‘Nicodemus:  Protecting the Curious’

Posted: March 4, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Nicodemus:  Protecting the Curious’

The streets were dark and deserted. Not a soul can be seen.  At least he hoped not. There was one lonely figure, jumping from shadow to shadow, never using the major streets of the town, travelling only in out of the way places, hoping not to be seen. So, what’s he doing, jumping from shadow to shadow in the middle of the night? He is going to pay a call on Jesus who is staying with friends. He doesn’t want anybody to know that he, one of the leaders of the community, would be going to see this itinerant preacher.

Jesus is roused from his sleep, we presume, and meets Nicodemus.

The image is of strangers in the night… and one of the most common interpretations is that there is something wrong with this guy. He appears to be reduced to the possibility of being a narrow-minded, left brain, literalist, His so-called ‘illicit’ night-time liaison
is often interpreted as skulking about under the cover of darkness.
Or as Jack Shea suggests, he is “stranded in twilight.  He is not mesmerized by the signs… He wants a teaching, not another miracle.  But before he can receive a teaching from God, he must receive a teaching about himself”.  (Shea 1998:83-84)

Here is the suggestion that Nicodemus is at first and foremost a curious person. He is curious about this guy Jesus and here I want to suggest that this is the challenge for us. Nicodemus was a Jewish Rabbi curious about a fellow Jewish Rabbi and this suggests there is a need for us to be curious about who Jesus is for us who call ourselves Christians. Being curious is not reserved to those outside the faith but also to those within the faith. We are to question our own claims, assumptions. And doing this is part of a faith journey and not something that will destroy our faith. Our personal theological journey is always on the move.

Let’s take another look at Nicodemus before I try to give shape and form to what I think the challenge is for us in New Zealand today. And let’s do that through the eyes
of both some Jewish and Christian new testament scholars.

Let’s begin by looking at the bible and acknowledging that this is a story composed by the storyteller we call John. We note that we only ever hear of Nicodemus in John’s writings and that much debate centres around this story and the storytellers use of this story at this point in the gospel.

We note also and this is the crux of today’s discussion. Traditional Christianity
appears to have used a Jewish Jesus and a Jewish Nicodemus to support its own ends as opposed to remaining true to history. This is not a new claim nor is it a criticism. It is rather an acknowledgement that this was the norm when passing on the stories. It was permissible and even expected that they be retold in ways that fitted the current culture and world views. The gospel needs to make sense to now and this means that there are huge dangers in literalizing and fixing the story in a time and place. We talk today about the gospel being irrelevant and part of that is the misguided use of text that supports slavery to encourage people to abandon it.

It seems obvious to say that Jesus was a Jew. A first century Galilean Jew whose prayers were Jewish. His thinking was Jewish. His ‘voice’ is thick with Jewish history – personal and cultural. And we miss that when we follow traditional Christianity and convert him into a proto-Christian. We deny also that much ‘Greekness’ has impinged his Jewishness.

Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, has said that: “With the stress in some churches on Jesus’s divine sonship, the cross, the resurrection, and the redemptory role of saving humanity from sin and death, Jesus’s historical connection to Judaism gets lost along with his very Jewish message of the kingdom of heaven”.  (Levine 2006:19)

Levine than goes on to point out that in popular Christian imagination Jesus is presented as: against the Law, against the Temple, against the people of Israel, as the only one to speak with women, as the only one who teaches non-violent responses to oppression, as the only one who cares about the ‘poor and marginalized’.

“It is No wonder that, even today Jesus somehow looks ‘different’ from the ‘Jews’: in the movies and artistic renderings, he’s blond and they are swarthy; he is cute and buff and they need rhinoplasty and Pilates”. (Levine 2006:19)

This ‘divorcing’ of Jesus from Judaism in biblical stories and traditional Christian theology is neither honest nor helpful. Especially when we hear John’s story about Nicodemus.

So, in light of these comments, we might consider some suggestions about the Jewish Rabbi we call Nicodemus, and his encounter with the Galilean sage we call Jesus.

We might hear that Nicodemus was a pilgrim.  A sincere religious seeker. A student who uses his precious study time to “expand his search beyond the standard texts… and distractions of the day”.   (PFarris.www.textweek.com 2008)

We might also hear Nicodemus, as a member of the religious institution of his day,
as a mover of theological boundaries. Willing to risk leaving behind past ‘truths’ as he and his colleagues have been taught them and known them, in order to explore something new. So instead of questioning his motives, we might see that Nicodemus’ motives need to be recognised as both open and honourable. This says that for Nicodemus, as for us, he must be allowed to respond to ‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways
rather than prescribing a single way of thinking or believing.

How else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different?
Not just by re-shaping, but by re-thinking and reconstructing!

Now I want to show you two videos that I think ask us to be curious like Nicodemus and to value the mode of critique, challenge of the status quo and perhaps more importantly ask the hard questions about Nicodemus and of our traditions, creedal assumptions and doctrinal claims.

Video Making Sense Part 1 Iain McGilchrist

I think that challenge of that clip is to ask ourselves what it says about our need to be pilgrims as opposed to passive consumers. If Iain is correct then we have to ask if something about our belief system or our slavish compliance with tradition needs to be challenged.

The other thing we might ask ourselves is what the obsession or imbalance toward the so-called left-brain orientation in the western world is pushing aside? What is that which we are missing out on? Our next video I think suggests that one of the outcomes of this left-hemisphere bias is creating a mindlessness, an environment where we no longer value a huge part of what it means to be human.

Video Making sense Part 2 Ellen Langer

The story of Nicodemus is an invitation to be curious about life. To rethink and re-construct assumptions. Not just to conduct an autopsy on our past, but to look to the future through the eyes of new possibility. To be born anew, metaphorically! To consider how life might be different! Nicodemus then could be seen as the Patron saint of the curious.  (MHess.www.textweek.com 2008)

The message is to protect the curious in each of us. Put yourself in the company of earnest and compassionate teachers, of whatever faith tradition, whose  openness defines a new community of hope and grace and  have the courage to dare to know this serendipitous creativity God, with all your heart and mind, with courage and strength because traditional theological boundaries have been and are being pushed…

And pushed again, with honesty and originality, wisdom and imagination. Amen.

Lee, B. L. The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus. Retrieving the Jewish Origins of Christianity.  Mahwah. Paulist Press, 1988.
Levine, A. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. Harper One, 2006.
Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B Robinson (ed). Journey Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. Pilgrim Press, 1990.
Shea, J. Gospel Light. Jesus Stories for Spiritual Consciousness. New York. A Crossroad Book, 1998.



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