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WRITING IN THE SAND Jesus and the Soul of the Gospels
By Thomas Moore
HAY HOUSE, INC. Copyright © 2009 Thomas Moore
All right reserved.
Chapter One A, NEW WAY OF IMAGINING HUMAN LIFE
The Central Image of Kingdom
As you travel around, let people know that the kingdom of heaven has come. Take care of the sick, waken the lifeless, get to the root of suffering, and banish the demonic. -Matthew 10:7-8
"Kingdom of heaven"-this image is the heart and soul of the Gospels. You will find it woven into all the stories and teachings. It is so central that your interpretation of "kingdom" will determine how you respond to the deep mystery presented everywhere in these texts.
Some think of the kingdom as the afterlife, some as a church, but I see nothing in the Gospels to support either view. Jesus talks about the kingdom as being within you and in your midst. The passage from Matthew above makes it clear that you reveal the kingdom by the way you live and act-not that you live morally and virtuously but that you work at healing, wakening, caring for, and calming others.
The Language of Parables
Jesus never describes the kingdom so directly that you have a clear idea of it. Rather, he uses parables and allusions to suggest what it is like. But why would he be so indirect? If "kingdom" is such an important idea, why not speak plainly about what it is and what it means? Some say that his use of parables is a cultural trait, a custom of his time and place, but in such an important matter we need a more substantial reason.
Like all fiction and poetry, parables convey subtle insights that can't be expressed in plain language. Parables could help us think more deeply and grasp the mystery in the idea of the kingdom. They tell something positive and at the same time confuse, because they are conveying paradoxical ideas. They have to conceal the mysteries at the same time that they reveal them.
A parable is a parabola: you go far out into a story, make a U-turn, and then come back with a surprising twist. All the Gospel parables have this twist that upsets your logic and your habits of thinking. Their purpose is first to stun you and then to take advantage of your disequilibrium to propose an outrageous possibility. Worldly wisdom would never get you to the Jesus worldview. You can't condense it into a rational idea.
If you read Jesus as a moral teacher, you try to live a better life, but you don't change your basic understanding of what life is all about. This is the plain vanilla approach to Jesus: live a good life. I prefer the spice approach, catching the subtle humor, the biting paradox, and even sometimes the absurdity. These turn your mind upside down and inside out-the only way to freshen your imagination.
One of the lessons I learned while practicing therapy is the importance of wit and a certain kind of irony and an appreciation for the absurd things that happen in life. If a person is zealous, not just about religion but about everything in life, he is easily thrown into deep confusion and depression. I have worked with people who were labeled psychotic, and I thought that there was hope for them when they could laugh at the contradictions in their lives.
People in therapy tell straightforward stories about their lives, often to convince you or themselves of their usual way of understanding it all. But if their story turns on them and becomes a parable, or if they look at a dream that is full of puzzles, they can no longer hang onto the story that has kept them stuck for years.
The same is true of the spiritual life. If we are zealots, passionate about the way we have found to make sense of life and dismissive of other ways, or if we don't see how complex life is and are not prepared to forgive ourselves and others for mistakes, then our spirituality is in danger of being neurotic, easily threatened and therefore excessively defended.
The failure to appreciate the radical nature of Jesus' teaching may account for the lack of excitement and challenge in many churches. You participate in rituals that are far from earth-shaking and listen to sermons that are full of platitudes. Jung said that the Jesus community has been turned into a "misery institute." Certainly it often takes the pleasure out of life. But even worse, it has become a "novocaine philosophy," numbing us with the mindless habits of church attendance and the rote learning of meaningless dogmas.
Parables serve the mysteries of the Gospels rather than dispel them in lengthy explanation. Who Jesus was and what the kingdom is all about are not exactly problems in need of a solution. Who was the historical Jesus? Was he married or celibate? Where did he study? These are interesting questions, but they distract from the mystery. A problem is a challenge to our intelligence that can be solved; a mystery is a reality so deep and subtle that you have to find your way into it and have your life changed by it.
The image of the kingdom is important because it implies a "realm" of meaning different from the usual. It is a "kingdom of heaven" rather than earth, a place of bliss and idealistic values. The Gospels suggest that it's more important to enter that kingdom than to live a good life.
The Shocking Parables
I used to think of the parables as each teaching a moral virtue: you should be kind, unprejudiced, forgiving, and so on. But now I see how they work together to describe the nature of the kingdom. They are not moral lessons; they don't promote the plain vanilla life. Instead, they shock your old patterns of thought so you can imagine a new and vastly more interesting life. It is one thing to try to be a better person and another thing to change the way you think.
Consider this rather unfamiliar parable from the Gospel of Thomas.
Jesus said: "The kingdom of the father is like a certain woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking on the road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty." -Gospel of Thomas 97
In a sense, the kingdom we are talking about is empty. "Empty" here doesn't mean worthless; it means not fully visible and concrete, like a church or a belief system. It is more an attitude toward life than a religious institution, more a quality of mind than a formal church. You don't necessarily see it in a church full of people, but it is revealed in one person helping another in need.
In Buddhism, "empty" means not being attached to the language and forms of the religion but living and being in a way spelled out by the Buddha's teaching and example. The Thomas parable implies something similar: You let all your concern about being good, believing the right thing, and using the right language empty out. You let go of all those principles that give life simple meaning, and you are left with the pristine teaching and example of Jesus creating an entirely new way of life. You empty your head of ideas and become a new kind of person. It's a matter of being rather than believing.
Perhaps you can participate in a religion or a church in an "empty" way, but that is difficult. By its very nature, a church focuses on itself, on its rules and dogma, and encourages people to follow rather than to create a new life. Church life might keep the Gospel teaching in mind and help you understand it better. It may motivate you and may help you participate in the mystery through ritual. But it may also get in the way, because the church is not the kingdom.
When you look for the kingdom in a person, you don't look for special clothes or particular words coming out of his mouth. The kingdom is invisible, empty. It's more like a color than an object, more like a sound than a structure. It isn't anything more than a point of view, but it is a perspective on life that makes all the difference. As literalism and hard belief gradually leak out of your idea of the Jesus way, you get closer to the mystery of the kingdom. You come home.
In a typical metaphor for emptiness, the Chinese spiritual classic the Tao Te Ching says:
Cut doors and windows for a room; It is the holes which make it useful.
The kingdom, too, is like an open window, nothing in itself, and yet it allows everything. It is transparent and translucent. It allows the fullness of life to shine through. It is a way of seeing and living, but it is not an entity separate from ordinary existence. It is not a set of beliefs as much as a slant on life. In some ways it's a door opening to a new life, but even better, it's a window you can look through and see another world.
In another parable, Jesus says:
What is the kingdom of God like? What can I compare it to? It's like a mustard seed that a person took and planted in his garden. It grew into a tree, and the birds of the sky made nests in its branches. -Luke 13:18-19
As many commentators point out, Jesus' listeners might have expected him to say that the kingdom is like the great cedars of Lebanon. Instead, it's like a mustard seed, the tiniest of seeds, which becomes a small bush-hardly a good place for birds to make nests. The image is extreme and even comic. It's as though Jesus said, "You think the kingdom is like a huge sequoia tree in a great forest. In fact, it's more like a weed in front of your house, and actually more like a tiny seed from that weed."
This is a hint that the secret we are after, the clue to the meaning of "kingdom" and the general thrust of the Gospels, is small but potent, utterly ordinary and yet transcendent. Like a weed compared to a rose, it is something people would rather not bother with. Not a huge belief system but a slight shift in vision and values, the loss of all your ambitions and cravings changes your world.
Furthermore, as they would on a weed, people will look down on the Gospel way of life. Turning the other cheek is stupid and naive, they will say. Forgiving people for their sexual mistakes is being permissive and immoral. Followers of Jesus would like his teaching to be like a mighty tree, mirrored in a grand cathedral or the regal trappings of a bishop, but Jesus uses the image of a little bush, a weed. Jesus never looked like the pope; he dressed like a peasant.
At a personal level, I have felt this seed/weed spirituality gradually transforming me throughout my adult life. I started out as a card-carrying poster boy for Christianity. I was an altar boy, a seminarian, a monk, and almost a priest. But today all that highly visible, hardcore Christianity has become a tiny, flexible, lively, breathing spring from which my life flows. But you can hardly see the Gospels in my spirituality. In fact, you can hardly see my spirituality. Tinier than a mustard seed; less noticeable than a weed.
My personal spirituality is not noble and inspiring, and yet to me it is precious. I feel its inferiority, its lowliness, but I know that all these feelings are in tune with the Gospels. The last shall be first. "Let the children come to me," Jesus says.
Jesus himself was a slight figure in the rich cultural and religious life of the 1st century. Today there is little, if any, evidence of his historical existence. The one passage from the Jewish historian Josephus, often used as the final word on Jesus' historical existence, is questionable. Jesus himself is like a mustard seed-hardly visible in the historical record.
Paradoxically, by not making Jesus himself the object of your spiritual devotion, an idol in your spirituality, you allow the kingdom to come to life in you. As your bloated language and too-precious ideals shrink to the size of a mustard seed, you come to life in a new way. Instead of being full of yourself for possessing the truth, you live your life quietly, knowing that you are spiritually alive.
I have never understood why some people promote simply accepting Jesus and stopping there. Inflating Jesus and making little of his radical philosophy makes Jesus too big. He gets in the way of his message. Then the metaphors of weed, seed, and empty jar don't apply. The big Jesus is not consistent with the teaching of the parables.
The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said that Zen Buddhism is "nothing special." The same could be applied to Jesus and his way: it is nothing special, and yet it is worth devoting your life to, as Suzuki devoted his to Zen. Some Buddhists say, "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him." They mean no disrespect, but rather warn against making an idol even of the Buddha himself. It's difficult to imagine a follower of Jesus saying something similar, and yet the empty-jar parable suggests just that.
Sigmund Freud said that when people display something excessively, that display means they lack the very thing they are displaying. A person who acts as if he knows everything may be inwardly worried about his ignorance. When religious people display their faith, one wonders if they are protecting themselves from the lack of it. When the Jesus vision is subtle and transparent, it may be more grounded and sure than when it is shouted in your face. Our parables seem to say that as long as you keep leaking, losing all that substantial stuff that you have been attached to, the kingdom will take shape. Nowhere else in the Gospels does Jesus sound more like a Zen master.
The Kingdom as Myth
The kingdom of God is not arriving in a way you can see directly. Nor will people be able to say, "That's it!" Or "There it is!" The thing is, the kingdom of God is within you. -Luke 17:20-21
I would like to say that the kingdom is a new myth of human living, but I'm aware that people often think of myth as something false and fantastic. Those who study religion and culture, on the other hand, use the words myth and mythology to refer to something more positive and serious. For them, mythology is the story or narrative, sometimes unspoken, by which people find meaning and make sense of their world. When taken seriously, the word myth speaks of the very heart of the religious life.
A mythology has two levels: it may be an actual story, like the tales of the Greek gods and goddesses or even the story of Jesus, or it may be a lived story, like the implicit worldview of science that plays a central role in the myth that shapes the modern world. Notice 1 am making no judgments in my use of the word myth but only point to a story, told or lived, that shapes individuals and society. In this sense, to speak of the mythic Jesus takes nothing away from his reality, historicity, and importance.
Joseph Campbell made this meaning popular in his television programs and books, where he spells out four functions or purposes of myth:
To relate to the mystery of the world in which we live-the religious function. To create a meaningful understanding of the natural world-the cosmological function. To establish and maintain values and an ethical way of life-the moral function. To allow the individual person to live a meaningful life in relation to nature and in society-the psychological function.
In Campbell's sense, Jesus is proposing a new myth to live by, an alternative vision for accomplishing these four goals: to have a spiritual existence, to have an appropriate relationship with the natural world, to live by real communal values, and to be psychologically secure and creative. This vision of a new way of being covers the whole of one's existence. Jesus addresses not only the spiritual and religious dimensions but the whole of life-everything we do.
In the Gospels Jesus clearly distinguishes between legalistic spiritual practice-following the rules, honoring authority, observing traditions-and living with compassion. The old way is one of authoritarianism, guilt, and constraint. The new law, a new way of ordering life, is to honor people not for their position but for their humanity, to serve all people, and to be a healing presence wherever you are. This is clearly how Jesus models human life and how he embodies "the kingdom of heaven." You find the kingdom when you discover a way out of the limited vision given to you by your family and culture, when your old mind has been washed clean, when you accept yourself, when you discover the rewards and challenges of love, when you deal with your mortality.
Your culture will try to impose its pseudo-myth on you, its story of how things are and what is important. Your religion may try to impose its pseudo-myth, an escape from the world that is yours and from your precious identity. It will tell you it has a better way. But in the best of worlds, your culture and your religion help you find your myth, a narrative that will help your life unfold with intelligence, vision, and a strong sense of values. A myth is a living thing, and that is what Jesus offers: a narrative that gives life rather than an escape from life.
Excerpted from WRITING IN THE SAND by Thomas Moore Copyright © 2009 by Thomas Moore. Excerpted by permission.
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