How Real Was the Resurrection, Really?

Dear reader: This is subject to further editing, perhaps after your feedback.

 

I’m starting to write this on the Roman Easter Sunday. I’ve been thinking about this whole Lent thing, with its happy ending, which we love. But if we’re grownups, do we need all the Easter hoopla? I love the music, but still…

Christians, whether scholars and otherwise, will probably rise to attack me for apostasy, but really: Do we actually revere or even worship Jesus because he rose from the dead? If that literally happened, however briefly, I must confess that OK, it’s amazing, but it doesn’t change my faith.

Christians may rush in to say the physical Resurrection validates Christianity, that this religion is hollow and meaningless if Jesus didn’t rise again. But does it? Is it? I’m starting to see the week of Palm Sunday through Good Friday as a mind blowing series of events that works just fine to build a religion on. Leave Jesus on the cross, as the Catholics do, and end the story there. Remember what he taught, what he did, and what he risked and ultimately sacrificed.  Wow, what an example. Very few of us follow him that far, but there he is, the prize for our eyes, leaving us with a “new” commandment: to love each other.

But maybe we need the happy ending. Some say that’s the premise of Christianity, and the whole religion falls apart without it. Maybe they fall apart without it. Maybe they also need the later-tacked-on ending of the Jonah adventure, because they can’t see the point of the story without the reassurance of Jonah’s physical “resurrection.” And they need to see and feel that Jesus is dead only temporarily.

We’re talking about a classic model story here. The Hero, hailed as mighty, famous for legendary deeds, and for helping the people who need it most, goes through a time of extreme difficulty and nearly dies or appears to die. But wait, there’s more! Hero returns, along with happily-ever-after, thanks to deus ex machina, or just Deus. As it’s retold and rewritten, the story accumulates vivid detail, right down to secret conversations. And we love it. The child in us needs a happy ending, or we might be afraid to get up in the morning.

We hate the opposite of a happy ending, such as when a much-loved relative, pet, or friend dies. We children of all ages don’t just grieve; we’re often horrified, because death is so…final. But death is a fact of life, and death seems to be the fact of life least taught and most poorly learned. There’s no magical happy ending, unless we who are left make it happen by living on, carrying their spirit in strength and faith, thus honoring the memory of the deceased.

Well, here’s the horrible, cruel death of Jesus. Niggling details aside, we can most likely accept the life and execution of a man named Yeshua bar Yusef as fact. He was evidently a charismatic spiritual genius. But let’s remember that just as with news today, the story of Jesus was passed orally at first, with some added details that we throw in to enliven any story, and then, later, was written down by several people, working pretty much independently. The written versions were never published or photocopied, of course. Through many decades of hand copying and re-copying, each rewriter would have adjusted and invented details sincerely meant to enhance the story. This was standard practice. Some epistles in the New Testament weren’t even written by the name in the title. Standard practice again.

So today, we have an astounding story, originally by four witnesses, of a man who died after beating, stabbing, and torture on one of the cruelest, slowest, and most demeaning execution methods ever invented. Then, the story tells us, he was able to walk away the next day and travel, chat, and even enjoy a meal before disappearing for good. It’s a thrilling, inspiring story. Not only that, but today, the world power known as the Roman Empire is gone. But Jesus, not Caesar, lives on in us. I love that.

About those post-mortem days. We’re used to trusting writers not to fabricate events but to report them dispassionately, exactly as they occurred, as if we were reading a report from Reuters. Not so with Bible stuff. Here, we can trust only that the writer is telling what he (usually he, rarely she) thinks is a very important story. And usually, it is important, even for us, all these centuries later.

But to tell the story effectively, no good writer is going to leave the bare bones alone: He’s going to enhance the story to make it more accessible, meaningful, easier to understand, and exciting to his readers. Remember, he’s writing by hand, not running off copies, so if anything needs tweaking, he can easily do it on the fly. Besides, who’s to know? The original characters are often dead, and there’s no copyright law to worry about.

So today, we have a shelf full of Jesus stories in various forms and styles. Early church fathers weeded them out with very respectable skill and left us with four. Others, such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Bartholomew, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Judas, and several more, didn’t make the cut.

Naturally, the four Jesus stories in today’s Christian Bible don’t agree on all the details. Did Jesus deliver his most famous sermon on a so-called mountain, or on a plain? And how many “beatitudes” were in that sermon, anyway? Who cares? We must learn to relax, step back from literal thinking, and hunt for the deep message. It’s in there, finally appearing explicitly in the story of the Last Supper: Love one another. That’s the bottom line, a three-word summary of the Golden Rule. The Abrahamic Prime Directive. Love each other. Two word version? Be kind. Any religion with any legs comes down to this.

And all four of these stories tell, with varying details, of a resurrection. The Resurrection, if you please. Capital R. Obviously a big deal. But I have trouble with this part of the story being literally true. The Bible has plenty of stuff that’s not literally true, such as two creation myths — yes, myths; that word doesn’t necessarily imply falsehood — two creation myths that don’t agree. But they’re both profoundly true in the way only fiction can tell Truth. Consider Winnie the Pooh. Fiction, but in its way, one of the truest stories ever. Some scholars tell us that the story of Samson was actually a fictional work in the first place. OK, it works to thrill and lift the spirits as well as any other superhero story does.

So let’s get to it: How true is the Resurrection? I’d say, very true. Absolutely true. But maybe not literal fact. No, much better than that. Let me set this up.

We make God real. That makes me think of The Velveteen Rabbit, another book about Truth, but moving on. We make God real, by loving God. Let’s stipulate that God has no gender, no body, no physical existence at all except in us. To quote from The Color Purple, a religious book in the very best way (unlike the movie), we don’t go to church to find God, we go to church to share the God we brought in with us. Amen? Amen. God is our spirit, the spirit that works in us, if we let it. Each of us carries a share of God, and when we combine them, they become more than the sum of each of our spirits. GOD in all caps.

But when Jesus was executed, the disciples lost their spirit and felt utterly lost. Like many of us, they had resisted seeing all the signs of looming disaster during those final days. They were so unprepared. Doesn’t that sound like us? So when Jesus died, they did, too, in spirit. The Twelve Apostles, the ones closest to their Prophet, simply shut down, their spirits broken.

Typically, the only disciples with the strength to deal with such a situation were women. Death was no stranger to them. Women lost husbands in war, children to disease, babies in childbirth and infancy, and had to deal with it up close and personal. While Jesus’s life leaked out of him, we’re told that the friends who stayed near the cross were women. So guess who got up the next day to go to the cemetery and do what needed to be done. And. They. Had. A. Stroke. Of. Genius.

Here’s where the story may have picked up the biggest package of physical details to tell a spiritual story, and I love the way it works.

The announcement, “He is not here!” could have been true in two ways: The body was indeed missing, or these women were the first with the presence of mind to put it all together. By now, you can guess I’m going with option two. The radical realization of these women, supposedly three of them (a heavily symbolic number), was to recognize that they were looking for Jesus in the wrong place! That he was alive! And in them! And their job was to spread the Good News.

They told the other disciples, who had been sitting numb, dumb, and defeated, what they had figured out, way ahead of the rest of them, that Jesus was as alive as if he were standing there, with the nail holes and spear wound and telling them all to get on with it.

Once this Great Truth sank in, the disciples roused and shared this new reality with each other: He is alive, among us; he is alive, in us. Suddenly, they had a new way of looking at life and the world. The whole world, and life, looked different. They began to see Jesus even in strangers on the road, as we do today, if we look.

I began these thoughts in a very skeptical frame of mind. Imagine my surprise at coming out here, on the Eastern Orthodox Good Friday, that the Resurrection is a fact, but not in the magical thinking way we see on the page.  And although I’ve learned I’m not the first to notice this, imagine my surprise at stumbling over a startling possibility about the beginning of Christianity: that thanks to a few smart women, a new religion was born. I like the bookends here: Jesus was born to a young woman named Mary, and another Mary may have announced his rebirth in us. He has risen. He has risen, indeed. Happy Easter.

Amen.

 

Copyright 2019 James L. Evans

The Historical Jesus

I’ve seen many people astonished at the news that Jesus was a real guy. Historical. Actually lived. Yes, we have enough information outside of the Bible to say this with certainty.

Of course,  history that far back was written differently. The author could assume a name, as probably happened in all or parts of some biblical books. For instance, we can’t swear that the apostle John wrote John’s gospel and apocalypse, or that Paul wrote all the letters bearing his name. And details often got added, redacted, or altered by the writer or copyist.

But they and we can conclude that somebody named Yeshua bar Yusef, whom we call Jesus today, was from or at least grew up in Nazareth. The Bethlehem story might have been added to fit prophesies; it’s hard to know. He was probably born a bit earlier than the beginning of the Christian calendar and was tortured and executed in his thirties by the Roman occupiers.

What did he look like? Certainly not much like the handsome, pious, white guy in zillions of paintings. That pic on this site’s first page is one of those. Consider where he was from: Asia, not Europe. Yes, the so-called Middle East is western Asia. White Americans obsess about skin color, and probably have a tough time with an accurate portrayal of Jesus with brown or olive skin, black beard, probably kinky or very curly hair, who today would never make it through security, because he would look so much like an Arab terrorist. He was a Palestinian, after all.

And forget those layers of flowing white robes. Before bathrooms and laundries, people looked and smelled dusty and sweaty. A common man’s whole wardrobe was often a long garment that looked like an old fashioned nightgown, in off-white, darkened with use to desert beige with stains, and maybe a loosely wrapped top layer of the same material. Add sandals, and Average Joe was dressed for all occasions.

We don’t know much about Jesus’s life before the last few years, when he emerged from obscurity as one of the  prophets then wandering the province. We can be fairly sure he was well educated, considering his political situation. Apparently, he was literate, and he certainly knew his Torah, Prophets, and Wisdom scriptures, and he could argue like a lawyer.

But this sketchy looking little guy stood out from the competition, likely because he was charismatic, educated, and brilliant. As has happened with other gifted prophets, his listeners remembered, repeated, and finally wrote down striking things he said and did. The Gospel of Thomas is simply a collection of quotations credited to Jesus. Other gospels include versions of his actions, which were often seen as miraculous.

The end of his life got a lot of attention. Jesus was literally consumed by his message, that we should love each other, redistribute our wealth to take care of the weak and poor, and fear nothing, thanks to the kingdom of God inside each of us. This sounded seditious and socialist to the government, which arrested him and intended to make him an example by crucifixion, a slow, sadistic form of execution used by the Romans to strike fear into the populace.

This crucifixion would have had its desired effect if Jesus had tried to escape or bargain, or if he had broken down and made a false confession. As with waterboarding, crucifixion will make you say anything. But by all accounts, Jesus backed up what he’d been preaching by taking it all the way. That’s what got attention. He became an example, all right, but the government’s plan completely backfired.  Today, the Roman Empire is long gone, and the words and example of Jesus are still alive.

Which gospel gets it right?

All four of our official gospels tell of Jesus’s baptism by John, and about Andrew, the first disciple, and Simon, the second, who went into history as Peter.

Mark is the oldest gospel. Willis Barnstone’s translation has the baptism thus:

Johanan the Dipper (John the Baptist) appeared in the desert, preaching an immersion of repentance for the remission of sin. The whole land of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem came out to him and were immersed by him in the Jordan River and confessing their sins.

And it happened in those days that Yeshua (Jesus) came from Nazareth in Galilee and was immersed in the Jordan by John. And as soon as he came out of the water, he saw the skies torn open and the spirit like a dove descending on him. And there came a voice out of the skies: You are my son whom I love. With you I am well pleased.

[Later,]…as Jesus went by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting nets into the sea, for they were fishermen, and Jesus said to them, Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of people. And at once they dropped their nets and followed him.

Matthew adds the detail that John preached from Isaiah and even quotes a verse. And he adds two groups of especially holy and respected men, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. When they came to be baptized, instead of welcoming them and giving thanks for their presence, John no doubt shocked everybody. He cursed them.

And Matthew adds a conversation to the next event: Then came Jesus…to John to be immersed by him. John tried to stop him, saying “I need to be immersed by you, yet you come to me?” But Jesus answered, “Leave things as they are. It is right for us in this way to fulfill all that is just.” Then John consented. And when Jesus was immersed, [the Spirit descended like a dove, as in Mark.]

And then the first two disciples get recruited off the beach the same way, and as abruptly, as in Mark.

Luke gives the episode a date, the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and he names other officials on duty at the time. As with Luke’s telling of Jesus’s birth, the richness of detail far outshines his sources, which were Mark and Matthew. He even includes some of John’s preaching, which sounds a lot like the Jesus of months hence: “One who has two coats should share them with one who has none. One who has meat should share it the same way.” To the tax collector’s question, John says, “Collect no more than you are ordered to.” And to the soldier’s question, “Do not slanderously blackmail, do not extort, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Wow. Think about the nerve and courage of these people. The tax men and soldiers are government employees, working for Caesar, and they risk their jobs by showing up to get dipped at a public place by a man with no official credentials who looks like a bum. Yet John also has the courage, and the grace, to give them his honest answer to their dangerously, achingly honest question, “What shall we do?”

Luke’s telling of the actual baptism of Jesus, and the first disciples, seems like that of his predecessors, but goes on to report a record fish catch, thanks to this Jesus, before he promises to turn them into people catchers.

Then decades pass before the writing of the fourth gospel that made the cut in our Bible, supposedly by the apostle John. In this Gospel of John the Apostle, John the Baptizer calls Jesus the Lamb of God. Now we have a heavy title, a prescient, foreboding label. After all, old John the Baptizer was good at foreboding. He looked scary, and he cursed the power structure and shouted about a bad end for everybody unless they got right with God.

But the fourth gospel’s story sounds and feels different from the three earlier versions, and it’s not the sound of John’s yelling. This version doesn’t really say that John baptized Jesus. No matter how many times you look again, the story skips the actual baptism. Instead, both Johns, the writer and the Baptizer, focus on the credentials of Jesus as the Lamb of God, revealed to Israel by the Holy Spirit, and as the Son of God.

The differences continue. We have no details about fishing here. In fact, the first two disciples come not from their nets but from among the disciples of the Baptizer. They just walk away and follow this new master. One of these was Andrew, who went to find his brother Simon Peter the next day with the biggest news a Jew could have: “We have found the Messiah!” And with that, the story’s setup ends, and the gospel has its real beginning.

Of course, John was neither a Baptist, Southern or otherwise, nor a Christian. He was a Jewish baptizer who practiced the mikvah, or bathing ceremony for ritual purity called for in the Torah and the Qur’an, but he kicked it up a notch. Maybe several notches, because all four gospel writers report folks flocking to hear his message and get dunked in the muddy river. According to the Gospel of John, some of these people stayed right there and became his disciples.

But unlike many evangelists now, or even then, John the Baptizer wasn’t in the saving game to get rich and famous. When a man named Yeshua showed up to get dipped and dedicated like everybody else, John publicly called him his superior then and there. And he didn’t object when some of his disciples followed Jesus home. He even hailed Jesus as the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world! Now there’s a celebrity endorsement.

Maybe we can explain this new tone of John’s gospel. First, maybe he didn’t write it. If he did, he’d have been 90 to 120 at the time. Unlikely, especially in those days. But it shouldn’t surprise us that someone else might have written this gospel. Writers often adopted a famous person’s name and wrote serious works from that imagined point of view.

People in those days would say we’re very silly to nitpick about who really wrote the many gospels, books of acts, letters of Paul, or apocalypses. They were much more concerned with Truth, with a capital T, the Truth that a great story, including great fiction, has to tell.

Whoever wrote the Gospel of John wrote it much later than the others, when the followers of Jesus had increased and were becoming a bit scattered. They couldn’t all see each other and talk every day, or even every year. Consequently, some groups got different ideas and ran with them.

One bunch, called the Gnostics, started thinking about the freedom to approach God all by oneself. They said maybe you could get into heaven on your own, just by asking What would Jesus do, and not relying on leaders. They got a lot of their inspiration from the Gospel of Thomas and considered Thomas to have been Jesus’s favorite, his “beloved disciple.”

So Thomas was becoming a symbol of questioning and independent thought, while the other main group considered Peter their leader and thought of Peter as standing for the rocklike security of rules and ritual.

Well, this controversy had to stop, so the writer of the Gospel of John stripped the piled-on costumes and props from the Jesus story and started over, with an agenda. He skipped the manger stuff entirely and wrote a new introduction about the Light shining in darkness and then introduced John, who baptizes with water, and, in turn, introduces Jesus, who baptizes with Spirit. From the first sentence, the writer spotlights Jesus as the One and Only.

He gets right to the point and sticks to it, establishing Jesus immediately as a mature Messiah who gets straight to work. The everyday jobs of the first apostles are unimportant. John the Baptizer names Jesus the Lamb of God and the Son of God; Jesus has charisma, and two of John’s disciples defect. Andrew announces Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, and that’s enough for Simon.

Lest anyone think an interloper such as Thomas should lead the infant church, John has Jesus nickname Simon Kefa right away. All the locals spoke Aramaic, and kefa is Aramaic for rock. The Greek for kefa is petros, from which we get the name Peter. The gospel writer wanted to tell us whom Jesus chose as the solid, rocklike one, and it wasn’t Thomas.

The followers of the Peter faction also made good and sure that Thomas’s gospel would not make the cut as part of our official New Testament.

And that Lamb of God line. Let’s not forget that. Jesus, a Jew, was called the Lamb of God by a fellow Jew in front of a Jewish audience. Nobody would have missed that title’s significance. Lambs were killed and eaten at Passover, their blood used to mark the door of every observant Jew’s house. Maybe John the Baptizer said this, or the obviously brilliant writer could be using the term to foreshadow not only Jesus as the Chosen One but also the Chosen Sacrifice. At the end of the story, the writer even moves up the day of the Crucifixion so that Jesus actually becomes a Passover sacrifice.

So how do we know what’s true? Did a real dove come down? Did Jesus find his first followers on the beach of the Sea of Galilee and recruit them, or did they recognize Jesus on the bank of the Jordan River, and volunteer? As we often do when dealing with something very old, we’re asking the wrong questions.

Like every good story, including Santa Claus, the larger truth matters more than historical, literal fact. Doesn’t it sound silly to complain that Ebenezer Scrooge never lived, and all those ghosts are just impossible? As the saying goes, It’s true, even if it didn’t happen, and that’s what matters.

Today, a visitor to the part of the Middle East called the Holy Land by Jews, Christians, and Muslims might know that those holy sites look nothing like their original form and may not even be in the right place. Often, we just don’t know. But believers and people of faith alike visit these places, and worship, and remember the stories, and are often changed, and that counts for more than the exact location where Andrew and Simon Peter signed on with Jesus.

Whether the gospels we read today tell literal truth, pure fiction, or a real event much retold and retouched, we can get inside this story and marvel at the faith on display. We have John, standing in the water, who may have guessed he’d be arrested for sedition, but who went ahead and comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. We have Jesus, who takes an equal risk getting dunked by this crazy-looking man and accepts being called the Lamb of God. He must have known that the Roman occupiers wouldn’t tolerate his increasing fame for too long before having him rubbed out and trying to make Jesus’s own people take the blame. And we have Andrew and Simon, who risked everything as disciples of John and then took a leap into infinity by leaving John to follow Jesus. Or maybe they left a hard but familiar occupation in their boats to follow Jesus; it doesn’t matter. How could they know what lay ahead for them? They must have understood at least some of the risk.

John and Jesus were probably well aware of what they faced. It may have kept them awake at night, and Jesus sounds deeply frightened in his last days.

But all of them went ahead. And in going ahead in spite of the risk and their fears, they inspire us. These are some of the oldest and best profiles in courage. The Bible is full of them. Who cares whether they’re all literally true? Whether Andrew and his brother joined Jesus beside a big lake or beside a river has no importance; they’re both true. Only the Truth of the story concerns us: they joined up.

Are we like them? That’s our challenge. Maybe we can’t be Jesus, but can we be Andrew, or Simon, or Thomas, or the women who also preached and healed in His name? Can we stumble after Jesus, not caring about social or official pressure or even cost? The author of the Gospel of John has Simon getting the nickname Rock. What might ours be? What shall we do?

Copyright ©2016 James L. Evans

Weeds

Readings:  Micah 5:1-5a; Mark 4: 30-32, 9-12.

In much of the Old Testament, we see that the rich are blessed, winners of wars are blessed, and powerful nations are blessed.  Jewish prophets frame their visions of the Messiah from this point of view.  For example, note the closing of the Micah passage in the Jewish Publication Society translation:

[And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, Least among the clans of Judah,

From you one shall come forth To rule Israel for Me —

One whose origin is from old, From ancient times.

Truly, God will leave them helpless Until she who is to bear has borne;

Then the rest of his countrymen Shall return to the children of Israel.]

He shall stand and shepherd By the might of the Lord,

By the power of the name Of the Lord his God,

And they shall dwell secure. For lo, he shall wax great

To the ends of the earth; And that shall afford safety.

Sounds as if this Promised One might be the Incredible Hulk.  But then came Yeshua ben Yosef, whom some of the Jews decided was that Messiah, the one we like to call Jesus. Trouble is, Jesus didn’t talk like a king or any kind of ruler. For one thing, he told puzzling little stories and seemed to love paradoxes that didn’t make a whole lot of sense — the first shall be last; love your enemies; lose your life to gain it; to be rich, give away everything you have. Who is this guy? Shouldn’t he be locked up?

The ancient way of thinking we hear in the Old Testament displays the state of development in most people of that time, and let’s be honest, we haven’t changed much. This primitive thinking, as I’ll call it, is still very much with us. For instance, you can still hear hateful people call, “An eye for an eye!” when their blood boils for revenge. Many of these folks seem to know that “an eye for an eye” is in the Bible, and these same folks often call themselves Christians, but they don’t realize that they’re citing an idea that Jesus was squarely and explicitly against.

This tension between the immature “eye for an eye” thinking and more fully mature Christian thinking helps make the Book of Job so significant and unusual. When Job lost everything and sat in pain of body and soul, his friends, thinking in the old way, told him he must have done something really bad to deserve all this. The book centers on a great debate between these three friends and Job, who maintains he did nothing to earn such pain. And even in that agony, Job also refuses to blame God for his misfortune.

And Job wins the debate, which marks a radical departure from the old “eye for an eye” thinking. This book anticipated the Christian doctrine forbidding revenge by ten or fifteen generations and introduced Jews to the concept of a God who actually has a mind of God’s own. God’s actions are too complex to explain our with simple human logic, and we can’t control God; all we can do is love God and stay faithful.

Yes, the “eye for an eye” code is in the Bible, but it appears in the same list of laws that includes punishment by stoning to death. And some think only the Qur’an calls for stoning. Those who stayed awake in high school ancient history will remember that the “eye for an eye” penalty is older than the Bible. The Babylonian king Hamurabbi authorized the wording we have today, and the Jews may have learned it as prisoners in Babylon. Not that it’s necessarily a unique idea; like it or not, revenge seems to be in our genes, doesn’t it.

So whether ancient Jewish prisoners copied their captors’ law or thought of it themselves doesn’t much matter. The point is, “an eye for an eye” is ancient, primitive, gut thinking. Childish thinking.  I remember, way back in the primary grades, that “when somebody hits you, hit ’em back” sounded natural and sensible. Then along came Jesus, a Palestinian under foreign occupation, saying to turn the other cheek and love your enemy.

Whoa. This is an earthquake.  Some guy comes along, whom we call the Messiah, and says vengeance belongs to God; we, on the other hand, are to love our enemies. Suddenly, primitive thinking is out of date, and we’re asked to grow up. Jesus has given us modern thinking, advanced thinking, truly civilized thinking.

Not that we’ve become modern, civilized, mature thinkers, even if we call ourselves Christians. Over a hundred generations after Jesus, we’re still not comfortable with his message. Old ways die hard, don’t they. We still call “an eye for an eye” when our rage rises at, say, a terrorist crime, even when the attack is perpetrated by an American who’s white, Republican, and Christian: Surely you remember Tim McVey’s deadly bombing in Oklahoma City. We’ve also suffered the actions of David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, three more fellow Christians. We may say that what they did was antiChristian, but to call for their deaths was also antiChristian, taught them nothing, and lowered ourselves to their level.

Maybe now we can begin to understand why Jesus said those shocking things. Leaving revenge for God to take care of starts to make sense, if you think long range. And loving our enemies — they are fellow children of God, after all — brings them closer so we can learn more about them. Much of our prejudice and hatred comes from ignorance; and what we don’t know, we fear. If we got to know our enemies, we might even make friends. And yes, our immature side loves the truth in the joke that loving our enemies drives them absolutely nuts.

But seriously, this kind of compassion, loving our enemies, can also make us much stronger. Jesus knew what we all at least pretend to know, that it takes more strength to walk away from a fight than to give in to the the impulse to hit, and still more strength to understand the other side’s position. He wasn’t talking about arguments in school, either. The Palestinian Jews suffered under a racist Roman rule. The Jews might have been treated better than the Israeli government treats Muslim Palestinians today, but nobody likes to be occupied by an army, and many of Jesus’s compatriots wanted to strike back. Jesus advocated love, which probably did drive the government crazy, and strengthened thousands of Jews in ways the Romans couldn’t figure out, so they finally decided that Jesus had to be eliminated.

That solved the Palestinian problem, didn’t it. Not if you look at what happened. Jesus left vengeance to the Lord, and his spirit lives today, while the great Roman Empire lies in ruins. Talk about long range thinking.

Other paradoxes from the teachings of Jesus also make more sense when you listen with the ears of an occupied Palestinian. Remember how Jesus would tag a parable with the line, “Those who have ears, let them hear!”  Sounds rather rude, doesn’t it. But Jesus is signaling that he’s telling a story in code, so he won’t get arrested; not this week, anyway.

Jesus spoke in metaphors, and in so doing, he was hewing to Jewish tradition. The Bible is full of metaphors, from the two vivid Creation stories to John’s psychedelic vision of the Apocalypse, stories that say one thing on the surface, which we are not to take literally, and something much deeper if you have ears and hear the real message.

Speaking in metaphors, or parables, was the only way Jesus could safely get his message out, because he was speaking truth to a power that didn’t want to hear it.

For instance, Caesar insisted upon being first, and upon being God, while Jesus humbled himself even to the level of washing the feet of his followers. And  guess what: The first (Caesar) became the last; and the last (Jesus), has become first.

It sounded too strange to understand for Jesus to tell folks that they must lose their lives to gain them. As many of you know, he was talking about losing our old selves and gaining new lives following God instead of artificial rules. He couldn’t publicly say that Roman rules should be overthrown; he even told his questioner once that he should obey the rules and pay his taxes — render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — but give to God what is God’s. And he let it be known that what is God’s is our hearts and souls, and if we stay in love with God, we can be new people and gain life everlasting. He was willing to lay down his own life to prove this, and that’s exactly how he proved it. He lives larger today than he ever did when he was a dusty little guy tramping around Palestine.

Of all Jesus’s parables, my new favorite is his image of the mustard seed. As a child, I had trouble with this, because I had seen mustard seeds in my mother’s spice cabinet, and they weren’t so doggone small. I always thought that if he’d wanted to talk about little seeds, he should have referred to lettuce.

And growing to a tree? Not lettuce, but not mustard, either. My dad worked to clear mustard from his fields, just as farmers in Biblical times did. It’s not a tree, it’s a weed. A big weed, but not a tree. So what’s Jesus getting at? We know it’s some kind of code, because he says if you have ears, listen.

I was surprised and a little comforted to hear John Dominic Crossan, one of the foremost Christian scholars on the planet, express his confusion about this parable. Dr. Crossan quite rightly pointed out that if Jesus had wanted a powerful tree image, he would have chosen a Cedar of Lebanon. Those trees were basically Mediterranean redwoods. “But why a weed?” he asked.

Eugene Peterson, who translated the Hebrew and Greek Bibles into The Message, was evidently confused as well, and you might remember that he simply changed the mustard seed to a pine nut, which at least grows into a tree big enough to nest in. So we’re in good company if we listen and are still confused.

Well, I think Dr. Peterson wimped out, and I think I’ve cracked the code. I did some research and found that I’m not the first to do this, of course, but all I did was listen like a farmer chafing under foreign occupation, and I got that rare experience of feeling really smart.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed” is a double barreled message and doubly dangerous, what with government spies all around. The first phrase threatens to disturb the peace right now. Saying “The Kingdom of Heaven” is to imply that another kingdom exists besides the one, the eternal, the world wide, the all-powerful Roman Empire. It also implies that this rival kingdom, being “of Heaven,” is higher than Rome. Just imagine how a paranoid government is going to take that. And it was paranoid, as are all who rule with fear instead of respect.

The second phrase, “like a mustard seed,” threatens to disturb the peace in the future. Jesus uses mustard because it’s a tough weed that farmers can’t ever really get rid of. It springs up in their fields and spreads from field to field, often thriving on the poorest land to seed the surrounding acres. It’s also a poor man’s crop, because even though it’s a pesky weed, mustard greens are nutritious, and the ground seeds can enliven even food made of scraps, such as hot dogs.

Jesus’s audience would probably have contained enough farmers to hear this. They’d understand the coded message, and    what a perfect image. If we do no harm, do good, stay in love with God, and practice the Golden Rule, the Kingdom of God will spread like weeds.  It will spread like mustard because Jesus said the Kingdom of God is right here, right now, within each of us.

We do the spreading. We are the weeds in the Evil Empire’s well-ordered fields. Authorities or doubters may try to stamp us out, but they’ll never, ever eliminate us, because each of us will tell or demonstrate the Good News to our friends, whether we know them or not, and each of them will tell or show others, and so on, faster than a dictatorship could drag us all into court, and faster than fear can pull us into self-made gated communities of the mind.

That’s the best and brightest secret of revolution: Have a message so powerful it has a life of its own, and it’ll spread like a viral video. And Jesus was indeed planting the seeds of revolution.

And that may be the key to all those weird paradoxes Jesus seemed so fond of: He wasn’t trying to be difficult; well, he was, but only for the system that was crushing the spirits of his countrymen. For his followers, he was bringing change they could believe in.

Long live the revolution.

Copyright ©2015 James L. Evans