Testament Reading: Isaiah 7:1-17
Testament Reading: Luke 16:19-31
sermon is prompted by a question Lucy Tucker asked a few weeks ago about a
point I made in my Advent column in The Epistle. In it I observed
that nowhere in the four gospels does Jesus ever make the affirmation
Christian theologians, had they been there, would certainly have coached
him to make, namely, "I am the Messiah."
Lucy said that sometimes
he seems to imply it so clearly that it would be the worst kind of
nitpicking to refuse to count it as an affirmation. The clearest instance
would be in the passage I just read. In it, the Samaritan woman voices her
pious expectation that the Messiah will one day come to answer all her
questions, and Jesus tells her that day has arrived. "I who speak to you
If that's what he meant,
or what the gospel writer meant, then I still maintain it is the exception
that proves the rule! Because even when he comes so close, the point one
cannot escape is that he does not even here cross over the line. It would
have been so easy to say, given what he had already said, and what he was
about to imply anyway, "I am the Messiah you seek." Why didn't he?
I am going to suggest
that it is because that is not what he meant at all. At least I am going
to suggest another plausible way of understanding the text. That's all I
can do, all anyone can do, since we cannot positively recover the original
Let me point out that the
translation "I who speak to you am he" must not go completely
unchallenged. It is a good possible translation, but it could with equal
justification be rendered, "I am the one who is speaking with you."
That is in fact a slightly more natural interpretation of the Greek, in my
opinion, and it happens not to be any kind of Messianic affirmation or
The text as I propose to
read it would coincide in meaning with another from the Gospel of Thomas,
saying 52, "His disciples said to him: Twenty-four prophets spoke in
Israel and they all spoke about thee. He said to them: You have dismissed
the Living One who is before you and you have spoken about the dead."
In both passages Jesus
rebuts someone's pious Messianic expectation, rejecting it instead as an
impious dodge, a self-deceptive deferral of present truth in the name
of future hope. Jesus' point is by no means whether he or someone else
is the Messiah, whether the Messiah has come or not or whether he will
ever come. The point is that someone is shutting their ears to the truth
now sounding in order to catch the strains of some imagined future truth
somewhere out on the distant horizon.
A question of truth has
been posed between Jesus and the woman of Samaria, two questions in fact.
The first is how she ought to manage her sexuality. The second has to do
with the relative merits of Samaritan versus Jewish liturgy. The woman
seems to want answers to these questions, at least to the second. And she
is lucky enough to have stumbled onto Jesus of Nazareth as a conversation
partner, he whom most of us would wish most dearly to be able to ask
And Jesus of Nazareth
offers her an answer! Now there's luck! But she shakes it off like a dog
shaking off bath water. She has absolutely no interest in whatever this
unknown Jew has to say. She knows no answer can count for anything except
that which she does not have! The theoretical answer, still an
unfilled blank, to be given one day, when Messiah comes, or to be precise,
when Hell freezes over.
No answer Jesus can give
her in the present is to be preferred or valued equally to that which
exists only in the future, that which is not and cannot be available to
her in the present. All available answers are rejected so that she
may rest content with having no answer at all.
Do you see? The futurity
of the answer functions only as an excuse for not listening to any
proffered answer. And of course it is an excuse the Samaritan
wants, not an answer. Because an answer would force her to make
changes she cares not to make. Notice how she only raised the liturgical
question of Mount Zion versus Mount Gerizim as the proper location for a
Temple in the first place to distract Jesus from an issue of personal
embarrassment. The real issue to which she did not want Jesus' answer that
noon, which had suddenly become a good deal hotter under the stranger's
terrible scrutiny, was not what mount on which to worship but rather what
bed in which to sleep. An answer was precisely what she wanted to avoid.
Now there's a paradox.
How can you avoid something if you don't know what it is? How would you
even know it was the sort of thing one would want to avoid? If I tell you,
"Listen, So-&-so's a real troublemaker. Avoid him at all costs," I have to
go on to tell you "Here's how to spot him." Otherwise I am just wasting
What made the Samaritan
so dead certain that Jesus' answer was to be avoided? The answer is clear:
really, she already knew it. Her conscience told her long ago, and
she was living with its burden. She had repressed it as best she could.
And she sensed this man was about to undo that work.
She says, and means no
mere polite flattery: "Sir, I perceive you are a prophet." She means she
knows he is one of those inconvenient ones whose business is to do just
what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:25: a prophet discloses the secrets of
the listener's heart. She has the sudden dreadful certainty that out of
his mouth will issue the incriminating voice of her own conscience, and it
will be a sharp, two-edged sword.
So she seeks to parry the
thrust of that sword by the deft stroke of appealing to an even higher
and, more importantly, an absent, thus silent, authority:
the sleeping and probably imaginary Messiah, who does us sinners the favor
of taking his own sweet time lest we have to face the music.
To appeal to his absent
authority is to invoke his authority to buttress and give warrant to her
convenient agnosticism. "How am I to be sure that bed-hopping is wrong
unless King Messiah should settle the question once and for all?
Until he does, as Paul says, "Do not pronounce judgment before the time."
What Jesus does is to
cast the sword from her hand with a bold stroke. He sweeps away the
imaginary authority of the Messiah in favor of the authority of a simple
voice of unknown name that speaks a truth so clear that the conscience
must yield to it. One takes hasty refuge in the thickets of epistemology
only when one wants the truth to seem less clear than it is. "Messiah may
be coming, but I am the one speaking to you now." The truth is here, the
truth to which your conscience bears eloquent witness. The word is near
you: it is in your heart, it is on your tongue. Do not launch up to the
heavens, claiming to seek it when all the time you are only trying to flee
Do you insist on
believing in an infallible Bible because otherwise you can't be sure of
any religious doctrines? Even having it would be no guarantee, because
then you'd need an infallible interpreter of that infallible book. No
guarantee of infallibility could be as clear and convincing as the voice
of conscience and religious experience, which is what your faith is based
on in the final analysis.
Will your confidence in
the Bible be shaken if you don't believe in it as an inerrant revelation?
Will your ability to be challenged and convicted by the gospels be
lessened if you can't any more be sure that the historical Jesus said
everything there attributed to him? I have a simple test for you! Just
open the gospels and start reading! Are you challenged? Are you convicted?
Are the Bible's
teachings, the Gospels' teachings, really so vacuous and unpersuasive that
you would be unmoved to take them seriously unless you knew they were
spoken by a god? Then they are poor revelations indeed! Do you have to
have some theologian prove the Bible's words deserve your obedience before
your conscience will feel their authority? Then, my friend, you are hard
of heart! It is superfluous whether Jesus ever said one of these
things! It doesn't matter whether God inspired the Bible or it was written
by a roomful of monkeys pecking randomly on typewriters!
inspired Word of God! Have done with waiting for the Messiah,
searching for the historical Jesus! This book, this text,
this voice, is the one that is speaking to you now. If your
conscience cannot hear it and will not heed it, a thousand men raised from
the dead, a million messiahs will not add one whit to its authority.
Copyright©2009 by Robert
Carolina Web Design