Guilt vs. Shame

Because they are not the same, they call for different responses.

Jesus and adulterous woman

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery

Recently I was talking with a friend with professional training in psychology. We were discussing guilt and shame. My friend pointed out to me that although guilt can slide into shame, they are not the same thing. It is important to our well-being that we stay aware of the distinction.

One of the best expressions of the distinction is found in a book by Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason, titled Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. They write: While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.*  My friend put it more succinctly for me. He said: Guilt is feeling bad about something I have done; shame is feeling bad about who I am.

I find this distinction very illuminating. I have been one who has tended to confuse guilt and shame by assuming they were variations of the same emotion.

When we feel guilty, my friend went on, we feel that in our behavior we have violated a value that we ought to have respected. That value may have been set by our society and culture. Or the violation may have been against our own internal values. But the key point is our violation comes through our behavior.

As an example, let us say we tell a lie. We feel bad about our doing so. We believe we should honor the truth, but we have violated that value by telling a lie. We feel guilty.

In shame, however, we feel bad about what we are or who we are. We feel bad about our very being. I am bad, not just in my actions, but in the very core of my being. As a result, we can feel our very right to exist or to belong is called into question.

To continue my example of telling a lie, shame tells us that when we told our lie, we became a liar. That defines who we are. We are wicked in our very being. We are no longer worthy of being loved, accepted, or belonging.

Shame’s Bitter Fruit

The emotional consequences are, therefore, often much more substantial. On the one hand, shame can trigger low self-esteem that moves into acute depression. On the other, it can trigger violent rage, especially when the shame has been induced by a real or perceived act of humiliation.

Recently I was reading a news feature in a Sunday edition of The Washington Post.** It told the stories of six angry men who had participated in the white supremacist march on Charlottesville on August 12. It explored the long roads they had traveled in developing the hate they now espouse.

Each man’s story—and his road into hate—was different. But I noticed that they all shared one factor in common. All felt alienated from the wider society. And often that feeling of alienation had come to a head through experiences when they felt they had been bullied, sneered at, or humiliated.

In humiliation, someone in effect tells us that we are so bad we cannot be loved. That violation of our sense of goodness then bears toxic fruit: anger and rage. I know from my  own experiences of being humiliated by others. If, however, we believe their negative assessment of our value, the violation can trigger deep depression. We are trapped in shame.

The Shamed Person’s Greatest Need

It seems to me then that if guilt and shame are very different, they may require different responses, especially if you are as I am a Christian pastor ministering to parishioners.

When dealing with guilt, I think we have an effective tool in the hallowed Christian practice of confession and absolution.  A person acknowledges how he or she has violated a norm by his or her behavior. As a pastor, counselor, or friend provides some form of absolution, the penitent is set free to go back to daily life, freed from the emotional burden guilt brings.

The penitent may fall into the same negative behavior again, but the absolution assures the penitent that he or she can seek to do better the next time they are tempted to engage in the same negative behavior.

But I am not sure that the traditional tool of confession and absolution is the best response for healing shame. For shame is about more than just what one has done. It is about one’s very being. One feels contempt about one’s very being alive. That contempt may have been imposed by someone else or by one’s own self. And because we are not good in our being, we believe that we can never do anything better when we confront the same temptation to engage in negative behavior.

In dealing with shame, we have to assure someone that it is OK to be who they are, to be the unique creation of God that they are. We have to convey to them that they are of value; in short, that they are loved. They may have done wrong, but that does not mean they are rubbish just because they exist. Conveying that healing message may not be an instantaneous thing. It may require slow and patient work.

Jesus, Guilt, and Shame

Because of the insight that my friend gave me into the difference between guilt and shame, I find myself looking at several gospel stories in a new light.

In Mark 2:1-12, for example, we read the story of Jesus preaching in a house in Capernaum. Because of the large crowd surrounding Jesus, a group of men cannot bring their paralyzed friend close enough to Jesus for him to heal him. So they remove the roof above him and lower their friend on a stretcher.

Jesus heals the man, but before releasing the paralysis, he forgives the man of his sins. The story suggests that the paralysis is in some way tied to a sense of guilt that the man has because of some wrong he has done. Absolution of his wrong behavior sets the man free. As a result he regains his mobility. I see this story as one purely about guilt and its effective release. We encounter no sense that shaming has played any role in the paralyzed man’s plight.

It’s another matter, however, in the story we find in John 7:53-8-11. Here we have again a story about someone who has done wrong, in this case, a woman caught in adultery. Some scribes and Pharisees drag her out in public and place her before Jesus, demanding what Jesus thinks should be done with the woman. Should she be stoned to death as the Law of Moses requires?

Their actions are a public act of shaming for the woman, presumably in front of a crowd consisting only of men. She may not have been literally naked, but she must have felt emotionally as if she were. She would then not only have been terrified for her life, but also feeling deeply shamed.

Such acts of public shaming have often happened in the history of the church. It was a common practice in the early church for notorious sinners to be brought before the bishop and condemned publicly in front of the assembled congregation.

They would then be barred from participation in the Eucharist for a specified period of time. They might also be required to follow a particular program of penances. But whatever the specific requirements, the effect was to bring them into shame in front of the community.

The Catholic practice of private confession was introduced in the early Middle Ages in an effort to provide a more compassionate way of dealing with sin. It made the confession of sin and absolution a private affair between the penitent and the priest, not in front of the whole assembled congregation.***

In effect, Jesus forgives the act of sin when he tells the woman to “go, and do not sin again.” But what is going on in this story is a more powerful response on the part of Jesus to the public shaming of the woman. When he tells the crowd, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he addresses their shaming ploy head on.

It works. Each man in the crowd slinks away, so that Jesus is left alone with the woman. He then says to her, “Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again.” The woman’s dignity as a human being has been affirmed. She is set free again to be, to be who she is as a child of God.

The Father’s Response to the Prodigal Son’s Shame

Finally, it seems to me that we watch an amazing example of the healing of shame as we read the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Here a man’s younger son demands his inheritance which he then squanders in a foreign land. He is reduced to poverty, but also disgraced by his circumstances. He as a Jew is reduced to feeding pigs.

It induces a profound sense of shame. As a result, he resolves to return home, but not to request to be re-installed in the family. Just to be enlisted among his father’s hired servants. He feels he no longer deserves to be regarded as a son. Instead he deserves to be an outsider to the family, and so he confesses as he meets his father.

But amazingly the father does not condemn his son for his failures nor consign him to servanthood. Instead, full of compassion, he runs to his son, embraces him, and kisses him. He dresses him in fine garments, and throws a banquet for him. The son is re-installed as a son.

The rationale the father gives is: …let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.

The response of the father to the son’s profound sense of shame is to communicate as strongly as he can that his son is loved. He is still his son, and always has been, despite his disgraceful behavior. What is most important to the father is not the forgiving of his son’s guilt, but the healing of his son’s shame.

I find these gospel stories so powerful because they suggest that expressions of forgiveness alone may not be enough when we are dealing with deep-seated shame. Healing shame requires something more. We need to know that we are loved.

This adds a whole new layer of meaning for me to what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:8: …God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. God loves us even before we repent of any wrong we have done. That, I believe, is the key to the healing power of the gospel.

Footnotes:

* Fossum, Merle A and Mason, Marilyn J. Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. W.W. Norton, 1986. I actually encountered this quotation in the article on Shame in Wikipedia.

** McCoy, Terrence, Six angry men and their long roads to hate, The Washington Post, August 20, 2017. Front page.

*** Historians attribute the introduction of private confession into the church to the influence of Celtic Christians and their practice of anamchara (soul friendship), a practice in which spiritual friends mutually confessed their sins to each other and received absolution.

 

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The Year of Liberty

A utopian law to address a social reality.

Shofar_for_the_Sabbath_from_the_Matson_Collection,_ca._1934-39_(LOC)

The year of jubilee got its name from the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, at the beginning of the year.

Among all the provisions the Torah prescribes for organizing Israelite life, one of the most curious is the provision regulating the year of jubilee (sometimes translated as the year of liberty). The provisions are found in Leviticus 25 and 27.

The provisions specify that the Israelites are to let their agricultural land lie fallow every seventh year. This cycle is to be repeated seven times. After completing 49 years the Israelites are to proclaim a year of jubilee. From the biblical text it is not quite clear whether the 49th year is the year of jubilee, or the 50th year. Scholars disagree.

Regardless of the precise dating, some important things are to happen in the year of liberty. They include:

  • The agricultural land is to remain fallow once again. If the year of jubilee falls in the 50th year, then the land lies fallow for two years in a row.
  • If an Israelite has sold some of his ancestral land to another Israelite, the buyer is to restore ownership of that land to the original seller or his heirs.
  • If an Israelite has sold his house in his village to another Israelite or lost his house in payment of a debt, the buyer or the creditor is to return the house to the original owner or his heirs.
  • If an Israelite has sold his own person or a member of his family to another Israelite into indentured service, the man or his family member is to be released from that service in the year of jubilee and restored to full freedom.
  • The price a buyer pays for a piece of land or for the service of an indentured servant is calculated on the number of years yet remaining until the next year of jubilee. If some land is sold, for example, while there are yet 44 years to go before the next jubilee, then the price for the land will be higher than the price for a piece of land that is sold 12 years before the next jubilee.

A common economic problem

This legislation was designed to deal with a common economic problem. Due to the uncontrollable vicissitudes of life or to careless planning and management, people can fall into financial distress. To deal with that distress, they borrow funds to get by. But sometimes they get trapped in their debt and cannot break free again.

As a result, lands and property can begin to accumulate into the hands of a small, wealthy elite, while the poor get poorer as they lose more and more of the assets they possess. The poor find themselves in financial or service bondage to the rich. As this situation advances, a greater and greater disparity can begin to open up between society’s rich and its poor.

The provisions for the year of jubilee seek to address this disparity. They seek to restore some sense of economic fairness within the society. Those who have acquired greater property at the expense of those who have been financially distressed are forced to redistribute some of their wealth with the disadvantaged. Those bearing the burdens of service have their burdens lifted so that they can return to being free members of society.

The provisions are predicated upon the belief that God is the ultimate owner of the land (Leviticus 25:23). Israelites do not own their land. They possess it as a gift from God. They are called to be tenant/stewards of the land on God’s behalf.

Furthermore, the Israelites are to remember always that God freed them from their bondage to the Egyptians (Leviticus 25:38, 42). They are not to engage then in the same behavior, binding their brothers in bondage, as the Egyptians did them. They are not to recreate Egypt in the land of Israel.*

The prophetic context for a utopian law

No one knows for sure whether this legislation was ever implemented in ancient Israelite practice. Many scholars consider it a utopian law, an economic ideal that no one put into real effect.

If that is the case, then why did the ancient scholars who compiled the Torah include such a utopian law within its provisions? I wonder if the provisions for the year of jubilee are not a testimony that some sensitive souls in ancient Israel recognized the de-stabilizing power of vast disparities in wealth and income in a society. When great gaps open up between the rich and the poor, tensions are created that can undermine the stability and security of a society, just as underground rivers can erode the rock and create the vacuums into which sink holes collapse.

The Old Testament prophets had an acute sensitivity to the economic injustice involved in the rich living in great luxury at the expense of the poor. (One thinks immediately of the prophet Amos and his denunciations of the soft elite of Samaria.) I think their message can be summarized in the succinct phrase: Where there is no economic justice, there is no peace.

Whether the legislation for the year of jubilee preceded the prophets or emerged from the message of the prophets, the Old Testament shows an amazing sensitivity to the economic foundations of social stability.

I think that modern believers need to remain sensitive to that same Old Testament sensitivity. The ancient insights can be far more relevant to our own society than many Christians may be willing to admit. We see all around us in the world today the ways in which economic injustice fuels social and political instability as well as great migrations of people. This instability is exacerbated by a libertarian attitude towards capitalism, an attitude that unregulated markets should supremely rule the economy.

We need to ask whether there is not a wisdom built into the Torah’s regulations for the year of jubilee. It may be a wisdom that we need to pay heed to.


* The Leviticus legislation may not be perfect by our standards today. Israelites can own chattel slaves if the slaves come not from among their fellow Israelites, but from foreign peoples. The sense of the moral evil of slavery per se has not yet dawned within the biblical consciousness.

 

Why I Read and Study the Bible

Engagement with the Bible is a priority for me for one important reason.

Easter Bible

I have been writing this blog for five years. Sometimes the pressure of coming up with yet another new posting makes me anxious. Yet I continue to write because I continue to find myself captivated by the Bible. You may wonder why, so let me offer an answer.

It is not because I regard the Bible as a simple collection of ready answers to every spiritual problem or need. If I am feeling fear, then I turn to…. If that were the case, then the Bible would be just another volume of magic spells comparable to something Harry Potter might find in the library of Hogwarts.

I certainly have favorite passages of the Bible that I turn to in distressing times. But that’s not why I continue to invest my time and energies in reading and studying this book.

Nor do I read the Bible because I expect there to find infallible answers to every question I bring to it. To be honest, I give no credibility to any doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, although that was certainly the teaching in the religious tradition I grew up in. I am fully prepared to acknowledge that there may be errors of fact and viewpoint in some of what I read in the Bible.

I hold this position because I do not believe that human beings are given the gift of infallibility, infallibility of any kind whether we locate it in reason, the Pope, general church councils, or the Bible. Only one is infallible. That is God. And human beings do not share that divine characteristic. To be human is to be capable of erring, and we all do, including I believe the authors of the Bible.

The very human process by which the Bible came to us

My study of how the Bible was written, edited, and compiled has shown me how thoroughly human was the process by which we received the Bible. No angel dictated the words of the Bible to its authors (as Muslims believe Gabriel did with the words of the Quran). The process that brought us the Bible is full of all the historical contingencies that accompany any human endeavor.

Furthermore, that process means we find different voices and viewpoints expressed in the Bible as a whole. The books of the Bible do not speak with one unified voice.

I offer one example. The books of Ezra-Nehemiah and the book of Ruth offer contradictory viewpoints on the legitimacy and value of Israelite men marrying foreign wives. Yet all three books are included in the Bible. And for that reason I must hear and take seriously what each of them says in their contradictory viewpoints. I cannot pick and choose to accept only one. The canon of the Bible means I must hear each voice with equal seriousness, for given different historical situations, one voice may speak a message that I need to hear at that time over the others.

 The divine mystery that is the Bible

So skeptics may say to me with some astonishment, “Why do you continue to read and study the Bible? Isn’t it a vast waste of time?” Some might even say a detrimental waste of time. Look, they say, at all the pain and hurt people quoting the Bible have brought into human history.

Their question reminds me of a scene in the movie Zorba the Greek, where Zorba asks his scholarly English companion Basil why anyone dies. Basil says that he does not know. Zorba responds, “What the use of all your damned books if they can’t answer that?” Basil responds: “They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.”

In an analogous way, I continue to read and study the Bible for one important reason. It may not answer all my questions, but tells me of the privilege and challenge of being called to be a child of God, of living in the divine mystery that lies around, beneath, above, and inside me. It feeds my spirit, nurtures my faith, shapes my mindset, guides my behavior, forms my character, and inspires my hope like no other book.

Because of all that I can affirm with full conviction what the Pauline author says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 

 I would ask you to notice about this sentence (so often quoted as proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration) that its primary focus is not on the use of the Bible to proof text doctrine, but to shape the way we live and behave. The author is most concerned in the power of the Bible to form us as believers so we can live lives of Christian service.

I truly believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but not because the Bible claims to be so inspired or a church authority declares it so, but because of the mysterious power it has continually to nurture me in my life of faith. I do not understand the nature of that power, anymore than I understand the mysterious way the Spirit of God guided the contingent process of bringing the Bible into being.

Exactly how God has inspired the Bible is a mystery to me. Yet I continue to believe that God has done so because of the power the Bible has played in my life. I first became captivated by the Bible as a teen-ager. And through all the up’s and the down’s of my tumultuous spiritual journey I have been able to turn to the Bible as a steadying force in my life.

The dual pillars of my spiritual life

I said my spiritual journey has been tumultuous. I mean that. And through all the twists and turns of my spiritual and emotional life, two things have proved my anchor. One is my engagement with the Bible; the other is my regular participation in the Eucharist. They have been my personal Jachin and Boaz, those foundational pillars that stood at the entrance of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 3:15-17).

Together, the Bible and the Eucharist have grounded me spiritually. And I note that they also form the two foci—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament—that have formed the historic Sunday liturgy of the church. That liturgy, too, has a mysterious divine power. It feeds me spiritually. It heals my emotions. It challenges my passivity. It shapes my character.

So why do I continue to read, study, and wrestle with the Bible? Why do I try to share something of the fruit of that engagement in my blog postings? Because here I touch the mystery of God and God’s ways and purposes in the world. Hear I touch the mysteries, the challenges, and privileges of being a human being.

And here too I gain insight into the nature of this cosmos in which we live. The Bible tells me this cosmos is not meaningless, despite all our experiences that suggest otherwise. Instead the Bible calls me to trust in the hidden ways God is guiding this cosmos to its mysterious, but glorious destiny.

 

 

 

Prophets and Power

The complex role of prophets in the halls of power.

Eugène_Siberdt_-_The_Prophet_Nathan_rebukes_King_David

The prophet Nathan rebukes King David, by the 19th century Belgian artist Eugène Sieberdt.

Last November, in my posting “Thus Saith the Lord,” I wrote about the story of Micaiah (1 Kings 22). Micaiah was a prophet attached to the court of King Ahab. He was out of royal favor because his prophecies never favored the king’s desires and policies. In fact, he predicted the king’s death in battle. His story, however, gives us an insight into how the Hebrew prophets understood their role.

Prophets were common in the royal courts of the ancient Near East, including ancient Israel. Micaiah is not, in fact, the most prominent court prophet that we encounter in the pages of the Old Testament. That honor belongs to Nathan, prophet to the great King David. His story reveals the complex challenges and temptations that come when religious officials align themselves with the halls of power.

The Prophet Endorsing Power

 We meet Nathan at several different points in David’s career. Our first encounter comes in 2 Samuel 7. David has solidified his power. He resides in his new capital, Jerusalem, where he builds himself a palace. Like many royal builders of other eras, he wants to honor the divine power that put him into power. He proposes to build a temple for God.

Nathan, his court prophet, endorses the idea. He tells the king, Go, do what is in your heart. The Lord is with you. (2 Samuel 7:3) It was the kind of divine endorsement of a royal action that court prophets would have routinely been expected to give. It must have seemed a no-brainer. What god would not be flattered by a temple built in his honor.

Nathan, however, has remained spiritually sensitive enough that he can still hear an alternate word from God when it comes to him in a dream. God does not want David to build the temple. That task will fall to his successor.

Nathan delivers that message to David, a message that David was not likely wanting to hear. But David’s disappointment is assuaged by the divine promise Nathan also delivers to David. His family line will rule Israel forever: …your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever (2 Samuel 7:16).

It is an extravagant promise coming out of the mouth of God’s spokesman. David is overwhelmed and immediately breaks into praise for God. It is also the first expression of that line of thought in the Hebrew Bible that emerges eventually into the belief in a Messiah, a belief with enormous consequences for both Judaism and Christianity.

Here we have a court prophet performing a duty that every monarch in the ancient world would have gladly welcomed. But it is a duty that needs to be performed with modesty. For Nathan learns in the process that what he thinks accords with God’s will may not represent God’s will at all.

The Prophet Challenging Power

 The next time we encounter Nathan (2 Samuel 12) he performs a duty that no king would have welcomed nor most likely even tolerated. But it was a duty that a court prophet had to perform if he was to be true to his calling as a spokesman for God.

David abuses his powers as king. He uses his position to seduce and commit adultery with Bathsheba. He then arranges the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to cover up his sin. It is not the first time that a government official has taken advantage of his power to gratify his own sexual lusts.

God summons Nathan, however, to confront David with his sin. He does so by first telling David a story of a rich man stealing a poor man’s only lamb to feed a guest. David is outraged by the injustice. At this point, Nathan directly confronts David: You are the man! (2 Samuel 12:7)

I find it amazing that Nathan had the courage to directly name his abuse of power to the king directly. It was a courageous thing to do. Nathan was fortunate that David had some sense of conscience and did not order Nathan’s execution on the spot. Instead David admits his sin in remorse.

In this case the court prophet had to speak truth to power. It was probably not a common service that court prophets did. Micaiah also did and it won him banishment for court. But it is a necessary task if power is to be kept accountable.

The Prophet Complicit with Power

The last time we encounter Nathan in the historical record we learn of his participation in the plot to place Solomon on the throne after David’s death (1Kings 1-2). As David lies dying, his son Adonijah tries to pre-empt the succession by getting himself crowned king in advance.

Nathan is the one who comes and informs David of what Adonijah is trying to do. David, however, has other plans. He wants Solomon, son of Bathsheba and Adonijah’s half-brother, to succeed him. He summons the queen, Zadok the high priest, Benaiah commander of the king’s troops along with Nathan, to set in motion a kind of counter coup d’état to ensure the succession of Solomon.

It works. Solomon is acclaimed king and Adonijah loses his life. Nathan has played a critical role in this intrigue from the very start.

This story shows how a court prophet could not remain above or separate from the intrigues that go on in any royal court. Life in the court presented its temptations. And in my viewpoint Nathan succumbed in this case.

The Prophet as Morality Tale

The story of Nathan, it seems to me, is more than an interesting incident in the history of the Davidic monarchy. It is a morality tale about the challenges and temptations religious leaders face when they choose to become aligned with political power.

• Such religious leaders can be seduced into providing religious endorsement of what the political power wants to do, regardless of whether that represents the will of the Lord or not. If they are to maintain their spiritual integrity, they must take care to cultivate constantly their spiritual sensitivity to the God they serve.

• Such religious leaders can provide a necessary function in speaking truth to power if they have the courage to do so. It runs a risk, of course, but it is a needed function if we are to keep political power honest.

• And finally the alignment with political power can work its subtle corrupting influences on such leaders that they become entangled in the intrigues that swirl around such power. Religious leaders are not immune from that lesson from history that Lord Acton summarized in his aphorism: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

If religion is to have any impact on the wider society, its leaders cannot remain divorced from power. That is the great mistake, in my opinion, of all those who interpret the American tradition of separation of church and state as meaning that churches and their leaders should stay strictly out of politics. Christianity is not a faith just for individuals. It has immense consequences for all of our communal life, and religious leaders have a duty to speak of those.

Yet when churches and their leaders venture into the political realm–necessarily though it may be–they also run the risk of being co-opted and corrupted by their engagement. They should walk the halls of power with fear and trembling, knowing the great perils they face. That is the continuing relevance of the story of Nathan, court prophet.

 

Jesus, Human Being

In a boyhood story we glimpse something of Jesus’ humanity.

William_Holman_Hunt_-_The_Finding_of_the_Saviour_in_the_Temple

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, by William Holman Hunt, 1860.

The story of Jesus in the New Testament gospels has one big omission. It tells us almost nothing about those 30 years between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his Galilean ministry.

That omission has always troubled Christians, even in the early church. To remedy it, an anonymous Christian writer in the 2nd century wrote the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It provides both charming and alarming stories about Jesus as a growing boy learning with some difficulty how to control his miraculous powers. The Infancy Gospel of James from the same era tries to satisfy our curiosity about the early life of the Virgin Mary.

The canonical gospels in the New Testament remain silent about those obscure 30 years… with one exception. Luke tells a story about a pilgrimage visit Jesus and his parents make to Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years old (Luke 2:41-52). It gives us one fleeting, but revealing glimpse into the early development of Jesus.

The Jesus we meet in it comes across to me as a very normal, though precocious adolescent. Like every adolescent, he is beginning to assert his own independence from his parents. It may be too extreme to label it rebellion, but Jesus certainly shows some indifference to his parents’ feelings by his decision to remain behind in Jerusalem without informing them.

When his parents finally find him in the temple (after a three-day search), I think we can assume they were quite annoyed at their son. We can speculate that there were likely some harsh words said. Raising Jesus may have had its trials, as raising any child does.

Like most adolescents, too, Jesus seems to be exploring his own identity. He already manifests some awareness of a special relationship with God. He refers to God as his Father. He may not fully understand yet what his identity is and means. That’s why he is in the temple engaged in inquiry with the religious scholars.

Luke makes a point of telling us that Jesus was not lecturing the scholars. He was no know-it-all kid. Instead he is asking questions and listening to the scholars’ answers. I take special note of that detail. He does not have all the answers. He is seeking possibly to understand this special relationship with God that he is already experiencing. What does it mean? What does it require of him?

There is at the same time in the story a sense of Jesus as a precocious teen-ager. Luke tells us that the scholars are astonished at his questions and answers. He must have been manifesting a depth of thought and insight that struck them as highly unusual for a young person of his age.

A Real Human Boy

What strikes me about this story in Luke is the sense of Jesus as a real human being, a real human boy. He certainly may be spiritually precocious for his age. Yet he is still acting like a normal adolescent. He is not some superboy astonishing people with his powers (as is the boy described in the infancy gospels). Instead he is experiencing the typical developmental challenges that go along with his age.

The orthodox confession of the Christian church is that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human in an indivisible union. That is the official doctrine. But I am not sure we always realize the implications of what we are confessing.

If Jesus is fully human, as we confess, then Jesus experiences the same limitations that we do as human beings. He has a body with its demands. The baby who lies in the manger of Bethlehem is a real baby who needs his mother’s milk and messes in his diapers. He would at times have been a fussy baby. As an adolescent, he would have experienced all the confusing developments in his body as puberty set in.

I think confessing Jesus as truly human means Jesus, too, had to meet the many challenges of growing up. That meant not only learning how to walk and talk, but how to outgrow the instinctual egocentrism that goes with being a toddler.

He had to learn Hebrew like the other boys in the synagogue. He had to learn how to use the tools in his father’s carpenter shop. And learning meant making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.

In Luke’s story we see Jesus as a normal adolescent passing through some of the normal challenges of growing up to be himself and to own his own calling. He does not have the gift of omniscience. No human being does. So he must ask questions and learn from his elders.

Saying all this does not mean I deny his divinity. I say what I say, however, because I am more and more convinced that when we overemphasize Jesus’ divinity, we end up disbelieving in his humanity. When we do that, Jesus becomes a demi-god walking on earth, not one of us. And if he is not one of us, then he cannot be an example for us to emulate. Nor can he save us, for he has not truly lived out the life of faithfulness within the same limitations and weaknesses of human nature that the rest of us do.

 

An Uncomfortable Meeting with Jesus

If we met Jesus in person, would we love him, hate him, or be baffled by him?

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The nameless woman wipes Jesus’ perfumed feet with her hair. Image by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe, 20th century

Occasionally I fantasize meeting Jesus in person. What would the experience feel like? What would be my response? Would it mirror one of the many responses described in the gospels?

When we read those gospels, we hear of many people’s encounters with Jesus. Their responses are all across the board.

Some, for example, seem to fall passionately in love with Jesus. The most extreme example is the story (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9) of the nameless woman who interrupts a dinner party where Jesus is the guest. She pours an expensive perfume over his head and feet. She then wipes his feet with her hair.

The gesture is extravagant in the extreme. The perfume is expensive. It equals a year’s total wages for an ordinary laborer. All this is splurged in one sensuous moment. Jesus, unlike his disciples, is not alarmed by the gesture’s erotic overtones. He is deeply touched by it.

In the garden on Easter morning, we sense Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus by her instantaneous embrace of him when she recognizes him (John 20:11-18). Women are not alone in showing such love. At the Last Supper Jesus’ beloved disciple reclines next to Jesus, manifesting his affection for Jesus and Jesus’ affection for him (John 13:23).

Others in their encounters with Jesus show profound awe. In John’s gospel we hear the story of the meeting between the risen Jesus and his doubting disciple Thomas (John 20:26-29). When confronted with Jesus, Thomas blurts out “My Lord and my God.” It’s the most awesome acclamation of Jesus in all the gospels.

We also read over and over again of how the crowds who hear Jesus teach and see him heal respond with astonishment. They wonder where his authority comes from. (See Mark 1:21-28.)

Others respond to Jesus out of their sheer confidence in his power to heal. The story of the woman with a blood hemorrhage who pushes herself through the crowd to touch the fringe of Jesus’ robe is one example (Mark 5:25-34). So too is the Roman centurion who feels unworthy to welcome Jesus into his house (Luke 7:1-10). He instructs Jesus to just say the word from a distance. He knows his slave will be healed. Something about Jesus has evoked such incredible confidence in Jesus.

Then there are those who hate Jesus. His enemies are numerous. In many cases they are religious authorities that, like the crowds, hear him preach and watch him heal. They respond, on the other hand, with hostility. Their anger seems provoked by Jesus’ subversion of their own authority and their inflexible rules for determining what’s right and what’s wrong. Jesus’ own disciple Judas ends up joining them out of motives we can no longer detect.

Baffled by Jesus

 And then there are those who seem baffled by Jesus. They just don’t know what to do with this strange man. He behaves in odd ways. They can’t fit him into one of the normal categories they use to pigeonhole the people they meet.

The Roman governor Pilate is one. He clearly sees Jesus as innocent, but can’t understand why Jesus does nothing to passionately defend himself against the charges brought against him. Jesus does not fit the pattern of most prisoners that Pilate is called upon to judge.

I find the most fascinating example of people feeling baffled by Jesus by the story in the gospel of Mark (Mark 3:20-21, 31-33) where Jesus’ own mother and brothers come to take him home. They believe that Jesus is deranged. He must have been acting in a way so out of character with the boy and young man they had grown up with that they feel he has lost his mind. The ones who should have known Jesus most intimately are the ones now baffled by him.

The one response to Jesus that we do not seem to find in the gospels is terror. People may feel threatened by him, but they never seem to tremble in fear in his presence. (The one exception is the woman with the blood hemorrhage I mentioned above. Jesus quickly reassures her.)

I find that striking. By the time we get into the Middle Ages and the era of great cathedral building, the favored image that medieval sculptors placed over the central church door was usually a picture of the Last Judgment.

There a stern Jesus sits enthroned separating the saved from the damned. It was a fearsome image. It must have been meant to sear the consciences of the faithful as they entered into the church’s sanctuary. But I don’t find any sanction for that emotion of terror in the gospels.

As I said when I started out, which of these gospel responses would I mirror if I met Jesus in person? I don’t know. Knowing the complex and disjointed human being that I am and the complex and integrated person Jesus is, I realize I could be capable of responding with any of those responses I’ve described…and some others as well.

I am sure that my response to Jesus would surprise me. It would reveal something about me that I may not have acknowledged before. That would make me very uncomfortable.

 

The Sign of Conversion

A puzzling parable offers a sure-fire sign of full conversion.

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One of the most troubling of Jesus’ parables is his story of a landowner who goes out into the village marketplace to hire laborers to work in his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). He hires some in the early morning, then returns every three hours to hire more, including some just a hour before the work day ends. Yet all the laborers, regardless of when they began work, are paid the same wage.

The workers who began work in the early morning complain about the landowner’s unfairness. They should be paid more, they argue, because they worked through the scorching heat of the day. That deserves greater remuneration.

The landowner denies their request, saying:

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)

Most of us are troubled by this parable because we agree with the aggrieved laborers. By our standards of good business practices, the landowner is indeed being unjust. The workers deserve a reward commensurate with the depth of labor they put into the task.

But if we are to understand this parable, we must leave behind our ideas about fair business transactions. When Jesus begins telling his story, he says it is an analogy to what happens in the kingdom of God. All who enter into the kingdom are beneficiaries of the generous grace of God.

All receive the same gift of God’s gracious salvation. That is a gift of surpassing worth. And anyone who receives that gift should take delight that everyone else is receiving that same surpassing gift as well. That, in fact, becomes a sign of full conversion (conversion understood as a radical change of mindset as I describe in my June 2 posting Transforming Repentance).

If I have been truly converted, then I will rejoice in the fact that God is sharing so widely the same gift that I have received. For that gift is such a superlative gift that I cannot hoard it to myself. I want everyone around me to share it too.

Such an attitude shows that one is no longer dominated by an egocentric religious mindset. Such a mindset is always concerned with what I will get from my faithfulness, devotion, and obedience. If we are dominated by that mindset, we will be consumed with our demand that we get what we feel we deserve. We will resent someone getting what we feel they have not deserved as much as we have.

The Character of Conversion

Conversion involves a reorientation of our mindset from an obsession with our own survival and wellbeing to a delight in the great and glorious cosmic plan that God is at work to bring into being, That includes a joyful acceptance of our own humble place and role in that plan whether that place and role always involve our immediate wellbeing or not. The surpassing worth and beauty of the kingdom so captivates us that we cannot help but rejoice when others come to share that same gift that we have received.

Now I think this parable speaks very pointedly to our spiritual situation as Christians. Egocentric concerns may play a huge role in bringing us to a conversion experience. (And there is nothing more egocentric that being worried about whether we are going to heaven or hell when we die.) When we begin our spiritual journey, we begin where we are as egocentric persons most concerned about what affects us personally.

But as we mature into our conversion, a shift begins to take place within us. We begin to be more concerned not with our own spiritual fate and wellbeing, but with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Jesus describes that shift when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, …strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well (Matthew 6:33).

That does not mean most of us reach that level of spiritual maturity easily or quickly. For most of us, including myself, it is a long, slow, and gradual process of reorientation lasting a whole lifetime.

The parable also speaks, I believe, to our relationship with other Christian groupings and other religions. When we see the fruits of God’s kingdom manifest in them, if we are truly converted, we rejoice to see the Spirit at work in them as well as in us, regardless of whether they conform to our particular doctrines and practices.

When we have reached that depth of conversion, we can begin to hear Jesus’ parable not as a frightful malpractice but as a vision into the glory of God’s beneficent grace.