Religious folk came and asked Jesus what he was up to. They may have wanted a straight answer, but they didn’t get it.
Who said you had anything to teach us? That’s what they were asking. Who made you the spokesperson for God? They dressed the question up, of course, to make it sound reasonable, but the condescension and the resentment were still there.
Jesus responded with a question of his own, a riddle—who sent John the Baptist, that wild loon of a prophet baptizing all kinds of people out in the wilderness? They wouldn’t answer him. They were afraid to answer because they didn’t want to give Jesus any leverage, as if he needed any more.
So he did the Jesus thing. He told them a story. Why? Why tell a story when calling down fire and brimstone would have been so much more fun?
There’s power in words that cannot be found in a fist, or in a bomb. You can only clinch a fist so long, and after a while even brimstone burns out, but words?
A good story is unforgettable. It keeps playing in the back of your mind. Worse, a good story is a Trojan horse for the truth. By the time you realize there’s meaning in the story you’re hearing, it’s already running amuck in your mind. There is no getting it out.
The story Jesus puts in their minds is simple. A father tells one son to go and work in their vineyard, but he refuses. Later, the boy gets up and goes to work anyway. Then the father finds his other son and tells him to get to work, and this boy agrees at once, but he never lifts a finger.
Which liar was the faithful son?
Open rebellion is more honest and faithful than secret disobedience, and Jesus claims that prostitutes and scoundrels are closer to God than religious folk are. That’s pretty good news for prostitutes and scoundrels. It’s not much of a recommendation for the rest of us.
Worse, the story doles out a double damning for the self-proclaimed good folk—our faith is worthless if it doesn’t respond to what God is doing in our own lives, and more than worthless if it doesn’t respond to what God is doing in the lives around us. If Jesus had pointed at John, a wild haired man ranting in the wilderness, and asked us who sent him, we wouldn’t have answered him either. The prostitutes, scoundrels, drug addicts, and thieves would at least have ventured a guess.
Most of us, I suspect, are too afraid to be true scoundrels. And nobody is suggesting prostitution as a viable lifestyle choice. Still, if we believe these stories in the gospels, scoundrels and the prostitutes went far out of their way to hear wild John preaching down by the river.
We good folk worry more about who has the right credentials than about who might be channeling a word from God. I’ve got degrees hanging on the wall, and education is not to be despised, but someone off the street, uneducated and untrained, may just have something God wants us to hear. God seems to use the oddest prophets. Only a few of them wear ties.
And we say that we’re responding to God, but we move our lips more than we reach out our hands. Meanwhile, God smiles on the folks who say they want nothing to do with church or religion but who still respond to the weird prophets God sends.
Which bunch of liars has more faith?
If the stories in scripture are our guide, God does use some odd folk. All by itself, that thought is encouraging to many of us. Moses the stammering murderer. Isaiah who walked around naked in public for three years. I wonder how much credence we religious folk would give a murderer and an exhibitionist. Jail time and medication are more likely what we’d offer them.
The truth is that we are all liars of different sorts. Some of us say we listen to God, when we are really listening to our own ideas about God. Ever find yourself sitting across from a friend but focusing on what you’re thinking instead of what your friend is saying? Same thing.
We may not want anything to do with God or anybody else’s ideas about God. Still, there’s that small voice running amuck in our heads, muttering that something might be out there and that it wouldn’t hurt to listen for a while.
One thing is for sure. If God is really God, then God is not going to go about things the way we would think. God is not like us. And God has some odd prophets. Some of them have done terrible things, like Moses. Some might come walking down the street naked, like Isaiah. Some might look uncomfortably like people we don’t even like or want to be around.
My dog was named after a prophet—Malachi—and I’m sure that he can tell me more about God than I know, but do I listen?
Stop walking around with the answers. Start listening to the questions. Who knows? Now and then we may run into some odd prophets. Let’s just hope they’re dressed better than Isaiah.
God isn’t fair. Even a blind man can see that. (If we believe the Gospels, a few of them did.)
Take this parable of a man hiring workers and paying them all the same, the ones who worked all day and the ones who only worked a little while. They all received what they were promised, but the ones who worked the longest complained that it was not fair.
We would agree with them. In fact, most countries have laws in place to protect against such treatment. It was not fair.
Was it wrong? That’s a different question.
The landowner, in whom we may easily see God, honors the promise of a daily wage. The promise is kept, but the wages are not fair, not in the eyes of the people who worked all day only to receive the same wage as those who only worked a little while. Never mind that everyone received everything they were promised. A coin may look like more in some hands than in others.
Those people who were given work and a living wage at the beginning of their day know nothing of the anxiety and despair of those who sit and wait, worrying about how to feed their families, how to buy clothes for them, or medicine. It may be that those who are hired late in the day have already worked harder than those who did not have to worry. When we have what we need, it is easy to think it is because we are somehow better, more deserving, than those who have nothing. We forget the poor. You know, the ones we always have with us.
God is God, and we are not. Many would say so and be right. So God gives more than what was promised—what is wrong with that? Is it not an expression of grace? God has promised us nothing that we have not received or at least might still receive, for good or bad.
There is another side to the coin. Think of the old stories of the descendants of Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, and the entrance into their new homeland. How about the Egyptian soldiers swept away by the sea—were they all evil? What about the people who were displaced and killed when the Israelites entered their new land—did they all deserve such treatment? And there are other stories. How about the boys who teased Elisha—was that enough to set the bears on them, if that is what God did?
God is not fair, it seems. Sometimes God paints with a brush that is far wider than we would like, or with one far too narrow. That person is helped, but we are not. We are blessed, and our neighbors appear to be forgotten, overlooked by God. Some of us are born free and live well in rich lands. Others are born into poverty and eke out a living in the poorest places on earth. None of us has any say in where we are born, for good or bad.
And neither we nor they, the blessed nor the overlooked, can say anything. If God were fair, if we each received what we deserved, the earth would have been rid of all of us long ago. At the same time, we might say to Isaiah that we are not clay pots that have no voice in how we are shaped. The potter may make or break the pot, but we may do something that the clay cannot—we may choose how to respond.
And what choice makes sense in the face of the unfairness of God? There is only the response of Job, who lost everything except the things he wished were gone—trust, and faith that God is worthy of it.
Meanwhile, we might remember the people who are still waiting for a day’s wage or a place at the table.
The story of the bronze snake comes from the exodus journey of the Israelites. Poisonous snakes (literally ‘fiery serpents’) in the wilderness were biting people. Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole where it could be seen. When any of the Israelites were bitten by snakes, they were saved by looking up at this bronze serpent on a pole.
Like the story of Moses’ staff turning into a snake to impress the Egyptians, it was magic.
The ancient texts do not explain how this system worked. The stories simply demonstrate the presence of God among a chosen people. These are stories of power, showing how God intervened in the normal working of the world to deliver people out of their troubles.
We like these stories. A powerful God acts to save people with miracles. Yet, we feel removed from them, sensing that this is not how God works any more. We see no parting of the seas, no water from the rock, no manna from heaven, and we have no magic bronze serpents to heal us. Even by the time of Jesus, these stories were remote, part of a distant past.
Then John pulls out this old image of a serpent on a pole and applies it to the life and death of Jesus, as though this literary artifact were a prophetic image of the messiah. What are we to make of it?
We might offer many explanations, one as good as the next. We may be more honest and say that we do not know.
We do not know. That is something we should admit more often. If we believe we understand a thing, we stop thinking about it. Libraries are full of explanations of what Jesus did, of what his life meant, of what happened when he was lifted up on the cross for everyone to see. Yet, the Gospel simply says that this is how God worked—again, there is no explanation, or very little. Most of the explanations have been supplied by later writers, not by scripture.
We look too much at our explanations and too little at Jesus.
We think we understand, and so we stop paying attention. The third chapter of John is a perfect example. We explain serpents as symbols of evil and of temptation. Yet of all the many symbols available, John pointed to the bronze serpent on a pole as an image of Jesus on the cross. How does that fit within our popular soteriology?
Explanation is not faith. Explain less, and look to God.
Here is a chapter from I, John, a new novel just released. As it happens, the serpent imagery of John’s Gospel plays a part:
I saw him coming along the street with a lamp in his hand. Even though the sun had gone down and there was little light, I could tell he was well dressed, well made sandals on his feet. He had been at the temple, had been with the Pharisee group who were talking amongst themselves. He had looked up and seen us, and while the others seemed unimpressed with us, this man had met our eyes and acknowledged us with a simple nod of his head.
Nicodemus was his name, and he came asking to speak with Jesus. Actually, he came asking to speak with the Master, an odd approach given Nicodemus’ age and his own position of respect. Jesus received him without comment, neither demurring from the title of rabbi nor appearing flattered.
The old man began with a bow, and said to Jesus that he and others like him knew that Jesus was from God, that he acted and spoke from God.
“We know that no one can do these things unless he has been sent by God,” said Nicodemus. “These are the signs of a prophet.”
This was more like it, we thought. Finally, Jesus was getting the sort of recognition that he deserved, though it was not in the temple. Still, if such a one as this man would come and speak to Jesus this way, then surely the others would follow?
We understood so little, so badly.
Jesus sat staring at the fire, not even acknowledging the old man. Nicodemus began to look at one and then another of us for an indication of what to do. None of us knew. Then Jesus turned his back on the old man and walked to the window. He stood there staring out at the stars.
“Truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born into the kingdom of God. If you would see God, you must be born of God.”
Nicodemus looked around at us for some idea, but we didn’t know what to make of it either. Finally, the old man walked over to Jesus.
“How is it that a man may be born of God?” Nicodemus asked. “I have no mother left to me, and I am old.”
I also hoped for some explanation.
“You must be born of water and of the Spirit,” Jesus said. “What is born of the flesh is only flesh, and what is born of the water has been made clean, and what is born of the Spirit indeed is spirit. If you would see God, then you must be born of the flesh and of the water and of the Spirit.”
Jesus looked at Nicodemus as though he should know these things. I was thinking that nobody knew these things, because they were crazy.
Then came the weirdest part of all.
“If you would know that which is above then you must be born of that which is above. You are born of the flesh, and you see the things of the flesh. The wind blows, and you hear the sound of it, and so there is hope for you. Yet you do not know from where the wind comes or to where it is going.”
No one was eating or drinking now. All of us were quiet, trying to find some way to make sense of what we were hearing. This was an audience with one of the leaders of the temple, and Jesus was saying such things as to make himself sound crazy.
“Are you amazed at these things?” Jesus asked. “These things are nothing to what you will see. I tell you things about the flesh and you do not understand. How will you understand if I tell you things about that which is above? If you cannot look at the flesh and see what is within, how shall you look upon the faces of those in heaven and understand what you see there? No one has entered into the heavenly realm except those who are of the heavenly realm, but the son of man is also the son of God.”
Jesus paused a moment and looked around at us. Nicodemus was quiet, his brow wrinkled in thought.
“And how will you understand when you see the son of man lifted up, as Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness for the children of Israel to see? Just as those who looked upon the serpent and believed were saved, so also shall all those who look upon the son of man, for though he were dead, yet shall they live. Like the serpent in the garden, so also the son of man comes to give knowledge to all who would be the children of God.”
No one spoke, least of all Nicodemus. I was clueless, and from his expression so was he. Even we who followed Jesus wondered whether something we had just heard might not offend the teachers of the temple, and we knew nothing compared to this man. He seemed amazed by what he had heard.
Jesus looked around first at one of us then at another, until I thought that he must have gazed into the eyes of all who were there.
“God loves you all. Did you not understand? For God loves you and has given you the son so that you might know that the Father loves you. If you have faith in the son, then you walk in the eternal life. Just as those who looked upon the serpent and believed were saved, so also shall all those who look upon the son and believe be saved. Those who do not seek my voice are already lost, for even as they have not heard and do not listen, so also they shall not enter into life, for they have not heard the words of life. My words that I give to you, these are truth and life, and those who believe them shall never be condemned. For this is the judgment of God, that light has come into the world, and people love darkness rather than the light, for they know their own deeds. Those who come into the light are of the light. Those who come in darkness are yet of the darkness.”
Jesus stopped speaking, and suddenly it seemed as though he was pointing at Nicodemus, though he was not. He was not even looking at the old man, but all of us were looking at him and at the lamp that he held in his hand. He had come in the darkness, truly enough, but surely he came to find the truth?
“I will think on your words,” said Nicodemus. “I confess that I do not understand them, but I feel that there is truth in them.”
“I am truth,” said Jesus. “And I am the way that you have come to seek.”
Nicodemus seemed as though dazed by this answer. He took a step back and opened his mouth to speak, but he said nothing. He turned and walked slowly away.
After the old man left, I sat by the fire and wondered what it could mean. I could not get the image out of my mind, Moses standing there with a snake on a pole, holding it up for the people to see. I never understood the story, not even when the Rabbis tried to explain it, and I did not understand why Jesus had started talking about it.
Later, most of the others had gone to sleep. Jesus was still standing by the open window, looking up at the stars. I could not sleep and sat staring at the embers burning themselves down. Suddenly I realized that Jesus was standing beside me. He was watching the fire, then looked down at me.
“You are puzzled about the image of the snake,” he said. It was not a question. I nodded.
“One day, you will see me lifted up so that all the people can see me. That day, you will understand what I meant,” he said. He went walking outside after that. He often would go for walks by himself, sometimes in the night, as a way to have time alone, away from the crowds, away from all of us.
That day came, and I did see him lifted up above the crowd, hanging on a cross. I saw them stick a spear in his side, saw them taunt him, and I saw him die. And he was right that I remembered he had spoken about being lifted up, and he was right that I remembered about Moses and the snake, but he was wrong about my understanding any of it.
The snake was evil. Everyone knew that. There was a snake in the garden. It was the story we learned from childhood. The snake had lied and brought evil into Eden, or else it knew where to look for it once it got near enough. But Moses’ staff also turned into a great snake, like the Egyptian magic. And the Lord told Moses to lift up an image—an image of all things—of a snake to save the people from snake bites. Like pagans. And Jesus laid claim to the same image, a snake on a pole, as though it were a good thing.
One day I realized that he might have been right. Maybe the snake wasn’t evil. Maybe the snake was simply wise, if there ever had been a snake. Maybe it recognized that a moment of realization had come along for the humans in the garden, if there ever had been a garden. What if the snake in the story whispered that first revelation, the moment when humans embraced their mortality and their self-awareness? And so it helped them to make the next step, to understand the consequences of choice. What if there was no curse? What if there was no sin, no original fault, no first cause of our mortality? What if they simply left the garden of ignorance and walked out to embrace their new knowledge, to embrace the blessings of work and of children, the only two things that live beyond us?
That left me standing, weeping, staring at him on that cross, lifted up for the sake of others. It was a moment of revelation, God dying on a cross, hanging on a tree made by men. The good and wise snake had once again come to pull humans along, to raise us to a new understanding. When Jesus died, it was finished, this work of the old snake, opening the eyes that could bear to see something new—God himself hanging dead on a pole at the hands of humans—and all that I could do was weep.
It was Nicodemus who came to take him down from the cross. He brought burial clothes, brought permission from the Romans to take the body down to wrap it before sundown, brought a donkey to carry him once again along the streets. I held Jesus while the old man wrapped the clean cloth around him, holding Mary back from his body long enough to cover him, to clothe him in death. We brought the body to Nicodemus’ tomb, newly carved no doubt for the old man himself, but he had not foreseen this day when he bought it. None of us knew what God had foreseen, had planned, in the carving of this tomb, if anything. We carried the body inside the darkening vault, and we laid him on the stone bed carved into the rock. We stood there for a moment, mindful of the setting sun, mindful that we should seal the tomb and go to our homes. Why we cared about the start of the Sabbath was beyond me. Here in this tomb, it no longer mattered what day came with the setting of the sun. We had buried God.
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