the eyewash, your vision is either blurred, impaired, or altogether gone.
Imagine you're working in a warehouse, or somewhere dusty, and you get something in your eye. What do you do? You blink. You don't want to use the eyewash, mainly because it's very uncomfortable. You think you can just blink and you'll get the stuff out of your eye. In other words, you're in denial. You have something stuck in your eye and you need to get it out, but you don't want to use the prescribed remedy. You know the rules, you've had the safety training, and you know you're supposed to use the eyewash, but you still don't. (At least that's been our experience.) You figure you can just get rid of this annoying thing on your own.
But as anyone who has been in this position knows, that's just not the case. When you finally break down, admit you can't do it on you own, and use the eyewash according to the instructions, then you feel so much better and you can see clearly again. Oh, and those instructions usually prescribe using it for far longer than you think necessary. But if you really want the job done right, you better use it properly.
Finally, Baha'u'llah is telling us that we only need to look around us to see the truth of what He is saying. These leaders have preyed, but unfortunately with an "e", not an "a".