In this blog I am following up the general case I made last month, when I used the urgent issue of the global ecological crisis to to show what the Christian revelation gives us and what it does not. In the course of that blog I was impertinent enough to suggest that the revelation itself proclaimed its own insufficiency. In this blog I want to follow up that suggestion as regards the gospels. I will look at each in order of their probable composition.
MARK This is perhaps the most cunningly composed of the gospels, by a storyteller who is adept at placing narratives next to each other for comparison, nesting narratives within another more encompassing one, and setting up expectations which are sometimes fulfilled, sometimes not. One of his greatest teases is the story of the resurrection in Chapter 16. The author’s work it is certain, ends at verse 8, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What way is that to end the story of a dead man who may be alive? Mark knew that the reader would have picked up the clues: women taking spices early, the stone rolled way etc, yes an appearance of the risen lord was surely coming. Instead a bald announcement that he has been raised, a reminder of a rendezvous in Galilee, then, nothing, full stop, end. Outrageous!
Of course Mark would have known some stories of Jesus’ resurrection, which reflect the church’s faith in and experience of the risen Jesus, but he/she is sceptical: don’t they reduce the overwhelming question about Jesus to something fully and factually answered? Don’t they attempt to create a sufficiency of revelation, when the dignity of faith requires the disciple again and again to follow the way of Jesus to its terrible end, without an assurance which even Jesus didn’t have? That’s why Mark makes use of the story about Jesus’ return to Galilee, there’s still work to be done, lepers to be healed, pharisees to be horrified, uncomprehending disciples to be taught. And readers will only know the truth of resurrection if they keep their own appointment with Jesus in their own Galilee, and follow him in that place and time. PThe revelation according to Mark is insufficient becomes it leaves room for faith.
At first Matthew looks pretty sufficient: it has birth and resurrection stories, plus a much fuller representation of Jesus’ teaching than Mark, but chapter 25 contains two effective denials of sufficiency.
The first is the parable of the talents, in which the person who thinks the gift is sufficient is harshly criticised, while those who put it to work, risking loss, are commended. The master is happy to find the original gift eclipsed by what his servants make of it. This is a crucial critique of those who think pious maintenance of tradition is the mark of true discipleship.
The other parable in this chapter, that of the king’s judgement is equally telling. Those who imagine that their loyalty to the king in person is all that matters are condemned because they have neglected the least important of his brothers. In the absence of the king, faith is not just waiting but caring for the needs of his present brothers and sisters. The king is absent (insufficient) so that his servants may care for human beings.
These parables are intended by Matthew to provide a key for interpreting his gospel.
Those who imagine that a gospel is sufficient must be discombobulated to read the the first sentence of The Acts of the Apostles, “My former work, Theophilus, dealt with everything Jesus had done and taught etc….” It’s immediately clear that the revelation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is not sufficient, and that the stories of the apostolic mission and the founding of communities of believers, in the power of the spirit, must be added. Amongst other developments Luke charts the break-out of the Jewish faith into the Gentile world. One can say that this is no more than to witness to a revelation of the Christian God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is indeed so, but because the Holy Spirit leads to unexpected transformations of faith and community in this history, we can assume that it will continue to do so. Luke’s story is unfinished, stopping with Paul’ arrival in the imperial capital. The spirit never contradicts the revelation of Father and Son but continually adds to its meaning. Acts 15:28 is a great affirmation of the freedom imparted by an insufficient revelation, “It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit….”!
I have already, in my first blog on this topic pointed to John’s doctrine of the Spirit- Advocate as asserting the insufficiency of the word made flesh in Jesus. I can hardly write these words because they feel so heretical. Yet John is clear that without the teaching of the Spirit of Truth part of that word will remain unspoken, or at least unheard. The promise of being led into all truth, truth which has been unknown before, can be seen in this generation in the revelation of God’s word in Jesus about the equality of homosexual people within the Christian community.
The valedictory words at the end of the gospel also point to its own insufficiency:
“There was much else that Jesus did; if it were written down in detail, I do not suppose that the world itself could hold all the books that would be written.”
My contention is not that the biblical revelation can be ignored. Certainly not, it is utterly essential to Christian faith and action, but it is essential as insufficient. I will return again and again to this topic to explore in greater detail what it means.