21st Century Cosmology and the Gospel of John: Part II – Nicodemus

John 3

The Gospel of John is a narrative, theological proof that Jesus was the Messiah, the One Anointed – consecrated, selected – by God to establish God’s rule – God’s Kingdom – on earth.  The Pharisee Nicodemus illustrates the process by which even leaders in the Jewish communities who rejected the whole notion of Jesus as the Messiah might still come to believe.  He visits Jesus during the metaphorical night of conventional thought in chapter 3.  He reappears in chapter 7 among the temple authorities who threaten to arrest Jesus (John 7:37-8:20).  In that scene, Nicodemus challenges his colleagues to abide by the Law and not pass judgment on someone without first allowing him to speak for himself and establish the facts.  The chief priests and pharisees are not happy with Nicodemus, but they allow Jesus to make his argument.  He says, “I am the light of the world,” which further enfuriates the pharisees, but they do not arrest him because “his time had not yet come.”  Nicodemus’ final appearance is with Joseph of Arimathea, who takes Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:38-42).  John writes that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus because he was afraid of the other members of the community.  Nicodemus, “the one who had first gone to him at night,” brings an inordinate amount of “myrrh and aloes weighing about seventy-five pounds” with which to wrap the body.

An uncritical Christian reading might imply that Nicodemus may still have been holding some doubt about who Jesus was.  While he did speak up for him on behalf of the Law, the contribution of all those burial spices may have signalled a sense of guilt for not “believing” Jesus was the Messiah.  Perhaps Nicodemus did it because he had a literal understanding of Jesus’ resurrection.  If Jesus is going to literally come back from the dead (like Lazarus), it might be wise to do all he can to preserve the body!  Twentieth century Scholar Raymond E. Brown argues that the “brave action of the hitherto timid Joseph and Nicodemus seems to indicate that Jesus, raised up, has begun drawing people unto himself” (The Gospel and Epistles of John, Liturgical Press, 1988).

But suppose Nicodemus’ gesture is part of John’s continuing proof.  Jesus was seriously dead. He was truly executed by the Romans as a terrorist, buried, and as orthodox creed puts it, “descended into Hell.”  Then in an act that defied all religious logic and secular expectation, God raised a crucified enemy of the state from the dead into God’s realm.  Even more subversive, and missed by most commentaries, the action the two pharisees took with Jesus’ body was an outrageous demonstration that Jesus was indeed the Anointed One.  They treated the body of an executed criminal with extravagently greater respect and care than normally due a righteous follower of the Law.

The Gospel of John is fraught with 2,000 years of Christian interpretation that insists “belief” in Jesus’ story means a free ticket to heaven after death, and “non-belief” means an instantaneous condemnation to hell.  It has been the raison d’être for the worst excesses of anti-Semitism, and the destruction of aboriginal and non-Christian societies world-wide.  It has had a greater influence on Western thought than possibly any other biblical narrative.  Reinterpreting the Gospel from the point of view of late 20th and early 21st century Biblcal scholarship requires a willingness to ignore traditional meaning – and of course begs the question: Why bother?

In a recent op-ed published by the Martinsburg (West Virginia) Journal, Sean O’Leary writes about NBA all-American Jerry West.  West came from an abusive, dysfunctional family.  He used basketball as a way to dissociate himself from the terror at home, and became “the ninth greatest professional player of all time.”  O’Leary says that while West was one of the lucky ones, most people caught in abusive situations are unable to get out.  Instead they retreat into booze, gambling, junk food, cigarettes, pain killers, and assorted drugs; and it happens more often in West Virginia than anywhere else.  “The National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease control rank West Virginia among the leading states for the prevalence of depression, anxiety-related disorders, and . . . suicide.  We’re nearly five tmes more likely to kill ourselves than we are to be killed by someone else.  And suicide combined with accidental drug overdoses (usually prescription pain killers) kills more of us than even traffic accidents.”

O’Leary calls this crisis “West Virginia’s disease of othe soul.”  It is a disease of the soul because the underlying cause of these problems is never addressed: that is, mental illness, depression, and addiction are seen as character flaws: a lack of self-discipline, a failure of resolve, or even a dearth of religious faith, “traits for which they believe people should be admonished or punished rather than treated.”  That “dearth of religious faith” goes right back to the misinterpretation of John 3:16-21.  Traditional, conservative, and fundamentalist Christians quote John 3:16 as the defining Christian statement of faith:

        For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.  He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds shouldbe reproved.  But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.  John 3:16-21 (KJV).

The standard interpretation is if you don’t believe Jesus came back from the dead, you can’t be saved.  Even with the latest translation, the same meaning seems inevitable.  Jesus explains to Nicodemus how it came about that God designated Jesus as his Anointed One:  “In the desert, Moses elevated the snake; in the same way, the Human One is destined to be elevated, so everyone who believes in him can have unending life . . . All those who do evil things hate the light and don’t come into the light – otherwise their deeds would be exposed.  But those who do what is true come into the light so the nature of their deeds will become evident: their deeds belong to God” (The Complete Gospels p. 214).

In order to reclaim this metaphor of the religious leader who came out of the darkness, in secret, to meet Jesus and ask him what he was all about, a few points about the nature of God, and what belongs to God must be understood.  Jesus tries to remind this learned pharisee of what he is supposed to know: that what comes from the spiritual realms is spirit, and what comes from human realms is human.  In order to be part of God’s realm, everyone must be reborn by God’s spirit.  Nicodemus takes this literally, and so has just about everyone else for the past 2,000 years.

In order to be “reborn from above,” God’s spirit must be understood as distributive justice-compassion.  Throughout the Bible, God acts to establish, restore, and keep God’s law: for the widow, the orphan, the slave, and even the animals that reside with God’s people.  Everyone participates in God’s demand for justice.  Whenever the people stray from justice – whether it’s refusing to annilhate the Amalekites, or tricking Uriah so the king can take his wife, or worshiping the idols of the conquerors, God withdraws his support and the people suffer famine, war, and exile.  Whenever anyone follows God’s rule of distributive justice-compassion – whether or not they belong to the original 12 tribes of Israel – God works for them: they win the battles, reap the harvests, abide in their own profitable, peaceful land.  It’s never about belief.  It is always about action: radical, outside-the-box, unconventional, anti-imperial action.

Catholic scholar Sandra Schneiders writes:

        [T]he textual Nicodemus is actually a type of the true Israelite, who progresses in faith from seeing the signs to doing the truth according to the scriptures, to finally confessing Jesus openly as the one in whom the Old Testament finds its fulfillment. . . . Nicodemus is the very type of the truly religious person, who is, on the one hand, utterly sincere and, on the other, complacent about his or her knowledge of God and God’s will.  Such people are basically closed to divine revelation . . . it is only after they have been reduced to the futility of their own ignorance that they can begin the process of coming to the Light not by argument or reasoning but by doing the truth, a process that gradually opens them to the true meaning of the scriptures.  Written That You May Believe p. 119.

So when the people of West Virginia or any state, and their governors and officials and social service agencies, refuse to deal with the underlying disease of the soul, and instead throw desperate people into jail for breaches of law, in John’s language, they are “those who refuse the son [and] will not see life; no, they remain the object of God’s wrath”:  God’s justified displeasure with and active judgment against those who do not obey God’s law.  The strength of sin, writes the apostle Paul is the law (1 Corinthians 15:56) – that is, the conventional law of social organization.  That law does not protect and support the widow, the orphan, or the stranger needing hospitality.  It supports the rich, the bully, and the political patron.

Nicodemus is the model for moving from uncritical belief to doing what God requires and ultimately arriving at the truth.  But as Jesus points out, and as Sean O’Leary laments, that spirit of truth “blows every which way like the wind; you hear the sound it makes but you can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s headed.”  Transformation can’t be spoon-fed; it has to come “from above.”  Until it does, O’Leary writes, “the statue of [Jerry] West that stands outside the WVU Coliseum will be as much a monument to West’s and West Virginia’s disease of the soul as it is to the athletic achievements it’s meant to celebrate.”

The Gospel of John is far more relevant to sustainable 21st century life than the 19th century anachronisms of Ayn Rand, or the demonstrably failed economic theories offered by neo-conservative presidential politicians, or fundamentalist literalist theologies – Christian or non-Christian.   “God’s rule” does not mean salvation from hell in the next life, but radical fairness on earth in this life.  Radical fairness means distributive justice-compassion in ecological, economic, environmental and social policy; it requires a radical abandonment of self-interest, even to the seemingly impossible point of loving one’s enemies.  Living under God’s rule means subverting the laws governing all aspects of society, and embracing God’s imperial rule, not Cesar’s.  Jesus’ teaching about God’s rule means not only the overthrow of the occupying Roman government of the first century, but the fulfillment or actualization of the law of Moses, and the transformation of what John Dominic Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization” itself.

Nicodemus came out of the shadows, out of the darkness of conventional religious and political social expecation.  He later uses the law against those who wanted to discredit Jesus and arrest him.  He finally throws the law in its conventional face by treating the violated body of an executed criminal like a king.

The Pharisees’ Invisible Hand: Proper 17, Year A

Matthew 23

Matthew’s “condemnation of the pharisees,” also appears in Luke, but not in Mark.  The source for this diatribe is most likely Q, but Matthew expands on the theme to an extent not found in Luke.  Regardless of the original source, or where it appears, the Elves disregard the controversy completely.  One verse (Matthew 23:5-7) is read in Proper 26, Year B (Mark 12:38-39):

        Everything they do, they do for show. So they widen their phylacteries and enlarge their tassels.  They love the best couches at banquets and prominent seats in synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces, and they like to be called “Rabbi” by everyone.

Mark’s setting for this sarcastic description of the conduct of the pharisees is a scene outside the Temple in Jerusalem in which he watches a poor widow drop her last coin into the collection box (see “Widows might not,” which is even more relevant today).…

St. Peter’s Fish: Proper 9, Year A

Matthew 17:24-27; Romans 13:1-10

It seems that the temple tax collectors challenged Peter about whether Jesus and his followers paid the tax.  All Judean males were required to pay a tax beginning at age 20 to support the temple in Jerusalem (Exodus 30:11-16).  Peter claims that Jesus does pay the tax, but Jesus seems to be a bit ambiguous.  He asks Peter, “On whom do secular rulers levy taxes and tolls?  Do they levy them on their own people or on aliens?”  Peter says, “On aliens” – which would seem to be an obvious condition for secular occupiers of a land such as Palestine to do.  Jesus says, “Then their own people are exempt.  Still, we don’t want to get in trouble with them, so go down to the sea, cast your line in, and take the first fish that rises.  Open its mouth and you will find a coin.  Take it and pay them for both of us.”

While the Elves disdain to include Matthew’s fable in the lectionary, “St Peter’s Fish” is well known.  Turns out St. Peter’s Fish is Talapia. The tilapia, also known as the musht, is native to the Lake Tiberias.  They are bottom feeders, and “mouth breeders.”  That means, they scoop up plankton and other objects into their mouths.  They also carry their eggs in their mouths until they hatch, and the young are ready to swim on their own.  The temple taxes were collected in the month before Passover, any time from February to March.  During that season in Tiberius, the tilapia were likely to be in shallow, warmer water where there was more plankton than in the deep waters.  They would be moving gravel on the bottom to build spawning pits, or searching for plant material on the bottom.  It is not unusual for these fish to scoop up coins.

Matthew’s magic story reflects the magic of the loaves and fishes, and perhaps anticipates the magic of the colt the disciples borrowed for Jesus to ride in the Palm Sunday parade. But beneath the distracting magic lie some ambiguities. …

In the Zone

Luke 11:9-13

“So I tell you, ask – it’ll be given to you; seek – you’ll find; knock – it’ll be opened for you.  Rest assured: everyone who asks receives; everyone who seeks finds; and for the one who knocks it is opened.”

This series of aphorisms is among the best known and – along with the Beattitudes – most basic of Christian affirmations.  It comes at the end of Luke’s series on prayer.  However, as we have seen, this particular selection of sayings and the interpretation was purely Luke’s. Scholars theorize that rather than being a promise of God’s answer to persistent prayer, Jesus’s directive to ask, seek, and knock was an assurance that those who take up the same kind of itinerant life Jesus led can expect hospitality wherever they look for it, or ask for it.  Even a knock on the door at midnight would not be ignored.

Luke’s point was that God will provide whatever is asked, will reveal whatever is sought, and will open the way to whomever knocks on God’s door.  He has Jesus expand on this by comparing God’s answer to prayer with giving good gifts to one’s own children.  But Luke’s Jesus here abandons the prayer for daily provision of bread, which he started with.  Instead of food, “the heavenly Father will give holy spirit to those who ask him.”  Later, in the Gospel of John, the emphasis shifted from God to Jesus.  John’s Jesus says “whatever you ask in my name will be granted to you” (John 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23).  Ultimately, the saying morphed into the icon from Revelation 3:20, in which the Christ declares to the Church in Laodicea: “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.  To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”

The 1st Century transformation in the meaning of Jesus’s words is like the viral transmutation of political speech in the 21st Century news cycle.  In less than a week in May 2010, the meaning of the reported words of a candidate for the United States Senate evolved from idealistic, libertarian theory to racist bigotry. In less than 100 years from Jesus’s death, the expectation of hospitable acceptance for wandering wisdom teachers became justification for holy war.

Jesus’s original words to ask, seek, knock, and trust in the custom of hospitality have become a magic spell.  The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that 60% pray daily, although the content of the prayers was not broken down.  While no one has done a survey of the percentage of people in the general population who routinely pray for parking spaces and find them, the efficacy of intercessory prayer has been studied frequently.  Unfortunately, the results are inclusive at best.  One study that looked at complications arising after coronary surgery for patients receiving intercessory prayer versus patients who were not prayed for found a slight advantage in terms of fewer complications for those who did NOT receive intercessory prayer.

With such murky findings, the fact that belief in the magic power of prayer persists must be attributed to the mysterious way human consciousness has developed.  Perhaps we are hard-wired for hope in hopeless situations.  Or perhaps something else is going on.

Jesus was not originally talking about the answer to prayer, as Luke and the tradition like to think.  Jesus was invoking the ancient rule of hospitality for itinerant travelers.  Scholars are fairly certain that Jesus depended on that rule for his and his disciples’ support as they traveled from village to village throughout the region of Galilee.  He had an expectation, based on complete trust in God’s imperial rule, that he would find a hospitable response.  However, his followers did modify their own expectations in the interest of practicality.  As all three synoptic writers report, if the disciples Jesus sent out did not find a welcome, the solution was to “shake the dust from your feet” (Mark 6:11; Matthew 10:14; Luke 9:5).  Matthew’s Jesus adds, “I swear to you, the land of Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off at the judgment than that city [which does not welcome you].”  Sodom and Gomorrah, you may recall, was the Old Testament poster child for the total breakdown of hospitality.

Jesus himself seems to have experienced a level of trust in God’s realm that most humans find difficult or impossible except in rare instances.  If we take the words attributed to him in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as his own, Jesus was able to live within the same kind of seamless realm experienced by the birds and the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:26).  In that realm, there is no boundary between creator and creation, God and humanity, or between the worlds of life and death, spirit and flesh.  For most of us, this experience manifests as a quality of life where everything works without effort.  It’s a string of lucky circumstances; serendipity; everything falls into place.  Miraculous healing can happen there.  I call it “being in the zone.”

The difficulty of describing that kind of experience – in any language – is clearly illustrated by what has happened to Jesus’s original teachings over time.  It is not a matter of simply saying the name of Jesus, or petitioning God to intervene and change the physical laws of the universe, even in company with two or three others.  The key, prosaic as it may be, seems to be the willingness to ride the horse in the direction it is going.  In other words, to ask, seek, and knock with the expectation of receiving, finding, and opening the way means to align oneself with the way things are.  In Buddhist terms, surrender.  That does not mean giving up.  It means total acceptance of whatever is happening now, with no concern about what any particular outcome may be.  While clear intent about the desired result may important, the key is not to care.

The idea of “not caring” drives most of us crazy.  How can we “not care” about our mother dying, or our friend with terminal cancer, or physical pain of any kind, or about torture victims, or the poor, or any of the other kinds of suffering produced by disaster, whether from natural or human causes?  Those are the tough questions.  Entire books have been written about the answers.  Tough or not, the key to the end of suffering, the power that drives healing, is to accept what is, right now.  That means a radical indifference to the nature of the ultimate resolution.  Mother may die; the cancer may win; the pain may only be alleviated with heavy doses of morphine; the torture may not end; poverty may continue to condemn the rich; disasters – of natural or human cause – may happen.

Jesus calls us into that radical indifference through trust.  It is a latter-day itinerancy, in which we let go of conventional ideas, unnecessary possessions, market demands, and even life itself.  We cannot answer that call so long as we see ourselves as the victim of our life circumstances, trapped in the normalcy of economic and political systems, or determined by the lottery of our biological heredity.  Nor can we answer that call if we resist or resent what happens to us, or if we ignore the realities of the world in which we live.  Tradition tells us that Jesus himself fell out of the zone at the horrifying end of his life.

Even so, the message of Christianity is that even death on a cross does not negate the truth of living in the zone – the realm of God – where we ask, seek, knock and find whatever we need for abundant life.  But you can’t just point your magic wand and scream “Aguamenti!”  Before the water comes from the rock, or the door opens to your knock, you have to trust the process.