Tag Archives: discussion

8 May: The Jesus Problem, Part I.

Roman city gateway, Lincoln. The Romans came to Britain soon after Jesus’ time.

After Pope Francis’s prayer about money, let’s join Sister Johanna as she eavesdrops on a discussion on the subject that Jesus refuses to get drawn into needlessly, though his answer puts the question back in his questioners’ court.

The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. They sent their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (see Mt. 22:15-16).

I read these lines from the Gospel of Matthew and it hits me: this spokesman for the Pharisees is really laying it on thick. This is an episode that occurs near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, when feeling against him among the Jewish leaders has reached the danger-point. Now, in their efforts to bring Jesus down, the Pharisees enlist the aid of their disciples – Pharisees-in-training, probably – to do some dirty work, which strikes me as being particularly cowardly. And also they have the help of the Herodians – because Herodians, as supporters of the Herodian dynasty, were the most suitable people to report Jesus, if he could be tricked into saying something against Rome. In which case Jesus would be arrested and conveniently removed from the scene. End of the Jesus Problem for the Pharisees. In this passage, the Pharisees’ disciples are attempting to present themselves as the loyal supporters of Rome – although in fact, none of the Jews were happy under the Roman occupation. But the facts are being manipulated now in order to stack the situation against Jesus. I re-read this passage from Matthew, and I feel anger on Jesus’ behalf as I consider the viciousness behind the overblown flattery of the words said to him. I see the speaker flicking conspiratorial glances at his peers while they all feign seriousness. Sickening.

I continue to ponder this scene, seeking a real encounter with the person of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit working in the sacred text. I try to imagine how I would react if I had been in Jesus’ place. Even at this remove, the main feeling continues to be anger – building up and up inside me. This, along with fear, would be overwhelming if I were really there; I see myself trying to suppress these emotions. I see myself acting – or trying to act – as though I don’t notice the group’s malice, while inwardly being so preoccupied by it, and the implied insult to my intelligence, and the threat to my very life, that I cannot actually answer their question with any show of competence. I see myself quickly trying to end the encounter and escape. The bottom line is that I would be way out of my depth if I were in Jesus’ place, and in the end, even if I managed somehow to preserve my dignity, I would be unable to come up with a response that addressed this complex situation or that impressed anyone – not even my best friend.

Jesus, however, is master of the whole situation. And his flatterers were right. Jesus is not afraid of them or of anyone. He will take them on, astute in every word and gesture. How does he handle things? First, he addresses their falsity. He exposes it. He wants their duplicity to be out in the open, obvious to all. ‘You hypocrites!’ he says. ‘Why are you putting me to the test?’ No one needs to explain why – and no one does. It’s perfectly obvious that they are hoping to trap Jesus, make him look like an enemy of The Establishment. In exposing this, Jesus he easily wrong-foots his questioners – and wins a small victory here. Now he has the advantage in the ensuing exchange.

Jesus clearly knows their game. Nonetheless Jesus has a ‘game’ of his own. He has come into the world as saviour. He will never turn away if there is even a remote possibility that someone present may be open to his person and message. He has been asked a question: ‘Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Jesus sees that the question is a set-up. But he also sees something they don’t see – he sees that the question can be turned into one that touches the deepest spiritual level of the human being. There may be someone, perhaps only one person in that little group of Pharisees’ disciples, who is reachable. And so, Jesus gives them all a most beautiful answer to their question.

And here we are going to slow this reflection down. We know this story; we know the answer Jesus is going to give. But this is lectio divina. Lectio is about giving the text space to speak in a new way each time we read it, not pre-empting the Holy Spirit by rushing ahead to the end, then dusting off our mental hands, closing the book and dashing away unchanged. So, we’re going to pause this reflection here for today, and return to it tomorrow, perhaps with an even greater degree of openness to the message that Jesus, through his Spirit working in us, may wish to give.

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18 February: Reduced to Silence

A Lampedusa cross should reduce us to silence. This is in the British Museum, it was made from wrecked migrants’ boats.

They did not dare to ask Jesus any more questions (Luke 20:40). This sentence from the Gospel of St. Luke comes at the end of a passage that tells of an exchange between Jesus and some Sadducees. As usual, the Sadducees have an agenda. They were not keen on this upstart travelling rabbi, Jesus, and were looking for ways to up-end him. They decide that a theological debate might be a good way to do it. Therefore, they think up a rather implausible tale of a woman who outlives not only her first husband but her seven subsequent husbands (all brothers of her first husband, obliged under the Law to marry the widow and ‘raise up children for the brother’ if the previous union had been childless). Finally the widow dies. And the Saducees’s question for Jesus is: ‘At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’

The Sadducees did not accept the notion of the resurrection from the dead. The hypothetical scenario they invented is meant to illustrate how ridiculous resurrection from the dead is. They seem pretty sure of themselves here, convinced that they have articulated an unsolvable problem. They expected to stump Jesus and to make him withdraw from the conversation, a disgraced loser.

As I reread and ponder this passage of Luke’s gospel, I can see the Sadducees gathered around, the speaker feigning seriousness, while secretly flicking supercilious glances at the others. They are subtly mocking Jesus. In typical adolescent fashion, they completely overestimate their own abilities and underestimate Jesus’; they are unprepared for his skill in theological debate, unprepared for a mind and personality like his.

I would love to have been there. St Luke shows that Jesus, with consummate courtesy and intelligence, not only pays the Sadducees the compliment of taking their question seriously, but answers it on such a deep level as to leave them amazed (Luke 20:34-38). When Jesus crafts his answer, his listeners were given the privilege of observing the workings of a truly beautiful mind. Anyone who has ever been in the class of a teacher who is a brilliant and deep thinker knows how exciting it can be to witness that teacher’s handling of difficult and subtle questions – off the cuff. There is always a moment after the question is posed when everyone wonders how the teacher will deal with the problem. Then, all the students share in the moments of unexpected enlightenment that break through as the teacher unravels easily and eloquently what, to everyone else, was a very tangled knot. It is an impressive event. Even those who are prejudiced against the teacher cannot avoid, if they are honest with themselves, being impressed . They may defend against it, as did the Sadducees here, but for the moment, even they must be quietly gob-smacked.

If you want to study Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, I refer you to the text of Luke 20: 27-40. But the word-for-word answer is not actually what I want to linger over right now. What is amazing to me is that when Jesus finishes his answer to the Sadducees’s question, the whole pack of them ‘do not dare’ to ask him any other questions. This is a major achievement on Jesus’ part. The verbal cut and thrust of debate was what the professional religious thrived on, and practised daily. They were good at it and knew it. But Jesus was better. He could not be wrong-footed by them. They are, unusually, reduced to silence.

Most encounters that Jesus has in the gospels can tell us something about prayer. Can this one? At first this seems unlikely, but further reflection has made me change my mind.

There are some questions I think I need to answer honestly first. One, I wonder how prepared I am to experience a mind like Jesus’? Do I expect to be surprised by the depth of his penetration into my difficulties? Or do I want to reduce his mind to a smaller size – do I want, with at least a little part of myself, to outwit him? Two, do I realise that I am not always mature? Jesus will expose my immaturity – am I willing to accept what he may show me in that area? Three, on the other hand, I may be sincerely stumped, sincerely at the end of my endurance because of what life has thrown at me. I may ask for enlightenment, and Jesus may seem silent. In the event recounted by Luke, the Sadducees receive their answer immediately. I am, seemingly, not always so fortunate. But, what this story teaches me is that Jesus’ answer is probably going deeper than I expected. I may be right out of my depth, and that is why it seems that he has not answered. In reality, the answer is there, but I need to become deeper myself, to ‘grow into’ Jesus’ answer.

I seek, through prayer, a real encounter with Jesus, Lord and God. Like the Sadducees, I too may reach points when I do not dare to ask Jesus any more questions because of the depth of Jesus’ response to me. The Sadducees went away, however, only to continue to plot and scheme against Jesus. What do I do after I finish my prayer?

SJC

Lent is a time of prayer, a real encounter with Jesus. I’ve been saving this post from Sister Johanna till the right moment, and the beginning of Lent is a time of silence, as Our Lord experienced in the desert. It’s been something of a desert time for us all of late; let us use Lent to learn the depths of our love for those we are missing.

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Filed under Daily Reflections, Lent