In Tents #12 More about Jesus the Pharisee, with a Further Meditation on the Nature of Perfection

In Luke 13, which opens with the first and ominous mention of Pilate, “There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilæans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” a group of Pharisees come to Jesus to warn him that he could suffer a fate similar to his cousin John’s:

31 The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee. 32 And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. 33 Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.

(Luke 13:31-33)

This was the passage James Carver quoted in an institute class in Seattle when I asked for an example. He had just told us about a book he had read arguing that Jesus was a Pharisee and was quite friendly with them. “If they were his enemies why would they warn him?” he asked.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that question in the 20 years since we left Seattle. As I suggested in last month’s post Willis Barnstone’s translation The New Covenant, vol 1, has been invaluable in helping me think about the political aspects of Yeshua’s trials and death. Barnstone is very careful to identify what he calls “the voice of Rome,” passages he believes came from a desire to de-emphasize Rome’s part in Yeshua’s execution. Indeed, you can see vestiges of the threat the Romans felt from Yeshua in passages like Luke 23:12, where Pilate and Herod unite, finding a common enemy in Yeshua, “And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.”

Barnstone sees a lot of the anti-Parush passages in the gospels as the voice of Rome (and uses the Hebrew terms rather than Greek transl(iter)ations to restore Yeshua’s Jewish/Aramaic voice). That is, he doesn’t hesitate to say the text has been tampered with, but by my reading very few passages would have to have been changed. It seems much more likely that there was a significant reinterpretation of the gospels during the Romanization of the Church for statehood (to paraphrase a Gustive O Larson title about Utah history).

But if Yeshua was a Parush how do we account for those passages that show what looks to us like a pitched battle? Indeed, why do the passages sound like pitched battle?

Part of the answer has to do with the way we define perfection as an unachievable ideal involving being free from the constraints of the body. As I mentioned in #10, perfect babies don’t poop, especially not on their parents. Neither do perfect adults, especially not on the cross, where they were often crucified naked to intensify the shame and embarrassment as their straining to breathe would have caused all kinds of excretion.

Scott Parkin expressed it nicely when he said we often phrase our definitions of perfection in ways that make it completely unhuman, completely outside our experience, our grasp, and therefore our need to grasp.

But it’s very difficult to make sense of Yeshua as a perfect being if by perfection we mean he never made the non-sinful mistakes or misjudgments we all make.

24 And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid. 25 For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: 26 The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. 27 But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. 28 And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. 29 And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. 30 And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.

(Mark 7:24-30)

I mentioned to my Gospel Doctrine class that Jesus was not always tactful, and that that was an observation, not a criticism of any kind. Up shot the hand of the branch president’s counselor, “Dog was the term the Jews used for gentiles.” Or Jesus was just using a startling figure of speech to make the point that his ministry was to the Jews only. But how did it sound to this gentle gentile woman?

If you want to think about how that might have sounded to the Syrophenician woman consider this passage from the 2nd paragraph of Marden Clark’s story “Much of a River.”

Of course we were always running the last hundred yards, with the inevitable “last one in is a nigger baby.” (Yes, we used that expression, like everyone else, with a strange blend of ignorance and unaware malice that could sense nothing of how it would feel to a later generation.)

The author is not preaching or apologizing here, he’s telling us something about the narrator. The narrator sets out to tell a story from his childhood, but telling the story is more painful than he thought it would be. Before he even gets to the river the narrator stumbles over the words he used as a child. “Much of a River” is the first in a collection of youthful hijinks called Morgan Triumphs, but there’s an edge of pain to these funny stories, as the narrator is now as old as, older than, the people he pranked and can see his actions through their eyes.

Mark does the same thing by giving us the woman’s response, where she reminds Yeshua of what his words actually mean, not of their throwaway connotation, but their denotation. It is worth noting that Flannery O’Connor was about Yeshua’s age when she made her famous comment, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (Mystery and Manners, p. 34).

When I first heard those words in Bela Petsco’s creative writing class I was younger than O’Connor and thought, “You tell ‘em, Flannery,” but now that I’m much older than she was when she died at 39, indeed have a son within 10 years of that age, they seem to me more the words of a young writer tasting the power of good phrase-making. Yeshua’s comment about the dogs strikes me the same way. He doesn’t fully understand what his words contain, any more than he fully understands the sorrow his words about Lazarus will carry back to him.

On hearing that Lazarus is sick he waits two days before he sets out, waits for Lazarus to die so he can show forth God’s power by raising him:

14 Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. 15 And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.

(John 11:14-15)

His words show that he doesn’t understand the sorrow he has caused by letting Lazarus die so he can glorify God and God’s Son (see verse 4). He probably doesn’t understand that he himself will weep for sorrow at his friend’s death.

As with the Syrophenician woman, he only understands what his words actually mean after he sees their effects. (And unlike Jephtha and Herod he has the moral courage to turn away from, amend, his rash-spoken words.) He thinks that because he has the power to raise the dead, that because he knows death is not the end, he won’t feel sorrow when he actually comes into Lazarus’s house and hears from Mary that Lazarus has died. When he tells his apostles he’s glad Lazarus is dead he hasn’t crossed the threshold that will allow him to say, “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die” (D&C 42:45).

Like a lot of us [understatement], Yeshua doesn’t fully understand what he has said in either situation.

Replying to Lisa Downing’s reply to post # 10, Katya said,

“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.

I like that idea that there are certain things a divine being can only learn about being human by being human, by descending from exalted words into the depths of those words.

But wouldn’t a perfect person understand such things immediately? Only if we understand perfection as having no relationship to experience, to the world we live in, as meaning that we don’t have to know failure and mistakes to grow. Only if we see failure and mistakes as sin. I heard or read somewhere a long time ago, maybe in something my father had written, that being perfect means being whole, being one. That was a gift–that sense that we can be whole in this life, that perfection is not something ever-receding from our grasp like Tantalos’s fruit, indeed something so ungraspable that we really can’t even get hold of the guide rail that takes us to the fruit.

I got a sharper focus on perfection as wholeness when I found an extended discussion of what perfection meant to the people whose language Paul used for his epistles in James Faulconer’s Romans 1: Notes and Reflections. Here’s an excerpt:

we think that to be perfect is to be without flaw. We also tend to think that a perfect being is able to exceed all bounds and limitations. In contrast, for ancient Greek thinkers and in the Greek language, a person or object is perfect by being circumscribed within a whole, by having definite boundaries that clearly distinguish it from other things. The perfect vase, for example, is the vase that most perfectly fits the definition, the boundaries set for vases.

(p 22)

How can Yeshua do and say things we might find distasteful or imperfect or mistaken if someone else said them and still be perfect? Because he “most perfectly fits the definition” of a savior and is acting within the boundaries of that definition. (See Faulconer’s discussion of Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17) and how Paul “expand[s] and clarif[ies] the Old Testament concept of God’s righteousness, namely, his ability to save his people,” on pages 59-60.)

If we think about perfection not as something removed from this world, but as a way of being whole, of being what we truly are, we can start thinking about Yeshua’s debates with the Parushes as debates with, not against, in the same way philosophy students debate with each other, and with their rabbi. More about this next month.

This entry was posted in Literary Views of Scripture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to In Tents #12 More about Jesus the Pharisee, with a Further Meditation on the Nature of Perfection

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Very interesting. While in some ways a question about how we interpret scripture, it seems to me that this has important implications for how we conceptualize ourselves (and each other), particularly in Mormon literature. What is the path to perfection? That changes, it seems to me, based on how we think about what “perfection” is.

  2. Consider that Jesus apparently didn’t consider Himself perfect until after the resurrection, after He’d completed the Atonement.

    In the Sermon on the Mount, He commanded His listeners to be perfect (whole, complete), as the Father is perfect (which would imply that such a goal is attainable, by the way), but when He spoke to the Nephites at the temple at Bountiful, He told His listeners to be perfect as He and the Father are perfect.

    Even He could not call Himself perfect, whole, or complete until He had completed His whole mission here in the flesh.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>