* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, March 30, 2015

John 12: Loving and Hating Life (and considering the donkey)

After the story about foot-anointing as an unabashed act of appreciation, the chapter continues with several short scenes interspersed with passages from Hebrew scripture. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) more frequently suggest that Old Testament words predicted things about Jesus, but here even the authors of John suggest that Jesus did certain things as a "fulfillment" of prophecies. Especially when we remember that the gospel of John was composed more than 50 years after a historical Jesus would have lived, this raises a few questions. We'll take the remainder of the chapter in two large chunks over the next couple of weeks. First, John 12:9-26.

To begin with, we find the Jewish priests having more murderous thoughts, now focused on Lazarus because his resurrection had understandably impressed some people. Why it didn't impress the Pharisees is unexplained. I suppose it is the plot of a number of horror movies that when a person comes back from the dead it isn't necessarily a good thing, but we have nothing in the biblical text to suggest that Lazarus was doing anything untoward after he returned. Actually, the biblical text doesn't suggest that Lazarus did anything, period. Was this passage just to paint the Jewish leaders in a poor light?

Obviously, every saga needs a villain, and the Jewish leaders are the villains of the gospel of John. In our lives, we also face people who can't see the good that people do because they are focused on undermining some sworn enemy. The Pharisees in the biblical myth have a hard time honoring the good things that Jesus does because they are afraid of something about him. The same thing happens in workplaces, families, and perhaps most blatantly in American politics. As human beings, we are bound to eventually face someone who can't appreciate our accomplishments because they are too busy trying to tear us down. Hopefully, we attend to our principles well enough that we don't fall into that pattern of behavior. There's really nothing of value to be gained from tearing other people down.

When we try to tear other people down, it is a testament to our own fear. We may be afraid that other people are going to be fooled by someone, which is to say that we believe that other people are less intelligent and more gullible that we are. We may be afraid that people will ignore us and pay attention to a more impressive person -- that we will not have our emotional needs met. We may be afraid that someone is going to get more money than us, that we will suffer financially if we don't tear someone else down. All of these fears are understandable, and still these fears sabotage our own happiness more than anyone else's.

A more emotionally mature response is to live with integrity despite the attention or apparent benefit someone else receives. From the flip side, when people's fears and hostility is focused on us, the emotionally mature response is to recognize it as a symptom of their own fear. We can remain connected with people who attack us if we want, but we should be aware of our own tendencies to be provoked. We don't want our attempts to remain engaged with hostile people to wind up knocking us off our intentional, principled path. In every situation, the important place to begin is with clarity about our own deep values and clear guiding principles. From there, we can act with integrity. There are times when the best response for us may be to ignore the reactive hostility of others.

The exemplar of the story in John certainly seems to ignore any perceived threat from the Jewish leaders. He leaves Lazarus unguarded and makes a grand entrance into Jerusalem. Now, this "triumphal entry" scene happens in every gospel narrative, but it does make a lot of sense to be celebrated by the crowds once news spread that someone had been raised from the dead. We have mentioned that the authors of John probably at least knew about the other gospel narratives, since the gospel of John was the last among the biblical gospels to be written. So, perhaps the reference to Zechariah 9:9 in verse 15 is intended to correct a somewhat ridiculous assertion by the authors of Matthew.

See, the authors of Matthew were so insistent on demonstrating how Jesus was the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy that they wind up suggesting some odd things. In the version of this scene in Matthew, the authors interpret their "prophetic" text to mean that the messiah will ride two animals, and so they insist that Jesus rode two donkeys into the city. This ridiculous assertion isn't repeated in the other gospel narratives, and it's just possible that the authors of John included an uncharacteristic indication of prophecy fulfilled to correct the silliness of the triumphal entry scene of Matthew.

The discrepancy is telling, however. It becomes obvious at the very least that the authors of Matthew didn't bear witness to the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. This event isn't recorded anywhere else outside of the biblical gospel narratives, which are not independent of one another. Gospel writers often copied previously written passages without any change of detail, which means that they offer no additional support or credibility. The ludicrous scene painted in Matthew of Jesus riding two animals suggests that the authors were willing to invent details in order to match with their interpretation of prophetic scripture, and this in and of itself damages the credibility of the gospel narrative overall.

Perhaps the authors of John realized something along these lines when they included Zechariah 9:9, quoted a little more sensibly. Even if there was a historical Jesus who made a blatantly messianic entrance into Jerusalem, this kind of behavior might be a bit suspect. If the symbolism of a display is going to be interpreted as a fulfillment of prophecy, the prophecy would have to be pretty familiar to people. And if a prophecy is familiar, anyone with the ego to do so could "fulfill" at least some prophecy if they wanted to, especially if the prophecy involved something as simple as riding a donkey into the city. Was the Jesus of the gospel of John trying to demonstrate a fulfillment of prophetic predictions? Or was his action coincidentally supported by scriptural words that seemed prophetic after the fact?

Well, the process taken in Matthew demonstrates that at least some prophecy mining was taking place. The authors looked for texts that seemed to contain a messianic prediction, and they invented stories about Jesus that fulfilled those texts. If this were not the case, the gospel of Matthew wouldn't have suggested that Jesus rode into town on two animals. Even if we assume that the other gospel writers took a different approach, what is the point behind mentioning Jesus riding a donkey? If it is to show that he fulfills a messianic prophecy, one must ignore the hundreds of thousands of people who rode into town on donkeys before and after this event. If the point is that Jesus was humble, riding on a donkey instead of a more majestic mount, one must ask how well the character of Jesus was supposed to know Hebrew scripture. If he knew that riding into town on a donkey would be construed as an indicator of the messiah, how humble could he have been?

The gospel of John even subtly acknowledges that these sorts of messianic claims are problematic, and the authors suggest that the followers of Jesus didn't put all this together until after the fact. What is the difference between "remembering that these things had been written of him" and hunting down scriptural texts that seem to fit? If Jesus was an actual person, and if people had actual (fallible, inaccurate) memories of him, how much easier would it have been to find scriptural references that aligned with him than with anyone else? My guess is that once you've decided that someone was a messiah, it's not difficult to track down some supporting texts that match that person's identity and life, especially given that human beings can be very flawed in their perceptions and very creative in their memories of events.

This is one problem with "authoritative" texts. When a document is lifted up as authoritative, it becomes unquestioned. And if you can twist the words to mean what you want them to mean, you can hide behind an unquestionable text rather than having to be personally responsible for what you say and do. The only thing that can give a text authority is alignment with reality. A text doesn't become true just because we agree with it. While we can play match up between people and prophecies as much as we like, the truth is that we could find correlations between anyone's life and the ancient prophecies of some culture. As entertaining as that may be, it's a distraction from living our lives with intention and purpose.

The story actually moves on quickly to the Jesus character speaking about death and purpose. We may not agree with his metaphors, but the authors of John seem to have Jesus say essentially that a person's life is worth more after it's over. When a grain of wheat dies and is buried, it brings forth abundant fruit that would have been impossible if that grain of wheat had remained whole. Likewise, people who cling to their own life and well-being will suffer loss, while people who release their grip on life and well-being find something eternal and wonderful. Then, it is asserted once more that those who follow the example of Jesus will be rewarded.

Alright, so perhaps there is something to the whole "riding a donkey means you're humble" imagery. If the messiah of this story knows how great he is and still chooses to ride a symbolically humble animal, maybe following the example would mean that we recognize our own human frailty and weakness even as we acknowledge our own personal strengths and greatness. Sure, people were making a spectacle and calling him royalty (and he didn't tell them to stop), but he didn't take advantage of their adoration either. He received it humbly and gracefully, by the account in John. We can endeavor to do the same perhaps, balancing honest and authentic self-awareness of our strengths and power with honest and authentic self-awareness of our weaknesses and dependence on others.

What does it mean then that if we love our life we will lose it and if we hate our life we will gain it? This phrase also appears in all four gospels, although in different contexts. The authors of John seem to support the concept of eternal life, which we must take as a metaphor. The phrase, "abundant life" seems clearer and more useful. If someone "loves" life in this sense, it would seem to be equivalent with a fear for one's safety, an unhealthy longing for security and safety that becomes the priority over and above one's principles. "Hating" life would then indicate not being worried or fearful about one's safety and security, which would free one up to live with authenticity and integrity to deep guiding principles regardless of other people's reactions. When you stop being afraid of the consequences, it's easier to embody justice, equity, and compassion in your life, despite the resistance others may express. And if more people honored their principles over their own safety, perhaps it would become clear how much our deepest values coincide with one another.

This is what is must mean to emulate the Jesus of the gospel of John, to be committed to one's principles so deeply that integrity is more important than safety, which brings us to one additional possibility for the mention of riding a donkey. The donkey may be symbolic of peace. Certainly, the reference to Zechariah 9:9 makes sense with this interpretation as much as the interpretation of humility. If the presence of the donkey in the story is intended to suggest valuing peace over conflict, then we have another suggestion at what it might mean to emulate an idealized self-differentiated person of integrity. Even when we are more committed to our principles than we are to our own safety and security, this doesn't mean we should be brash and hostile to others about our beliefs and values. The value of peace might help temper our interactions, and is obviously a better frame for our relationships than fear. Our lack of fear about other people's reactions need not mean that we are unnecessarily provocative. Our part is to live intentional lives of integrity and to model gentle fearlessness.

As a postscript, I should be clear in this that there are still people in some places in the world who face very real fear for their safety on a daily basis. I'm writing from the context of United States society, in which a lot of our fear is misguided and irrational. For some, it is a much more challenging prospect to allow one's authenticity to take priority over one's safety. I'm not promoting rash, irresponsible public action. Unlike the apparent glorification of martyrdom in this passage from John, I think we have greater potential to make a difference in the world while we are living in the world. We just need to be honest about how realistic or unrealistic our fears are. If we are afraid that someone is going to put a bullet in our heads if we quietly act for justice, equity, and compassion, we should be thoughtful about how we live out our values. If we are afraid that someone is going to embarrass us or that we are going to lose a bit of popularity or even wealth if we live with integrity to our principles, it's important to put those fears in perspective.

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