From the Gospel of John:
The Jews gathered around Jesus and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 10:24-25a (NRSV) – February 20, 2014.)
It has been said that all human communication, even at its best, is an approximation of meaning. This is especially true of religious communication which is almost always analogic. When we try to speak of God we mean both more and less than we say; when we listen to others speak of God, we understand both more and less than we hear.
When we read the story of Jesus in the Gospels, we are given an informed (in fact, a nearly omniscient) outsider’s privileged position to overhear his interactions with the Jewish authorities. Because we are 2,000 years removed, through layer upon layer of exegesis and interpretation, we believe we know what Jesus has been telling them. We cheer for Jesus because we think he’s been telling them plainly. But do we know and should we be cheering? Would we be so certain if we were first-person, first-time participants in these conversations? I don’t think so! And I don’t think we should be so certain even now.
I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that there is no “telling plainly,” ever. The demand for “plain speaking” in religion or politics or whatever sphere of life is a plea for something that simply cannot exist, something that has never been.
We human beings are creatures of habit and we are essentially lazy. Because of our laziness, we seldom if every fully and completely say what we are hoping to communicate. Because of our habits, we don’t need to. When it comes to “speaking plainly,” both come into play. Take, for example, a simple declarative sentence: “You are going to die.”
If I were to say this to you, you might (and should) take it as a simple statement of the human condition. You are going to die; I am going to die; every body now alive is going to die. Plain, simple fact. But our habit of relying on context to supply meaning allows us to lazily use this simple declaration in differing ways.
Add one context: suppose I am a physician, an oncologist, and we are holding this conversation in a hospital room where you are in a bed. That plain and simple statement of fact takes on particularity and immediacy; the context supplies the implication of “soon” and demands some response, some action on your part. It’s time to “get your affairs in order,” if they are not already.
Add an alternative context: suppose we are at dinner, enjoying cocktails, and discussing the musical theater. You’ve just told me that you’ve gotten tickets to Monty Python’s Spamalot. I start laughing and exclaim, “You are going to die!” The plain and simple statement takes on the tone and character of hyperbole and metaphor; the context clearly indicates that I mean nothing of the sort. Not only am I not predicting your demise, I am suggesting that you are going to spend a very enjoyable evening filled with mirth and laughter.
We know, looking back from our privileged 2,000 years of exegesis and interpretation, that Jesus has told the Jewish authorities that he is the Messiah. In their context, filtering everything he said through habit and laziness, would they ever have understood? Could they have understood? Had we been there, in that context not our own, would we? Context, habit, and laziness. Nothing is ever “plain.”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.