Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Jesus we'll never know

Among several enigmatic moments in the gospels, there are two stories that I don't understand, two times when Jesus doesn't make sense to me at all.

1. After sending out the twelve to recover the "lost sheep of Israel" in Matthew's gospel, Jesus offers a blistering critique of the town and villages he (and the twelve?) had visited because they didn't repent after seeing his miracles.  Then he offers a prayer, thanking God for the situation by adding, "Nobody gets me and nobody gets you; I'm the only one who knows you and you're the only one who knows me" (obviously my paraphrase).

2.  At the peak of his career, Jesus asks the twelve about the scuttlebutt, "What are people saying about me?"  They dutifully report what they've heard, "Some say you're Jeremiah, some say John the Baptizer come back from the dead, others say you're the reincarnation of somebody famous, like one of the prophets."  To which Jesus makes no reply other than to ask, "What about you?  Who do you think I am?" (again my paraphrase).  And in Matthew's version, when Peter blurts out the right answer ("you're the One"), Jesus falls all over Peter as if he's just won the final question in Jeopardy.

One moment, Jesus is convinced nobody understands him.  Later, he wants to know what people think.  At first, Jesus doesn't care about his reputation.  The next he seems to act like a nervous teenager, obsessing over what others are saying about him.  Or, another way of looking at it, in the beginning Jesus didn't care what people thought.  But, toward the end, he seems oblivious to the implications of how wrong people can be--even when it comes to their opinions about him.  In other words, I don't understand Jesus' response to these two episodes regarding public opinion.  Rather, I would've expected something like this:

1. What Jesus should have said was, "You don't know me now.  But one day you'll understand."

2.  What Jesus should have said was, "How ridiculous is that?  Now, you all know by now that I'm not Jeremiah, or the Baptizer, or even one of the great prophets reincarnated, right?"

Which got me to thinking:  is it possible that Matthew 11:27 is still true today, that none of us really get him?  Is it probable that our ideas about him are just as ludicrous as the scuttlebutt reported by the twelve at Caesarea-Philippi?

On the one hand, I want to say, "no," because we have the Spirit to guide us in all truth.  On the other hand, I'm wondering if our view of Jesus, our perceptions of "who he really is," are in fact skewed, slightly off, a bit over-worked, a little myopic, perhaps even provincial.  In other words, we may not know him as well as we think.  Maybe there's a part of him we'll never know, never figure out, never understand.  And, perhaps Jesus, knowing our misperceptions, would say the same thing today, "Nobody really gets me."

That sentiment certainly cuts against the grain of our inclination to speak infallibly about him, as if no one understands Jesus like we do--especially when someone tells us their ideas about Jesus that sound so wrong.  Indeed, we tend to think we've got him right and many others don't get him at all.  And, I wonder what Jesus would say about that.  Would he encourage us to pray, "Father, no one understands Jesus and therefore no one understands you."  Or, would he remain silent when we tell him how wrong people can be?


Justin Tapp said...

"On the one hand, I want to say, 'no,' because we have the Spirit to guide us in all truth."

Some of my friends would say that we also have Scripture that is perspicacious, such that we can know all that can be known about Jesus if we just study and obey it. Would that just be another way of saying "no one knows Jesus like we do"?

Darryl said...


You're not far from the kingdom here...or something...

Blah. What do I know?

Rodney Reeves said...


Perspicuity is in the eye of the beholder.

Matt Kimbrough said...

I've always wondered if Jesus, in response to Peter's "confession," is simply praising even the slightest semblance of understanding.

Surrounding the story are two frustrating tales of blindness/misunderstanding. The religious leaders seek a sign (of Jesus' prophetic/messianic status?), and Jesus figuratively warns his followers not to think in those terms. But the disciples misunderstand AND show themselves to be quite forgetful.

Then comes the "confession," which is followed by Peter's misconception of Jesus' messianic, suffering-servant role.

By way of metaphor, then, I think our (as well as Peter's) understanding of Jesus is like a child learning to walk. It is mostly falls and frustrations. But, when even a few steps are taken, Jesus rejoices like a proud parent.

What do you think?

Rodney Reeves said...


That works for Matthew's version, where he shows the slow but progressive understanding of the twelve (so, since I've isolated Matthew's version, yes, I think your metaphor works well). But, it doesn't work for Mark. Jesus rebukes Peter for his answer because he knows they don't have a clue.

Matt Kimbrough said...

Doesn't it seem like Mark is always less generous in his characterizations? Even Jesus appears to be grumpy at times as Mark's "messianic secret" theme takes center stage.

So, I guess I read Jesus' response in Mk 8:30 in light of Mark's enigmatic portrayal of Christ rather than as a rebuke. Thus, Mk neglects to include the equivalent of Mt 16:17-29 in favor of the author's secretive interests.

In spite of Jesus' praise, don't the rebuke episodes which follow the confession in Mt and Mk reveal that, ultimately, the disciples don't have a clue? Thus, Mt is only a bit more generous to note Jesus' celebration of Peter's small victory.

Thanks for engaging an old student in conversation!