Does the gospel ever really get through our heads?
by Debbie Blue
Gospel Reading: Luke 17: 5-10
For Sunday, October 3, 2010: Year C—Ordinary 27
To say that the disciples have thick heads is hardly adequate. Often the disciples behave so oddly in the midst of a narrative that it seems nearly comic (or tragicomic). I’m thinking of the places in the text where Jesus gets a little intense, vulnerable − reveals where the journey’s leading (humiliating death, suffering, leastness) and his disciples react, well, like boys.
Jesus and His Band of Boys
They don’t admit fear or ask questions, or look him in the eyes − they start in with posturing, B.S.; they argue, the text says, about who is the greatest. Is it thick-headedness?
Or is it that the gospel is so unlike what we normally have going on in our heads that it doesn’t compute–like some sensor is blocked or locked? I think this text might be one of those odd-behavior places.
Jesus has just told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (who has nothing but sores that are licked by dogs). The parable is a graphic illustration of Jesus’ ever-present-in-Luke revelation that what is exalted will be humbled; the last will be first, etc. Then he starts talking about the little ones, and forgiving others, and the boys say, “Increase the size of our faith”
Jesus tries to focus on someone else for a moment (the little ones, the sinning brother) and immediately, without missing a beat, the disciples bring it back to themselves: “Give us more.” Generally Jesus is patient with the boys; but here he seems frustrated and hyperbolic.“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could move a tree.” (As if that would be a good thing to do with it if you had it.)
God as Food
Next Jesus momentarily offends our (revolutionary) sensibilities by appealing to what seems like the conventional social structure. Slaves should humbly serve their masters?
I don’t think we need to worry too much about Jesus showing some stripe that’s on the wrong side of liberal values; as if he’s betrayed our sense of the need for social upheaval (we probably got that sense from him, actually, in the first place). After all, he just told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and he is about to meet the rich young ruler who provokes him to muse on the impossibility of the rich entering the kingdom of God. And a little later on, at the climax of Luke’s narrative, God incarnate prepares the supper, serves the supper, and becomes the supper.
Momentarily convention seems served through submission. But God (the almighty?) serving, becoming bread and wine to feed the thickheaded, unknowing, needy hungry (boys, girls, Jews and Romans)? This turns everything upside down. Jesus becomes the “master” who serves anyone and everyone.
“Nice” is Overrated
It may be that Jesus is showing a little temper here, like one might to a group of adolescent boys who keep coming back to themselves and their egos and their relative strength in the world. But even though he may be irritated, he doesn’t seem, ultimately, to mind their thick heads.
That’s probably the only kind of humans there are–something about the way our minds are formed that makes us think our greatness matters (a man’s size matters) no matter how many times we hear that it’s not that big of a deal, and maybe we should focus on something else. Jesus really ends up seeming to love these guys. A lot. He enacts a passion play, intense humbling, to show us we can be free to have our minds formed another way.
The Hardest Question
But, does the gospel every get through our heads, really—and if not, how does it work?
Debbie Blue is one of the founding pastors of House of Mercy in St. Paul, MN, the author of Sensual Orthodoxy and From Stone to Living Word. She lives on a farm with her family, friends, and animals.