Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Why Didn't Jesus Write?

This is not intended as an academic treatise—scholars can research and write those! This is a speculative opinion piece of imagination.

If the biblical witness is to be trusted, we know Jesus could read, because he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in his home synagogue in Nazareth. And we know Jesus could write, because he “bent down and wrote on the ground” when a woman accused of adultery was about to be stoned. Columbia seminary professor Anna Carter Florence has pointed out that, having come between her and her accusers, bending down would have forced her executioners to look her in the eye. Maybe it was not only his extemporaneous “Let him without sin cast the first stone” that dissuaded the would-be judges, but also whatever he wrote in the soil at their feet.

But why didn’t he write down all his thoughts and parables on a scroll somewhere, and put the Jesus Seminar out of business? Here are a few possibilities:

There wasn’t time. When one sees fire, the natural inclination is to warn “FIRE!” rather than pen a treatise on the dangers of combustion. Jesus saw the imminence of the inbreaking commonwealth or kingdom of God, and realized transformation (repentance) was needed immediately to embrace it. And once the commonwealth was among us, what need would there be of additional scripture?

Of course, there’s another way “there wasn’t time,” as Jesus died an early martyr’s death at the hands of the Roman Empire, who executed hundreds of Jewish zealots on crosses. By today’s standards, he still would have had time to write a memoir about the trauma of his childhood experiences, from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents to his mother’s reprimand in the Temple (you know, as in “no more wire hangers!”). But philosophies as wise as his are generally written by sages late in life.

Perhaps he needed a good editor. Steeped in the oral traditions of his Hebrew upbringing, with the knowledge that their stories and wisdom were passed down orally through generations before being written down, Jesus might have considered it presumptuous to put in tablets of stone for the world to see teachings he wanted to test among his own people first. Maybe there were others like the Syrophoenician woman who challenged his religious perspectives that limited him initially to “the lost sheep of Israel.” Maybe the Samaritan woman at the well taught Jesus as much about spiritual unity over religious differences as he taught her. And could his strong reaction to Peter’s denial of his anticipated suffering in Jerusalem (“Get thee behind me, Satan!”) reveal his own doubts of his trek toward martyrdom?

It could be that his disciples and the early Christians and his followers throughout the ages served as an editorial prism through which to see his rainbow promise, to harden his break with the religious parties of his time, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, as well as reveal “the new thing” Isaiah had prophesied God doing and “the law written on their hearts” that Jeremiah proclaimed. There may have been copyright issues with his borrowing verses from Moses’ Pentateuch for his core beliefs of loving God and neighbor, though there was no Fox News to call him on his socialistic plagiarism. And  his lumping of the scribes with the Pharisees meant they were not likely to take dictation from him.

Actions speak louder than words. Talk about Incarnation! Jesus’ dining with religious outcasts spoke more disturbingly to the religious leaders of his time (and ours), as did his free social intercourse with women, even disreputable ones. His willingness to touch lepers, the hearing impaired, and the blind is worth a thousand of his words. His ability to discern and cast out demons is sorely needed in our own age of addictions and violence. Jesus could have been a mime and we would still get his central message!

“It’s not about me!” Could Jesus’ self-effacing deference to a God beyond our abilities to know, explain, and confine, and his claim to be one of “the least of these” whom we are to clothe, feed, shelter, and visit have made him resistant to writing what would have been a bestseller (eventually) because  its inevitable temple merchandising and self-promotion might have distracted us from our own callings to follow him in ministry and mission? Though I would have loved to see him on “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report,” maybe he is all the more memorable in his simple plea to “Remember me” when we dine with him in our hearts.

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This month, Presbyterian Promise invited me to write a letter of encouragement to my 17-year-old self as a gay Christian. Click here and scroll down to two such articles.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

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  1. Much food for thought in this reflection, Chris. My own perspective is that Jesus knew what subsequent times have taught us - it is too easy to idolize the "written word" and forget the living Spirit that infuses it. Somehow, I found Richard Rohr's reflection for today completely apropos, especially the following: "Reality is radically relational, and all the power is in the relationships themselves! Not in the particles or the planets, but in the space in between the particles and planets. It sounds a lot like what we called Holy Spirit."

    To be relational with all humankind, I believe Jesus needed to be free of the constraints of the materiality of the written word, though that as well as all other means of communication transmits the experience of love if we are open to it.

  2. Jesus was a human being... Being the kind of person his message encouraged us all to be.. the loving kind. Being does not require writing anything down...