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Jesus' life and words

Life, Love and Law

Life, Love and Law: Chapter 11


Jesus' oddities

I need to examine here some rather odd or disturbing events reported in the Gospels, events that do not seem to fit with the rest. As these texts could be used to attack the scheme I am trying to put forward, it is rather important to examine them carefully.

1. Did Jesus try to obscure His message? The use of parables

Here is a saying of Jesus that does not seem to make any sense. It is found in some form in all four Gospels, but it reaches its most complete and clear form in Matthew. It is this version that I will examine. I have cut the text in question in two parts, starting with:

And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.1

What is a parable? The Greek term «parabolè» (παραβολη) means «comparison», «bringing together», «similarity», «relation with» and from there «parable», «allegorical discourse». It is used to take an often hard and dry concept, remote from people's experience, and put it in a vivid, familiar context so that it is easier to understand. It is thus an effective teaching method, a way to make understanding of things unknown easier by drawing comparisons with things that are familiar.

From what I have said you can guess that I find parables to be a way to increase understanding for all rather than a way to disguise meaning, so that only the initiated can understand. But this is what it seems that Jesus is saying in the above text! What follows can reinforce this interpretation:

Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.2

This text can be understood as meaning that Jesus does not want some people to understand, perceive, turn their lives around and thus be healed by Him! And this is why He is talking in parables, a kind of code understood only by the initiated!

I cannot accept that Jesus seriously meant that. I think He is poking fun at His disciples, who think of themselves as the select few, the ones who really belong to Jesus' group! For them, they are the only real followers; all others are amateurs who do not really take Jesus' words seriously and thus are going nowhere.

That the disciples believed that there was such a distinction between themselves and others is made clear over and over. They did not want anyone else to make miracles in Jesus' name, nor to teach in Jesus' name and again and again make it clear that they are expecting some special and great reward for their participation in His group.

My first reason for thinking that Jesus is not serious about this - nor the writers of the Gospels, I must add - is the following argument:

1) There are countless parables in the Gospels while only two are «explained» by Jesus and none by the writers themselves;

2) the Gospel writers surely considered that their job was to provide their readers with the most complete understanding possible.

3) From this and the fact that nearly all Jesus' parables are not «explained»

4) it follows that no one among the writers and Jesus really thought it necessary to «explain» the others.

The second reason is found in the reading of part of Mark's account of the same incident - used to bring in the explanation of a different parable -. After the «I talk in code so that they do not change their ways and get forgiven» routine already looked at, we have Jesus adding something rather significant:

That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?3

Jesus is teasing His select few, the ones who make up His «inner circle» by telling them: «Are you telling me that you do not understand a thing of what I have been teaching you? You, whom I Myself selected, are you also «out of it»? Do I have to do all the work, all the thinking, for you too?»

This last point brings me to my third reason. What Jesus is trying to do is to teach people. A job I can assure you is not easy to do now and was not then either. The problem with teaching is the following: the teacher cannot do all the work; the one who is supposedly interested in learning has actually to put some effort into it. Just hearing (assuming that there is not too much extraneous noise happening while the teaching is going on) is not sufficient. As Isaiah himself says, hearing is not enough, it has to be followed by understanding.

And that requires work on the part of the listener. That work is in many parts: first she must make sure to remember all the elements of the message; second, she must put it in her own words to make sure nothing is missed, third she has to check for herself its validity by examining it in various circumstances and then relating it to her life. By then and only then, has she understood the message. No wonder so few are!

Understanding a message is like playing a piano: one does not learn a piece of music by looking at someone else playing it wonderfully (hearing someone's well-thought message) but by actually sitting down to play it oneself; note by note, working on the technique required and looking at it as a whole to figure out how to play it «right». So learning - understanding - requires work and stamina. And that is possible only if there is sustained interest and incentive. This is basically the analysis that Jesus makes in the parable of the Sower as we have already seen. So it is hardly surprising that Mark has placed his text on this subject between the parable just mentioned and Jesus' interpretation.

The Isaiah passage already quoted definitely can be understood to support this interpretation. It can mean: «if people took the time to understand what I am saying instead of just listening inattentively, they could absorb the message, make it theirs, and so have to change, a change that would bring them healing. But that is a lot of hard work, and they do not have the time nor the interest to change.»

This is as valid an interpretation of the Isaiah quote as the previous one. But is it what Jesus said just before? No. But was it said in jest, as I suggest for the reasons I have previously given? This is what has to be answered.

We know that again and again Jesus said «For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.»4. This statement is totally inconsistent with the other; so one of them has to be taken in jest.

As using a parable is obviously to make things easier to understand, the whole of Jesus' statement is good humoured nonsense, just making fun of His apostles for being so hard of understanding. After all, they are saying to Him: «Why do you use parables? We don't understand them!» It is like saying «Why do you give examples? We don't get them!» The teaching aids even are too much for them! So He uses irony rather than scorn and contempt like some teachers would under the same circumstances (Where are the dunce caps?).

2. Jesus' treatment of the Canaan woman

The cases that will be examined now can all be construed as violence, verbal or physical. In the following Jesus seems to be guilty of nothing less than racism!

There are three instances where Jesus is faced with goyim. In each case, it is obvious that such contacts were not the done thing. In one case (though in Luke's version only), we have some Jews begging Jesus to help a Roman Centurion because he has been their benefactor;5 in another case, a Samaritan woman is very surprised when Jesus talks to her.6 Then we have the only text which definitely can seem to be racist:

And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.7

Here we find a Canaanite woman begging for Jesus to cure her daughter and He refuses even to acknowledge her existence! After being bugged by His disciples, Jesus tells them that He will not take any notice of this woman's plea because she is a Canaanite! He states that He is not sent to anyone but «the lost sheep of the house of Israel». This smacks of racism, pure and simple: Jews only may apply.

The woman is not the kind to give up; she knows He can cure her daughter and she intends to see that He does. She begs for help, kneeling in front of Him. He answers by another racist remark: He cannot give to dogs what belongs to the children of Israel! She still does not give up: she answers Him back that although this is true, dogs do get to «eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table». This repartee has the better of Jesus: acknowledging how great is her faith in Him, He grants her the cure of her daughter. He then remarks that foreigners have greater faith in Him than His own people, as He did in the case of the Roman centurion.8

The problem is we just do not know if any of this was said in jest; we have no record of Jesus' body language at the time of the event. But we do know that He did put another woman on the spot. An haemorrhaging woman believed that she would be cured if she could only touch His garment. She did so while He was being pressed from all sides in a crowd and was cured instantly just as she believed.9 But Jesus turned around «and said, Who touched my clothes?»10 putting the woman in a pickle. Perhaps He sounded somewhat angry for the reaction of the woman was «But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth.»11 We know that He «said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.»12

Obviously the way this incident goes, it does seem that Jesus teased this poor woman by putting her on the spot. The good nature of His last words shows that He was not really angry and offended by what she did. If anything, He just enjoyed making public her faith and its effect.

To go back to the case of the Canaanite woman, we know that Jesus did acknowledge the existence of a Samaritan woman by starting a conversation with her. He then spent a for a couple of days in the Samaritan town of Sychar.13 So He could not have been such a racist as He seems to be in the case of the Canaanite woman.

I believe that He could see from the beginning that this Canaanite woman was going to be a tough cookie, someone who was determined to get what she came for. After all, it was not done for members of these two ethnic groups to mingle nor for women to start a conversation with strangers. She did so because she really believed that He could cure her daughter if He wanted to. And He was going to want to, she would make sure of that! So Jesus knew He could tease her and at the same time teach His apostles the lesson that salvation was also for the goyim even if they were just to get the «crumbs» of His time as He was there first and foremost for His people.

3. Jesus' violence against the Temple merchants and a fig tree

I have said that Jesus lived His life according to the principle of non-violence. Some could say that He used verbal violence in some of the cases we have already seen. But there is also two cases of physical violence, one reported by three of the Gospels, the other, by two.

In every account the two incidents took place shortly after Jesus' arrival to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. Matthew says it happened on the day of His arrival while Mark puts it on the next day. John does not specify on what day of His stay. In each case, it is clearly stated that Jesus used violence against people minding their own business in the Temple precinct in Jerusalem. Matthew's version of the event is the following:

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.14

while Mark's is:

And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.15

and finally John's is:

And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise. And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.16

So we have Jesus taking the law into His own hand. According to John, He even used a whip that He made out of ropes to drive businessmen out of the Temple precinct! According to all three sources, He expelled all those that sold and bought in the Temple precinct. He overthrew the tables used by the moneychangers with their contents.

This is breaking the peace; if He did so today, He would be arrested and charged with a criminal offence. It is difficult to know if anyone was injured, but this is not reported. I would think not as the Temple police did not pursue the matter further: He was sent off with a reprimand.

Let this be very clear: the merchants there were basically providing the pilgrims with the various animals required as Temple sacrifice to God according to the Torah. The moneychangers were changing the pilgrims' foreign currency into local one so they could buy those animals required as sacrifice by the Torah. These services were there because they were needed to fulfil the Torah! Was not Jesus just in a foul mood that day? What was all the fuss about?

This event happened, if one goes according to John, on Jesus' first trip with His disciples to Jerusalem for the Passover. It does not seem to have been repeated. In fact, the Temple authorities could not have put up with this kind of behaviour day after day. So it seems that this was just a one time event. Jesus wanted to make a point, and it only needed one outburst on His part to make it.

The point He wanted to make is in fact three-fold: «make not my Father's house an house of merchandise».

From that we can see that

1) He disapproves of the commercialization of the Temple

2) which for Him should just be a place reserved for prayer;

3) He has a say in all this because this Temple is His Father's.

Of course the Temple authorities challenged Him. And, from what we know, He did not push people around again.

So we could say in His defence that He just wanted to make a point in a way that people would notice; and causing a commotion definitely is such a way. We could also add that nobody was reported injured in the process; nobody really lost anything by it. Perhaps, but this is still breaking the peace. So this is very much at the limit of what is acceptable for someone who preaches non-violence.

The second event, found in Mark's and Matthew's, happens basically within 24 hours of the other. So it occurs in the Spring, just before Passover. In Mark's account, we have:

[12] And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it... [19] And when even was come, he went out of the city. And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.17

while in Matthew we have:

Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!18

Jesus is here responsible for the death of a fig tree. This is an act of violence against His creation. And this is an act of violence against a tree that was following the laws of nature, the laws that govern the growth of plants according to the seasons, laws that He, as creator, was responsible for! Mark makes it crystal clear: Jesus is looking for fruit in the Spring from a tree that does not produce figs fit for picking until later! Jesus is being totally unreasonable. Although the two Gospel accounts are slightly different as to when exactly the tree withered away, they both agree that it was

1) after Jesus told it that it would never again produce fruit and

2) that Jesus said that because He had found it without figs in the Spring!

Some will explain Jesus' unreasonableness by the verses that follow, which are, in Matthew's account:

Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.19

The argument would go thus: Jesus gave to His disciples an example of the power of faith. Someone who has enough faith can even move a mountain and cast it into the sea! Now I find all this bizarre. Neither Jesus nor anyone else started redrawing the geography of Palestine! So this example seems a little odd. Furthermore, many have tossed themselves out of a window in the firm belief that they would fly only to fall to their death; so I am not very convinced by such a statement. Of course, someone could argue that if the would-be flier really had faith, he would have flown and so, the fact that he fell shows that he did not. The problem with this is that it makes the statement irrefutable, and so I cannot accept it as useful. A statement, to be of value, must be of the kind that one can check to see if it is true or false.

It seems to me that a better example of the power of faith would have been for Jesus to make the fig tree laden with ready to pick figs instead of cursing it! After all, He changed water into wine; He fed the multitude; He could have just as easily hastened the process by which the fig tree produces its fruit so that it would have been ready to harvest in the Spring. And this feat would have been in favour of life and not death.

There is something else which is puzzling in this whole incident. This is the only recorded case of Jesus trying to get something for Himself (figs to appease His hunger) and when He does not succeed, He says : «If I can't get some now, no one else will, not even in season!» Is this not perplexing?

One of the temptations Jesus went through at the beginning of His ministry was to change stones into bread to feed Himself.20 He had then refused to do so; He was to live of God's message, which consists in putting others before self. Jesus helps others, not Himself.

What point was Jesus really trying to convey to His disciples in doing what He did? What does His unreasonableness mean? In Matthew, this event takes place the day after the incident in the Temple; in Mark, the cursing takes place on the way to the Temple and thus just before it and the result is noticed only on the way back, just after it. Are both events meant to be understood together?

Is there something basically unreasonable in Jesus' demands? In one case, He is upset by and causes a commotion about the normal cultic way of life found in the Temple precincts (that is, outside the Temple proper where only priests can go); in the other, He is upset by and causes the death of a fruit tree because it does not produce fruits out of season. In both cases, He is demanding a revolution of the way life is.

In the set-up of the Temple with its animal sacrifices, what else could pilgrims do but to buy local animals to offer God? They could not bring a goat from Alexandria or Athens! How could they offer such a sacrifice - as they were called to do by the Law - if they could not change their money into local currency? In the case of the fig tree, what could it do but follow the laws of nature? Jesus seems to be saying that all this is not good enough; the Temple should be for prayer, not animal sacrifices; the effect of the prayers at the Temple should be such as to change its environment, make the surrounding creation constantly fruitful.

Perhaps what Jesus was trying to convey was that what God wants is actions out of character, out of this world order symbolized by the religious rituals of the Temple and the unfolding of the seasons. A new way of life has to come to be, one that would superseed the present world order, that would wither and die like that fig tree. Fruit trees in this new way of life would be always fruitful and so would humans. Always giving to others, always children of God Father.21

Whether this is absolutely convincing or not, there are very few cases where Jesus can be said to be violent. Killing a tree is the worst case mentioned. The business people at the Temple did not really get hurt and His protest did not reoccur. It does seem to me that it is fair to say that Jesus lived and preached non violence. I also think that my explanation of the Canaanite woman's case is acceptable. All this would mean that what I called Jesus' «oddities» would not contradict my assertions about Jesus' love for all and sundry.

1 Matthew 13:10-12

2 Matthew 13:13-15

3 Mark 4:12-13

4 Matthew 18:11

5 Luke 7:1-10

6 John 4:9

7 Matthew 15:22-28

8 Matthew 8:5-10

9 Mark 5:25-29

10 Mark 5:30

11 Mark 5:33

12Mark 5:34

13 John 4:4-42

14 Matthew 21:12-13

15 Mark 11:15-17

16 John 2:13-17

17 Mark 11:11-14;19-21

18 Matthew 21:18-20

19 Matthew 21:12-22

20 «Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.» (Matthew 4:1-4)

21 I am indebted to Alain (Émile Chartier) for this interpretation, found in his essay «La Parabole du Figuier» published in «Essais», the first book of his collection of essays found in the «Bibliothèque de la Pléiade», Gallimard, Paris.

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Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, June 6th, 2004

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