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:
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).