N.T. Wright was once asked his opinion about John’s gospel. He stammered around a bit and finally confessed, “I feel about John like I feel about my wife; I love her very much but I wouldn't claim to understand her.” Precisely: love and mystery trump understanding every time.
If you’re the kind of person who needs to figure everything out, perhaps the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not for you. Too bad, because he’s the real deal: he’s the one who spun galaxies off of his fingertips, who calls forth the starry host one by one each night. He’s the one who has no problem turning the tables on the rich and self-confident by raising the humble and poor.
Students of Jesus live within a healthy tension between revelation and mystery. We are in relationship with a vast, imponderable, transcendent, infinite Creator who also desires an intimacy with us closer than our next breath. It’s the kind of math that makes quantum physics look like child’s play: infinite God plus finite human equals eternal relationship. No amount of smarts can balance the books, but a willing heart can thrive forever.
In Luke’s gospel one chapter in particular bursts at the seams with the tension between revelation and mystery. Chapter seven contains at least four imponderables, waiting like snares for the sure-footed religious expert. I have tripped on these four often:
1). Jesus is not easily impressed, but faith can cause him to marvel (Luke 7: 1-10). When a Roman soldier is satisfied solely with the words of Jesus, the Lord tells all Israel they have something to learn from a Gentile. Jesus called the religious intellectuals of his days “blind fools.” Those who claim to have things figured out automatically disqualify themselves as guides for spiritual formation; those who place their trust in God without reserve become examples for us all.
2). The Creator of the universe is moved by compassion (Luke 7: 11-17). Jesus raises a dead man for no good reason--unless we count the tears of a widow as reason enough. This strange paragraph is almost a throw-away passage. We are offered no explanation other than the Eternal One is apparently always unhappy with death. Do we hold the same view?
3). The Greatest Teacher in history is pleased to speak mysteries (Luke 7: 18-35). Is there any more complicated question than the fate of John the Baptist? John is the first to recognize the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; yet from prison he is filled with second-guesses and questions; finally, this servant of God loses his life on the whim of a dancing teenager. Jesus is pleased to call our attention to John’s example, but offers us one of the strangest sayings of his ministry, “Yet wisdom is justified by all her children” (verse 35). I’ve pondered those words for decades and I’m still no closer to finding a clue as to their meaning. What about you?
4). Boldness and worship impress the God who needs nothing (Luke 7: 36-50). When a woman ruined a dinner party with tears, perfume and love, Jesus jumps to her defense. The host merely thinks a critical thought, and that alone is offensive to Jesus. The rich are sent away empty and the social outcast becomes a model of devotion. By the final verse of the chapter tears, perfume and love have become sufficient testimony of faith. No creed, no orthodoxy, and no propriety are enough, but the party-crasher goes home justified while the host is made a fool.
Each of us should strive for understanding because we are commanded to love God with our minds. Jesus rewards those who turn their thoughts and intellect his way, yet he is not impressed by my intelligence. The qualities of wonder, love and relationship are the foundations on which our study must be built.