In Tents #10 The Story of Jesus the Pharisee, But First a Meditation on Perfection

He never got vexed when the game went wrong
And he always told the truth

But why did the game go wrong? Was it because Jesus always won and no one wants to play a game they have no possibility of winning? Writings like The Infancy Gospel of Thomas are full of portraits of Jesus at play with other children, a vengeful child with no discipline to his powers. We may see the picture of Jesus bringing dried fish or clay figurines to life as fanciful, but we have our own fanciful ideas about Jesus’s perfection and powers.

I remember a primary teacher saying that Jesus was a perfect child. He never fussed, never kept Mary up crying and crying all night all night all night. I kept these sayings and pondered them for years. Was Jesus really not like a normal baby? I concluded it was an overly-respectful fiction about Jesus and wrote a poem rejecting it. I was never satisfied with it. Probably because it lacked compassion, which came when I realized my primary teacher had been a new mother. I rewrote the poem:

Baby Jesus
My primary teacher told me you were a never-naughty baby, perfect.
I thought she meant you
Never fussed, or flushed the toilet when Joseph told you, “No”
Never cranked around the house and through the night, teeth cutting gums
Never sent your food falling to the floor like manna.
Perhaps she meant you
Never took your parents’ sleep to burp and feed,
Or that fresh diaper, burped belly, soothing sounds
Never failed to sleep you, keep you charming,
That laying you down would not wake you up.

I suppose she has grandbabies now,
Whose parents know that even grand
babies use diaphragms to make tireless sound,
Empty mouths of sour milk on flowered silk (or any handy thing).
New parents know you shat on Joseph
As new Matthew once brimmed his diaper in the grocery store–
Poop dripping from the shopping cart before I reached the car
Where he squirted more once diaperless,

Six years since I’d been caught unawares by any undiapering,
Six years since his brothers’ mother left with them,
Leaving me to wonder,
For all the grief you gave Mary,
How her legs had strength to hold her ears
High enough to hear your labored words,
“Behold thy Son.”

Why did it take me so many years to understand that she was talking about her own exhaustion, not about Baby Jesus? I’m sure the other Primary women understood and put their arms around her after the Sharing Time lesson and asked how they could help. I suppose I didn’t think about it because in some way we don’t think of Jesus as really being human, not like we are. We’re quick to qualify statements like “you must be like a little child to enter the kingdom of God,” with statements like, “that’s childlike, not childish.”

It’s as if we think Jesus’s taking upon himself a human body was a mere formality, that learning how to succor us by taking upon himself all the trials and pains of mortality was something he learned in Gethsemane not through the experience of actually living in a body, as if we think his metabolism was 100 percent efficient so there was nothing to go out in the draught, no water to make.

In some ways our ideas of perfection involve something not human, but defining perfection that way isn’t that much different than saying there’s an unbridgeable gulf between ourselves and our Lord–and not a gulf He can cross through the Atonement, because crossing the gulf involves being fully human, which means making mistakes and learning from them.

Le me be clear here. A mistake is not the same thing as a sin. Not realizing you’ve just moved your King into checkmate is a mistake but not a sin. Not thinking through your parents’ feelings and trying to imagine how they’ll react to your absence, not realizing they won’t think to come right to the temple to find you, may be a failure of imagination typical of teenagers, but it’s not a sin.

Nor is our flesh inherently sinful, even though it is designed to fail us.

I heard a news item years ago that we drink the same water the dinosaurs drank. I had my title, “Dinosaur Water.” In thinking the poem through I knew most lines would end with “make water” because the news item didn’t just mean that all the water on earth has been going through the hydrologic cycle for millions of years, but that the very same water that went through the dinosaurs’ body, and through Jesus’s, goes through ours.

If the idea of Jesus “living in skin” (title of a Dennis Clark poem) is a bit earthy, how about his living in rhetoric?

About 15 years ago I was presenting in a session with Bruce Jorgensen as chair, a humanities symposium of some sort at BYU. Bruce talked about the parable of the Prodigal Son as part of a group. He said that the point he was about to make needed to be argued but he wasn’t going to argue it just now: The first two parables, the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep, fail, that is they don’t fit their audience, who sees them as hick agrarian parables and who see themselves as city dwellers, so Jesus’s third parable is a sophisticated piece that enfolds the meal where Jesus is telling the parable.

(To read another of Bruce’s pieces about the Prodigal Son see “This Man Receiveth Sinners”: Moral Storytelling in Luke 15, Sunstone Nov 1997, 19-26.)

Bruce’s comment got me to thinking about Jesus as someone living and speaking within a rhetorical tradition, trying various rhetorical strategies and not always succeeding, not because he wasn’t perfect, but because perfection has less to do with doing things just so than with the intents behind what we say and do.

When the Jews who saw Yeshua as their maschiach joined with Greeks who saw Iesous as Messiah or Christos, and ceased thinking of themselves as Jews we lost a key to understanding a lot of what happened between Yeshua and other Jews.

Consider Matthew 23. It is as harsh a denunciation as you find in scripture. But it’s no harsher a jeremiad than the words of Jeremiah or Isaiah. Yet no one thinks of those prophets as signalling God’s rejection of the Jews. Seen in the rhetorical tradition of the jeremiad Matthew 23 is no more a rejection of the Jews than “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a rejection of Puritans.

We’ll be talking about Yeshua’s relationship to the Pharisees next month and next month and next month, not to creep forward in a dreary pace from post to post, but to understand the connection Nephi sees between a closed canon and rejecting the Jews (II Nephi 29:4), and to understand why my favorite scripture, “Renounce war and proclaim peace,” also includes the command to “seek diligently . . . to turn the the hearts of the aJews unto the prophets, and the prophets unto the Jews; lest I come and smite the whole earth with a curse, and all flesh be consumed before me (Doctrine and Covenants 98:16-17).

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9 Responses to In Tents #10 The Story of Jesus the Pharisee, But First a Meditation on Perfection

  1. Dennis Clark says:

    So, recalling all those traumatic early Primary experiences, eh? I, too, remember being told, specifically, that Jesus never filled his diaper nor spit up Mary’s milk nor ever irritated her at all. In “Abba, Abba,” the novelist Anthony Burgess writes about the poets John Keats and Guiseppe Gioacchino Belli meeting in Rome. The latter suggests that Jesus was crucified, rather than suffering some other, less painful, death, by a vengeful Father for sassing his mother with the line “Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business?” Perhaps we might someday have a clearer view of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, and the tensions in that blended family.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      So, Dennis, maybe your primary teacher was a new mother, too. I didn’t realize till I started working in primary how young most of the women there are. Or maybe I didn’t realize it till a few years ago.

      As far as “the tensions in that blended family” Sholem Asch has an interesting portrait of them in Mary, which I was reading eight years ago at this time.

      He interprets Luke 8:19-21:

      Then came to him his mother and his brethren, and could not come at him for the press. And it was told him by certain which said, Thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to see thee. And he answered and said unto them, My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do it.

      as a rejection of his family, since Yeshua knows they have come to take him home, to stop him from making a fool of himself and his family.

      The struggle with his family is not the only one. Yeshua is a point of view character for much of the first two thirds as he struggles to understand why the prophets, Isaiah particularly, inveigh against animal sacrifice.

      The rabbis in the temple help him, as a 12 year old, to understand how an animal intercedes for humans, and he eventually understands, and accepts, that he will be the sacrifice, his body torn like the Paschal lamb’s. And offers himself freely.

      In the last third the point of view is mostly Miriam’s as she struggles to freely give her son–her free gift is as important as his. Indeed his ability to give himself depends on her giving him first. When God gives Yeshua to Mary she becomes the new Rachel, the weeping mother of all humanity. She also sees herself as Abraham, and for most of the novel keeps hoping that, like Abraham, she will not be required in the end to give her son.

      The novel itself is an example of family tensions.

      To me as a gentile it is fairly obvious that Mary is not a Christian novel. The sensibility and sympathies are no less Yiddish than those of someone like Isaac Bashevis Singer. I read it as a gentle–relentless–rebuke to Christians who think Jesus’s mission represented God’s renunciation of his covenant with the Jews.

      For Asch, Yeshua’s ministry represents the fulfillment of God’s covenant with his chosen people. Fulfillment meaning God kept his promises with his covenant people. Asch insists Yeshua’s sacrifice is freely given both by himself and his mother. There is nothing about murdering the Son of God or about Jews being guilty of the Messiah’s blood.

      But there might as well have been, for some readers. Consider these comments from The Christianity of Sholem Asch, by Chaim Lieberman. “It offers new humiliations against Judaism, new derogations, opprobria, humiliations, and slanders upon Jewish heads, and new agony for Jewish hearts.” Or, “outsiders are not aware of all the tender spots in the Jewish soul, which Asch chooses to stab and wound” (157).

      And Lieberman’s is not the only book-length denunciation of Asch. According to one website, the reaction to Asch’s novels was so intense it caused a permanent rift between Asch and his community. Perhaps like Maurine Whipple’s prolonged silence, Vardis Fisher’s turning away from Mormon subject matter after the reaction to Children of God, or the permanent rift some Mormon reaction to Altmann’s Tongue caused between Brian Evenson and his people.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Jesus was the only perfect man. And before that, he was the only perfect child. How right you are to point to the experience at the temple and the heartache he caused his parents. I’ve heard members argue that away, saying that if Mary and Joseph had been equally perfect, they would’ve known that Jesus was doing the right thing. But the love and concern I see in Mary and Joseph looks as perfect and Jesus’ devotion to be about his father’s business. Such perfect literary tension.

    I’ve never considered the notion that Jesus was born a perfected human to be doctrinally sound. Yet, I can’t go so far as to call his hanging out at the temple that day w/o informing his parents a “mistake.” Rather, I see a naive Jesus who simply wanted to do what was right, but who had not realized the degree to which his action might cause another pain, even a right action. I believe he learned many things that day–perhaps more than he taught–about how people perceive right and wrong, duty and obligation, the love of God and the love we have for one another.

    In my eyes, Jesus was a dynamic character and of a dynamic character. If he increased in wisdom, stature and in favor w. God and man he had to be improving. He had to be learning and growing.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Lisa, I just finished LAMB by Christopher Moore. It was funny and poignant and fond (aka, not blasphemous). I think you may like it.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Nicely put, Lisa. Thanks.

      I’m curious about what the word ‘mistake’ connotes for you. Do you not like the word applied to Jesus generally or just to the episode in the temple?

      I was using it broadly in the sense of mis-take, that is misreading a situation, or taking it amiss. Jesus’s mis-take was not a lack of informing his parents, it was in misreading, or not even thinking about, his parents’ reaction to finding him missing.

      One way to state his reply is, “Why did you search all over town for me? Didn’t you know you’d find me in the temple?” In other words his location was so obvious to him that he never thought it wouldn’t be obvious to his parents.

      There’s a self-absorption in that reply typical of children, of people who haven’t learned yet the difference between themselves and others. That’s not because of a moral flaw, it’s because one of the ways we grow is by learning the difference between ourselves and others.

      That is, we learn to read or take situations by reading them, by getting a take on them and then seeing if our take is accurate or a mistake.

  3. Katya says:

    “Rather, I see a naive Jesus who simply wanted to do what was right, but who had not realized the degree to which his action might cause another pain, even a right action.”

    It’s a powerful idea—that of a Jesus whose understanding of godliness was greater than his understanding of humanity. It also puts a new perspective on the “water into wine” miracle, because that miracle is one that is very firmly rooted in the human condition. (I.e., it didn’t have cosmic implications, but it mattered a lot to one family on one day.)

    Also, I second the recommendation for Lamb.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Thanks, Katya. I love that comment “it didn’t have cosmic implications, but it mattered a lot to one family on one day.” It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve realized Jesus’s healing miracles are not primarily spiritual, that their meaning is not primarily about his ability to heal the sin-sick soul (don’t you go to Gilead and get some balm for that?) The spiritual meanings are secondary.

      Jesus didn’t perform miracles to validate his divinity, and I don’t think that’s why the evangelists recorded them. He performed his miracles to heal people, and the evangelists emphasize his compassion when they tell the miracles. He also says he wants his disciples to do “greater works than these” (John 14:12).

      When President Hinckley (I want to type was a boy — but I usually sing that song, “When Heavenly Father was a boy he slept outside at nights, oh joy”) I read an article by a reporter who was asking BYU students and others what they thought about Thomas S Monson becoming the new prophet (it may have been an article my nephew Cody Clark did for the Daily Herald). One fellow said, “I think he knows the doctrine. He’s just been telling us parables all these years.” That is, his stories about his beloved widows and their homing pigeons were intended to tell us how we were to treat each, what forms our ministering should take.

      No, I’m not suggesting that Pres. Monson made up those stories or even shaped them so they could be parables. An action can be both symbolic and literal at the same time. For the past 8 years I’ve watched as two branch presidents accompanied a deacon through our nursing home congregation sticking tiny pieces of bread in some people’s mouths, or helping them put little cups of water to their lips. The president is quite literally feeding the sheep, feeding the lambs, and the meal is highly symbolic.

      Stories can also be both parabolic and literal at the same time, as I’ve just demonstrated. We humans have a talent for abstraction, but that often means that we see the abstract meaning as more important than the action or story we abstract the meaning from.

      (Our talent for abstraction sometimes allows us to do hideous things to each other. I’m about 18 hours through a 24-hour recording of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson about a group of Holocaust survivors in New York just before the creation of the state of Israel–the same time period covered in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Hertz Grein, in the midst of a revival of Orthodoxy tells his daughter Anita, “For your Communists human life is just a game. I can’t describe to you the savagery they’ve perpetrated over the last thirty years.” Anita replies, “One can’t make a revolution wearing silk gloves” (p. 380, or Book 3 side 7).)

      I’m not sure, though, that all doctrine can be taught in stories. In 1978, to mark the the 5 year anniversary of his administration, the Church News ran an interview with Spencer W Kimball and the interviewer said something like, “You used to develop your Conference talks with lots of examples, in an almost literary way. Now they’re just, ‘Do this, do that.’”

      “Well, I’ve gotten a lot busier,” he replied.

      I’ve noticed the same think about President Monson.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    I really like this. It makes me think about Jesus in a new way.

  5. Scott Parkin says:

    Harlow, as always I love what you write. There should be reasons for even our most basic assumptions, and I appreciate the way you address those basic assumptions and demand that we each consider our own reasons for having them.

    You touch on a number of different ideas to which I wanted to add a penny or two worth of thoughts.

    On a placid, passionless Jesus…

    One of the points of doctrinal distinction for Mormons is that we explicitly *don’t* believe in a god without body, parts, or passions. Ours is a corporeal god who is subject to both sensory and emotional inputs, who understands what intense feeling is like, and who integrates that experience effectively into the completeness of his being. He gets mad. He weeps. He laughs. He sorrows. He is disappointed. He experiences pain—and has done so at levels that caused even he, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain and to bleed at every pore. Jesus was tempted with hunger and thirst for forty days in the wilderness.

    He showed a wicked sense of humor and used sarcasm as well as both gentle and blunt accusation in his parables and public preaching. He roused the passions of his followers and showed at least occasional bravado (walking on water is at least a little bit about showing off for his disciples, isn’t it).

    I would argue that the idea of a passionless (and by corollary, emotionless) god is one of those destructive additions to plain and precious truths that separates us from God and attempts to make him unknowable and incomprehensible—and thus outside our daily concern, real relationship, or direct accountability. I would never pretend that we can fully comprehend God, but we can reasonably assume an ability to at least partially comprehend him—or at least his reasons.

    The dehumanization of Jesus may serve our desire to establish an ideal, but it also absolves us of responsibility to either know or follow him. If he is alien in both mind and body, then we cannot be held accountable for failing to live up to his standard. We are told to rein in our passions, not to eliminate them. We are told to reprove betimes with sharpness, then to show an increased outpouring of love—just as Jesus did in his earthly ministry, continued to do in the Doctrine and Covenants (more than a few rebukes there), and still does through modern prophets (have you noticed the more pronounced calls to repentance in the last few general conferences…).

    Plenty of passion. Plenty of emotion. But always delivered in a larger context of love. Always a piece of an integrated whole; a complete understanding and vision. The idea of a placid, passionless Jesus seems ludicrous to me, either as a child or as an adult. As Lisa pointed out in referencing Luke, even as a child he *increased* in wisdom and stature—not just physical, but spiritual and emotional. He tamed passion rather than eliminating it, and that required at least a little practice in exercising those passions.

    On distasteful versus sinful behavior…

    A crying infant expresses distress in the only way available; the child calls upon those who look over him/her with a loud voice—exactly as we are commanded to do in prayer to our god. While we may be annoyed at the way that distress is expressed, there is no sin in it. The infant acts within the frame (and the law) that it has; when it learns greater tools that enable it to access greater wisdom, *then* it will be subject to greater law and the ability to sin multiplies.

    We know from the New Testament that Jesus ticked off a lot of people. He almost certainly came off as smug and even arrogant to the Pharisees. And he was most certainly a blasphemer to their concepts and codifications of truth. Those were certainly impolite and/or distasteful behaviors, but they were in no way sinful because they came entirely from a place of pure intent, complete knowledge, greater law, and simple fact; he was the Savior and could not declare otherwise. It was not in Jesus’ nature to violate the spiritual law that guided him; but it was in his nature to use the tools available to get his message out—knowing that it would condemn as well as redeem.

    Certainly distasteful and even repugnant to a great many people. Absolutely impolite and often impolitic. But right and true nonetheless. No sin involved, though there was plenty of offense, because Jesus operated according to a far more complete and expansive law (and with a greater authority) than those around him.

    There’s a troublesome line between those things that annoy us and those things that are actually wrong. It’s easy to condemn a thing as bad because it is offensive, and it’s easy to reimagine admired people as fitting our arbitrary sense of good, or polite, or without flaw. But most of those assumptions are arbitrary and have little or nothing to do with either sin or perfection, but rather with social prejudice or behavioral preference. Most of what we obsess about is irrelevant.

    Whether Jesus was a quiet child, a mischievous child, an overbearing child, or oddly detached has no bearing on the fact that he did not sin. Our assumptions about how a perfect child behaves says more about us as individuals and about the cultural context in which we live than about what Jesus might or might not have done as a child.

    A wonderful thought to ponder and an opportunity to consider our own reasons for assuming some of the things that underlie our conceptions. Good stuff.

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