Thursday, February 01, 2007

I recently caught CNN's special on the early Church, roughly from the Ascention through the legalization of Christianity under Constantine. I am at turns interested in and frustrated with purely secular attempts to exegete ecclesial history. It can be fascinating to learn what perspectives can develop when one is disinterested or slightly skeptical, rather than zealously supportive or antagonistic; on the other hand, sometimes things still get lost or distorted in the interest of one scholar or another trying to advance an agenda completely unrelated to the material in question, if not distinct from the orthodox interpretations for the sake of novelty. In CNN's "After Jesus," they candidly admit that historians can only go by the physical evidence available, but it's still interesting to see how they pitch the Church's development as a rather haphazard thing, like the debate over whether Christian converts needed to be Jews first being determined by a battle of wits and egos, by Paul's persuasion of James, rather than as a discovery of some objective truth, which would have been more how Paul and James would have imagined it.

it reminds me of a discussion I followed at ISCA last year, too late for me to participate, but it took me this long to think of what to write about it for you, and like I said, I prefer to lurk. It's about the time, described in John 12, when a Mary annointed the feet of Jesus with nard, and Judas offered the criticism that it should have been sold (ostensibly for the poor, although he'd actually been embezzling, according to John). Jesus's response is "(7) Leave her alone. She has kept this for the day of my burial. (8) For you always have the poor with you, but you don't always have me." The issue in question during this discussion is why Jesus didn't have the nard sold in the first place. When asked what he got out of the first six verses in the chapter, the user said:

I would have "liked" Jesus to have stopped the woman from washing his feet at all and told her to buy bread for the poor and that they will celebrate his majesty by providing for the hungry.

By verse 7 he's kinda in a tight position, though, so there's not much to say right at that moment. If he had said "Oh, Judas, you're right...' he wouldn't have been the all-knowning dude he was, right?

In response:

Yeah, that's the thing, I'm thinking it's sarcasm, sort of a backhanded "you're not getting this money dude, so don't even think about it". Sort of like, it's better for my feet than to have you steal it with your false concern for the poor.

And...the wise are confounded. Didn't other apostles at other times make similar suggestions to Judas's? Jesus wasn't sarcastic, though; He was saying what He meant. He isn't always direct in the gospels, but even when He uses dramatic language--brood of vipers, raising stones up to children of Abraham, children of the devil--it's pretty clear from the narration, if not always the context, that there's a bigger message being conveyed. Maybe Jesus was being direct--or maybe He meant it both ways, that being annointed in anticipation of His burial is also better than having Judas steal the 300 and spend it on, well, probably nothing he'd have time to enjoy.

I think in a way it's also a lesson in sacramentality. Sure, it's great to do things like give to the poor as a celebration of His majesty or comemoration of His message, but loving your neighbor is the second great commandment, not the first. We are limited, physical creatures; if we do not at intervals make explicit gestures of worship to God, then it is probable we will lose sight of why we are making explicit gestures of keeping after our brothers. It's liable to become a chore, either something eventually neglected or at least done out of habit, devoid of the anagogical dimension God likes to introduce into things He elevates to sacramentals.

No, they say: let's interpret it as Jesus merely scolding, and not as teaching his disciples that making great efforts to worship God (a la the first great commandment) is important next to making any efforts to help one another (the second great commandment). Jesus, after all, was just a teacher, wasn't He? Never mind that the Evangelists thought He was divine, as did the other Apostles, and don't forget that the multitudes he fed didn't want to carry off and coronate Him just for inspiring them to generosity. Let's interepret the passage in a way that has Jesus meaning the opposite of what He says plainly, in a way that expressly precludes what the rest of the New Testament has a pretty solid consensus on; let's catch Jesus glutting a bit on Mary's fawning and weeping with the nard, and then have Him turn it around on Judas when he's caught so people can still say "No, it's all on Judas; it's good to pamper God!"

Taking the "Jesus was sarcastic" route makes the orthodox interpretation look like sophistry--which is fair to suspect, as Judas's question was only asked in the wrong spirit--but if the whole of Jesus's message were "be excellent to the poor," then why'd He waste all that time talking about other things of the Kingdom of God? He sure wasn't executed for being a socialist.

Is it so hard to acknowledge that the stuff about the Jesus's divinity might be on the straight and level? To consider that at least the Apostles thought so? Look at verse seven again: "She has kept this for the day of My burial." It's not just about "celebrating his majesty," and Jesus wasn't overindulging in some TLC from the woman. I can buy Christ trying one more time to correct Judas, but looking at "Do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" and "let he who is without sin cast the first stone," where He used situational irony, I can't see Jesus being sarcastic just for the sake of sarcasm, just to cover His behind when He could have just as well told Judas off straight away. It's pretty clear that by this point in the Gospel story, Jesus was anticipating His own imminent death. Why the insistence on reading that verse apart from the rest of the passage? Verses 3-6 set up Christ letting Mary bathe His feet and the others not understanding why resources should be wasted on being good to Jesus. These verses aren't the lesson with Jesus changing the subject in the seventh, they are the question to which the answer is verse seven. It's again like historians trying to reinterpret the story with only secular data: "See, Jesus was all about helping the poor, so when they caught Him enjoying a little luxury, He had to retain an image of modest living and generosity"--a rather one-dimensional image, in the eyes of someone who can accept both/and solutions to an apparent dichotomy--"as well as omniscience, so it's achieved by showing Jesus knowing what Judas was up to and saying that waste is better than theft." At this point I don't see Him being sarcastic, but perhaps ironic again: Judas's suggestion, after all, wasn't bad, but only insincere. The woman at the well also said she had no husband, which wasn't false; it was just inaccurate, as she'd had five, which Jesus made a point of bringing up.

It also seems to have hints of liberation theology. It's a little beside the point, but we've got here another case where someone takes portions of the Bible that fit some philosophy or agenda at face value, and dismiss the rest with a wave of the hand, hardly bothering to rationalize ignoring the other text: Jesus was all about helping and feeding the poor, and only about helping and feeding the poor; when He mistakenly lets Mary pamper Him and Judas calls Him on it, Jesus smacks him down because Judas was just filching from the Apostolic purse anyway.

I'm all for helping the poor, but doesn't it seem rather unoriginal? "Jesus taught us to help the needy! Let's call him God!" seems no less silly than "Jesus goaded us not to hoard our lunch for ourselves! Let's make him king!" I suppose I should expect as much from a one-dimensional philosophy, whether it's a dimension of welfare or a dimension of pacifism.

When it comes to Lord, liar, or lunatic, why is it so easy to say "You know, I don't like the historical evidence. I think he was just a swell guy who got a little puffed up in the retelling by his cultus?"

What's next, wild dogs?

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