John Bennison Words and Ways | 2011 | March

Down and Out: On the Inconsequence of a Bodily Resurrection

[A pdf version to read and/or print can be found here. Note: This Commentary on the raising of Lazarus corresponded with the Fifth Week of the Lenten Season, 2011. For context it will be helpful to be familiar with the Common Lectionary Texts found at the end of this pdf version.]

Raising of Lazarus, a mid-12th century fresco, Cappella Palatina di Palermo, Italy.

Down and Out: On the Inconsequence of a Bodily Resurrection

 
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to Jesus, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  … Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 

John 11:39, 45

 
 
 But when you get back up on your feet again,
Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend.
It’s mighty strange, without a doubt,
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.

         Depression-era songwriter, Jimmy Cox

 

When the catastrophic tsunami swept ashore along Japan’s north coast in March, 2011, it swept so much flotsam and jetsam back out to sea it is anticipated some of the floating debris will reach all the way across the Pacific to U.S. beaches in the coming days.

But two weeks after the initial destruction — once rescue efforts had shifted to recovery mode for the thousands upon thousands of bodies to be dug out from the mud tombs, or retrieved from the sea, a helicopter twenty three miles offshore spotted a dog pacing back and forth on what was once the roof of someone’s home.

The rescue workers winched the mutt to safety, with the entire operation caught on videotape, just in time for the evening news broadcast.  The dog’s owner spotted what once was lost, but now was found on the television screen.  The tearful, tongue-lapping, tail-wagging reunion provided one little story with a happy ending, in the face of so much death and destruction.  Going by the name of Ban, the mutt was clearly down, but not out.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago in Tacoma, Washington, Tiffany Kauth had taken her dog, Sugar, to Ron Pace’s Saturday morning dog obedience class.  Once there, the dog suddenly collapsed with a seizure.  It’s eyes rolled back in its head, and it stopped breathing.  The trainer first tried chest compressions for a couple minutes on the animal. When that didn’t do the trick, he resorted to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  With his own lips covering those slobbery jowls and wet nostrils, he forced oxygen into the dog’s lungs.

Seconds later the dog revived!  It appeared to be a little frightened and bewildered at having returned from the dead, but was otherwise okay.  Holding back the tears, Tiffany later told reporters, “I was absolutely certain that I was losing my dog.”  But as it happened, Sugar was only down, but not out.

But the best shaggy dog story recently occurred when a cage with six pups was found dumped outside an animal control shelter in a small town near Oklahoma City. The vet determined the critters were too sick to survive, and the decision was made to euthanize them all.  Each dog was given two lethal doses of a sedative, one injected into the foreleg and the other into the heart. Either dose was more than enough to kill a dog.

But the next morning animal control officer Scott Prall found one of the pups alive and well, peering out of a dumpster used to dispose of the animal remains. “He was just prancin’ around,” Scott said. “He heard me drive up, and he just looked up and saw me!”

When a young girl in town (the name of the town, by the way, is Sulphur, OK … hey, you can’t make up stuff this good) heard the news, she named the dog Wall-e, and posted his story on Facebook.  It went viral, of course, and before long thousands of people wanted to adopt the death-defying miracle mutt who nobody wanted before.  Even with the fresh stench of death all about him, Wall-e had more than beat the odds, to dance on his own grave.

If I’d been there to hear Wall-e a-howlin’, dollars to donuts I just betcha he’d be singin’ the blues:

But when you get back up on your feet again,
Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend.
Said it’s mighty strange, without a doubt,
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.

 

Now, John’s gospel offers a detailed account of what certainly sounds like a newsworthy story; about a character named Jesus, bringing his friend Lazarus back from the grave.  While Lazarus gets a mention in some of the earlier synoptic gospels, John’s account develops a highly stylized Christological and cultural statement of belief by this particular early Christian community.

As such, they were a generation or two removed from any eyewitness accounts of what might have been an original version of a common human circumstance that later evolved into this wonderful mythic tale; meant to convey some profound gospel truths, over against any unbelievable supernatural feats of magic.

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Mistaken Identity, or When Bad People Do Good Things

 

Mistaken Identity, or When Bad People Do Good Things

 

[NOTE: This entire Commentary is based on a reflection of John 9:1-38.  For context it will be extremely helpful to be familiar with this Common Lectionary gospel text printed at the end of pdf version of this Commentary found here]

The man replied, “I don’t know whether or not he is a sinner, but I know this: I used to be blind but now I see. 
(John 9:25)
 
You can offer to the righteous
All the good that you have won.
But down here among the unclean
Your good work just comes undone.
Your work just comes undone.

                               The Road to Ensenada, singer/songwriter, Lyle Lovett

 

There is within the compilation of writings Christians call our sacred scriptures the ‘wisdom tradition’ literature, consisting of proverbs, aphorisms, adages, and other sayings.  “I didn’t know that was from the Bible,” you’ll hear someone exclaim in astonishment.  Jesus himself is said to have drawn from this tradition to spin some of his parables and give us some of his teachings.

Sometimes, such sayings can lose their original source and meaning, becoming life’s little mottos and slogans to live by, in some other form; and sometimes reduced to the size of a bumper sticker.

Sometimes they become such culturally inculcated generalizations that it is presumed everyone thinks the same way, and it’s all  just taken for granted; so that they become equally unexamined or unquestioned.

Public assumptions about stereotypical beliefs found in popular religion does this all the time.  Then it becomes something as ubiquitous as what I would call conventional wisdom.  To see what I mean, take a look at a little conventional wisdom, and come up with your own examples as we go along.  Here we go:

Good things happen to good people.  When good things happen to good people, we say all is right with the world.  Good people are good people, because they do good things.  It’s only right that they should enjoy the fruits of their righteousness. It stands to reason.  Anyone can see that.

When bad things happen to good people, something’s clearly wrong with the world. It is not right that the righteous should suffer; especially at the hands of bad people. They don’t deserve it. They didn’t do anything wrong, so we sometimes we call them the “innocents.” Anyone can see that too, right?

And if bad things happen to good people, conventional wisdom conjures up something else, because folks want to believe there must be a reason for it.  So we go looking for some explanation and come up with all those flimsy excuses, in order to make sense out of what is otherwise intolerable chaos; or worse, the creeping fear and suspicion some compassionate and all-powerful divine entity isn’t really all that caring or powerful.  Within the framework of conventional wisdom, I’ve personally never really heard an acceptable explanation or excuse.

Here’s some more conventional wisdom:

When bad things happen to bad people, no one seems to get too upset.  In fact, there is often a feeling of righteous vindication.  They get what they deserve.  If you do bad things, bad things should result.  You reap what you sow, and like a bumper sticker I once read at a stoplight put it: “Vice is it’s own reward.”

But when good things happen to bad people, conventional wisdom says something’s clearly wrong. It’s not fair.  And what’s even more incomprehensible is the notion that bad people can do anything good.  It just goes against the grain of conventional wisdom, and rubs everyone the wrong way.

But when good things happen to bad people, conventional wisdom says something’s clearly wrong. …  What’s even more incomprehensible is the notion bad people can do anything good.  It just goes against the grain and rubs everyone the wrong way.

When Jesus heals a man blind from birth on the Sabbath he is not only violating Sabbath law, he’s breaking with the conventional wisdom of his day.  His own follower’s question (asking Jesus who obviously sinned, this man or his parents, that this physically impaired – and therefore unclean – person is the way he is?) reflects such conventional wisdom

Even decades later when John’s gospel is composed, the storyteller may still be viewed as working within the confines of conventional wisdom, providing a reason for Jesus’ action; that is, to presumably show God’s glory at work in the One to whom the early community of believers would accord such divine powers and status.

What about that conventional wisdom reflected in the disciple’s question and the gospel writer’s profession of faith (if it hangs on the veracity of feats of magic)?  What about he kind of conventional wisdom that still operates with seeming impunity to this day?  Jesus the lawbreaker rejects it all.

So what do you do with a bad person who does good things?  And, especially when good things happen to bad people as a result?

About that … kind of conventional wisdom that still operates with seeming impunity to this day?  Jesus the lawbreaker rejects it all.  So what do you do with a bad person who does good things?  And, especially when good things happen to bad people as a result?

After all, a good person isn’t supposed to do bad things, whether anything good results from it or not.  And, especially not for the benefit of others deemed inherently bad (and therefore, undeserving).  Period.

That’s all that seems to matter to everyone in this story; from the neighbors, to the parents, to the religious authorities.  Everyone, that is, except the once-blind beggar/sinner.

The astonishing result of the blind man’s cure is lost to the fuss and confusion that results from the orderly world of conventional wisdom and legalistic religion getting turned upside down; where those who thought they could see the way things are supposed to be, can’t see anything at all.

The neighbors can’t recognize a blind man they’ve known all their life.  “Yeah, it’s him!” say some.  “Nah, can’t be,” say others. “It just looks like him.”

His own parents? Instead of leaping for joy at the news their own child can now look back into their sad faces and see his mother and father for the first time, they all but disown him.  For fear of being complicit in upsetting the apple cart, and going against Sabbath observance and the orderliness of accepted convention, they abandon their own flesh and blood, and only offer those pathetic excuses. “He’s no longer a minor, he’s on his own, ask him yourself,” they say.

And the religious hierarchy?  Those entrusted with the power and authority to preserve the blessings of the Sabbath completely lose sight of the most basic, emancipating principle of the religious life; that the Sabbath was made for the benefit of all God’s people — the lost and the redeemed –and not the other way around.

The religious professionals are portrayed as further impaired by their self-concern for blind power.  In their prideful indignation (“You! Born as you are entirely in sin, you’re trying to teach us?”), they expose their insatiable hunger to hoard forgiveness like it’s a commodity; dispensing it those deemed worthy, while withholding it from those who desperately need it the most.

Now, I’m sure we all regard Jesus as a good person, who obviously did good things.  So we’d say he was only perceived as doing bad things; and only according to the screwed up conventional wisdom and religious hypocrisy of his day.  We’d like to excuse ourselves and say, in Jesus’ case, it was clearly a case of “mistaken identity.”  Anyone can see that, right?

But if that is so, why then do we still so readily accept such other conventional folly to this day, and call it wisdom?

We all regard Jesus as a good person, who did good things.  So we’d say he was only perceived as doing bad things … it was clearly a case of “mistaken identity.”  Anyone can see that, right? But if that is so, why then do we still so readily accept that other conventional folly to this day, and call it wisdom?

As a miracle story, there’s a lot of conventional religious thinking that seems to simply focus on believing in Jesus the miracle worker. It’s a shortsighted view.

First, you can’t explain a miracle without explaining it away.  So don’t get hung up on the miraculous feat, but rather the result. Reducing the story to a question of believing or not believing in something seen by some eyewitnesses as “miraculous” is an unnecessary distraction.

The miraculous healing Jesus performs with his magic potion of spit and mud is a dramatic device meant to point us to the more important place in the story, and a different way of seeing things:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there’s another, different kind of wisdom.  It is a kind of wisdom that helps us see there is little difference between those who presume to see, and those who are blind; between those who are good, and still do bad things, and those who are deemed to be bad, or unclean, or unworthy; but who nonetheless have the capacity – by what we call the Grace of God – to turn their lives around and do good, even amazing, things.

Just ask yourself if you’ve ever known a bad Christian. You shouldn’t have to look too far.  Then ask yourself if you’ve ever known just a saint of a person, who may have not only had a checkered past, but also didn’t appear to have a religious bone in their body.   If you’re lucky enough to have had someone like that in your life, it could make a real believer out of you.  Just ask the man at the end of this little gospel story.

Borrowing some lines from one of crossover country singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett’s tunes, you might say Jesus “offered to the righteous all the good that he had won.”  But when he got “down there among the unclean” – and he did it all the time – “all his good just came undone.”  But that’s the way it goes with conventional wisdom.

Jesus rejects the conventional thinking of his day that passes for wisdom, and such conventional wisdom rejects Jesus; along with the notion that bad people can do good things.  It is something that is as pervasive now, as it was in Jesus’ day.  And it is likely as pervasive in some ecclesiastical hierarchies, as it was among those blind and begrudging Pharisees.   The blind lead the blind, and there’s little wisdom to be found in it.

An old friend and colleague once taught me a baptismal blessing I’ve since used for decades, for those who would presume to set out upon that alternative path of wisdom Jesus walks.  It offers various blessings for the candidate’s ears, lips, hands, feet, and – in this case – the eyes.

“I bless your eyes,” it goes.  “I bless your eyes, that you may see the face of Christ in all people.”

I take that to mean all people.  And I take such a blessing to be the greater miracle.

 

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to http://173.254.107.125/wordsnways

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Subterranean Homesick Blues

Subterranean Homesick Blues

A Commentary for Lent  III, Common Lectionary, Year A

[For context it will be extremely helpful to be familiar with the Common Lectionary Texts assigned for this observance, found here. You can print and/or read a pdf version here.]

 

The woman said to Jesus, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water.”  John 4:11

  “You don’t need a weather man,

To know which way the wind blows.”

Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan, 1965

 

Above: Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well – He Qi

 
Just as it is, it rains,
I get wet,
I walk.
 
Well, which way
should I go?
The wind blows.
 
Going deeper,
and still deeper –
The green mountains.

Three Haiku, MountainTasting, Santoka Taneda (1882-1940)

 translated by John Stevens

 

 Water. Sometimes you can’t get enough of it.  Drought conditions in the East African nations of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are having devastating effects on entire populations of marginalized and forgotten peoples.

Water. Sometimes there’s too much of it. Couple it with an earthquake and a tsunami can cripple a country, and this time send detectable amounts of radiation levels around the globe.

Water.  Sometimes you can’t get rid of it.  The winter rains have so saturated the soil around my house, it’s taken three sump pumps to keep us high and dry.

Water.  Modern science tells us the human body is about 60% water in adult males, but only 55% in adult females.  I do not presume to know the reason for the difference.  Regardless, this is obviously a slightly more significant issue for us guys.

Given that (and culture), I bet that’s why it was most likely all the male Israelites who quarreled with Moses at Raphidim about a shortage of water in the desert. In the desert, hello?  And, I bet they were first in line to slake their thirst when life-giving water gushed from a rock, of all places. (Exodus 17:1-7)

I bet that’s also why there would have been no more natural, nor mundane, a setting for a tale about Jesus and the woman at the well than the one told in John’s gospel; with all the elaborate symbolism woven throughout the storyline by the interpretation of this early community of Christian believers.

It is this highly-stylized portrait of Jesus throughout John’s gospel that develops our living relationship to the one who is now (as then) among us only in Spirit, so it’s best not to take anything literally; where here Jesus is a vine, and we are the branches.  He is the way, and we are his wayfarers.  He’s the light of the world, and illumines our way. He is the sure provision for our journey; for he is bread of life and living water.

It is this highly-stylized portrait of Jesus …  that develops our living relationship to the one who is now (as then) among us only in Spirit, so it’s best not to take anything literally.

What better setting to help us imagine a deeper way to journey into a more abundant life with one who shows us the face of God, than a water well that does not run dry; but where one digs deep, to reach the most natural of springs, such “living” waters.  These are the “sure provisions” that have been there from the first day of creation; when the primordial waters separated from dry land, and it was all deemed to be good.

So here’s how I have re-imagined that “subterranean goodness” that might be found in this gospel tale, if one has a thirst to reach a little deeper, and draw something more from such a wellspring:

Jesus is alone by the time he reaches the next town on his journey.   Everyone’s hungry, so his travelling companions have gone off to forage for provisions, and presumably return at some point.  So the story of this private exchange about to take place clearly moves us into another realm of truth-telling; about what is “true,” and what really happens again and again, regardless of the names of the characters, time and place.

It’s the heat of the day. Jesus is weary and foot-sore from trekking miles on those hot, dusty back roads. The thick dust sticks to the sweat of his body. His mouth tastes like sawdust. He’s thirsty.  He’s just thirsty.

He collapses beside a well, and looks around. Then he shrugs his shoulder, with a sigh. “Wouldn’t you know it?” he laughs to himself.  “No bucket.”

A woman approaches this stranger. She’s got a bucket, and a look in her eye.

His throat is parched and his voice is hoarse, but he gestures with his hand, and gets out a few words, “Water, please.”

Swinging her bucket in front of him playfully, she dares to engage him in conversation.  “You’re not from around these parts, are you?  We don’t see your type very often; especially talkin’ with someone like me.”

Jesus takes a deep breath, and the dry heat almost bakes his lungs. He sighs again.  He’s just hot, and tired, and thirsty.  He knows her type, and has little interest in playing games.

Oblivious, she teases and taunts him.  “Know what?  You have no bucket, and this well is mighty deep.  Betcha didn’t know that.”

In exasperation, Jesus mutters under his breath, “Apparently, the well is deeper than you can fathom.”

But then he looks at her again, standing there with her shallow guile and sad, simple smile.  And – as happens to him again and again, he just can’t seem to help himself — his heart goes out to her.

But then he looks at her again, standing there with her shallow guile and sad, simple smile.  And – as happens to him again and again, he just can’t seem to help himself — his heart goes out to her.

 Mind you, he has no problem breaking with social convention and ethnic taboos speaking with this woman in public.  Centuries and centuries before either of them had ever set foot on this earth their common ancestors had split up, when some of them in Samaria had intermarried with the Assyrians.  They hadn’t been on speaking terms since.  They wouldn’t even drink from the same cup if it killed ‘em.

But this itinerant preacher’s sermons have had a very different message and vision for Jew and Samaritan; for men and women, for those who are considered acceptable by some and those who are deemed unacceptable.  His message imagined another kind of place that went far beyond such rigidity of the heart; or people telling other people who they should or shouldn’t marry.

And, at that moment, it was something that just went so much deeper than the banal drivel and cheeky behavior of the one standing before him, who longed to buck against her station in life; who only had the same old bucket, for the same old well their ancestors had provided.

At the same time, clearer than anything else at that moment was that Jesus just wanted a drink of water.  Here was a well.  There was a bucket.  What is the problem?

If there was a problem, it belonged to the Samaritan woman, who couldn’t look at a man without seeing a potential future husband. Again.  Whether previously widowed or divorced by a note of dismissal, she’s still convinced a man in her life will make her a whole person.  Given the custom and culture of which she is a part, she’s right.  Unmarried, she is regarded as nothing more than something to be bartered and owned, at best.

Lord knows, she’s already tried five times, and working on number six.  It shouldn’t take a fortune-teller to figure out her sad and misfortunate circumstances.  As Dylan put it, “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”  You just first need to know the wind is blowin’.  And then, it just takes a little heart; heart for this woman who’s clearly dying of a whole other kind of thirst.

“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”  You just first need to know the wind is blowin’And then, it just takes a little heart … for this woman who’s clearly dying of a whole other kind of thirst.

It seems to me the significance of this story about Jesus and the woman at the well is typically interpreted in such a way that it’s all about Jesus, who he was, and how his messianic coming into this world was meant to be expanded (in the Hellenistic perspective in which John’s gospel was written) to Samaria and the wider world.

So, as the story gets elaborated, the local townspeople ultimately don’t take the woman’s word for it. Beyond her lack of credibility because she’s a woman, they probably all know full well she has a certain reputation.  Just ask her ex-husbands.

So they establish their own testimony about who Jesus the magician is, who can draw water from a bottomless well.  About this fortune-teller is, who can see right through us and expose our most intimate secrets.  About this worldly foreigner is who seems to speak with such knowledge and authority.  About this notorious stranger is, the one who comes to so spectacularly save the world.

However — given the fact that the earliest sources we have about what was most nearly the original voice of Jesus rarely has him talking about himself — makes me suspect the origins of this tale had more to do with the people Jesus encountered, and their story.  So it is that this story has more to do with this no-name Samaritan woman of questionable character.

Later we have John’s early faith community looking back and interpreting who Jesus is for them, as “living water” and world savior.  But like all those stories we find in the earlier (synoptic) gospels, it’s all about the circumstances of the people Jesus encounters; about the afflictions from which they suffer and he heals and relieves them; and about the parables he spins for them, about a different way of living their lives.

If this hot, tired and thirsty Jesus is out to save the world on the back roads of Galilee and Samaria, he clearly seems to be doing it one person, or one town, at a time.  The later development of some grand, cosmic soteriology seems to have originally risen out of just such an encounter with one plain-faced, half-breed peasant woman at a well.

If this hot, tired and thirsty Jesus is out to save the world on the back roads of Galilee and Samaria, he clearly seems to be doing it one person, or one town, at a time.

In his exchange with this one woman, Jesus encounters her in the common drudgery of her daily life.  She is schlepping water in an endless trek from well to hearth, and back again. She wants a way out, but the only way she knows is one that keeps her going in circles.

So, with her own insufferable life, he invites her to go deeper; to draw deeper from that which I simply imagine might have been the well of her own tears and heartache, disappointment and self-loathing, from her own “subterranean homesick blues.”  Paul writes,

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

The Jesus of John’s gospel says elsewhere he is light to the world. Who wouldn’t want a little light?  Or a little “living water.”  The Samaritan woman thought she came to the well to fill up the same old bucket.  Jesus takes one long, pitied look at the woman and her insufferable life, and suggests she go deeper into her suffering, and be enlightened, or refreshed.  (Romans 5:3-5)  As Franciscan guide, Richard Rohr writes:

Enlightenment … is always given from another.  Wisdom is not a do-it-yourself project.  The Spirit blows where it pleases, and for those of us on the journey, all we can do is listen for the lessons and remain open.  Jesus called this faith.  All we can really do is ask for the grace to be open and willing enough to recognize the doorways …  The door is almost always some form of suffering—physical, relational, emotional, intellectual, or structural.  I define suffering as what happens to you whenever you are not in control. Enlightenment is not about knowing as much as it is about unknowing; about entering the mystery than arriving at a mental certitude.

On the Threshold of Transformation

 

Santoka Teneda was a reknowned 20th century free-style haiku poet.  He was also a Buddhist monk.  It figures.  Such severe economy of words used in the practice of writing a haiku is a maddening discipline for more verbose word merchants like myself. More contemplative types are better able to go deeper with less, and set loose the imagination that springs from between a few well-placed syllables.

 Just as it is,
it rains, I get wet,
I walk.

 But long before Teneda reached middle age and began what would be a pilgrimage the rest of his days, his life story was extraordinary only to the extent it included more than its share of ordinary tragedies.  As Nonin Sensei, Abbot of the Nebraska Zen Center, relates it:

When he was eleven, Santoka’s mother committed suicide. His father, a notorious womanizer, mismanaged the family’s property and eventually lost everything, with Santoka’s help – for the young man became an alcoholic at an early age and helped ruin the business he was involved in – a sake brewery. Santoka’s younger brother also committed suicide, and Santoka’s marriage was a disastrous failure.

Near the end of December 1924, Santoka, drunk and intent on committing suicide, stood in the middle of some railroad tracks, facing an oncoming train. The train screeched to a halt just in time, and Santoka was pulled out of the way. He was taken to a nearby Zen temple call Ho-on-ji. The head priest there, Gian Mochizuki Osho, did not reprimand or question Santoka; he didn’t even ask his name. The monk fed Santoka, and told him he could stay at the temple as long as he wished.

A year later, Santoka was ordained a Zen Buddhist priest by Gian. He was 42 years old. For the rest of his life, Santoka wandered throughout Japan, living from hand to mouth, and composing a remarkable body of free-style haiku.

 Well, which way
should I go?
The wind blows.

If this sounds too ethereal, I am sobered by the fact that in other ways Teneda remained a living testament to the fact that in this life, it’s a mixed bag.  He never completely escaped his suffering, as addiction remained an unwelcome companion to the end.

At the same time, it seems evident when there were days when he was hot, weary and footsore from his travels, he came to know a different kind of thirst.

For, I bet he could still remember that night of insufferable despair, and the enlightened encounter of the temple priest who neither rebuked, nor judged him; but simply accepted him, took him in, and provided for him.

I can imagine it was not unlike the woman’s encounter with Jesus at a well.

Going deeper,
and still deeper –
The green mountains.

 

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to <http://173.254.107.125/wordsnways>

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What-if’s, If-only’s, Do-overs and Second Chances

Commentary for the Lenten Season: Week II

 [To read and/or print a pdf version of this commentary, click here.]

Preface

If you’ve ever cringed in the presence of a self-proclaimed “born again” Christian, you’re not alone.

If you’ve never been able to identify the day and the hour you first believed there could really be something to all this gospel stuff, and yet have found along your own path some deeper resonating truths, take heart.

As one scholar and believer aptly and succinctly once put it, “all of us know at least one person who was born again in a remarkably unattractive way.”  (M. Borg, The Heart of Christianity)  At the same time, he also asserts the transformative born-again process is central to the message of Christianity, should be reclaimed, and more deeply understood.

This commentary is just such an effort.  It was first shared in a recent Pathways gathering, as a reflection and group response to the common lectionary text designated for the second week of the Lenten season.

Text: John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
 

First, a biblical commentary on the text

We’re well aware the gospel of John was written around the end of the first century CE.  As such, it is helpful and important to understand the vast majority of the sayings attributed to the historical Jesus are precisely that.  Long gone were any firsthand accounts.

What we have instead are the early formations of the first community of believers, interpreting the message of the person Jesus; along with the remarkable transformation that had occurred in the lives of those who had become part of this religious movement within Judaism.

As such, the private exchange in the dead of night between a character named Nicodemus and Jesus is best understood as a symbolic story, not a historical event; as any number of commentators have previously pointed out.  It’s veracity – that is, the power to be found in a truth it conveys beyond anything “factual” (which simply cannot be claimed or established with regard to its authenticity) — lies in the way it expresses what the early community of believers found to be consistent with the “voice” and message of Jesus.

Furthermore, the overwhelming opinion of biblical scholarship finds Jesus himself never identified himself, nor claimed to be, the Messiah of God, the Christ.  Again, the passages accredited to him that suggest otherwise are precisely that.  He lived and died a Jew, and understood his brief public ministry as a radical way of more fully embracing his own religious tradition.  It is just such a focus on his own religious tradition, in fact, that makes his exchange with Nicodemus, the Pharisee, so dramatic.

The passage can be further divided into two distinct parts. The first part of the story includes this setting and exchange between the two men as the early church imagined it.

The second part begins with, “In truth, I tell you that we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.”  This is clearly a confessional statement of belief, in retrospect, about who Jesus was imagined to be.  It concludes with the familiar 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son … so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”

Regrettably, the “only begotten Son” image, that “whoever believes in him,” has not only left the impression of exclusive singularity for some; that is, this Christ Jesus of John’s early Christian community is the only way.  It also offers a sort of cheap and shoddy kind of Grace.  Just say you believe and, poof, you’re “saved” in some magical way.

Commentator Harry Cook offers an extremely helpful reminder when he says, “the Greek ζωήν αίωνιον (eternal life) does not necessarily mean life with an indefinite end, but rather a life one enjoys after and because of that second birth which gives the new-born a clearer perspective on life.”

I liken it to the difference between making dinner reservations for a future “heavenly banquet” – as if that were to ever be understood in a literal way — while missing the real feast already prepared at our common table.

Later in John’s gospel we have the equally familiar line, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Interestingly, it’s a passage most often recited these days at funerals; leaving one to wonder why such a “way” is merely meant to be travelled in some nether realms, beginning with one’s departure from this world.

Jesus as the “way” incarnate (manifested in fully human form) is clearly a predominant theme in the fourth gospel.  But what John’s message means is that the “way” embodied in Jesus is the path of death and resurrection, dying and rising to a new “life” in God.  Again, as biblical scholar, Marcus Borg puts it, it is about a “way” of living, not a surefire formula of simply believing something for some future eternity.

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Stones for Bread, or How to Eat Your Words

A Commentary for Lent I, Year A

Dateline: March 15, 2011

[You can print and/or read a pdf version here.]

Stones for Bread, or, How to Eat Your Words

 

Below: Temptation of Christ on the Mount – Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319

Subsequent to his baptism by John, Jesus was guided by an inner impulse to a desolate place, there to be tested by an opposing force. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and therefore at the end was famished. The force that would try him spoke to his inner self and said, “To make clear that you are the Son of God, instruct these stones here to turn into loaves of bread.” But he remembered the words that were written [in Torah]: “One does not live only by eating bread alone, but by taking in every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Then Jesus had a daydream wherein the opposing force had taken him to the holy city and had somehow taken him to the very top of the temple, saying to him, “To prove that you are the Son of God, go ahead and jump. Remember it is written [in the psalms], “God will order His angels to take care of you; [if you jump] they will catch you so neither of your feet will be broken.” Jesus answered that temptation from memory, saying [to himself]: “It’s written in Torah that no one should test God.” Next Jesus had a vision of all the empires of the known world as if from a mountain peak and thought, “If I just give in to the force that opposes me in my way and bow down to him, I’ll own all that I can see.” To which [inner] temptation Jesus said, “Perish the thought! Get away from me, you opposing force! It is written [in Torah] that one is to bow down to none but Yahweh and praise only Him.” Whereupon, the opposing force retreated, and Jesus’ better angels gathered round to support him. [Matthew 4:1-11]

 Translation & paraphrase credit: Harry T. Cook

 

 “One does not live only by eating bread alone, but by taking in every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

The other day, I turned on the television to catch the latest news.

The raw video depicting a devastating quake and tsunami in Japan provided some idea what an apocalyptic end to the world as we know it just might look like.

Interspersed with those images, news crews from our own local television stations were providing live coverage from remote locations along our own beaches and marinas; in order to report how utter devastation on the other side of the globe might affect us.  If subsequent radioactive dust clouds from damaged nuclear reactors are released, we’ll inevitably be asking ourselves how far they might spread.

“We’ll be right back with more late breaking developments,” the news anchor recited.

I watch the commercials.  They tell me as much about what we think is important nowadays as those news snippets interspersed between the advertisers, attempting to lure us with everything from how I can keep the romance in my life with a cleaner shave; to how tempting it would be to drive a gas-guzzling luxury automobile in a cloud of dust on what looks like the Bonneville salt flats; or buy my beloved a bobble at a local jewelry store (Why, what’s the occasion? Just because it’s Thursday is the answer.).  Then the news broadcast resumes.

Pro-Gaddafi forces were retaking major oil refineries in Libya, and seem to have the rebels on the run.  If the international community doesn’t do something more drastic than “strongly insist” that a brutal megalomaniac have a change of heart and give up his “unacceptable” behavior, basic human rights and democratic principles that haven’t existed in that country for decades could remain a pipedream. But that’s not the worst of it.

Our local news team picks up the story. They’re standing beside someone who could be my neighbor, who’s filling up their tank at a corner gas station. The American consumer is shaking their head in disbelief, watching the dial spin on the pump, as the station owner changes the numbers posted on his sign.

Interruption in the flow of Middle East oil jeopardizes the fragile economic recovery in the U.S.  And all because I can’t continue buying my premium unleaded on the cheap from a guy who – well, go ahead, put a pitchfork in his hand and horns on his head, don’t you agree? – looks like the devil himself.

The news program isn’t even over and I’m already feeling a little conflicted; wondering to myself how things stack up in my little world, and who I should be most worried about.  I’m wondering to myself, who’s better off, or worse off, than little ‘ol me?  I don’t have long to wait for some comparisons.

Charlie Sheen is suing his employer for $100 mil.  His beef?  He thinks the nearly-$2 mil per episode for his TV sitcom isn’t sufficient.  But his Twittered rants portray a guy who’s clearly down-and out in the mental health department.  Charlie is wrestling with some serious demons – despite his self-professed addiction recovery “cure” that broke all land speed records — and the media is all over it.

Meanwhile, some celebrity named Lindsay Lohan, is apparently racking up more criminal charges and probation violations than movie hits.  That sparkling $2,500 necklace she accidentally walked off with from a Beverly Hills jewelry shop?  Why would she have been tempted to shoplift it, a legal pundit argues?  It’s chump change for the starlet.

Finally, the wrap-up of the day’s news ends with a little filler.  It’s the President’s press conference.  He’s prepared to do the Washington two-step with the usual questions and answers to the hot-button issues of the day: the budget battle in Congress, the latest economic numbers, a carefully crafted response to revolution and continued upheaval in the Middle East, the drug cartel violence along our own border, and the military conflicts that have emptied our coffers and are almost forgotten.

But before all that, Obama is asked his opinion on the bitter NFL labor dispute between the team’s owners and players.  He declines to weigh in on the stalemate, suggesting, the two parties “should be able to work it out without the president of the United States intervening,” and that he, “had other stuff to do.” However, he did add,  “For an industry that’s making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way.”

Hope so.  Otherwise, what in the world are millions of football fans going to do with their TV remotes when the season kicks off next fall?  We all know, the devil finds work for idle hands.

“Is it just me,” I ask Germaine, “or do more things seem to be coming at us faster, and more furiously than ever before?  Every day there seems to be one more thing to juggle, to keep everything in play.  Sometimes, don’t you just want to get away from it all? …

“Is it just me,” I ask Germaine, “or do more things seem to be coming at us faster, and more furiously than ever before?  …  Sometimes, don’t you just want to get away from it all? …

The three synoptic gospels in the New Testament canon (Mark, Matthew and Luke) all give an account of Jesus fleeing or retreating to the Judean wilderness.  The timeline is set following his own baptism by John, and John’s own radical message that foretold an imminent event that was to turn the status quo on end; and before the commencement of what will be Jesus’ own relatively brief public ministry of preaching and healing.

Those to whom Jesus would minister would consist primarily of a peasant class of 1st-century Jews, living under the repressive rule of a local tyrant and the dominant authority of imperial Rome.  Life was bleak, and the future didn’t promise to be any brighter.  Who wouldn’t want to get away from it all; particularly if one was as smart, as charismatic and gifted as the rabbi spirit-sage the gospels portray Jesus to be?

But if he was so smart, given the choice, why wilderness?

In the Biblical story tradition, mountaintops may be the place of revelatory encounters with the divine.  But wilderness is the place where things can get cleared up.  It’s out of the wilderness that crooked ways become straight, and where the difference between mere chaos can be delineated from the deeper mystery of all things.

But wilderness is also the place of emptiness, void of all those outside forces that we so easily attribute both credit and blame for the way things are; particularly the way we are, the way we think and act.  It is in the wilderness that there is nothing and no one but yourself with which to contend.

But wilderness is also the place of emptiness, void of all those outside forces that we so easily attribute both credit and blame for the way things are.  It is in the wilderness that there is nothing and no one but yourself with which to contend.

Think about the times and places of wilderness in your own life; the times and places you would not necessarily have chosen to go, given the choice.  What possible good, you may have asked yourself, could come out of it?

It’s a dangerous place, a disarming place, revealing every weakness and vulnerability.

It’s a risky place.  It’s a place where one can be afflicted with such homesickness one might wish they could just go back to the miserable way things were before.

But instead, it is also a place of un-familiarity, with an uncertain promise to change and transform you; so that nothing is ever quite the same as before.

It is into just such a place of wilderness that Jesus, the Galilean spirit-person, sage, preacher and healer retreats from the world around him, to wrestle with the demons within.  Try doing that for forty days and nights, without any outside sustenance, and you could work up a hunger for just about anything.

The traditional take of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness has typically been told to portray the protagonist’s superhuman (and therefore presumably divine) ability to withstand all the irresistible desires with which the devilish forces of this world would attempt to seduce him.  The commentator, Harry T. Cook, deciphers the way the story is being told like this:

“The New Testament Greek word diaballō, means to “throw across.” Diaballō becomes diabolos, which, strictly, means “slanderer, accuser” or in our common parlance, “devil.” It is related to a Hebrew root transliterated stn, whence “satan.” The idea is that diabolos or stn is an opposing force — opposing or blocking a path along which one has chosen or has been instructed to go.”

Cook illustrates the use of the word diabolos with the example of the superior offensive football player, who learns to take the block without being stopped or brought to his knees. He learns to throw off the blocker and keep on going.

It may be a helpful image; but only as long as one remembers that in the wilderness there is no one to trip you up (the word temptation literally means stumbling block) but yourself. And — while anthropomorphic images of devils and angels may provide dramatic effect with which to tell the story — few people nowadays could really believe there is literally a little demon sitting on one shoulder, and an angel on the other, both whispering in your ear all the good and bad things you know you’re perfectly capable of doing without any help or prodding.

I trust few people nowadays could really believe there is literally a little demon sitting on one shoulder, and an angel on the other, both whispering in your ear all the good and bad things you know you’re perfectly capable of doing without any help or prodding.

So it is that Jesus experiences and endures his own time of self-testing; that is, as best the early Church tradition can conjecture, in retrospect (since no one was there with their remote camera crews to record and report back).  It is a wrestling match with himself, and a struggle to see his way clear to a calling and a way of life that starts from within; so that everything this world can throw at him – all the glitter and glory, all the agony and the ecstasy – does not compel any kind of conformity, resulting in his own self-betrayal. Here’s what occurs to me:

The first temptation not only portrays Jesus’ full humanity, but provides the set-up line for all the further tests.  He’s listening to his growling stomach, and his most basic human need.  With the divine powers subsequently attributed to him by the early believers hearing this gospel, he may have thought he could have changed stones to bread.  But he reminds himself of the scripture tradition he has learned and trusts above all else: “One does not live only by eating bread alone, but by taking in every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

He discriminates and selects that which he will internalize, and become part of him.  Then he recommits himself to that which will continue to shape and define who he is.  For, we all know bread alone can sustain the body, and the spirit can still languish.  Bread alone – in any form, no matter how fancy and desirable, formidable and dominating — can even make a heart of stone.

Those other forms of bread – from sheer survival to extravagant opulence – are enumerated in the next alluring possibilities.  First up is leaping off the tallest tower of the tallest building in a death-defying act of one’s own miraculous feat to save oneself.  If that’s not enough, then what about all the power and might of all the kingdoms of the world combined, and handed to you on a silver platter?

It’s been suggested, charisma alone could have led Jesus to entertain the fleeting notion he might have been able to mobilize sufficient “opposing forces” to combat and conquer at least one corner of the great empire for himself.  A wilderness experience might have led to such a hallucination.

But juxtaposed to that is a different calling, with an alternate message about a different kind of kingdom.  It is a kingdom Jesus will go on to describe in the parables he tells and the acts of healing and restoration he performs, are of a very different sort.  Thus, the heart of the message to be drawn from this story is to be found in the clarity that comes as a result of this desert experience.  The story of Jesus’ wrestling with himself in the wilderness is the prologue to the story about to unfold.

If we peel back the early layers of tradition, back beyond the messianic identity and spectacular claims of identity that become attributed to Jesus, I am persuaded we can still find what is at the heart of this Galilean sage and companion to the paths we still tread.  He continues to point the way that leads us out of our own chaos, through wilderness, to a very different place than the one that bombards from without, and lures us from within.

I am persuaded we can still find what is at the heart of this Galilean sage and companion to the paths we still tread.  He continues to point the way that leads us out of our own chaos, through wilderness, to a very different place than the one that bombards from without, and lures us from within.

It is about a crooked path made straight; with a destination yet unknown to us; but a place we would nonetheless surely recognize at once, and call home.

But to begin to do so, to begin such a journey, we must first acknowledge it is the forces within us that shape us. Following the lead of the spirit-sage, it is an act of self-examination, and self-knowledge. It is more than self-introspection, however.  It is only a prelude to the act of finding oneself by choosing to whom, or what, we would give our selves away.

Jesus gives us a different way to respond to all the forces of this world that would at-tempt  to define us and direct our lives.  We choose which path to follow.

In Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy, The Merchant of Venice, the character Bassanio is desperately in love with fair Portia, a wealthy heiress.  But he is penniless, and conventional wisdom has convinced him he cannot hope to successfully woo her without the appearance of wealth and riches. So he asks a rich friend, Antonio, for a loan.

Antonio is willing to help his friend, but explains he does not have sufficient liquidity.  His funds are tied up in ships that are expected soon, laden with profits.  So instead he leverages his property as collateral in order to fund his friend’s romantic endeavors.  Apparently, credit default swaps had not yet been devised.

Meanwhile, although Portia considers Bassanio a worthy young gentleman, she’d promised her late father that she would only marry the man who chooses the correct of three caskets.  One is made of gold, one of silver, and one lead. The correct casket contains a portrait of Portia.  Would-be suitors from around the world arrive at Belmont to win the hand of the beautiful temptress.

When the dark-skinned prince of Morocco arrives to try his luck, Portia expresses her disdain, and hopes he will choose poorly.  Not to worry, he is lured into picking the golden casket, glittering in all its irresistible deception.  Alas, inside there is no portrait, only a scroll with a hard lesson to be learned:

O hell! What have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing:
“All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.”

All that glitters is not gold.  And even gold, one might recall, is nothing more than stone. And, “One does not live only by eating bread alone, but by taking in every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Jesus wrestles with himself in his own wilderness, and chooses his own path.  It turns out to be the way of passive resistance over brute force, the way of compassion and charity over enmity and strife, a way of unmerited grace and forgiveness as a different path to the forces at play in those daily news reports and all the demons that wage war from within and without.  It is a path where one can discover another truth, and experiences of grace.

In the end – because we know both the beginning and the end to his journey and this path — he will refuse to engage the world on its own terms.  He will not allow it to define him, what he is called to do, or who he is meant to be.  This “son of God” gives us an example of how to avoid mistaking stone for bread; but live instead by that which “comes from the mouth of God.”

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to <http://173.254.107.125/wordsnways>

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