Nicodemus:  Protecting the Curious in Us.

Posted: February 28, 2023 in Uncategorized

Nicodemus:  Protecting the Curious in Us.

The streets were dark and deserted. Not a soul could 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, I presume, and meets Nicodemus. Strangers in the night… So begins a story sermon by probably one of the best in narrative preaching. Eugene Lowry.  (Lowry 1990:78-84)

It’s a really good example of a narrative or story sermon. Yet we can’t help feeling that, in this, and in other bits of the text we don’t address here, Lowry gives Nicodemus a bit of a ‘bad rap’, even if unwittingly. To Quote Iain McGilchrist the Scottish Pychiatrist, Philosopher who offers us a new and enlightening way of looking at the Human brain and the human mind. He says:

Left hemisphere dysfunction does not change the world radically in the way that right hemisphere dysfunction does. Rather, it presents impediments to fluent utilisation of the world, either through the right hand or through language: the problem is not one of understanding (comprehension), but of manipulating (apprehension), the world. The fabric of reality typically goes for the most part unaltered when the left hemisphere is suppressed.

Iain McGilchrist.

Rex Hunt thinks Nicodemus is reduced to a foil by Lowry. Portrayed as a narrow-minded, left brain, literalist. What Rex is suggesting here I think, is that it is too easy to lock Nicodemus into a category or a character that misses the whole person. Like many in today’s world the certainty and literalization of narrative that offers a singular truth is not sufficient. What happens when we do that is we take the narrative out of context with which it interacted. The left hemisphere has a preference for that response, it is seeking after the parts that make up a final outcome rather than take first an overall view of the matter which is to see that the whole is always more than the sum of the parts.

The added difficulty in our task of reading the text is that we don’t know enough about the context if anything at all further relying only on theory based on parts, and we know that there is never a truth without a context with which it interacts: there is a context for everything in the real world. In the theorizing that gets left out. To decide that Nicodemus’ so-called ‘illicit’ night-time liaison is to be interpreted as skulking about under the cover of darkness is to limit our understanding Or as Jack Shea suggests, “be stranded in twilight”.  Nicodemus is not mesmerized by the signs he is encountering as questions… 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)

This encourages us to continue to take another look at Nicodemus and like Rex to do that through the eyes of both some Jewish and Christian New Testament scholars.

The first thing we do is note that this is a story composed by the teller we call John written somewhere around the early second century. More than one hundred years after Jesus.
and we only ever hear of Nicodemus in John’s writings. So, we don’t have other accounts to compare it with.

Much debate still centres around this story and the storytellers use of this story at this point in the gospel. But we might put that down for a bit today. What should concern us is the way traditional Christianity appears to have used Jewish Jesus and Jewish Nicodemus. By the time of the writing the Jesus story is spreading among the Greek and Roman world, the interpretations are being contextualized to meet new cultural understandings. We know also that even among Judaism in the time of Jesus there was debate and discussion about diversity of thought and interpretation within Judaism. It was into this environment that Jesus spoke.

Jesus was a Jew.  A first century Galilean Jew. His 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. The likelihood is that much ‘Greekness’ has impinged his Jewishness. By the time of John’s writing.

Both the Nicene Creed written in the 4th Century and the Apostle’s Creed finalized in the 7th are silent on this fact. They do not mention his Jewishness at all. Which has caused Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, to say: “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, his 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 marginalised’. “No wonder 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, some suggestions; about the Jewish Rabbi we call Nicodemus, and his encounter with the Galilean sage we call Jesus. We might begin by hearing Nicodemus as 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”.   ( 2008)

We might also hear Nicodemus, 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. Many boundary movers today know what that means among friends and colleagues and among literalists and institutional stakeholders.

So instead of questioning his motives, as it appears Lowry and our general interpretive tradition has done, we might see Nicodemus’ motives recognised as both open and honourable. 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!

The invitation that metaphor offers Nicodemus and us. It to be able to think wholistically about life and ask ourselves what would we do differently if given half the chance? How would we grow up differently? How would we re-edit the story of our life?

The story of Nicodemus is an invitation to be curious about life. To rethink and re-construct assumptions, the imposed order and the rules by which we control human relations. Not just to conduct an autopsy on our past, but to look to the future through the eyes of new possibility. To take seriously the ambiguity and serendipity of human existence. And in traditional words; to be born anew, metaphorically! To consider how life might be different!

I was at a retreat recently where the question that came up was What does being a Progressive Christian mean and I think the suggested approach to this Nicodemus story is a good start in answering that question.

Taking a prayer from the website ‘Textweek’ is the following:

Nicodemus.  Patron saint of the curious.  ( 2008)

  • May he protect the curious in each of us.
  • May he place us in the company of earnest and compassionate teachers,
    of whatever faith tradition, whose openness defines a new community 
    of hope and grace.
  • May he give us the courage to dare to know creativity – ‘g-o-d’, with heart and mind, with courage and strength, as traditional theological boundaries are pushed…
  • And pushed again, with honesty and originality, wisdom and imagination.

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. HarperOne, 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.

McGilchrist, Iain . The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (p. 165). Perspectiva Press. Kindle Edition.


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