Recently I saw an editor’s list of newspaper headlines that were collated because of their humorous nature. One of the headlines read, “Teacher Strikes Idle Kids.” There are, of course, two ways to understand those four words. Either a walkout by some teachers had left some students without classes to attend, or an exasperated teacher took out his or her frustration on some lazy children. It’s not possible to know exactly which meaning is intended without reading the story. Either way, I’m guessing the teachers’ union wasn’t laughing.
There might be an ambiguity in the Gospels similar to the ambiguity in that newspaper headline. In last Sunday’s Gospel we heard Jesus described as the Son of God. God’s own voice was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) The Gospels offer ample evidence of Jesus’ divine Sonship.
When Jesus was tempted in the desert by the devil, he demonstrated unswerving loyalty to God. He responded to temptation by saying, “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” (Matthew 4:10) The people in the Synagogue in Capernaum who heard his preaching, and saw him heal a man said, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27) When he was teaching in the wilderness he fed the hungry crowd in a way reminiscent of the way that God provided food for the Israelites during their sojourn in the desert. (Matthew 14:15-21)
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, however, we heard a very different description of Jesus. John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) This phrase has a sacrificial connotation to it. It’s quite different from the idea of Sonship, but again, it’s an identification supported by the Gospels. When Jesus predicted that he would be executed he said, “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.” (John 12:27) When St. Paul described Jesus’ death to the Church at Corinth he wrote, “our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.” (1 Corinthians 5:7)
The equal provenance of these two disparate identities for Jesus, Sonship and sacrificial offering, raises some questions. For example, why is it that the Scriptures would defend such unrelated perspectives on Jesus? Are these different perspectives the result of different perceptions by different believers? Are they the result of different messages given by Jesus during his ministry? There are adequate theological explanations for the various perspectives on Jesus, and their various sources. Nonetheless, there remains a very basic question. Why does this diversity of perspective exist? Is it coincidental or intentional?
We live in a country that prizes free speech and independent thinking. We live at a time that allows individuals an unprecedented degree of personal expression and freedom of activity. We also live in a world that is deeply affected by uncertainty. Most of the nations in the world have suffered a great deal of economic uncertainty in the past several years. Many countries face uncertain futures because of civil conflict and the potential for war. The vast amount of information that is readily available on every conceivable topic sometimes adds to people’s confusion over everything from issues of international politics to personal health.
In our own Church, there is confusion about what constitutes a Catholic life. There are those whose experience of singing religious hymns is limited to a couple of verses of “Silent Night” and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” Many are confused about what constitutes sin. The holy days of obligation in this country are a complete mess; the policy revision that was supposed to simplify Mass attendance has resulted in chaos over the question of whether or not a holy is a holy day this year.
In light of the creeping confusion in our society, perhaps we should just disregard the various depictions of Jesus, and learn to live with ambiguity. Or, perhaps there is a lesson there about faith. Would anyone really want to believe in a God who was easy to figure out? Is it plausible that a Savior for all of creation could be so uncomplicated as to be easily pigeon-holed? Could a religion that offered simple answers to life’s most serious questions ever be truly satisfying?
The multiple perspectives on Jesus’ identity that the Scriptures present are an indirect witness to the truth of the Gospels. They are also an invitation to us to avoid complacency in our spiritual lives.
Any God worthy of the name and title would be a God who confounds human attempts at categorizing. A Savior worthy of the position would be one whose identity is big enough to cover not only “the sin of the world” (John 1:29), but all of creation. A Faith worthy of our life-long allegiance would be one that is not exhausted by human questioning or understanding.
There ought to be a sensation of incompleteness that we experience when we read the Scriptures, or pray or reflect on our beliefs. There ought never to be a point in our lives when we feel we’ve understood it all. If that ever happens, it is a sure sign that we’ve put our faith in something that does not deserve it. The real God is always going to be a transcendent God, that is, not limited to only this universe or our understanding of it.
At the same time, we ought to find a great deal of consolation in the experience of being confounded by God. It is heartening to know that God is so much greater than the limitations of this world; one would hope for a salvation that is greater than human experience, a salvation that could only come from a God who transcends human categories.
Is Jesus Son of God or Lamb of God? He is both, and much more than we will ever grasp. The truth of the Gospel is attested by the combination of challenge and comfort it presents to our minds and hearts. In this Sunday’s Gospel John the Baptist is quoted as saying, “I did not know him.” (John 1:31) It should seem neither confusing nor counter-intuitive that we, too, do not completely know Jesus. Understanding the Savior is no guarantee of salvation; forgiveness of sins is the result of trust rather than comprehension.
The life of faith is a journey with God, a journey that has no end. Isn’t that what all of us want in the depths of our hearts? What is it that we hope to find in religion and/or spirituality? Is it something limited and easy to deal with, or is it a relationship that bridges the chasm between time and eternity? The Scriptures offer the latter, and we will never exhaust the riches of wisdom and faith found in those pages.