Many of us know the work of Kahlil Gibran. His lyrical words have been recited in our weddings and his mystical poetry and writings such as The Prophet make him a perennial favorite of the spiritually and literarily inclined.
While many presume Gibran to be Muslim, he was actually a lifelong Maronite Roman Catholic. One of his more famous writings was his 1928 work on Jesus, Son of Man. In it, Gibran narrates the life of Jesus through more than 60 monologues from the perspectives of those who claim to have directly known or heard of Jesus. They include a philosopher, an apothecary, a Greek poet, a high priestess, a Jerusalem cobbler, an innkeeper, a Lebanese shepherd and a scribe.
While each gets their own short chapter, it is Mary Magdalene who receives three full chapters in Gibran’s work. In these chapters, the dialogue is offered from the perspective of the Magdalene. It is sensual at the same time it is highly mystical. Gibran makes Mary and Jesus come alive in these exchanges. A friend of mine who has been hard at work on an icon portraying Jesus and the Magdalene provided me with a copy of these three chapters. She said it inspired her.
I can see why.
They Love You for Themselves….
As I sat in my car at church Tuesday waiting for an adult education meeting to begin, I began to read through these chapters only to be stopped dead in my tracks by this statement near the end of the first chapter:
[Mary] I cried to him and I said, “Master, come to my house. I have incense to burn for you and a silver basin for your feet. You are a strange and yet not a stranger. I entreat you, come to my house.” Then He stood up and looked at me even as the seasons might look down upon a field, and He smiled. And He said, “All men love you for themselves. I love you for yourself.”
And then He walked away.
I felt explosions in my head. My heart was racing and my face tingled. Gibran had drawn a bead on an issue I have struggled with for several decades now with these two sentences:
All men love you for themselves. I love you for yourself.
Gibran’s Jesus recognized the instrumental way that men sought out Mary to use her for their own purposes but always at her personal expense. It was the common, expected way that they would see her in a patriarchal culture like their own and, sadly, like our own as well. But Jesus expresses a love for Mary that is personal and all encompassing. He does not see the degradation imposed on Mary and the sin thus projected onto her. He simply sees Mary and loves her for herself.
All of her.
It’s important to note here that there is absolutely no historical evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. She was constructed as such by some of the early church fathers perhaps because it was clear Mary was indeed beloved by Jesus and was clearly a leader in the early Jesus movement. G-d forbid that a woman lead the early church much less the current one! How better to dismiss that threat to patriarchy than to paint her as the whore in the church’s perennial virgin or whore motif.
But Jesus sees through these self-serving, deprecatory constructions in Gibran’s paean to her. Jesus only sees Mary. And loves her. All of her. His love does not demand she repent as a condition for loving her, either from the degradation projected onto her by others or from her own self-deprecation. Jesus does not demand she buy into a given set of ideas as a condition of loving her or engage in a set of behaviors in order for him to forgive her before he loves her. Jesus simply loves her for herself.
As she is. All of her.
DKJN (Don’t Know Jesus of Nazareth)
Gibran’s narrative has helped me draw into focus one of my ongoing concerns about much of Christian theology that dates back to my very first encounters with it. Truth be told, very few of us know, understand or appreciate Jesus on his own terms, much less love Jesus for Jesus’ sake.
We mostly could care less about his humanity or his extraordinary life. We could care less about his intense awareness of those who suffered in the world around him and the vibrant compassion for them that he exemplified in his ministry, a page right out of the Hebrew Prophetic Tradition. We could care less about his teachings from the Hebrew Wisdom Tradition, much of which draws our conventional “wisdom” into question. Indeed, most of us only care about his suffering at all in so far as it instrumentally serves our purposes, as a silver bullet for original sin and thereby the abatement of our existential insecurities about death and the afterlife. By that equation, Jesus becomes the ultimate means of terror management for Christians.
In the process we Christians have completely written Jesus out of the Creeds we say every week, relegating his entire life to a punctuation mark: “born of the Virgin Mary [COMMA] suffered death and was buried….” We conflate Jesus with one of many possible constructions of the Christ in our references to him - Jesus Christ - as if his description (the Greek christos means the anointed one) was his last name. And we caricaturize him in films like The Passion in which Jesus becomes the celestial Road Warrior, a superhero enduring what biblical scholar Jon Dominic Crossan rightly called “an orgy of violence” – and all “for us and our salvation…”
We love Jesus for ourselves. But we don’t love Jesus for himself.
As I read these words from Gibran yesterday and thought about Jesus, I felt my eyes welling with tears. It breaks my heart to think that we have been so casual and so self-serving about Jesus. We Christians do very well with one or more versions of the Christ that had begun to be constructed using Jesus as one of the raw materials even in his lifetime and then took off once he was no longer around to object to that construction process. But we don’t really talk much about Jesus. Indeed, in the Protestant half of Christianity we alternatively sanitize his ignominious execution by making him disappear from the cross entirely under the rubric of “the risen Christ” or we fetishize the crucifixion, egotistically reveling in our own sinfulness and obsessing over how much Jesus had to suffer - and all just to save me.
In short, we’re great Docetists not to mention instrumentalists. But we’re lousy friends of Jesus, much less followers of his Way or builders of his Kingdom.
Jesus Deserves Better
The truth is, Jesus probably wouldn’t recognize himself in most of our constructions to begin with. And this spirit intoxicated teacher and compassion-driven healer would decidedly not recognize the punitive, judging G-d our atonement theologies have constructed in his name. The G-d whom Jesus intimately referred to as Abba, Daddy, is not even in the same moral universe with the blood thirsty deity of atonement theology which demands human sacrifice as the condition for even entering into a process Jesus’ Abba had gladly engaged with no strings attached from the beginning of time: the forgiveness of human sin.
I honestly think Jesus deserves better than this. He deserves to be understood on his own terms and loved for himself, not what we have required him to become for us. I am personally indebted to the iconoclastic Jesus Seminar for bringing these issues to consciousness for me over the past two decades. But the Seminar has met much resistance from the guardians of the institutional church which I serve as priest and it has endured much derision and dismissal from many in the pews who generally know very little about their work.
Perhaps that is why it is a mystic poet from Lebanon with an Arabic name who is required to point this out to us on a very warm, muggy day in a church parking lot and not the theologians who would presume to speak for a Jesus of their own making from their pulpits and lecterns in the comfortable settings of our churches.
Little wonder Jesus wept.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)