Wednesday, August 4, 2010


So I'm still reading that book about Jesus by the Pope. It's quite interesting and I am hoping to go on and read his other books in a similar vein: The Apostles, St Paul, and The Fathers. I always enjoy reading an intelligent perspective, especially if I don't agree with everything, for that means I am learning something.

This morning I was reading an interesting passage, one that really called to my heart. It was an excerpt from another book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, by Jacob Neusner. According to Pope Benedict, Rabbi Neusner gives a fair accounting of a fictional conversation with Jesus. Part of what he, the Pope, says is this:
Neusner has just spent the whole day following Jesus, and now he retires for prayer and Torah study with the Jews of a certain town, in order to discuss with the rabbi of that place - once again he is thinking in terms of contemporaneity across millenia - all that he has heard. The rabbi cites from the Babylonian Talmud: "Rabbi Simelai expounded: 'Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses, three hundred and sixty-five negative ones, correspnding to the number of days of the solar year, and two hundred forty-eight positive commandments, corresponding to the parts of man's body.

"David came and reduced them to eleven...

"Isaiah came and reduced them to six...

"Isaiah again came and reduced them to two...

"Habakkuk further came and based them on one, as it is said: "'But the righteous shall live by his faith"' (Hab 2:4)."

Neusner then continues his book with the following dialogue: "'So," the master says, 'is this what the sage, Jesus, had to say?'

"I: 'Not exactly, but close.'

"He: 'What did he leave out?'

"I: 'Nothing.'

"He: 'Then what did he add?'

"I: 'Himself.'"
According to Neusner, and Pope Benedict agrees, Jesus added Himself into the picture. What a fascinating summary. And so accurate, as far as I can tell. You see, what occurs to me is that it comes down to a simple question of authority. By what right, and by what authority, does Jesus tell the rich young man, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me."

The Rabbi feels, and with a degree of correctness, that it should be "come and follow God". And the Pope believes, again with a degree of correctness, that this is exactly what Jesus is saying.

Interestingly, the question can also be turned around and asked of the Rabbi; By what authority did Moses speak?

I remember having dinner with someone and in the course of this dinner conversation they asked, "So this guy just comes and says he has a message from God and you believe him?"

My response? "Well, isn't that what Moses said?"

The question is the same. By what proof do you accept the authority of the Messenger?

What happened here, in my own limited opinion (remember, this is just my own opinion and nothing official from a Baha'i perspective, so take it or leave it, as you will), is that Moses gave the Law, and had the host of miracles to back Him up. The Jews of the day said, "But Pharaoh is powerful". Moses laughed and said, "You ain't seen nothing yet", and kazow, all these funky things happened that impressed them.

Jesus came, and He clarified our understanding of the Law. He showed us the spiritual import of them, and how that spirit supercedes the letter of those Laws. At the same time, for He is a Messenger of God and can do more than one thing at a time, He also pointed out the importance of His station as a Messenger. Nobody can come to understand God except through His Messenger. To see His Messenger is as close as we can come to seeing God, and to obey His Word is to obey the Word of God.

Baha'u'llah explained this quite clearly in the Kitab-i-Iqan, the Book of Certitude.

But this still doesn't answer that important question: How does the Messenger prove His authority?

Baha'u'llah says that their first proof is their own Selves. They are the first proof. The second proof is their Word.

Most people, when asked that question speak of miracles. But Baha'u'llah, in a fascinating quote from the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, says, "We entreat Our loved ones not to besmirch the hem of Our raiment with the dust of falsehood, neither to allow references to what they have regarded as miracles and prodigies to debase Our rank and station, or to mar the purity and sanctity of Our name."

Wow. He sure doesn't beat around the bush, even if it is burning.

So what does that mean? What is He telling us? Well, obviously, don't lie. But after that. Don't allow references to what we regard as miracles and prodigies to debase His rank and station.

What is a miracle? Or what would we consider to be a miracle? Well, there is that story of the gardener asking Baha'u'llah to protect the garden from the swarm of locusts. Baha'u'llah replied, "But even they have to eat." The gardener begged again, so Baha'u'llah turned to the swarm and asked them to go away because the gardener didn't want them there. So they left. Ok, sure. I would consider that a miracle. So why shouldn't we reference it when speaking of Baha'u'llah's majesty? Hang on a moment and I'll get to that.

What would be an example of a prodigy? How about His revelation of the Kitab-i-Iqan in just a few days? That is nothing short of a prodigy, to be sure.

So why not talk about these? Why not mention them when we talk about how awesome He is?

Because if we use miracles and prodigies as proof, we may be wowed, but our hearts are not necessarily changed, our actions are not improved. The overall effect of the Revelation is diminished. (Diminished? Oh yes, never forget that we can retard the growth of the Faith, although we cannot stop it.) After all, the purpose of Revelation is not entertainment, it is "to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions".

There is a wonderful story from the Master that touches on this point. A man goes to a doctor for a cure, and the doctor says how fortunate he is to have come to him. "For I can perform miracles," he says. And the doctor proceeds to fly around the room. "Isn't this wonderful?" Meanwhile the patient is still suffering. How does the flying, impressive as it is, help the patient? Quite simply, it doesn't.

When we look at the various miracles mentioned in the Texts, it often seems that they are reluctantly performed (except for the ones that surround Their birth), and due to the short-sighted vision of the followers. For example, the people say, "Help, we're in trouble." Moses parts the Sea and allows them to flee, or Jesus walks on the water to guide them to safety. "We're hungry", and they're given manna from heaven or extra bread and fish. "My garden will be ruined", and the locusts are turned away, or the mulberry tree no longer gives fruit (condemning it to be only fit for the fire, to quote a famous line).

Time and again, when I read about the miracles, they seem to be more of an indictment against the followers than they are praise of the Messenger. But that may just be me.

Let's get back to Jesus for a moment, and that quote from Matthew. The one where He says, "come and follow me". What does He mean by that? Some have seen it as an indication of identity with God, but is this the case? Can't it also be read as an indication that He has been further down the "path"? He knows where we are going, so follow him. "Hey, Mead, do you know where the store is?" "Oh sure, follow me. I'll take you there." "Hey, Mead, do you know where Heaven is?" "Nope. I sure don't, but Baha'u'llah does. Follow Him." He has proven Himself to be a good guide, so I will follow Him, and encourage others to do so, too.

And all this comes from taking the time to read a book from a recognized authority in another tradition. I can't wait to see what tomorrow's reading brings.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said. Miracles themselves serve little purpose to us today because we are not alive to witness them. Those in the times of the Messengers have so wanted to see proof of their divinity. We must look at the Messengers themselves. Miracles can be denied as false or inaccurate, but the teachings themselves are solid.