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Jesus’ Encounter with a Literalist

Scripture Lesson: John 3.1-21

Nicodemus may not have been the first or last literalist that Jesus encountered, but he is one whom most of us would least imagine to be one. He was “a leader of the Jews,” which meant he was well-educated and versed in the scriptures. He would have been very familiar with the nuance of words, and the various meanings that religious words might have. So it seems odd that he would not have known what Jesus was talking about when Jesus spoke with multivalent words.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, the same basic theological viewpoint as Jesus with regard to life after death, resurrection of the body, etc. And yet even though they share the same language, and the same metaphysical tenets, he doesn’t seem to understand Jesus’ meaning when he speaks of being born “anothen” – a Greek word that can mean “from above,” “anew,” or “again.”

Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/anew/again.” And Nicodemus responds as if Jesus is crazy: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Did he really think this was what Jesus meant, or was he gas-lighting him or trying to make him look bad in front of his disciples? Nicodemus was surely privy to these meanings, and yet he interprets Jesus’ words in least spiritual and most literal of ways: “again.” Why?

Perhaps we have an indication of his motive in the 2nd verse of the chapter which says, “He came to Jesus by night.” This detail would unlikely have been reported unless the gospel writer had some foreshadowing in mind as to his intent. Nicodemus comes at night, a time when treachery, thievery, and other vices were thought to take place. He comes, perhaps not to learn or praise Jesus, as he feigns to do in saying he believes Jesus comes from God because of the miracles he’s performed, but rather to learn more (i.e., get the inside scoop) about a person who may just be a threat to himself and, in his estimation, the community of the faithful. As the dictum goes: “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.”

But Jesus sees through his ruse immediately, and retorts to his suggestion that he must be of God because he can cure people’s physical ailments by saying that what is really necessary to being of God is to born “anothen.” In essence, Jesus is saying that Nicodemus should not judge him based on whether he can heal people and perform miracles, something attributed to all sorts of people in the ancient world independent of their character, but rather whether a person shared the same values, virtues, and Spirit which was in God.

It is clear to any who wanted to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt that he was using the word “anothen” in its more spiritual and sacred meanings rather than in its more worldly and literal meaning. To be born “from above” would indicate that one shared God’s own Spirit; i.e., that one had the character traits that we revere God for having – things like compassion, justice for all things, mercy, forgiveness, peace, love, etc. To be born “anew” could have similar connotations, though perhaps not with the same divine characteristics. But to be born “again” would be a way of understanding Jesus’ words that would seem nonsensical. It was as if Nicodemus was creating a “straw man” argument in objecting to Jesus’ use of this word by his interpretation of it with the least worthy meaning. This is what people do, of course, when they don’t like someone or when they don’t really want to understand what another is actually saying. They misinterpret, intentionally or obliviously, people’s words and make them sound ridiculous. They don’t want to put forth the effort to engage in real dialogue and conversation; but they speak tersely or with quips, which is not only disrespectful and breeds misunderstandings, but effectively ends conversation. Who hasn’t seen this on social media or in political dialogue in the last year? Perhaps even in casual conversation?

Jesus, however, doesn’t end the conversation and let Nicodemus off the hook, but repeats his words a bit differently to his interrogator: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and ‘pneuma’” – which could mean “wind, breath, or Spirit.” So Jesus doesn’t make it any clearer, but muddies the conversation even more by introducing yet another multivalent term. Jesus doesn’t make it easier for Nicodemus to understand him, but provokes him to think more deeply about the meaning of his words. Of course, they can be interpreted literalistically, but is that what he is meaning? Jesus is almost begging Nicodemus to put forth some effort in the conversation and his understanding of Jesus. Anyone can lazily interpret another’s words as being nonsensical, but Jesus requires of any who would follow him to put their full mind, heart, and soul in the endeavor. He wants people to understand profound truths (i.e., heavenly things), but how can they when they are unwilling to get out of their credulity and worldly ways of thinking?

Jesus throws out some other statements that are difficult to follow unless one is thinking spiritually. And one of the things he says has been a verse that reveals, ironically, how many Nicodemuses and literal thinkers we still have in our world; even among those who claim to follow Jesus — John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Strangely, this verse has been used too often to support an exclusivist understanding of Christianity as the only true religion. God, it says, if we’re being literal “loved the whole world,” not just Jews who followed Jesus, and not just Christians who formed a religion after him.

But interpreters today, if they have not entertained the knowledge of Biblical scholars, are apt to misinterpret this verse in other ways Jesus, or the author of John’s gospel, never intended. To be one’s “son” in ancient culture did not necessarily mean to be the genetic progeny of the person, but rather one who shared the same character traits/spirit/virtues/values. So rather than saying Jesus was of the same substance of God, which Christians at the time of Constantine mistook, it is saying that he is of the same Spirit of God – again, not in a physical, but metaphysical way; not in a literal, but metaphorical way; not in a biological, but existential/experiential way. We even have the word “Spirit” used multiple times in this passage.

Moreover, the word “pistis” which is often translated “belief” or “faith,” is also misunderstood in our parlance 2000 years later; as if that should be surprising. In our culture, we often interpret “belief” to be equivalent to an intellectual or cognitive “assent” to our thinking it is true, makes sense, or is credible. Essentially, we use the term as if to describe what we think of as the facts of the matter. Thus, to believe in God is to believe that God exists. To believe in Jesus is to believe all that we have been told about Jesus. But “pistis” is more than intellectual assent, it is trust – not so much in the person him/herself as in what they stand for and represent. To believe in Jesus thus means less about whether Jesus existed, was born of a virgin, suffered, was crucified, buried, and resurrected (some of the things that creeds from the era of Constantine have drilled into us throughout the ages), but rather to trust in Jesus way, character, virtues, and values. It is not about a system of believing the right things, but rather a lifestyle based on spiritual and ethical truths.

And so believing in Jesus in this passage was not intended to believe things about Jesus, but rather to have faith and trust in his way – to make his way, our way. It is not about believing in a theory of atonement that came many years after Jesus, but rather to be in relationship with Jesus by doing as he did: by following not him the person, but his example and teaching. This understanding is made clear throughout the gospels, but unfortunately Paul did some theologizing that was inconsistent with this view as he was not a disciple of Jesus’ while Jesus was actually living and teaching on earth.

Lastly, “eternal life” is itself reinterpreted today differently from its original meaning. Now, many have come to think of eternal as being “forever” – meaning a period of time that goes on indefinitely. But the ancients saw the word eternal as not existing in time, but outside of it. Eternal life is not quantitative life, but qualitative life. It is a state of being, not a place or time in which one existed. It is to be in right relationship with God and God’s creation. It is something that happens in the “here and now;” whether or not it does also in a life hereafter. Jesus spoke often about how eternal life was a present reality, not a future hope. But it required that one take on the same values and virtues that lived in him. If we live by the same Spirit, we too can have eternal life – and have it right now. Jesus was always advocating about how we need to be about “doing” God’s will, and not simply believing the right things.

How strange it is that so many American Christians have been told, and have believed, in a very different understanding; of how merely believing in Jesus was what really mattered. Like Nicodemus, many Christians have adopted an easier way to understand Jesus that doesn’t require as much effort. Rather than live by his values, which most would still say we ‘should’ do, the emphasis is on believing how he did it all for us – the substitutionary atonement theory that got so many of us to where we are now in our understanding of Jesus’ purpose in our lives.

The good news is that life can be even grander than we imagined. By Jesus asking us to do as he did, and live by his same virtues and values, we can experience the eternal life he spoke of in the present. We don’t have to wait for the possibility of what comes after this life; we can focus on how to be disciples of Christ here and now.

This understanding is that of many progressive theologians such as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and so many others that remind us of the historical Jesus; rather than the Jesus we’ve made up to make things easier on ourselves. If Jesus was here today, don’t we think he would ask us as he implied to Nicodemus: “Do you really think that is what I meant? Do you really think you can get by that easily? Following my way (i.e., God’s way) is not easy, but it is fulfilling. More will be required of you than mere belief. You will have to put your faith into practice. But if you do, then you will know of that same eternal life in which I spoke. Come follow me; do as I do. For ‘those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’”

Amen to that!

– Rev. Bret S. Myers, 3/8/2018

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