Jesus of Nazareth: Week 1
The Living Word of God
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Fundamentalism is a growing phenomenon, not only in Islam and other religions, but within Christianity as well. Fundamentalism refuses to listen to the deep levels of mythic, metaphorical, and mystical meaning. It is obsessed with literalism and exclusion. The egoic need for clarity and certitude leads fundamentalists to use sacred writings in a mechanical, closed-ended, and quite authoritarian manner. The ego rarely asks real questions and mostly gives quick answers. This invariably leaves ego-driven, fundamentalist minds and groups utterly trapped in their own cultural moment in history. Thus they miss the Gospel’s liberating message along with the deepest challenges and consolations of Scripture.
There is an especially telling passage in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus becomes angry with his disciples, who are unable to understand his clearly metaphorical language. He tells them to watch out for “the leaven” of the Pharisees and “the leaven” of Herod. Taking him literally, they began looking quizzically at one another because they did not have any bread (see Mark 8:14-16). Is Herod Bread a new brand that they had not heard about? Is Pharisee pumpernickel something to be avoided?
I can imagine Jesus responding with a bit of impatience and frustration: “Do you think I am talking about bread? You’re still not using your heads, are you? You still don’t get the point, do you? Though you have ears, you still don’t hear; though you have eyes, you still don’t see!” (see Mark 8:17-18). They do not yet know that the only way to talk about transcendent things is through metaphor! But early stage religious people are invariably literalists, and not yet poets and mystics. It takes inner experience of the Holy, and your own attempts to describe it, to finally move you toward a necessary reliance upon symbolic language.
Jesus consistently uses stories and images to describe spiritual things. Religion has always needed the language of metaphor, simile, symbol, and analogy to point to the Reign of God. Note how frequently Jesus begins teaching with the phrase: “The Kingdom of God is like. . . .” There is no other way to speak of the ineffable. Against conventional wisdom, this simple, seemingly childlike approach actually demands more of us—not just more of our thinking mind, but more of our heart and body’s attunement. Maybe that is why we so consistently avoid sacred story in favor of mere mechanical readings that we can limit and control.
The final and full Word of God is that spiritual authority lies not just in ancient texts but in the living Christ of history, church, community, creation, and our own experience confirming its truth. The mystery is “Christ among you, your hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27)—this is the living Bible! Keep one foot in both camps—the historical text and the present moment—and in your fullest moments you will find yourself also saying “it is like. . . .” Words are fingers pointing to the moon, but words are never the moon itself. Not knowing this has kept much religion infantile, arrogant, and even dangerous.
Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Bookser Feister, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (Franciscan Media: 1996), viii-x.