I’m a pretty direct person. I appreciate nuance and subtlety as much as the next person, of course, but if you ask me a question like “Does this look good?” I’m not going to tell you the pros and cons and add in a few compliments and then vaguely suggest “I don’t really love it but it’s up to you” in none too many words. I’ll just say yes or no. (And really- if you ask that question, and you don’t want the answer, why did you ask it?! I will never understand…) I appreciate people you can take at face value. I appreciate straight talkers. When my kids were younger, and they’d come in and start hinting around about something they wanted, I would stop them mid-sentence and tell them: say what you mean and mean what you say. In other words, out with it already. Don’t beat around the bush and put it in some weird manipulative context. Just ask me, or tell me.
I think this is an incredibly important and necessary skill. I want my kids to learn to advocate for themselves, to speak clearly about what they want, to communicate honestly and not with some hidden agenda. Nothing would make me happier than if everyone got better at being this direct. It would be the equivalent of utopia for me (and maybe it would actually be utopian, because when people speak directly we get so much more done and with so much less wasted emotional energy on misunderstandings…but I digress…)
But let me tell you something: if you are looking for straightforward and direct, Jesus is not the guy for you.
Jesus was passionate, and emphatic, to be sure. But he was not interested in being obvious, or direct. We are talking about a man who, as the son of God, laid low for thirty years doing we don’t even know what. And when he did start talking, he spoke in parables and stories and esoteric phrases that we’re still, 2000 years later, trying to figure out. And half the time, just as the crowd starts getting into it, Jesus darts off to hide. Think about that in modern terms: imagine a politician coming to a town, getting a bunch of people to listen to him in a local restaurant, and then, just as people are reacting (for better or worse) around his ideas, he exits by way of the kitchen before even the AP news journalist can get a coherent write-up for the nightly news. Or, consider the miracles when Jesus healed a person and then immediately told the person to keep it a secret and not tell anyone. What kind of whacked out PR campaign strategy is that?!
And the disciples- well, you’d think they’d have fared better, being in the inner circle. But no. Jesus even leaves them with vague, sweeping follow-up instructions, which, I don’t have to tell you, has caused some confusion since then. I used to blame the Gospel writers for doing a less-than-stellar job and passing down the details for us. (What, Mark? Would it have killed you to have thrown a few more adjectives in there? Could you not have created a bit of ambience and tone so at least we could have some context to go on here? What, you want to just end your Gospel abruptly, because you had someplace better to be right then? THINK OF US, would you? We could really use all the help we can get over here.)
There have been plenty of times in my life when I have found Jesus’ seemingly indirect ways to be supremely annoying and frustrating. It would just be nice, honestly, for us to have some way of ending an argument every now and then. It would be great if we could say, “Oh, look, here’s that letter Jesus wrote about what our priorities are supposed to be, in numerical order, and how we’re supposed to live them out in these practical ways that will work for us.” What we got instead was a bunch of letters from disciples and apostles who were trying to figure things out as they went in the same kind of way we are doing, and even they don’t agree with each other on a good number of things.
We have the Ten Commandments, that’s true. But then, what did Jesus do? He had to go and say that all of the commandments- not just the 10, but all of them, anywhere, ever- can be boiled down to two vague idealistic statements of action: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
Great. Thanks. Anything else you want to add?
And all those people who came seeking Jesus, looking for an answer–not a response, but an answer–what did Jesus do? He told Nicodemus to be born again. He told the Samaritan woman to drink living water. He asked the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good?”
My point is this: there’s just no way we can look at Jesus’ life and say he was interested in being clearly understood. He’s interested in being followed. And there will always, always be something open-ended about that, something that requires us to live by faith and to be willing to change directions and to hear the Spirit anew, again and again and again. It means we have to slow down and listen to Jesus’ response when what we’d rather have is an answer.
I know this is hard. It would be so much easier if we had rules, and a system. It would be great to just know what Jesus thinks we ought to do about something, so that our only issue is doing it, which quite frankly is hard enough. But Jesus does not want to make things easy on us. He wants to make life beautiful for us, and that’s an entirely different path. It requires adventurous spirits and willing hearts and unclenched fists. Not lists, but love. Not rules but righteousness. Not knowledge but wisdom.
It sometimes used to bother me, not being able to pin down what Jesus said or thought about something. But now, it’s one of my absolute favorite things about him. (And Mark, irony of ironies, is my favorite Gospel lately for the same reason. Mark, with his bold, empty, narrative spaces, giving us so much room to imagine and hold open the beauty of God.) What bothers me most is when people try to cram who he is into a set of bullet points. What bothers me is when people put words in his mouth. What bothers me is when people shove all that wide-reaching, unfathomable mystery into an agenda. It bothers me, to no end. It also breaks my heart. Why would we want fundamentalism when we could have Jesus instead? It’s such an unfair fight, really, and yet fundamentalism can sometimes seem like it’s winning.
Jesus isn’t interested in being obvious or clear. He is not the guy at the podium with an announcement. Instead, he wants to be convicting, catalyzing, transforming, and…yeah, confusing. Because when we have to hold that space where the answer is above our heads instead of IN our heads, we have to stay close. We have to keep awake. We have to keep looking. We have to be involved, and invested.
Jesus is not interested in us perfectly understanding him. He is interested in us following him.
And do you know what the real kicker is? When you begin to live into that, those questions finally come into focus, and somehow, from the Spirit welling up within you as you walk with faith, you know what to do. Maybe not forever, but for the moment. Enough to keep you walking forward on the path. You may not have answers, but you find somehow that you have a center, and Jesus is there, and it’s enough.
We’ve been trying to pin Jesus down for two thousand years, and we’ve not yet succeeded. Friends, if even the cross couldn’t nail him down, maybe it’s time we stop trying.