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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Escaping from the freedom of a human Jesus

I found it distressing a couple of weeks ago to hear so many people I know, including priest-homilists, bending over backwards to explain away what appears to me to be a fairly clear passage in Matthew's gospel (and a priori in his source, Mark), that one where Jesus experienced a change of heart as a result of the persistent faith and prayer of a pagan woman. Recall the story for a moment: a Canaanite woman's daughter is possessed by a demon, so she confronts the Jewish wonder-worker whom everyone's talking about, and he ignores her. She persists. His retinue grows tired of her clamoring, and asks him to send her away. They may have meant for him to do what she wants just to shut her up, because his reply is them, not to her: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Undeterred, she asks again for help. Jesus parries her plea with an insult: to help her would be like throwing the children's dinner to the dogs. With the clarity of her fierce love, and, I like to think, with an instinct for the best of what Jesus might be, she turns his own metaphor on its head. "In my house, the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table." I unfolded this cultural piece a little more last week, but Jesus changes his mind at this point. What he recognizes in her is faith: what she sees in him is Abba, the God of everyone, who doesn't distinguish between Jew and Canaanite, because, Jesus must realize, Abba already lives in her. That's what faith is: the gift of God.
Jesus Christ, Superman?

With the possible exception of Mark, if it's read out of its NT context, the humanity of Jesus is not easy to discern in the gospels. Jesus always seems to be in charge of his surroundings, he sees his destiny, and is in control of  events with political and spiritual aplomb. That's because the gospels were written from the distance of decades, by people who only knew Jesus by faith, not as a human being. Jesus of Nazareth had already become Christ, Savior, Logos, Son of Man, Son of God, and all the other titles that are given him in the scriptures, titles which even then meant something different than they mean today. Furthermore, they see Jesus through the light of the resurrection, a perspective that was real for the disciples but is largely lost on us who only have the tools of biblical criticism with which to approach, carefully, the historical Jesus. Contemporary references to Jesus prior to his death and the emergence of Christianity in the Roman empire do not exist, so the Jesus of history not really recoverable. But the Christ of gospel faith is, and some insight to the Jesus of history is accessible through history, literary, cultural analysis. Those who say, as I heard about the Canaanite woman passage, that "Jesus knew all along he was going to heal the woman's daughter" or that "Jesus was just testing the twelve and getting them ready to expand their horizons" might be right, but I keep asking myself, Do we really want a savior like that? Do we really have a savior who knew all along what he was going to do? Or, more to the point, does being fully God preclude growth in faith and conscience as a human being?

My answer, of course, is "I don't know." But my desire is for the God I actually want, the Jesus I could believe in. The human one, like me, who doesn't know all the answers, ever, until he has died. I could use that kind of a savior. That one would be like me in everything except sin. I believe that Jesus is uniquely the Son of God (that is, unique in a way that I am not the Son, but a child, of God, like you), but I insist that Jesus is also fully human, and that means that he "did not cling to godliness but emptied himself," abandoned whatever pre-existed Jesus, and became human. I think that works as long as we're not concerned about the criterion of God-ness being omnipotence, the perfection of power, but rather perfection of love and service. It also means accepting "full humanity" not as always being right, but being open to new information, adapting with love, accepting our limitations while pushing our boundaries, escaping the instinctual fetters of self-preservation through love.

"Who do people say that the Son of Man is? What are they saying about me?" Luke's gospel says that Jesus "advanced in wisdom, age, and grace." Isn't it possible, then, to imagine that his awareness of being chosen and the shape of his destiny developed as he grew? Isn't is possible that, in the messianic fever of a nation occupied by the brutal Roman empire and its god-emperor, Jesus might have gradually come to see the futility of revolution and of violence as a response to violence, and, having experienced God as my Father and our Father, have come to see the realm or kingdom of God as a community of healing love, first as a revival among his own people, and then, after the death of John and more experience in his itinerant ministry, with flashes of universality that were later cultivated and amplified by the twelve, Paul, and others? 

We need a messiah who can change his mind. We need truth that adapts to new realities and isn't fixed by interpretations of itself from the past. We live in a vast, complex society, convinced of violence, set in a world where things change fast. We feel unrooted, torn from our foundation. We want to cling to something. But to cling to something when the sea is rising, something that doesn't float, may well be to doom ourselves. We somehow got the idea that truth is unchanging, and that somehow we already know it, have to get back to it. How did that happen? How did it get to be a virtue to never change one's mind, as a former president claimed when confronted with facts about his misbegotten war?

"The truth shall make you free." Genuine truth doesn't tie us down to anything—it enables us to choose to love in whatever way is possible and necessary to heal, reconcile, and move forward. The truth makes us free to choose, and also liberates us from ruts worn in the road by our past. The "truth" that Jesus seemed to embrace in the gospel, that his mission was only to Israel, had to give way to the reality that agape of God was visible in the unrelenting intercession of this Canaanite woman on behalf of her daughter. This "new" truth, or developing awareness of genuine truth in Jesus, allowed him to change, to make a decision for healing and love that, perhaps, found its gospel apogee in the great commission, "Go, and preach the gospel to all nations." From any perspective, this is a turnabout from the restrictions on his mission outlined earlier in Matthew. Taking hope and courage from our messiah, we too can change our hearts and minds (metanoia, or conversion).

The human Jesus, really human, making decisions in the half-darkness, can be a good role model for us. Who needs a savior who doesn't experience the self-doubt, loss, and frustration that we do? We don't need Superman—that's a comic book hero. We need a "son of man," i.e., a human being, one who learns from what life throws at him, who consults with his friends, seeks clarification in solitude, acts generously on behalf of others. That is a savior worth imitating. Tranforming freedom from restrictive law based on division and fear into a generous freedom to serve, to love, to unite, heal, and announce freedom to others really could be good news for a society that is fearing and threatening itself into a netherworld of shrinking boundaries of terror and open-carrying, hostile self-preservation. A world in which nine-year-olds practice shooting Uzis with terrifying, if predictable, results.