From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. -- Matthew 16:21
What did Jesus know, and when did he know it? It's a good question for Lent -- because it may change the way we live our lives.
If you scan the Christian gospels, you can easily get the idea that Jesus was in the loop and in control. He predicted his own death and resurrection. He made a point of fulfilling what the gospel writers saw as ancient prophecies of the Messiah. He even foretold the tale's glorious finale, in which he and his followers live eternally in the presence of God. This was a man with a plan.
But maybe he wasn't exactly that way.
Several clues in the gospels paint a more complex picture of Jesus. Some of his reactions to his impending execution -- asking God to take it away if possible, crying out in agony on the cross -- imply that he didn't foresee the sheer intensity of the maelstrom that eventually overwhelmed him. The prediction of his death may indicate not a perfect knowledge of the details, but a surmise as to what might happen when the swirl of controversy around Jesus came up against the power elite in Jerusalem.
Other texts echo this lack of knowledge. As a boy at the Temple in Jerusalem, the Gospel of Luke implies, Jesus asked as many questions as he gave answers. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews indicates that Jesus "learned obedience by what he suffered." As I mentioned in my last post, his question "Who do you say that I am?" may reveal momentary uncertainty about his mission.
Yet, according to the gospels, he did predict his resurrection. And he delivered his message with authority.
What can we make of all this? Maybe, just maybe, Jesus was a lot more like us than we've imagined. Maybe the truest thing about Jesus, ironically, is what his character says in The Last Temptation of Christ: "God only talks to me a little at a time."
Here's how it changes things for us.
We, especially we Americans, are big on planning and control and guessing right. Wall Street looks askance at companies that miss expectations because it indicates a lack of control. Ads dangle the promise of a secure future if we use the right financial advisor. Neal McDonough, in this year's controversial Cadillac commercial, sums up the approach by saying, "You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible."
Meanwhile, those who cannot "create their own luck" -- those who come from generations of poverty, those denied access to opportunity, those caught on the downside of the world's megatrends -- are disparaged for indolence.
Now if Jesus had everything under control in his earthly life, we can think we should have everything under control too, particularly with God's help. If we consult God, plan carefully, and live the plan, we'll meet with success.
But if Jesus didn't have total command, our situation is different. Instead of trying to control what we can't control, we inquire where God is in our lives as they are. We respond to that Presence and move in the direction it leads, like a dancer with her partner. We hear, and we act, a little at a time. The imperative of our lives is not control, not foresight, not results, but faithfulness to what we hear, however imperfectly.
To much of the world, such a way of life is unintelligible. In light of that, I take comfort from the words of theologian Stanley Hauerwas in his recent book, Approaching the End: he notes that the purpose of life, for Christians, "is to live lives... that are unintelligible if the one they follow is not the Son of God."
Placing our future in someone else's hands, even God's, is not easy. But it is an adventure -- an adventure easier to embark on if we hold to the fundamental Christian idea that God is love. If we take the risk, if we can settle for the small glimpses, if we can live our life as it unfolds as a gift from Love Itself, we may go in more wondrous directions than we ever thought possible.