Making the Gospel truer than it really is
Posted by BrianJ on February 2, 2007
The title and idea for this post I am stealing from one of my college professors,
whose name I can’t seem to remember remembered: D. Cecil Clark.
Perhaps you’ve heard the following explanation, or something like it:
There is a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle through which a camel could not pass unless all its baggage were removed. When the main gates were shut at night, travellers would have to use this smaller gate–and the camel would have to crawl on its knees. So it is with a rich man entering heaven: he must give up his riches and humble himself.
And perhaps you’ve heard something like this:
You know, I often wonder about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Washing feet was the lowest form of service. But more than that, back then people wore open-toed sandals, so their feet would be very dirty. Add to that the fact that Jesus’ disciples had been preparing for the Passover feast: the streets of Jerusalem would have been crowded with people and animals in town for the feast, and therefore especially dirty. Some of the disciples took the lamb to the temple to be sacrificed and probably stepped in droppings from the thousands of animals killed that day. And the leather sandals would have smelled very badly after so much walking and sweating.
When Jesus says, “take up your cross,” he is referring to the Roman practice of forcing the condemned to carry his own cross to the place of execution. Now, the beam that was carried could weigh as much as 100 lbs, and the distance traveled as they looped through the streets of the city a considerable distance. Since the average male in Jesus’ day was approximately 5’6″ and, due to a general scarcity of nutrition, would have weighed around 100 lbs himself, he is essentially carrying his own weight if he carries his cross. Thus, Jesus means not just that one must work really hard to follow him, but that one must lift and carry one’s whole self to be a true disciple. Now, as to the distance traveled, that would be measured in cubits or steps, and since men were shorter in Jesus’ day, then they would have required more strides in order to cover a given distance. In fact, the number of strides required to pass from Pilate’s court to Calvary for a man under 5’8″ would have been just over 2000, which is the maximum number of strides that a Jew could take on the Sabbath. Also, the distance, measured in cubits, is the same as the circumference of Noah’s ark. By all this, what Jesus really meant is that enduring to the end will require breaking the old laws by going further than them and will accomplish the same thing for our souls as the ark accomplished for the lives of Noah’s family.
So, what’s the point? First, I hope that every reader knows that the first and last paragraphs are wrong: the only small gate that might fit this discription was built centuries after Jesus’ death, and the last paragraph I made up entirely. But the point is to look at what the paragraphs do.
Each looks for some additional meaning for a scripture. Not finding that “extra layer of meaning,” the first and last simply invent layers. The middle paragraph, by contrast, isn’t so dishonest, but it still suffers from embellishing the story. Jesus can’t just be washing feet, they must be really dirty, smelly, awful feet. Likewise:
Mary can’t just be pregnant, she has to be pregnant and possibly preeclamptic, riding on a donkey that would wobble and stumble from time to time—oh and it’s backbone under her pelvis would be uncomfortable, too, complicating labor.
Nephi’s bow didn’t just break, it also must have stung his hand when it kicked back upon breaking. That would make constructing a new bow that much more difficult.
The Master became the servant; Mary delivered in the poorest of conditions; Nephi didn’t murmur. Why must the stories be more than that? My professor called this “making the Gospel truer than it really is.” Jacob called it “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4). Peter called it, “Don’t stop with the feet: wash my whole body” (John 13:9).
This is not to say that we shouldn’t study the details of the scriptures. But if we’re going to “feast upon the word,” we have to appreciate the feast that is provided.
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