Touchstone: a benchmark standard or example by which we judge the excellence or genuineness of others.
A touchstone was a hard black stone, such as jasper or basalt, that was used to test the quality of precious metals such as gold. The metal was rubbed on the stone, where it would leave a streak which could be compared with the mark left by a standard piece. This is also the origin of ‘put to the touch’ to mean ‘put to the test’.
In the Bible, we find the Greek word basanos, which literally means a touchstone; but we find it used figuratively, to mean a test; and, as the Bible progresses, it moves from a test of value to a test in the sense of struggle or torment – even torture, by Revelation. In the Gospels, the centurion’s servant, lying in his sickbed, is being put to the basanos. So are the disciples, frightened by the storm as it tosses their boat about. The man called Legion, filled with demons, asks Jesus if he has come to put him to the test – to the touchstone – before his time. (And find out, presumably, just what his madness is made of.)
When I found this out, it surprised me a bit, because I tend to think of a touchstone in terms of myself being the one doing the testing. A touchstone is something I use to help me make good decisions. Like Marie Kondo, saying to hold up each thing you own and ask yourself if it sparks joy. Similarly, on the advice of my mother, I will wear clothes I love when going clothes shopping and ask myself if I like the garments I am trying on as much as what I’m already wearing.
Perhaps you have learned ways of testing things, which you know will hold true. I wonder what your touchstones are?
In our reading today, the teacher of the law tried to use the scriptures as a touchstone for the authority of Jesus, but Jesus reversed their positions. Trying to justify the question, the Rabbi asks, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ I’m sure you know that there were deep social and religious divisions between the Jews and the Samaritans, and understand that the Rabbi was forced to admit something socially shocking when identifying the person in the parable who had acted well. In this story, Jesus demonstrates that it is not enough to know the law, but it is in putting its principles into practice that righteousness is found.
This is a common theme of Jesus’ teaching – in the parable of the sheep and the goats (“Whatever you did to them, you did to me”), in his rebuke
to the Pharisees over Sabbath observance (“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” and, “Which of you wouldn’t dig his donkey out of a ditch?”), in the Sermon on the Mount, in the tale of the rich young man, in the cursing of the olive tree, in his warning against false prophets (“By their fruits shall you know them”). Jesus teaches that the evidence of what you really believe can be seen in the way you live your life. This is the test of your faith, in the way that I am used to thinking of applying a touchstone.
But the way the term touchstone – basanos – is used in the Bible invites us, I think, to look at testing in a different way. Not with us as the assayer and assessor; but as the one being tested, subjected to the laser eye of justice. The phrase ‘testing your mettle’ has the same meaning (mettle being an alternative spelling of metal). To find out how tough you are, you must bear up under great strain. To find out your strength, you must carry weight. To find out your stamina, you must go the distance. We know from our lives that it doesn’t feel pleasant or comfortable when we are forced to find out what we’re made of.
I wonder what has tested you to your limit? I wonder if there are things that pushed you past your limits and broke you?
Today is Passion Sunday, when Jesus tells the disciples that he’s going to Jerusalem, and warns them of what’s to come – although they don’t understand. It’s not passion in the sense of ardent or sensual love; it’s passion in the same sense as passivity, in allowing himself to be handed over to God’s purpose. It strikes me, today, that in the passion of Jesus, we see him putting himself to the test, enduring torment, and being pushed to the point of brokenness.
But it isn’t cause for despair.
This week I took my children to the optician for vision tests. The first time I took Michael, years ago, he was scared and didn’t want to go. With a little work, I discovered that he was afraid of being tested because he thought it was like a school exam, where you had to give the right answers or fail. Once I’d explained that it wasn’t about being right or wrong, but just finding out what his eyes are like and can do, he was willing to go through with it.
Life puts us through some difficult things sometimes, but I struggle to believe that it’s really a great big exam that you might ultimately fail. The
test of crucifixion appeared to break Jesus. It appeared to be a test that led to failure. But really it was a test that showed what he was made of; that through the man ran the core of light that connected him to the God of all things, and that could not be killed. And he was showing us that that could be true of us too. Jesus was put to the touchstone, and the mark he left was pure gold.