Robert Perry

The Mustard Seed Venture Foundations Series Blog

Our foundation is a unique view of Jesus and his teachings. Our original members joined in this vision through years of meetings and classes in Sedona, Arizona. Therefore, to give those who are joining us online the opportunity to have a comparable experience, we have decided to start our new network with a Mustard Seed Foundations series. The series consists of a weekly blog post by Robert Perry, in which he lays out, one step at a time, our understanding of Jesus and his teachings. In the week following a given post, we will all have an opportunity to discuss the ideas put forward in that post. During this time, the activity on the forum will just be the Foundations series. After the series has concluded, we will open up the social network’s full range of functions, so we can all participate in bringing this vision to life!

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Robert's Blog: Mustard Seed Foundations Series

Week 28: Final Reflections

This is my final post in this series. I hope you have enjoyed reading and discussing the posts as much as I have enjoyed writing them. As I conclude the series, there are two final questions that are on my mind: How could we have gotten Jesus so wrong and what is his relevance for the world today? 

How did we get him so wrong?

The portrait I have drawn is obviously nothing like a traditional portrait of Jesus, even though it is largely inspired by our earliest and best record of his teachings in the Sayings Gospel Q. So if this portrait is somewhere in the ballpark of the real story, then we naturally are left wondering how the traditional picture could be so far off. There is, after all, an unbroken continuity between us and Jesus, via the oral traditions passed down by his disciples and the written gospels that were based on those oral traditions. Given that continuity, how could we have gotten him so wrong? 

There are probably many answers to this question. There is the brevity of his ministry, which may have lasted as little as one year. There is the fact, as I mentioned in week 4, that he, like Socrates, stirred something so deep in his followers that it became hard to separate out the real man from what he had stirred within them. There is what’s called “the Rashomon effect,” which comes from the 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie, in which four eyewitnesses tell their startlingly different versions of the same rape and murder. There is also the tendency in human nature toward what I can only call hero worship, for want of a less derogatory term, which could go a long way toward explaining the seismic shift that scholars have observed in which, as Rudolf Bultmann put it, “the proclaimer became the proclaimed.” 

There is one factor, though, that in my mind virtually guarantees that Jesus would have been profoundly misunderstood. This is that, as many of his teachings make plain, he taught an alternative vision of reality that turned upside down conventional assumptions and values. 

We expect religious teachers to essentially say, “More obedience, more piety, follow the old truths. You know what’s right, you just need to do it—or else.” That’s a message we understand. It rests on a framework that is already deeply embedded in us. But Jesus brought in a whole different framework. He taught of a God who showered his blessings just as much on the sinner as on the saint, a God who didn’t divide people into the categories of approved and disapproved. This different God was the basis of a different world based on unconventional values, a world that we were invited to enter and live in. This world was so utterly contrary to the familiar that wherever it entered it did so in the form of radical reversal. Everything turned upside down. The sick were suddenly healed. The excluded and degraded were honored. Enemies became friends. The dead arose. 

He didn’t, therefore, simply stay within the old framework and say “Obey it better.” He asked us to enter a new framework. He asked us to make a fundamental shift in our perception. The difficulty of this, of course, is that one’s fundamental framework is the basis for all of one’s perceptions and feelings and behavior. Everything rests on it. How, then, does one shift to an entirely new framework? At least, how does one do it successfully, without great confusion, misunderstanding, and inadvertent retention of the old? 

I am intimately familiar with this problem. I have been teaching A Course in Miracles for thirty years and this is the same problem that its students face. The Course asks us to step into its alternative vision of reality, which entails an entirely different set of values and perceptions, and which enters the familiar world in the form of radical reversal. And despite the fact that we have 1200 pages of clear teaching, confusion and misunderstanding are rampant among students, not just in the details but in the basics. As human beings, we interpret everything we see on the basis of our current framework, and so when we are presented with a new framework, we naturally interpret it from the standpoint of our current framework. This throws us into an uncertain no man’s land between the two frameworks, in which they become confused and melded. The confusion is so great that we don’t even know where we are—how close we are to the new side versus how stuck in the old. 

Actually, I don't think it's as innocent as I'm making it sound. I think what I'm describing is the visible evidence of unconscious resistance. Our basic framework works to protect itself at all times, and it does so very effectively. And so just as the ruling elites in Jesus' day sensed the threat that he posed and moved to extinguish that threat, I think the same dynamic plays out within our individual minds. The ruling power structure in our minds quite aptly senses the threat that his message poses and moves to neutralize it. I think this happened in the minds of his earliest followers and I think it has continued to happen in all minds that are exposed to his message—ours included—to this day.

Based on my experience with A Course in Miracles, then, it seems obvious to me that once Jesus called us to undergo such a fundamental revolution in perception, he was bound to be thoroughly misunderstood. It’s hard to imagine how it could have been different. 

What is his relevance for us today?

Once we step outside of the traditional view of worshiping Jesus as the only begotten Son of God who died for our sins, it is easy to see Jesus as having merely historical value; study of him matters because he is an important part of our history. 

Or, if we are spiritually-oriented, we might see him as relevant because he actually stood for truths that we ourselves believe in. That’s how I saw him back in my Edgar Cayce days—he taught oneness and reincarnation, just like Cayce did. You see this approach in many places. Those into Christian mysticism see him as teaching their truths. Those into Eastern enlightenment see him as standing for their journey of awakening. There is no doubt that it is empowering to have Jesus now on your side, rather than against you. It is healing to reclaim him as your own. 

In my eyes, however, his relevance for us today is quite different from any of the above views. I believe that he came to convey a truth that, to a significant degree, was unique to him, a shining truth of paramount importance, a truth that our world desperately needs but cannot see through the thick layers of fog. Through Jesus that shining truth entered our world in a way that it had never done before. It briefly shone with piercing brightness, yet as might be expected, the fog moved in to snuff it out. And then, in a brilliant move, the fog appropriated him as its own, thereby sidelining his truth. And so that truth was to a large extent lost from view, buried in the mist. 

We still need that truth. We need it just as much now as then. It is just as radical now as it was then. It’s not as if in the intervening centuries we have grasped it and outgrown it. It still towers high above us. For we still love those who love us. We still defend ourselves when attacked. Rather than lovingly giving our attacker twice what he tried to take, we still try to give him a double dose of his own medicine. Our society is still riven by fault lines of hatred, still divided between those who matter and those who don’t. And we still see God as justifying it all. As I quoted Huston Smith saying, “H.G. Wells was evidently right; either there was something mad about this man or our hearts are still too small for what he was trying to say.” 

And so his message is not a historical curiosity from the ancient past. And it is not a comforting reaffirmation of truths we already believe in the present. It is a beacon that shines to us from a distant future, calling us forward. 

It is easy to think that, if this message has been mostly lost for two thousand years, it’s simply too late now. And maybe it is. Maybe this message will have to reemerge in a new form, one that is less encumbered by centuries of encrustation. However, I feel that I see indications of another process playing itself out. 

It is very interesting to me that the twentieth century saw a number of developments that could be interpreted as a rebirth of the truth about Jesus. There was the discovery of the revolutionary social implications of his teachings that I sketched in week 7—the line of thought and activism that runs from Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela. There is the field of Jesus scholarship, which for two hundred years has tried to separate the real historical figure from the Christ of faith, and which, for all its shortcomings, continues to make, I believe, absolutely vital contributions. There is the scientific study of the Shroud of Turin, which I believe was the burial cloth of Jesus (despite the 1988 carbon-dating that is now widely seen as discredited). The Shroud contains a record of everything that happened to Jesus in the crucifixion, in forensic detail, and its image is possibly a photographic imprint of the resurrection, yet it was impossible to truly study it before we possessed twentieth-century technology. We couldn't even properly view its image before the invention of photography. And there was the publication of A Course in Miracles, which claims to be written by Jesus and which, in my view, contains his unique essence and genius, only expressed in twentieth-century terms. 

All of these developments involve conceptual tools and methods, and in some cases physical technologies, that were simply not available to us until recently. 

If one is open to the idea of a higher plan, one might be tempted to see evidence here of a plan through which the shining truth that Jesus represented, after being hidden for so long, is gradually coming to light. It’s as if the truth he brought to this world is so crucial that, rather than being allowed to stay hidden in the fog, it must be recovered, even if it takes us thousands of years. 

Perhaps, then, it is not too late. Perhaps various strands of his light are slowly emerging from the mist, developing, and heading toward an ultimate convergence. Perhaps one day we will actually arrive at the foot of that beacon that has been shining to us from far in the future. 

If this is a process that is actually going on—and I would dearly like to believe it is—then, based on what I sketched above, it is a process in which people from all over the world and from different eras have a part to play. 

The question is: What is our part?

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Week 27: Who Was Jesus?

We are nearing the end of this series and it is time now to look at the big question of what category we place Jesus in. Once you decide this, whatever category you choose will shape and even dictate how you see every individual piece of data. The same saying will mean one thing if you decide he is an apocalyptic prophet and another if you decide he is a Cynic sage. As you stand before each saying, each parable, each miracle story, you will silently ask yourself, “Given that he is a ______, what must this mean?” This is why I believe that categorizing Jesus belongs at the end of the process, so that it can grow out of a sensitive and open-minded consideration of each individual datum. Too often, in my view, the category is chosen at the start, which I see as an invitation for one’s global biases to dictate the entire search.

My starting place has been Jesus’ teachings, especially those teachings that are found in Q and that tend to be considered authentic by scholars. I believe that these teachings, sensitively examined, reveal themselves to be what I would call spiritual teachings. They show Jesus aiming for a spiritual transformation in his hearers. This says to me that whatever category we place Jesus in, it needs to be essentially spiritual.

“Jewish mystic”

In terms of categorizing Jesus, I think Marcus Borg, who we sadly lost a year ago, is the prominent scholar who got it most right. Borg started out categorizing Jesus as a “spirit person” and later modified this slightly to saying that Jesus was a “Jewish mystic.” Here is Borg summarizing his view: 

Jesus stands in this tradition of Jewish figures for whom God, the sacred, was an experiential reality. The data in the gospels supporting this claim are early and widespread, particular and general, direct and indirect. They are found in the earliest layers of the gospel tradition, in both Q and Mark, as well as in later layers. Texts report visions, long hours of prayer, and a sense of the presence of the Spirit in him. His language often expresses an intimacy with God. His activity as a healer and exorcist is linked to an awareness of the Spirit of God active through him. More generally, his wisdom teaching often reflects a transformed perspective and perception most compatible with an enlightenment experience of the sacred. His passion and courage as a prophet suggest an experiential grounding in God like that of the prophets of the Jewish Bible. (Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, p. 117) 

Let me lay this condensed summary out in slightly more detail: 

He had religious visions. The vision that began his ministry was one in which “He saw the heavens being torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:11). 

In his subsequent forty days in the wilderness, it is reported that angels ministered to him and that he had visionary encounters with the devil. Borg likens this to the cross-cultural pattern of the vision quest or wilderness ordeal that often follows one’s initiation into the world of Spirit. 

He withdrew into solitude for hours of prayer. This was most likely not verbal prayer, which is usually far more brief, but contemplative prayer, in which one stills the mind in order to experience God. 

His hearers experienced him as teaching with “a numinous authority not derived from tradition” (Jesus: A New Vision, p. 47). Behind the Greek word for “authority” lies the Jewish term Gevurah, the power of God. Jesus was seen to teach, in other words, from the mouth of the Gevurah

He was an exorcist and healer. His power to work miracles most likely flowed from his connection with the Spirit (which seems true of miracle workers in general). Indeed, this is how he himself spoke of it: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons…” (Matthew 12:28). 

There was an “otherness” to him that was widely perceived but variously interpreted. His family thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21). His opponents thought he was demon-possessed. His followers experienced a “Buddha field” around him: “Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were filled with awe” (Mark 10:32). 

He referred to God as abba—how one would address one’s human father—and called God “father” frequently. This most likely flowed from his intimacy with God. 

His teaching contained a different way of seeing, a wisdom that was both astonishing and unconventional. This was very likely a result of Jesus himself having seen differently. “In this, he was like the Buddha, who taught an enlightened wisdom that flowed out of his own experience of enlightenment” (Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, p. 131). 

His alternative social vision most likely came out of his ecstatic experience. “There is a kind of ecstatic experience that radically minimizes cultural distinctions by disclosing their artificial character; the distinctions are a humanly created grid imposed on reality, and not an order built into reality itself” (Profiles of Jesus, p. 136). 

He saw himself and was seen by others as a prophet. A prophet’s calling and passion came from his experience of God. 

I think Borg makes a brilliant case for Jesus being a Jewish mystic. I remember being electrified when I first read his overview of Jesus more than twenty years ago. At the same time, what Borg has done is capture in historically sound terms what everyone basically senses when they read the gospel stories. It’s obvious that Jesus is one of those figures who is close to the world of spirit. There is a reason that so many people very naturally class Jesus and Buddha together. 

Spiritual master

However, I wish Borg had taken one small step farther. I wish he had used the term “spiritual master,” which seems actually implicit in what he does say. I personally believe that is the best way to categorize Jesus. 

What is a spiritual master? The concept seems to be more of an informal one than a formal category that has been rigorously defined. However, I think we all have a sense of what it means. A spiritual master is someone who 1) has mastered the spiritual life—has experienced a profound change of consciousness and thereby become realized, enlightened—and who 2) then enters into a master-pupil relationship with disciples, to 3) lead them toward the same profound change in consciousness. In short, a spiritual master has reached the top of the mountain and then attempts to guide others up those same heights. 

Does Jesus fit this bill? I think he does. Let’s look at each of the three components I identified in the above definition. 

1. “Has experienced a profound change of consciousness.” The whole thrust of Borg’s argument is that Jesus had undergone a profound change of consciousness that was akin to achieving enlightenment. 

2. “Enters into a master-pupil relationship with disciples.” That Jesus called disciples is common knowledge, but have you ever thought about the implications of this? Discipleship was not as common as we may assume. The Greek word for “disciple” does not even appear at all in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Borg comments: 

Though it was relatively common for a teacher within Judaism to have devoted students, the phenomenon of discipleship is different and uncommon, involving an uprooting and a following after….The phenomenon of discipleship is located within the charismatic stream of Judaism, occurring in response to a charismatic [in the sense of possessing divinely inspired powers] leader.” (Jesus: A New Visionpp. 47-48) 

3. “To lead them toward the same profound change in consciousness.” As I said earlier in this post, a close examination of his sayings suggests that Jesus was seeking a spiritual transformation in his audience. The goal of his teachings was for his hearers to “enter” the kingdom of God, so that the kingdom could then “come” through them to others. The kingdom seems to be a domain or space in which God’s love and care palpably “reign” in one’s experience. Being in the kingdom, then, equals attaining an altered state of consciousness, in which you see, feel, and experience the world in a radically different way. Borg described the kingdom in very similar ways:

“Kingdom of God” here is Jesus’ designation or “name” for the primordial beneficent power of the other realm, an energy which can become active in ordinary reality and which flows through him in his exorcisms. (Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, p. 261) 

Thus to enter the Kingdom of God was to enter the place of God’s presence.  (Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, p. 262) 

So Jesus clearly does seem to fit the definition of a spiritual master. 

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, however, we have to admit that Jesus seems to go outside that definition’s usual boundaries in that he is not just focused on his disciples, but rather takes his cause to the wider public. We often think of spiritual masters as expending almost all their energies on the few who are really serious, who want to “go all the way,” and nearly ignoring the shallow masses who have no interest in enlightenment. So we may picture masters virtually holed up in their ashram, perhaps rarely (or even never) seen by the public. 

Yet this is not a necessary element of the concept of spiritual master. One need look no further than Buddha to find an enlightened master who both had disciples and took his message to a wider public. In fact, it strikes me as perfectly logical for a master to do this—to work toward the inner transformation of a close circle of disciples and to also seek the same transformation (albeit to a lesser degree) in society itself. So it makes sense for Jesus to have his inner core of disciples but then to ultimately seek to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). It makes sense for him to want to get everyone up the mountain. 

Simon Joseph’s portrait of the “ascetic Jesus”

In fact, there is one scholar who has developed a portrait of Jesus very much along these lines. Simon J. Joseph has mounted a very detailed and thoroughly researched argument that notes the parallels between Jesus and spiritual masters in other ancient cultures. In “Jesus in India? Transgressing Social and Religious Boundaries” Joseph likens Jesus to the pattern of the “wandering, ascetic holy man [who] travels from village to village teaching and giving advice. He has few possessions and depends on the voluntary contributions of the villagers for his food. Some wandering holy men gathered disciples who looked to them for spiritual instruction” (p. 168). He points out that “Jesus’ prolonged periods of withdrawal, meditation, prayer, voluntary celibacy, and ascetic renunciation of worldly ties and attachments suggest that he was engaged in rigorous spiritual practices” (p. 167). He stresses that Jesus’ disciples were called to join him in his lifestyle of worldly renunciation. He notes “the many similarities in traditional characterizations of Jesus and Buddha” (p. 167). He even draws specific parallels between Jesus’ reputed miraculous abilities and the yogic powers described by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra in India. Joseph’s portrait goes further than Borg’s in taking seriously just how much Jesus resembles a traditional spiritual master. We can hope, therefore, that his portrait can gain traction in scholarly circles and can also reach a wide, popular audience.

What difference does this make?

Seeing him first and foremost as a spiritual master dramatically changes our entire picture of Jesus. The primary lens, it seems to me, through which he has been seen historically is that he came as an agent of God’s plan to deal with the world in a new way. That, of course, is the whole point of the traditional interpretation of the crucifixion: God wants to forgive us and let us into heaven, but before he can do that, he requires Jesus to come down to earth and die for our sins. Jesus, then, is God’s instrument. Through Jesus, God is able to deal with humanity in a new way. 

This, it seems to me, is also the point of the apocalyptic Jesus, which for over a century has been (and I think remains) the dominant paradigm in Jesus scholarship. Here, Jesus comes to announce that God is in the process of doing something new. God is bringing his kingdom to earth, which involves overturning the power structures, punishing the wicked, and exalting the humble. And Jesus does more than merely announce this; the kingdom is actually dawning in and through his ministry. So again, God wants to deal with humanity in a new way, and Jesus becomes (or sees himself as) the agent of that. 

So in both paradigms, there is a coming shift in the history of God’s dealings with humanity, and Jesus is there to inaugurate that shift. True, we have our part to play in this. We have to respond to this new state of affairs, by believing in Jesus (traditional paradigm) or by following his “interim ethic” (apocalyptic paradigm). But the picture still revolves around this shift in how God deals with humanity. In this picture, God plays the primary role and then our secondary role is to respond appropriately to his part. 

If we view Jesus as a spiritual master, however, this whole picture basically goes away. Now it’s no longer about a change in how God relates to the world. Rather, it’s all about the change in consciousness that Jesus seeks to catalyze in us. Jesus is not there to inaugurate God’s new way of dealing with humanity. He is there to inaugurate a new way for humanity to deal with God. For in Jesus’ view, God doesn’t change. He is always raising his sun on the good and bad alike. He is always seeking his lost sheep. He is always offering to restore his prodigal sons to full sonship. 

We, therefore, are the ones who have to change, in order to accept what God is always offering. In this view, then, it’s all about the last change that we will ever pursue: the change in us. As a spiritual master, Jesus came as the agent of that change. He first sought to transform the consciousness of a small band of disciples, but his ultimate goal was to “make disciples of all nations,” so that eventually the consciousness of the whole world could be transformed. So that everyone could get up the mountain. So that the kingdom could come.

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Last week we looked at the pervasive theme of reversal in Jesus’ life and teachings, as a clue to the meaning of that greatest of all reversals: the resurrection. We saw it in relation to Jesus’ miracles and his aphorisms (short sayings expressing an individual point of view). This week we will conclude the discussion by looking at the theme of reversal in the parables. 

Reversal in the parables

The parables—which are basically short stories with a message—are the other category of sayings in the Jesus corpus. Just as Jesus’ aphorisms are expressions of his individual cast of mind, so the parables are an invaluable window onto his unique perspective on the world. Indeed, parable expert Bernard Brandon Scott (whom Mustard Seed brought out to speak in Sedona) says that they were his distinctive form of rhetorical art: 

Despite various assertions to the contrary, there is no evidence of parable tellers contemporary with Jesus. The rabbinic parable develops after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE and follows a very different stereotyped use. (Listening to the Parables of Jesus, p. 97) 

As windows onto Jesus’ mind, many of his parables follow an interesting pattern. Edward Beutner describes it this way (the first ellipsis below is his): 

[In contrast to romantic or escapist poetry] parables focus our attention ever more closely upon this world…and suddenly disconnect its accustomed dots and disorder its rigid boundaries….Jesus’ parables routinely frustrate our inherited expectations by means of narrative twists that reflect what [Jesus Seminar founder Robert] Funk names “the logic of grace.” (Listening to the Parables of Jesus, p. 97) 

In other words, in Jesus’ parables, we are first shown the world unadorned, in very familiar and realistic terms. Everything goes as we have seen it go so many times before. And then at the end, something abruptly intervenes from outside “our inherited expectations,” something that does not follow our logic but rather “the logic of grace.” 

This pattern is so striking that I want to walk you through it in the case of three parables. 

The good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35): “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” Two fellow Jews—religious authorities, no less—came by, but rather than rendering assistance they passed by on the other side of the road. 

Isn’t this the way life actually goes? We know how this sort of thing ends in real life: the man either dies or slowly drags himself back home. Yet, of course, that is not how this story ends. Just when hope seemed lost, a hated Samaritan shows up. The Samaritan should look on this man far less kindly than the two religious authorities had; Samaritans and Jews are enemies. And yet this Samaritan treats this Jew like a member of his own family—dressing his wounds, carrying him on his animal to an inn, caring for him there the rest of the day, and the next day paying the innkeeper to take further care of him. 

This is not how life normally goes. It is as if a shaft of light from another realm has interrupted the normal progression of things. 

The prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31): The younger son of a wealthy man asked for his inheritance while his father was still alive, treating his father as dead. He then took his newfound wealth to a pagan country and blew it all on loose living and prostitutes. He sunk so low that he took a job feeding pigs (which for Jews are unclean animals). In his desperation, all he could think to do was to crawl back home and throw himself on the mercy of the man whose property he had wasted and who he had essentially disowned, begging his father for the chance to be treated like a hired hand. 

This story, too, is something we have heard before. I don’t mean from the Bible; I mean from life. Younger sons are like this. They take everything for granted, and can therefore easily bring themselves to ruin. And yet just as with the previous story, when the man has hit bottom, a bolt comes in from out of the blue: The father is overjoyed to see him. He embraces and kisses him; puts his best robe on him, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet; and throws a lavish feast to celebrate his return. All that matters is that he has his son back. 

The dinner party (Luke 14:16-24): A man of means decided to throw a party for his high-society friends. This would be a great way, he thought, to cement his status among them. When all the preparations had been made he sent his slave to the people he had invited, only to find that they were all too busy. Some were busy with more important social obligations; most were just busy making money. He had been snubbed by everyone. 

We already know from life experience the essence of this story. Whose attempt to climb the social ladder is not punctuated by memorable rejections? And we already know what this man will do in response: He will think long and hard about how he is going to “show them”—how he will end up on top and, while on the way up, will knock them down toward the bottom. 

But that is not what happens in this case. Just when the man has reached his point of greatest humiliation, something inside him gives way. He decides not that these particular people let him down, but that the whole concept of the social ladder let him down. And so, in a life-altering act, he simply throws the ladder away. He instructs his slave to welcome to his dinner “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:21). He makes sure his slave invites people indiscriminately, even randomly: “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find” (Matthew 22:9). He has left his old world and stumbled into a new one. 

The pattern: In each case, the story begins with life going through its familiar progression. This progression involves someone, through completely ordinary means, falling from his normal estate. It is as if he has stumbled into an antlion pit, where as he tries to climb out, the ground gives way beneath him and dirt (thrown up by the antlion) rains down from above him, so that he is pulled inexorably to the bottom, where the jaws of the antlion await. 

And then, just as those jaws are scratching at his heels, something happens. It is not merely the unexpected; it is not an unlikely event from within the usual order. It is a visitation from another order. It is an intrusion into the familiar from a place where the rules are completely different. 

And so the main character’s fortunes are reversed. The man in “the good Samaritan” is lifted from the ditch and simultaneously liberated from the confining belief that friendship and love are limited by ethnic boundaries. The prodigal son is lifted from destitution, humiliation, and guilt and back into being the son of a father whose love knows no bounds, no questions asked. The man throwing the dinner party is lifted out of his petty climb for status and into a larger world, a world without boundaries in which everyone matters. 

In all three cases, the kingdom has come. It comes in from left field and nullifies the familiar order, bringing with it the laws of a new order. It is the arising of a new world, a world in which God is in charge. It abrogates the old order of conflict, estrangement, and suffering, replacing it with a world in which everyone is honored, everyone laughs, everyone shares a feast, and most of all, everyone loves. 

Not what we expect from a story

This is not at all what we expect from stories. We do, of course, want a happy ending, but we expect that ending to take place within the rules that govern the story as a whole. We don’t expect to follow one set of rules all the way through, only to have it overturned at the very end by a new ruleset. What is typically in question in a story is not its basic rules, but how things will go within those rules, especially how things will end. In the conflict that is at the heart of any story, will our protagonist (which means literally “first combatant”) win? Will he or she come out on top? That’s what is in question. 

We can readily see our assumption of the continuity of the rules in the context of sports. Imagine, for instance, that you are watching a baseball game. It’s the bottom of the ninth and the home team is down by two points, but their best hitter is at the plate and there are two runners on base. If he can manage to hit a home run, therefore, he will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The only question is: Will he hit that home run or will he strike out? We’ve all seen this movie (The Natural comes to mind) or read this story (in sixth grade I had to memorize the poem “Casey at the Bat”). This is a story we understand. 

Yet now imagine that, as the batter faces the final pitch, he puts down the bat and the pitcher puts down the ball and they embrace in a sudden expression of friendship. Then they turn to the crowd and say, “There’s been a change of rules. We just don’t believe in competition anymore.” That kind of unexpected, wholesale reversal is exactly what we see in the parables of Jesus. 

The resurrection as parable

I’m sure you can see where I am going with this. Isn’t it astonishing just how closely the resurrection fits this pattern? It is as if Jesus has become one of his own main characters. Now he is the protagonist who suffers a downfall. He is the one who falls into the antlion pit, where he is dragged down to the bottom and then dragged under by the jaws of the antlion. And when the sand goes still, everyone walks away, because they’ve seen it all before; it is just the way the world works. 

But then, exactly as in his own parables, something unexpectedly flashes in from a whole other order, a place where this is not the way things work, a place where antlion pits just don’t make sense. And under the sway of that other order, everything is reversed. Jesus is lifted out of the pit and into a condition that is literally not of this world. “The logic of grace” has overturned the relentless logic of the world. The kingdom has come! 

I’ve mentioned before that scholars sometimes use the term “parabolic acts” to describe the fact that Jesus’ actions were like lived-out parables—real-life short stories with a message. At this point, how can we not be tempted to extend this concept to the resurrection itself? The fit is just too perfect. It’s as if after telling all those arresting parables, Jesus somehow managed, at the end of his life, to step right into one. 

The pattern that pervades his ministry

In hindsight, we can see that this pattern is not unique to his parables. His miracles obviously fit this same pattern: someone is chronically ill for years and then—flash!—the rules of another order come in and reverse her condition. The aphorisms we looked at last week also now appear to just be compressed versions of the same pattern. To say that the poor—the lowest, the most forgotten, the last—will be given God’s kingdom is like a brief encapsulation of the very reversal we see in these parables. Even things like Jesus’ table fellowship fit this pattern. For a man of God to dine with the sinners who have been excluded by a godly society is very much like the surprise endings in the parables. 

It’s as if Jesus’ whole ministry is contained in this pattern of reversal. More importantly, it’s as if his whole message is contained in this pattern. Here is a shortened version of how I summarized that message: 

1. The world assaults us. Everyday life is characterized by conflict between ourselves and the world, so that our lives are filled with anxiety, fear, guilt, lack, humiliation, and sickness. 

However, we can leave this state by entering the kingdom, “a state of being in which God’s unconditional love is the ruling power” (point 3). We enter the kingdom “through a psychological transfer of our trust, investment, valuing, and sense of identity from the world to the kingdom” (point 4), or the kingdom comes to us through someone who is in it “extending its beneficence to others” (point 7). Finally, 

5. Once in the kingdom, its love and care will become our experience, while the world’s assaults will seem remote and powerless. In the kingdom, we will be free from anxiety, fear, guilt, lack, humiliation, sickness, and all the ills of the human condition. 

If we look at points 1 and 5, we see that same reversal that we have been talking about. We see this message of reversal everywhere. We see it in his aphorisms. We see it in his miracles. We see it in his parables. We see it in his table fellowship. We see it in his crucifixion. And we see it in his resurrection. 

What, then, is the message of the resurrection? It is the same message we see everywhere we look in the life and teachings of Jesus. The resurrection is no different.

The resurrection as demonstration

Yet, of course, the resurrection is different. Though in the same category as his miracles, it was clearly a much bigger miracle. And unlike his teachings, it was more than just words; it was (as I have argued) a real happening. By acting out his teachings in a real-life situation, Jesus was, intentionally or not, giving us a demonstration. 

What is a demonstration? The definition that Google gives me is this: “an act of showing that something exists or is true by giving proof or evidence.” If we apply that definition to the resurrection, then it becomes an act of showing that Jesus’ teachings are true by giving proof or evidence. 

This addresses a crucial question: How exactly do we know that Jesus’ teachings are true? Yes, there is a distinct ring of truth to them. They resonate with something deep in our minds. Yet is that enough? After all, these teachings are not on the order of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” They are far more extreme than that, far more radical.  How do we know that God loves the sinner just as much as the saint? How do we know that turning the other cheek does not equal suicide? How do we know that these teachings can be successfully lived out in real life? There is a reason that, as Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Let’s face it, Jesus’ teachings can easily seem to be some of the most impractical teachings that have ever been uttered. 

Given their pie-in-the-sky appearance, the question of whether these teachings can be successfully lived out should probably be broken down into two questions. First, can we live them out under normal, everyday circumstances? Second, can we live them out in really extreme circumstances, where our lives are on the line? Teachings that may appear to work on the first level can fail miserably on the second. It is one thing to turn the other cheek when a neighbor gossips about you. Even if you are following an unrealistic teaching, all you can lose is a bit of your dignity. But it is quite another thing to turn the other cheek when you are being held at gunpoint. Now an impractical teaching can cost you your life. 

The resurrection, and the crucifixion as well (which I’ll now include again), have the appearance of being tailor-made to answer these questions about the realism and practicality of Jesus' teachings. We really could not ask for better demonstrations of the idea that these teachings actually work in real life. 

The crucifixion, as we saw, is an uncanny fit for the famous “turn the other cheek/go the extra mile/give your coat as well” trio of sayings. It makes the statement that, yes, you really can respond to an attacker with defenselessness and love. You really can love your enemies. And not just when the waters are relatively calm; you can do so even in response to the most extreme assaults, even when your life is on the line. 

And the resurrection, as we saw, is an uncanny fit for the reversal pattern in Jesus’ life and teachings, seen best in his parables. It makes the statement that when you do respond with defenseless love, when you do live out these selfless teachings, the logic of the world doesn’t just have its way with you, dragging you down its relentless course. Instead, the logic of grace intervenes, lifting you into another order, governed by another set of rules. Lifting you into the kingdom. And this happens not just in normal circumstances; it happens when your life seems to be hopelessly destroyed, when literally everything is on the line. 

These events work so well as demonstrations that we have to wonder if this wasn’t by design. Jesus spent his ministry giving forth beautiful, lofty teachings that stretched our concept of the practical and the possible. Throughout his ministry he backed these up with teaching demonstrations, such as his miracles and table fellowship, in which he showed that these teachings are practical and are possible. Could it be that he saved his biggest teaching demonstration for last? Could it be that somehow—we don’t know how—he took the central themes of his message and lived them out on a public stage, before the eyes of the world and ultimately the eyes of history, to answer our inevitable questions as to the viability of his words? Could it be that his final act was designed to show us that his "unrealistic" teachings actually work, even under conditions of the harshest realism? Could it be that he ended his own story with one final, unforgettable proof that everything he taught us was true?

 

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Having explored the question of whether or not the resurrection happened, and having offered my conclusion that it did, I will now turn—over the course of two posts—to the crucial question of what it meant. It seems to me that this question receives surprisingly little theological reflection. All of the attention goes to the meaning of the crucifixion. It’s as if the meaning of the resurrection is simply “+ happy ending!” 

What I usually read about the meaning of the resurrection is that it is God’s affirmation of Jesus, as a reversal of the world’s rejection of him. It is God’s “yes” overturning the world’s “no.” The Empire’s sentenced him to death as a criminal and messianic pretender, yet God reverses that, declaring that he is innocent and he is king. Seen this way, the resurrection is the Supreme Court’s (read: God’s) overturning of a lower court’s (read: Pilate’s) ruling. This idea of the resurrection as God’s “yes” then easily becomes the idea of the resurrection as proof of Jesus’ divinity—God’s affirmation of Jesus as Son of God. So now the resurrection becomes yet another statement that Jesus was divine. 

All of that admittedly has a certain logic to it, but notice that none of these reflections are rooted in Jesus’ own teachings. They treat the resurrection in a kind of vacuum. It’s as if we have no guide in sight for how to see it, and so we have to simply sit there, think it through, and reason out what it must have meant. This implicitly sees the resurrection as floating free from Jesus’ teachings, which then becomes the first step in transferring the spotlight to his final weekend and pushing his teachings into the shadows. 

Why aren’t we looking for the clues as to its meaning in Jesus’ life and teachings? If the resurrection really happened, then surely the key to its meaning must lie in his own ministry, especially in his teachings. 

And in fact, when we look in these places, it should come as no great surprise that we find abundant clues as to the resurrection’s meaning. Indeed, everywhere we look there are foreshadowings of this final great event. The resurrection, of course, is an incredibly dramatic reversal, and it turns out that Jesus’ ministry and teachings are full of the theme of reversal. Jesus’ words and deeds constantly reverse conventional assumptions, expectations, and the conventional state of affairs. 

This theme of reversal, in fact, is so characteristic of Jesus that the Jesus Seminar, famed for voting with colored beads on the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings, made it one of their criteria for identifying the authentic voice of Jesus. Here is how they describe one of their rules of evidence: 

  • Jesus’ sayings and parables surprise and shock: they characteristically call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary, everyday expectations. 

They then go on to explain this rule: 

This criterion is based on several of the great narrative parables, such as the Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), the vineyard laborers (Matthew 20:1-15), and the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), as well as on the so-called beatitudes (Luke 6:20-23) and the injunction to lend to those from whom once can expect no return, either interest or principal (Thomas 95:1-2)…. 

This criterion has turned out to be exceptionally durable in the quest for the authentic sayings of Jesus. (The Five Gospels, p. 31). 

I want to look at this theme of reversal in some detail (which is why I’m devoting two posts to it) in Jesus’ miracles, in his aphorisms, and, in the next post, in his parables. 

Reversal in the miracles

There is very little that needs to be pointed out here. The miracles are all about reversal. As such, they provide our most obvious foreshadowing of the resurrection. We also need to remember that the miracles were framed by Jesus as little advents of the kingdom. It’s worth quoting here something I said in Week 20’s discussion of the miracles: 

These stories contain an entire picture of God and his kingdom. They say that in ordinary life one can spend years groaning under a burden that seems immovable. No matter what you do, you cannot seem to shift the boulder that lays on top of you. And then the kingdom comes, and in an instant that boulder has turned to dust. Now you can stand again. You are free. You are whole. Someone has seen you, has cared enough about you, and has been powerful enough to undo your chains. That, as Helen Bond says, is “what it would be like to live under God’s reign.” 

How can we not see the resurrection in that? 

Reversal in the aphorisms

The theme of reversal is also very clearly present in the aphorisms. Aphorisms are short, pithy sayings that express an individual point of view (rather than stating what everyone knows). The aphorisms are peppered with depictions of reversal. First, we have the beatitudes as recorded in their original Q version: 

And raising his eyes to his disciples he said: Blessed are you poor, for God’s reign is for you. Blessed are you who hunger, for you will eat your fill. Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be consoled. (Q 6:20-21) 

This looks like three scenarios, but I think it is really one: Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, and mourning, for God will give you his kingdom, and there you will eat your fill and be consoled. Notice that Jesus is not talking about the “poor in spirit,” as in Matthew’s redaction. He is talking about the literally poor, the people at the bottom of the totem pole, who feel crushed by life (mourning) and who worry about their next meal (hungry). The good news is that God doesn’t see them the way society does, and so he will reverse their lowly condition. He will make them honored members of his kingdom, where they will have a feast, where their weeping will be replaced with laughter (as Luke has it). 

This can’t help but bring to mind another well-known saying: “The last will be first and the first last” (Q 13:30). This is what we saw in the beatitudes, isn’t it? Those on the bottom will be placed on top. As for the other side, the first being made last, I don’t think that God in his wrath lays low those who are currently on top. I just think that, as other sayings suggest, since they are relying on “treasures on earth” (Q 12:33), they do not lay hold of what God promises them, and so they lose out on what really matters: the kingdom.

Finally, we have another famous aphorism: “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33 SV). This looks so much like the crucifixion and resurrection that no commentary is needed. 

In fact, all of these aphorisms are reminiscent of the reversal from crucifixion to resurrection. In the crucifixion, Jesus had everything taken from him. He fell so far down the totem pole that he fell past the poor, to the pile of discarded bodies at the very bottom of the heap. He forfeited his life. He became the last. Yet, of course, all of that was miraculously reversed. His life was preserved. He was made first. God’s reign was for him. 

The crowning drama of his life, in other words, looked like something straight out of his own sayings. 

Next week, we’ll continue with this and look at what I consider the most important clues as to the meaning of the resurrection: the parables.

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Mustard Seed Foundations Series

Our foundation is a unique view of Jesus and his teachings. Our original members joined in this vision through years of meetings and classes in Sedona, Arizona. Therefore, to give those who are joining us online the opportunity to have a comparable experience, we have decided to start our new network with a 6-month (and possibly longer) Mustard Seed Foundations series. The series will consist of a weekly blog post by Robert in which he lays out, one step at a time, our understanding of Jesus and his teachings. Then in the week following a given post, we will all have an opportunity to discuss and process the ideas put forward in that post. Through this process, we hope you will find that you connect with our vision and want to participate further. During this time, the activity on the forum will just be the Foundations series, so that series can serve its proper purpose. And then after that we will open up the social network’s full range of functions, so we can all participate in bringing this vision to life!

Robert's Articles

Loving Personhood or Liberation from Personhood?

In recent months, I have been watching video testimonies of two very different kinds. One kind is of people who have had near-death experiences (NDEs). The other kind is of people who claim to have awakened, become enlightened, basically within the…
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"The class notes in this volume are meant for study group use. Their purpose is to help us understand the teachings of Jesus and apply them in our lives. They grew out of the conviction that Jesus had a challenging and liberating message that has been largely forgotten over the centuries, in the focus on belief in the person of Jesus and his final deeds. The purpose of these notes, then, is to allow his original teachings to do what they were intended to do: to come alive in the experience of his followers..."

Robert Perry is a writer and teacher of the contemporary spiritual path "A Course in Miracles." He is the founder of The Circle of Atonement, a nonprofit teaching center devoted to "A Course in Miracles." He has also had a longstanding interest in historical Jesus studies. His first book, "The Elder Brother" (1990), was a comparison of the Jesus of history and the Jesus of "A Course in Miracles." He contributed a chapter on the Sayings Gospel Q to the academic collection, "The Healing Power of Spirituality: How Faith Helps Humans Thrive", edited by J. Harold Ellens (Praegers Publishers, 2009). He has taught the practical application of the teachings of Jesus for the Mustard Seed Venture since 2004. He is also am interested in the topic of meaningful coincidence.

Loving Our Enemies:
The Core of Jesus’ Vision in the Sayings Gospel Q
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"The Sayings Gospel Q is a hypothetical gospel. It 'exists' only in the remains it left scattered across the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Its importance, however, cannot be overestimated. Many scholars consider it to be our earliest written record of the Jesus tradition. It has been called 'certainly the most important source for reconstructing the teaching of Jesus' (Theissen & Merz, 1998, p. 29) and 'our primary source of information about what he was trying to say, and do' (Robinson, 2007, p. vii). Yet it presents a very different vision of primitive Christianity than the traditional one handed down from the book of Acts. Specifically, it presents a Jesus who is not yet the Christ of Christianity. Contrary to traditional images, in Q his deeds take a backseat to his words. He is unconcerned with the early church's kerygma of the crucified and risen One. Indeed, he seems unconcerned with himself altogether. Rather, he holds out to us a profound and unsettling vision of how to live..."