r m p




Jesus in a Bottle


Old Testament: Psalm 56:1-8

New Testament: Mark 4:10-12

Text: Thomas saying 13

A couple of weeks ago I noted that I no longer take a Christocentric, or Christ-centered, perspective. I thought it might be worth addressing the issue in more detail this morning. What I want to suggest to you is that not to be Christ-centered, to decide to be non-Christocentric, does not mean that you have judged the revelation of Jesus Christ to be deficient in some way, outmoded, inadequate.

I admit that being Christ-centered in the way Christianity traditionally has been, is limiting. It limits the menu of spiritual resources open to you. It limits your willingness to recognize a kindred spirit in people who belong to other religions, as long as you insist they enunciate "Jesus" as a password. But that is not what I have in mind this morning.

Rather, I am saying that to make Christ the center, the bull's eye, is, strangely enough, to limit the power of Christ. That is not what any lover of the Christ can possibly intend, and yet I think that is the result of Christocentric fixation.

Let me start with a remarkable passage in the Gospel of Mark, our NT reading. In it Jesus tells the puzzled disciples that he teaches in parables for the simple reason that he wants to confound his hearers, to render their eyes and ears useless. "Hey! What's wrong? I've got eyes, but for some reason I don't seem to be seeing! I have ears, but I don't seem to be hearing! What gives?"

Commentators don't want Jesus to have said this. A.M. Hunter, Joachim Jeremias, and other notable exegetes cannot believe their own eyes and ears when they come to this saying! Surely, they reason, Jesus must have wanted to communicate his truths to the dull-witted by means of home-spun analogies. He must have wanted to make things easier for them, not harder, mustn't he?

So these interpreters try to manipulate the underlying Greek or Aramaic words in such a way as to make Jesus say he uses parables for the sake of his hearers' hard hearts. He wants to communicate the truth by using creative teaching methods. A matter of educational psychology. Jesus the Ed.D. Yes, it would sure make more sense that way, or at least it would seem more sensible to us.

But I think it is contemporary Structuralist and Deconstructive critics who have finally spotted what Jesus may have been up to.

De Man, Barthes, Culler, and others speak of the process of 'naturalization,' whereby we try to domesticate a strange-sounding text, to harmonize it with what we already believe about the world. Try to find a familiar category for it. We just cannot leave the Other in its Otherness. We can't believe someone could really intend to say So-&-So. So we do him the favor of giving a more natural-seeming interpretation. We always have the tendency to make a text say something we might expect it to say, what it would say if we wrote it.

But do you see the danger there? For it to "click" with us, for it to make sense to us, we must reduce it to a commonplace. Something that no longer sounds startling and outrageous. Albert Schweitzer once blamed NT exegetes for whittling down the bizarre sayings of Jesus to manageable proportions. He said the scholars were like a bomb squad whose business it was to go about carefully disarming shells that hadn't exploded yet. Once they are finished, we can be comfortable with the gospels.

Once naturalized, once domesticated, the sayings of Jesus will pose no threat to our complacency. We can go on pretending we are fine.

We can go on unscathed by the fanatical challenges that the texts, while still ticking, seemed to cast in our teeth. We can go on with our clever theologies.

Not following me? Here's an example: "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it away." Just like Oedipus. Only certainly Jesus cannot have meant this! Can he? "Do not resist the evil one. If a man smite thee on one cheek, turn the other cheek." The attempts to naturalize this one, to evade its force, are legion. Adam Clayton Powell took it to mean this: Jesus didn't say what to do next, and I say punch em! (I know a man doing a dissertation on Powell's use of scripture. I sure hope he hasn't left out that little gem!)

"Anyone who does not give up all that he has cannot be my disciple." "When you give a feast, do not invite your friends and relatives, lest they repay you. Instead invite the poor, the lame, the blind, the maimed." "Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth." Well now, we nervously laugh, Jesus can't have meant these things literally... And we get to work whittling.

Jesus has nothing to say to us unless we leave his strange sayings in their strangeness! They cannot approach us as a revelation from without if we immediately accommodate them to tepid common sense.

I say that is why he spoke in unintelligible parables which no one has really unravelled in 1900 years! He wanted to puzzle his hearers, to shock, to confuse. To send them away scratching their heads! Because that's the only way we can be opened to the invading Spirit! We are normally on guard, carefully fortified against the approach of the Spirit. We must be thrown off guard before he can drive home the decisive blow.

The Zen masters used the same strategy. They knew no enlightenment was possible so long as the seeker had his head filled up with concepts, expectations, complacent definitions of God and the world that became false images substituting for God and the world. So their disciples had to be disabused of these clogging illusions, these choking concepts, before the lightning of the Spirit could strike! And so they told riddles with no answers. They fastened spiritual locks that no familiar key might open. Like Jesus, they threw their hearers into confusion, knowing that it is only in the midst of such darkness that the word, "Let there be light!" may be spoken.

So the traditional interpreters of Jesus failed to grasp what he was trying to do. He wasn't trying to make it easy for you to reduce his message to something you could already understand. He was tossing out live grenades to shatter your spiritual complacency, to shake you free of your illusions.

But what was true of Jesus' parables is equally true of Jesus himself. Here is the point of our text from Thomas. Jesus wants to test the disciples' spiritual acuity. So he sets a trap to see if they will fall into it. And the first two do. "Make a comparison and tell whom I am like." It's a straight man's line. And Peter and Matthew fall for it. They parrot what seem to have been interpretations of Jesus widespread in Thomas' day: he is a righteous angel, which is what many Jewish Nazoreans thought. Or he is a wise philosopher, which many of his Cynic and Stoic followers thought, the people who wrote up the Q gospel.

But it is only Thomas, the twin brother of Jesus, figuratively the soul mate and reflection of Jesus, the ideal Christian in other words, who understands that the answers must be wrong since they are answers to the wrong question in the first place. For it is utterly impossible to say what Jesus is like. It is impossible to reduce him, to reduce the spiritual dynamism he represents, to a neat formula.

Any concept of Jesus, the Thomas text seems to say, is a misleading oversimplification. And thus in this whole Gospel of some 114 sayings, Jesus is never once called the Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man, etc.

And this is not only because any one Christ-concept would be reductionistic. It is also because the minute you propose a concept of Jesus and the minute I believe in it, we have erected an idol of Jesus, no different than the dashboard plastic Jesus. We have forsaken the Living One. We have pushed a stopper into the bottle of living waters.

But Thomas stands for any would-be follower of Jesus who has known not to stop up the water. Jesus blesses him, not because he has said the right thing about Jesus--because there can be no right thing to say about him!--but rather because he has followed Jesus to the stream of living water and drunk from it himself. That is what you must do. And what is the reaction of the institutional church to this insight? What has it always been? Institutions are based on obedience, conformity, "getting with the program," not rocking the

boat. The loyal subject of traditional Christianity's hegemony over the spirit does not think to seek the wells of which Jesus himself drank. He wants only to know that Jesus drank. He wants to think that Jesus alone ever drank, that he alone could ever drink.

And this is why, in our passage, Thomas refuses the request of Peter and Matthew. He declines to throw his pearls before swine because he knows too well what will happen if he does! They will tread them underfoot with accusations of "Blasphemy!" and turn on him and tear him to pieces. Such is the history of religious inquisitions.

I mentioned Albert Schweitzer, a great medical missionary because he was first a great NT exegete. He was overtaken by the outlandish commands of Jesus to take up the cross, and so he spent his life in the service of the disease-racked multitudes of Central Africa. Here are two things Schweitzer said of Jesus. I think they are closely connected.

"Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken or confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity." (Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 399).

"He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: Follow thou me! and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill in our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is." (ibid., p. 403).

There is a connection, I say. Jesus can unleash a mighty spiritual current that keeps building in force precisely because he refuses to let anyone stop up the flood by erecting some great Hoover Dam with a Christocentric creed written across its surface.

You must be baptized in that stream if you are to take Jesus seriously. I don't mean get the right idea of him. It's not a question of that. Thomas is quite right. Because doctrines are bottle caps, trophies, relics. It is the spiritual force that matters.

You will never construct any coherent ethical or doctrinal theory from Jesus' sayings. That would be another way of domesticating them. Whittling them. The point is to play dodge ball with Jesus, to stand in the lightning storm he has unleashed. Turn the other cheek, invite the poor, give away your possessions. Fast. Don't fast. (He says both!) You need to be kept off balance, decentered.

Spirituality can enter only through surprise. We guard against it. So we must be taken off our guard. And Jesus does this by keeping us guessing. Knocking down any house of cards as soon as we build it. This is the only way to remain open to the stream of Jesus: by not freezing it into a glacier of doctrine. Least of all a doctrine about Jesus! A Christology, a definitive definition of Jesus, is a tombstone for Jesus, who is alive in the elusive and baffling teaching attributed to him.

Robert M. Price
September 20, 1994


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