Text: Thomas saying 5:
"Jesus said: Know what is in thy sight, and what is hidden from thee will
be revealed to thee. For there is nothing hidden which will not be
of the sayings of Jesus are riddles. Jesus seems to have known that any
truth he might simply tell you would not do you as much good as some truth
you might come to by your own efforts. In this he was like Socrates who
sought to coax his hearers to produce the truth from within themselves.
That's where it was, if they would only realize it. As Tillich said, our
problem is not that we are strangers to the truth, and so must be
introduced to the truth from without, by someone else. No, our problem is
that we have somehow become estranged from some truth that we really know,
deep down. So we need someone to jog our memory, to prompt us to put two
and two together. And so Jesus lets fly one of his sayings, followed after
a pause with an implicit "Get it?"
Thomas, saying 5 is one
such saying. It assumes we are curious about some great mystery. There is
some blank we want very much to fill in, and so we look for a way to get
the information. Where to find it? Say, isn't Jesus Christ a heavenly
revealer? Why not go ask him?" Jesus the answer man. But he will not be
cast in such a role, no matter how much traditional Christian theology may
wish to portray him. Theologians approach him with questions, but he
answers them with more questions. And so here.
He seems to be saying
that the mystery is not what or where you think it is. In fact, something
only seems to be mysterious to you because you are failing to grasp
something obvious. If you can figure out A, then Z becomes B, it falls
right into line. Your problem is that you think you understand the basics,
but you don't. And that is why something else seems so complicated. It
wouldn't if you'd got off on the right foot at step one.
Recently I had an
inexplicable malfunction on my fax machine. The machine is built to send
me a printout self-diagnosis, but it couldn't give me a clue. I felt the
headache coming on. What on earth could be wrong? No doubt some glitch in
the dilithium microsubprocessors that I could never find in a million
years. And then I discovered that the phone jack had slipped out of the
socket. That was it. We ignore the simple thing before our nose and go on
a great quest, a wild goose chase.
The disciples are all set
to go on a safari for the mysterious truth. And Jesus tells them, save
your trouble. What you're looking for is right at your feet. Don't you see
"Know what is in thy
sight, and what is hidden shall be revealed to thee." Because it is what
is in your sight that is hidden in the first place. Somehow you do not see
As I read this saying
last week, I thought immediately of Poe's tale, "The Purloined Letter."
Had Poe known the Gospel of Thomas, he might have used the fifth saying as
an epigram, because it is a perfect summation of the premise of the story.
Perhaps you know it. It is one of the three adventures of Poe's pre-Sherlockian
Sherlock Holmes, C. Auguste Dupin.
One day the frustrated
Prefect of the Paris police knocks on Dupin's door and tells how he and
his men have been searching for months for a stolen letter, all without
success. It seems that the Queen had received some sort of love letter
from a secret admirer and had hastily stashed it on her desk when the King
came in. While his majesty did not notice the letter, soon a conniving
government minister entered and did readily recognize the letter and what
it meant. He managed to pocket it in plain sight of the Queen who however
dared not say anything lest the King be alerted to her indiscretion.
The minister kept the
letter to blackmail the Queen into favoring his policies. The Queen set
the police on the trail of the minister to retrieve the letter as
discretely as possible. They have made nightly searches of the minister's
apartment, but to no avail. Every imaginable hiding place has been
scrutinized with utmost care, but nothing.
Eventually Dupin saves
the day, reasoning that the minister, a clever rogue of his acquaintance,
would have anticipated the secret searches and outwitted the police by
"hiding" the letter out in plain sight in a letter rack on the mantel. No
one thought to look there!
This particular story has
attracted a lot of critical attention. This week I have read Jacques
Lacan's "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'," then Jacques Derrida's
critique of Lacan, "The Purveyor of Truth," and, finally, Barbara
Johnson's mediation of their debate, "The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan,
Derrida." I won't try your patience with the whole agenda of the debate,
but here is something significant I got out of it.
All the critics agree
that in Poe's story the stolen letter functions as a symbol for
communication in general. Every message, whether oral or written, is like
a letter sent from sender to receiver. And just as the Queen's letter was
stolen, and finally stolen again from the thief, every communication of
ours is liable to go astray, to miscommunicate our meaning. A caricature
of our words may return to haunt us. Our words may come to the ears of
others whom we did not intend to hear them, and what was meant innocently
becomes problematic. Every communication of ours may be misconstrued, its
meaning lost in echoes.
And even when deprived of
any particular meaning, the mere fact of the letter, of the thing having
been said, is powerful and continues to make waves, as when Alexander Haig
was embarrassed and discredited after the near assassination of President
Reagan. He said, "I'm in control here in the White House," but the media
did not hear the last few words and leaped to the conclusion that Haig was
power-mad and had leapfrogged the whole line of succession. By the time
they realized they were wrong, the damage had been done. Meaning had
strayed; Haig's letter had been purloined.
Reading "The Purloined
Letter," I could not help but think of another letter, the Second Epistle
to the Thessalonians. This was the passage that came to mind: "Now
concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our assembling to meet
him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited,
either by spirit (i.e., by a prophecy) or by word (i.e., oracle), or by
letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the Day of the Lord
has come" (2:1-2).
There are a few places in
the Pauline corpus where he mentions some lost letter. This makes New
Testament scholars drool: a lost letter by Paul! Or in this case perhaps
an early pseudo-Pauline forgery! Scarcely less intriguing! What is this
letter? What happened to it? If only we might see it! What a mystery!
Except that the mystery might well dissolve if we noticed something right
in front of us. For more than likely the "lost" letter is simply First
It might be that First
Thessalonians, which does seem to say that the coming of the Lord is
immediately at hand, is a forgery which this letter means to correct. Or
maybe it is Second Thessalonians which is a forgery trying to undo the
damage caused by First Thessalonians, which like Harold Camping, had
catastrophically disappointed people with a premature expectation of the
Second Coming. Or maybe both letters are genuine, but Paul had not meant
to say the Second Coming was quite that imminent, and he regrets that his
letter had been misread.
In the few verses after
those we just read in the second chapter of 2 Thessalonians, Paul lists
the signs of the oncoming end, just to show that, since some of them
haven't transpired yet, the apocalypse can't be expected immediately. One
of these is the rise of the "son of perdition, who opposes and exalts
himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes
his seat in the temple of God, pretending to be God."
This thumbnail portrait
of the Antichrist was derived from the attempt of the Emperor Caligula to
install a divine image of himself to be worshipped in the Jerusalem
Temple. You may be interested to know what happened next. When this plan
was announced, the Jews sent an embassy to Petronius, the Roman legate in
Palestine. They threatened an agricultural strike, martyrdom if necessary.
Petronius realized how high the stakes were, so he sent a letter to
Caligula, asking him not to send the statue. Caligula received it, didn't
like it, and promptly dispatched a letter ordering Petronius to kill
himself. The letter went on its way, but while it was in transit, Caligula
himself died! This news, too, was sent to Petronius. Which letter would
reach him first? The order to commit suicide, which as a loyal Roman he
would have obeyed? Or the letter that would nullify the order to kill
Petronius owed his life
to the fortuitous circumstance that the news of Caligula's death arrived
first! His life had been saved by the purloining, the prolonging of the
delivery, of the first letter! So the meandering, the straying of meaning,
may be saving grace. The unpredictable dissemination of meaning may be the
chance mutation that allows survival.
In any case, First
Thessalonians turns out to be the Purloined Epistle mentioned in Second
Thessalonians. "Purloined," as Lacan points out, derives from the same
root as "prolonged" and implies the letter has gone astray before finally
reaching its intended destination. And this is what happens, or at least
what can too easily happen, in all of our attempts to communicate. Paul
had tried to communicate the hope of an early Coming of Christ, but that
promise was delayed, prolonged, purloined, and so the letter in which he
said it became a purloined letter.
Indeed, at this point it
occurred to me that all of Paul's Epistles are purloined letters (and so
is the rest of the Bible). Why? Because you and I, and all Christians of
the twentieth century, are reading these documents which were addressed to
the concerns of people long dead. 1 Corinthians was written to the
Corinthian church of the first century, not to a Montclair Baptist church
in the twentieth. They have somehow become misrouted in the meantime!
Whenever somebody in the early church collected these letters of Paul from
the churches he had originally sent them to, he rerouted the letters. Ever
since then, we have been reading somebody else's mail.
And that's where
hermeneutics, the whole science of Bible interpretation, comes in. We need
rules, as if there could be any, for redirecting a writer's words written
for others, as if they were addressed to us. It's a pretty tricky
business, full of ambiguity. And yet worthwhile. For no one would deny
that we can eavesdrop on Paul's letter to Corinth and pick up some
valuable pointers. But in the last analysis, that's what we're doing:
reading somebody else's mail.
I think it is significant
that Islamic theologians deny that a letter could properly be considered
scripture, since a letter is a word from one human being to another, not a
word of God to humanity. I appreciate their insight that any word from God
that we overhear must be very oblique, and the lessons we draw from it
must be very tenuous. We simply have no business citing these texts as the
conclusion of an argument, as a theological trump card. Paul wasn't trying
to referee the particular game we are playing in the 20th century. He was
in the first-century arena.
So we have to be
charitable in our interpretations of the Bible. Since mine is no less an
indirect inference than yours, I had better listen to yours as seriously
as I want you to take mine. Since we are both siphoning off meaning
unintended for us, we had better be careful about it and not accuse each
other of purloining Paul's letters too quickly, because that sword cuts
Paul's meaning was
derailed, misrouted insofar as the Thessalonians mistook his meaning. And
his meaning was something about the coming of Christ, the advent of the
Kingdom of God. And the confusion comes from the fact that that kingdom
itself has been purloined, prolonged in its appearing. Lost somewhere
along the way. 19 centuries later, still it is as far from realization as
ever--as Harold Camping proved again only this past week.
And this brings me, after
a long process of rerouting, following back alleys through the text,
digressions, side roads in the sermon, to another text in Thomas, saying
113: "His disciples said to him: When will the Kingdom come? Jesus said:
It will not come by expectation; they will not say: See, here, or See,
there. But the Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do
not see it."
This one might almost be
a commentary on the fifth saying, with which we began. The disciples are
scanning the horizon for the distant appearance of the Kingdom of God. It
is a great mystery, or so they think. They ask Jesus for some clue to know
when the Kingdom will come. But Jesus says there is no mystery such as
they seek to solve. The Kingdom has in fact already appeared. It is right
before their eyes if only they will open their eyes and see it. When will
it come? Nonsense! It has always been here! When are you going to start
recognizing it? That's the real question.
Another point made in the
Lacan/Derrida/Johnson discussion of "The Purloined Letter" is that the
stolen letter functions both as a signifier and as something signified.
That is, as a written letter, it says something about a state of affairs,
specifically an affair of state, namely that the Queen is having an affair
that will, if discovered, shake the stability of the state. The letter
says something about something other than itself. So it signifies.
But once the crafty
government minister recognizes precisely what the letter signifies, and
purloins it, the letter itself becomes significant, an object of inquiry.
The police search madly for it because it has come to meaning something in
and of itself. It has become a powerful weapon. It is a signified thing in
itself, whatever the text of the letter specifically says. The police are
scouring the place for any sign of it.
And in just the same way,
the disciples of Jesus regard the Kingdom of God as something signified.
They ask for the signs that will signal its approaching. That, they think,
is the mystery. They, and the whole Christian church, has sought for the
Kingdom as fervently as the Prefect of the Paris police sought for that
letter in every mysterious place he could think of to look. Harold Camping
looked all over the Bible for clues to the mystery. But like the Parisian
police, he had wasted his time.
What Jesus says, by
contrast, is that the Kingdom of the Father is not that to which signs
point. It is not some final meaning to be revealed. What no one suspected
was that the Kingdom was itself a signifier. A sign pointing to something
else. In fact, pointing to everything else! As the Upanishads say,
neti, neti: not this, not that. The Ultimate is not any one particular
thing, but everything. The Kingdom is spread out all over the earth--and
men do not see it! They can't see the forest for the trees! They see all
the finite things, but not the infinite sum of them. Schleiermacher
understood the Redeemer's God-consciousness right well: it is "a sense and
taste for the Infinite."
The Buddhists grasped it,
too. Where do you go to find Nirvana, the unknown world of peace and
eternal bliss? Do you retreat from this world to find it, as if there were
some other world to take refuge in? No, you just learn to recognize that
this weary world is Nirvana, once you open your eyes, once you stop
expecting the world to be something other than the Kingdom of the Father.
How else can Jesus say
you will see his face in the face of the least of his brethren? How else
is it possible to look at bread and wine on the communion table and
suddenly see there the body and blood of Christ? "If you will know what is
in your sight, then what is hidden from you will be revealed to you."
Have you ever heard the
truism, which is nonetheless true despite being an "ism," that life will
be negative if you approach it negatively, but positive if you approach it
positively? The world will be for you the kingdom of God if you expect to
see it that way.
The suffering of yourself
and of others will be revealed as the crucifixion of the Son of Man. I
think Rosemary Guenther knew that. The continuance of your heartbeat from
one fragile moment to the next will be recognized as the merciful
providence of God. I think Ray Tucker sees that now. The extra strength,
the second wind in your moment of extremity will be seen as the grace of
God. Linda Chappell knows that from experience, I dare say. The afternoon
of boredom will become an epiphany of easy grace and the blessed space of
freedom. I hope Martha Lewis sees that. It is already as plain as a city
set on a hill, a light that suffuses the whole earth.
Jesus bids us to blink
away the blinding scales and to open our eyes to the second sight of
Elisha, of Isaiah, who in one moment saw nothing but an empty temple and
in the next beheld the flaming seraphs who sang: "Holy, holy, holy is
Jehovah of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"
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