Confounding Expectations

This post is about how we read the bible (if or when we read it!).

We need to find ways to be sure that we are listening to what God has to say, rather than what we are prepared (happy?) to hear or what we expect to hear. In other words the danger, when reading the Bible, is that we allow our prejudices, preconceptions, expectations and ‘Christian culture’ to overwhelm what God is saying.

The clearest - and yet at the same time most obscure - part of the bible is the gospels. It’s clear because it’s God, walking amongst people, living life as a human, doing what humans do, and therefore we see him most clearly here. It’s most obscure because he mostly talks in parables… Even when he isn’t telling a story his words tend to be parabolic. It’s not just his stories - his actions tend to be enigmatic too - he usually confounds people’s expectations with his actions.

We have to remember too that his parables are stories; they’re analogies; they’re similes; they’re metaphors… They aren’t ‘real’ - but they seek to illuminate particular facets of reality. We cannot, must not, read them literally. We could though, read them literarily.

Let’s use an illustration to try to explain what I mean… A metaphor… A parable?

By profession I was an academic physicist. Teaching undergraduates can be tricky - many of the concepts are very hard to grasp, and lots of things they need to know and understand are very definitely counter-intuitive… Not unlike when we try to ‘understand’ the Kingdom of God.

Imagine that I’m trying to explain how an atom works. Atoms are too small to ‘see’ - and there’s also a problem in that whatever ‘instrument’ we might use to ‘look’ at them will alter the way they behave - that’s one of the consequences of things being small enough to be ‘quantum mechanical’. The atom consists of a nucleus, made up of protons and neutrons in a sort of ‘clump’, which is in some way ‘solid’ and ‘heavy’; and around that there is a cloud of electrons which whizz around the nucleus, though it isn’t possible (because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle) to ‘locate’ any of the electrons precisely. Have I lost you yet?


Good! That’s part of the point I’m making here.

So, I can use an illustration to try to help you. It’s very much easier to understand how the solar system works - the planets travel around the sun. The electrons in the atom behave quite like that… once I say that, you should be able to form a ‘picture’ of how the atom works.

But, actually, the explanation only goes so far. It’s very easy to see, and to measure the position and speed of, the planets orbiting the sun. They’re very predictable. But the electrons orbiting the nucleus aren’t like that - the most you can do is calculate probabilities as to their position and speed, so the whole thing seems (and is) a lot ‘fuzzier’ than the solar system. That means that the solar system analogy is a long way from perfect.

It’s like that with Jesus and parables - they illustrate, quite imperfectly, aspects of God and His Kingdom. Jesus frequently says ‘The Kingdom of God is like…’ What we have to keep in mind is that the Kingdom of God isn’t that thing - it’s just a bit like it, in some limited respect. And, sometimes, Jesus uses his parables, not to explain, but rather to illustrate how simple-minded and often just plain wrong our perceptions are…

Not only that but, often, Jesus’ explanations of his parables seem even more baffling than the original parable - at least to his original hearers. But, of course, we are much cleverer than them, and we have the benefit of hindsight too, so we can be pretty certain that we know what they mean.

Or can we?

Even when Jesus ‘speaks plainly’ to his disciples, out of hearing of more ordinary folk, his hearers often fail utterly to grasp what he’s saying. For instance, when he predicts his death and resurrection, they absolutely don’t ‘get it’.

Why not?

They don’t get it because they know what’s expected of a messiah. They’ve grown up with it; they’ve been taught it from an early age; it’s engrained in the whole culture: the messiah will come, raise an army, and liberate Israel from whoever is oppressing them. That’s the messiah’s job description. So what Jesus says about his purpose makes no sense whatsoever.

It seems clear to me that much, if not all, of what Jesus says is designed to ‘wrong-foot’ his hearers - whoever they are - even his own disciples.

Returning to our story about teaching physics undergraduates. I might, if I was being like Jesus, have described the solar system analogy, and then, by way of further ‘explanation’, proceeded to describe how, in fact, that atom, and all those surrounding it, are in fact almost entirely made up of empty space, and that ‘solid matter’ really isn’t solid - it too almost entirely consists of empty space. That would serve to compound the mystery of what atoms are, in the apparent guise of providing more information.

Even the things Jesus does upset expectations, and throw people off-balance. Look at the story of Lazarus’ death in John 11. I won’t quote it here, but do look it up. The thing which is most striking is how baffled everyone is (except Jesus of course) at the way events unfold...

An urgent message comes to Jesus that his friend Lazarus is desperately ill, and his sisters, Martha and Mary, want Jesus to come and heal him. Jesus starts by saying that the illness won’t end in death. And he stays where he is. When he does finally set off for Judea, where Lazarus is, Lazarus has died, but Jesus refers to him as asleep, which confuses the disciples still further. And he compounds this confusion by then telling them plainly that he’s died, but they’re going to see him. When they arrive, Martha and Mary are grief-stricken, frustrated and utterly baffled. Jesus compounds the confusion by raising Lazarus from the dead. And in so doing, he increases the faith of the witnesses - but also further hardens the resolve of his enemies to rid themselves of this troublemaker.

We see it with the, perfect, 20/20 vision of hindsight - we know the story, we know what’s going to happen. But they didn’t. Imagine being Martha or Mary in that situation. How upset must they have been - they knew Jesus could heal their brother - whom they thought he loved… But clearly he didn’t really love him because he’d allowed Lazarus to die. And then Jesus arrives - too late - more grief and confusion. It all turns out well in the end, but Jesus really puts everyone involved through the mill - they’re thrown completely off-balance by his actions, and by the enigmatic things he says.

We have this huge degree of certainty about our faith. Our churches teach us the meanings of the stories, and they tell us how it all, including salvation, ‘works'. We understand the stories perfectly well. Everything is neat and tidy; it’s all clear and certainty reigns.

Or does it?

What if, instead, we’ve got it wrong? What if we, in our cleverness (and with the benefit of almost 2000 years of hindsight) have ‘got the wrong end of the stick’ and misunderstood Jesus. He seems to have gone out of his way, with virtually everyone, to upset their certainties and confound their expectations. So why not us too? Why not particularly us, with our smug 21st century cleverness?

We have this set of ‘standard’ explanations of the meaning of the things Jesus said and did. But I think sometimes we need to set those explanations aside and look afresh at what the words say. And we need to look at them in their cultural context too - to try to figure out how they might have been seen and heard by their original hearers - rather than how we, approaching them with our 21st century mindset, see them… As well as taking a fresh look at the stories themselves, to see whether there are alternative ways of understanding them.

As an exercise for the reader, why not take a look at, for instance, the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. We always see it as being about a young man who ‘loses his way’ in life, ‘goes off the rails’, then sees the error of his ways, ‘repents' and returns home to ask forgiveness. And it’s little more than that to us - it’s usually taught as being an analogy of how and why we become Christians. But why not try seeing the story instead from the perspective of the older son who stayed at home, or the father? Put yourself in the shoes of one of them, and think about how the story feels from their perspective. If you want to consider this particular parable in more detail from each angle, may I recommend a book? ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ by Henri Nouwen will make you think afresh about the story from several different angles.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022