|Casting out the Money Changers (Giotto)|
There are a number of incidents recorded in the Gospels in which, we are told, Jesus seems to act ‘out of character’. The most famous one, of course, is of Jesus casting out the money changers in the temple, a scene which does not fit our image of him as a passive man of peace. John’s Gospel tells us that he took a whip to them, and even though this might have been more of a symbolic gesture than a frenzied attack, his actions don’t correspond terribly well with his words in the Sermon on the Mount about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek. Another example is the way he treats the gentile woman who begs him to cure her disturbed daughter. ‘It’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs,’ he says, meaning that he was only prepared to heal the people of his own nation – ‘the dogs’ were all non-Jews. He eventually does heal the girl, but only after her mother has won him over with a smart rejoinder.
However, to say that on these and similar occasions Jesus was acting ‘out of character’ is really rather misleading. Our character comes out in what we do and what we say, and if Jesus said and did these things then they were part of his character. What we really mean is that Jesus seems to be acting in ways which don’t quite square with the image of him that we carry around in our heads; but this image has been built up more from pious sermons, sentimental films, and apocryphal stories than from an actual close reading of the Gospel texts. According to the Gospels, Jesus was not always ‘Mr. Nice Guy’; sometimes he could be extremely unpleasant. I have never found the Jesus of John’s Gospel to be an appealing person at all. There are places where he seems to be arrogant, patronising, and self righteous. On one occasion, in chapter 7, he even seems to be deceitful. ‘You should go to
to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles,’ say his brothers. ‘No, I’m not going to
go,’ replies Jesus dismissively; but then he goes! And when he later tells his
apostles that they are his friends if
they do what he tells them (John 15:14), I find myself losing patience with
him as a genuinely sympathetic and humane person. Jerusalem
But then, the Gospels were never intended to present a sentimental picture of the perfect man, in touch with his feminine side, a kind of prototype of St. Francis of Assisi, or Mahatma Gandhi. The Gospels are not character studies. Whatever conventional Christians say, the Gospels do not give us a rounded portrait of a person to emulate. In his words and actions, Jesus is demonstrating and expounding important spiritual principles, and these sometimes demand what, to us, appear as inconsistency.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in a little passage which occurs at the end of chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel, the end of what I have called the Aries section of the Gospel. You may not be familiar with it, because it is one of those incidents which preachers tend to ignore, so I’ll read it in its entirety.
And his mother and brothers came and were standing outside. They sent someone in to summon him. And a crowd was sitting around him and they said to him, 'Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside; they are looking for you.' Jesus responded by saying, 'Who is my mother and my brothers?' And looking at those sitting in a circle round him, he said, 'Look. Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, and my mother.'
This is shocking isn’t it? And it is particularly shocking to Catholic sensibilities, which have elevated Jesus’ mother Mary to the status of goddess, and which have presented to us a picture of Jesus as a dutiful, obedient son within the ‘holy family’; and it is also shocking to Catholics because it tells us unequivocally that Jesus had brothers and sisters, demolishing at a stroke the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, at least in so far as it is meant to be understood biologically.
But the embarrassment is not only to the Catholics. This passage calls into question Christendom’s general portrait of Jesus as a man who upholds ‘family values’, so beloved by the American Christian right, although how one could ever assume that an unmarried, childless man whose mother was a virgin and whose father was a ghost could represent a typical human family has always puzzled me.
The tension between Jesus and his immediate family is illustrated a little earlier in Mark’s Gospel, where we learn that his family members thought that he was out of his mind (3:21), and the other Gospels say nothing to contradict it. From the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel we learn of a twelve year old Jesus listening to the wise men in the temple rather than returning home with his parents, and in Matthew chapter 10, Jesus says, with almost unbelievable directness:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter–in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (10:34-38).
This is very unsettling stuff, which is probably why we don’t hear it read aloud too often, but it is not a rant against monogamy or the nuclear family; it is not even a plea for more tolerance of alternative lifestyles. These passages are intended to alert us to an extremely important spiritual principle: that discovering and establishing one’s identity, one’s true individuality, within a communal context, and particularly within the family context, is extraordinarily difficult, but it is so important that nothing, not even those things demanded by our closest intimacies, can ever take precedence over it.
These incidents teach us that anyone intent on following the spiritual path has to break away from some pretty restricting and oppressive social conditioning, and the most effective agency of this conditioning is the family. We learn our earliest and most enduring lessons about life and relationships at our mother’s knee; we inherit the family religion, or lack of it; we imbibe the family’s values before we are weaned; we build a social identity by processing the thousands of messages which accumulate daily from the overt and subtle words and actions of our parents and our siblings. The family itself has its own dynamics, from the obvious age relationships among brothers and sisters - which usually requires the oldest child to be competent, the middle one to be troublesome, and the youngest to be spoiled - to the designated roles which are apportioned early and which seem impossible to shake off.
The Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe says that when we get beneath the cosy facade that most families tend to present to the world we find some pretty disturbing dynamics, particularly in regard to the allocation of roles. ‘You have been given a role in the family which is yours for life,’ she says. ‘You cannot escape it.’ She is the intelligent one, he is the sensitive one, she is the daydreamer, he is ambitious. Rowe says that the greatest compliment her mother could give to anyone was, ‘He is always the same.’
But these disturbing words of Jesus tell us unequivocally that we must not allow the prejudices of our family to determine the course of our spiritual life. As the novelist Sue Monk Kidd says, (Beliefnet, 7th April 2007) we have to pull away from the Collective They, to ‘stand before the bare mystery of our own being.’ ‘I came to understand,’ she writes, ‘that there is an Authentic ‘I’ within, an ‘I Am,’ or divine spark within the soul’, and that this ‘true identity’ transcends the outer roles which have been bequeathed to us by our family and our culture. To discover this true identity, the mark of God upon us, something as distinctive and unique as our fingerprints, is the raison d’etre of our existence, and the only guarantee of personal fulfilment and of collective harmony. Ignoring this, mistaking uniqueness for madness, in ourselves or in others, is what Jesus calls ‘the unforgivable sin’. It’s unforgivable because in committing it we have missed the whole point of our existence. In the works of the Sufi sage Rumi, we find it expressed thus:
The master said there is one thing in this world which must never be forgotten. If you were to forget everything else, but were not to forget this, there would be no cause to worry; while if you remembered, performed and attended to everything else, but forgot this one thing, you would in fact have done nothing whatsoever. It is as if a king had sent you to a country to carry out one special, specific task. You go to the country and you perform a hundred other tasks, but if you have not performed the task you were sent for, it is as if you have performed nothing at all. So man has come into the world for a particular task, and this is his purpose. If he doesn’t perform it, he will have done nothing.
Each of us is responsible for bringing to birth that authentic self which lies buried beneath those layers of prejudice which stifle its emergence with their insistence on conformity, homogenisation, prosperity, celebrity, and a hundred and one other culturally sanctioned distractions. This is why the passage from Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus is shown dissociating himself from his immediate family occurs where it does, in the Aries section of the Gospel, which would have been read and discussed at this time of the year, when the very trees and flowers around us are emerging from winter’s collective homogeneity and beginning to express their individuality and uniqueness. ‘Doing the will of God’ does not mean behaving yourself, going to church on Sunday, living a respectable life; it means discovering and expressing the unique and precious part that only you can play in the great drama of existence. ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ asks Jesus. He goes on, ‘Those who do the will of God are my mother, my sisters and my brothers,’ by which he did not mean that his biological family were disreputable people – they were probably anything but - but that true nurture can only be provided by those who have themselves broken away from the Collective They, and who are concerned to help you find your authentic, creative, unique self.
The Jews tell of a certain Rabbi Susya who used to say, ‘When I die, God will not ask me why I wasn’t Abraham, or why I wasn’t Moses; he will ask me why I wasn’t Susya.’ The same is true of you and me. The success or otherwise of my life will not be determined by how rich I become, or how famous I become, or how influential I become, or how popular I become. It will not even be assessed by how well I have kept the rules, or how closely I have emulated the life of some great spiritual figure. God will not ask me why I haven’t been another Jesus, or another Francis of Assisi. He will ask me why I allowed my inherited cultural and religious prejudices, and my desire for conformity and respectability, to prevent me from becoming Bill Darlison.