Can we see clearly without being a little disappointed? Can God?
So let’s Bible.
The back half of John’s second chapter is hard to figure. After the wedding at Cana, Jesus goes straight to Jerusalem for the Passover (which he will do three times in John’s gospel, whereas the Synoptics only have Jesus entering Jerusalem in the last week of His life), where he cleanses the temple and predicts his death and resurrection. You know these stories, probably.
But they’re SUPPOSED to happen at the END. Jesus turns over the tables of the money changers, and that’s what seals his fate with the powers that be; that’s the last straw that leads to his death, right?
I poured over the Anchor Bible commentary by Fr. Raymond Brown that I bought in seminary (and didn’t touch until I needed a big book to prop my laptop on during the pandemic work-from-home era). I’ll save you the money and the hernia: it does not have a good explanation for how Jesus could have trashed the Temple at the beginning of a multi-year ministry and survived, much less be able to show his face back in Jerusalem in subsequent years. So, dear reader, I’ve got no insight on why John put this story at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. I’ll just remind you that this is not my favorite Gospel. I surrender. Jesus, take the exegetical wheel.
But just like the Wedding at Cana story at the front half of this chapter, it’s the throwaway bridge section that intrigues me. Because in 2:23-25, it says (in The Message translation) “During the time he was in Jerusalem, those days of the Passover Feast, many people noticed the signs he was displaying and, seeing they pointed straight to God, entrusted their lives to him. But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside and out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.”
Now, The Message is what’s called a “dynamic equivalence” translation, which means it goes for the gist and not the exact translation. The more precise versions drop the “how untrustworthy they are” and say things like “for he himself knew what was in man.” But when you read those more formal versions, you kind of get the same energy. Jesus knew that we suck, trustworthiness-wise.
On the one hand, as a Gen Xer who lives life with low expectations, Jesus sounds like one of my own here. Even I recoil a little when people say they dig me with a little too much enthusiasm, because I know it seldom ends well. Get used to disappointment, to quote the Dread Pirate Roberts. People do, in fact, suck, in many regards. There’s a whole doctrine of original sin to underscore the point.
But while I recognize that nobody puts John 2:25 on their Twitter bio (which is the closest 21st century equivalent to carrying a banner at an NFL game), it’s only 17 verses later that John says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And John 3:16 is on a BUNCH of Twitter bios. (And even the occasional stadium banner.)
So the point that traditional theology makes here is valid: even if you don’t go as far as Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity, we definitely suck enough that we are existentially like Peter after he fails to walk on water: flailing, helped into the boat by Jesus before he drowns. I will concede the point.
But I won’t concede the mood. Pope Saint John XXIII (my favorite saint) used to pray at night, “Lord, I’ve done what I can for your church today. But it’s YOUR CHURCH, and I’m going to bed.” And I think it’s fair to bring that spirit to this.
Yeah, God knew what he was getting when He made us. I’m onboard with Jesus when he doesn’t put all his eggs in the basket of people like us believing in him. But I’m not onboard with human nature being disappointing to the god who created it.
Love and imperfection coexist, but love and disappointment don’t.
I can name some people I truly know and truly love, starting with myself, and I can tell you at least a little about the bad choices we make, about the hangups that keep us from better outcomes, about the ghosts that keep us from realizing our potential. Maybe it’s that Gen X spirit, but I don’t get crushes on people (even Platonic ones); I know we’re all broken, even if some of us hide it better than others for a little while.
But do my loved ones disappoint me? They frustrate me. They make me sad. They hurt me. But when I am actually loving, I am rooting too hard for them, I am too big a fan, for them to disappoint me. They aren’t disappointments. They are beloveds.
That’s the God of John 3:16, and so it’s got to be the God of 17 verses earlier. It’s the God of the whole deal, really. The God so in love with His creation that even though He knows all of us, including the most messed-up parts, He won’t stop rooting for us long enough to be disappointed.
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