Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Waiting for God/Waiting for Godot

"Waiting for God" was a British sitcom (1990-94) about the residents of a retirement community in England.  Life in the home was anything but boring.  Every week residential life was depicted full of zany activities, with rare moments of pathos—it was after all a comedy!  In real life, however, I suspect the situation is much different.
Except for the idle rich, figuring out what to do with life is a problem that under the best of circumstances primarily concerns young adults and the very aged.  In our youth there are many options, but in advanced old age options are severely reduced.  Because of health issues life in very old age can even border on the tedious, somewhat like the situation depicted in Samuel Beckett's strange play in two acts (Waiting for Godot, 1953) featuring two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting on a road beside a tree for someone called Godot—who never comes.  Things happen in the play true enough, but there seems little point to it all, and at the end of the play the two protagonists are left, still waiting for Godot, whom they are told "will surely come tomorrow."  The play is not intended as an allegory, says the playwright, which leaves the audience pondering what sense to make of the absurdity of it all.
            Sitting, beside the road, absurdly waiting is where many in advanced old age find themselves, pondering what to make of their situation.  They are in the world but no longer of it—in the sense that they are no longer contributing to the principal structures of society.  The primary option left open to them, health permitting, is that of "helper."  More often than not, in the case of many, they are simply marking time and wondering when life's last great adventure will begin.
Like the mammals we are, human beings are biologically hard-wired for survival, and for active participation in life as protagonists or actors, rather than being consigned to last season's sets stored away when the play is done.  We are naturally curious and motivated to aspire, rather than to despair—self-survival, curiosity, and aspiration may very well be the primary features that make us human.
Alas, another feature of our humanity is mortality, so many of us will not make it into advanced old age.  Those of us that do, if they are fortunate enough to avoid the "Big C" in the spinning down of their lives, will experience unexpected health issues with which they are unprepared to cope: loss of independence, restricted mobility, lack of energy, loss of hearing, failing eyesight, inability to focus, imbalance, short term memory loss, forgetfulness, arthritis, Alzheimer's, the shrinking of our world and our prospects in it—to mention only a few.  Under such conditions we are apt to forget that we humans come from a long tribe of explorers and world adventurers--finding cures for smallpox and tuberculosis, overcoming superstition through education, leaving footprints on the moon and much more.  At this stage of life, however, it is small consolation to be reminded that we are fortunate enough to be at this point in life only because of the accomplishments of our tribe!  Then the struggle will commence between the nobler aspects of our humanity and its baser character.
            Remembering we belong to a proud species, we take each day as it comes, accepting what it brings and always aiming higher, even if it is only to take just one step more than the previous day. The opening stanza of a poem by Dylan Thomas expresses in my opinion the essence of what it means to be human in advanced old age:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
To do less diminishes humanity to its baser elements.
How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Friday, November 1, 2013

An Allusion in Search of a Narrative: Betraying Jesus

The tradition about Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, may be a simple case of early Christian creative fiction.  The earliest mention of betrayal comes in a liturgical text associating "the night on which [Jesus] was betrayed" with the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23-25).  No further description is given and no betrayer named.  Paul did not know the stories about Judas' betrayal of Jesus in the early Christian gospels, which in his day had not yet been written.  Paul's passing allusion to a cryptic betrayal was a mystery in search of a narrative to clarify it.
A generation or so later (around 70 C.E.), Mark's Passion Narrative (chaps. 14-16) begins with a plot by the chief priests and scribes to arrest Jesus "by stealth" for they were afraid of starting a riot (Mark 14:1-2)—one assumes their fear derived from the popularity of Jesus with the crowds (Mark 11:18-19).  Judas Iscariot is portrayed as an insider in Jesus' circle who offered "to betray him," and the chief priests offered him an unstated amount of money for the service (Mark 14:10-12).  What was being betrayed is unclear. One assumes that Judas promised to disclose a place where Jesus could be arrested away from the crowds, for it happened that way (Mark 14:32-50).  Judas came with a rabble organized "by the chief priests, scribes and elders," to Gethsemane and betrayed Jesus with a kiss.  Jesus, however, was a public figure and his whereabouts were clearly known (Mark 11:15-13:1), as Jesus himself complained at his arrest (Mark 14:49), alluding mysteriously to an unnamed scripture being "fulfilled."  It strains credulity to think that his whereabouts out of the public eye could not easily have been known without an informer.  Judas' motives are unknown.  He asked for nothing, although the priests promised him an unspecified amount of money.  What happened to Judas is also unknown.  Mark apparently lost interest in continuing his story.
Sometime after Mark was written, the Judas tradition underwent significant developments.  In Matthew the chief priests and elders plot to take Jesus "by stealth and kill him" (Matt 26:3-4). Judas volunteers to betray Jesus, asking for an unspecified consideration in return: "What will you give me if I deliver him to you?" (Matt 26:14-15), and they paid him "thirty pieces of silver."  Matthew, prompted by what he regarded as a "prophecy," has turned Mark's unstated amount of money into "thirty pieces of silver" (Zechariah 11:12; cf., Exodus 21:32)—as the "prophecy" foretold.  Judas came with a rabble organized by the chief priests and elders to Gethsemane, and betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Matt 26:47-50).  Later, conscience-stricken, Judas repented, returned the thirty pieces of silver to the temple, and hanged himself (Matt 27:3-5).  The chief priests, regarding the thirty pieces of silver as "blood money," purchased a potter's field, which according to Matthew, fulfills a prophecy (Matt 27:7-10) in Zechariah 11:13 (not Jeremiah!).  In so doing, Matthew made an unfortunate association between Judas the betrayer of Jesus and the good shepherd of Zechariah chapter 11.
Sometime later, unaware of Matthew's narrative, Luke described Judas as the "pawn" of Satan.  Under the influence of an evil power, Judas did not come to the chief priests and scribes seeking money, 22:3-6, but simply offered to betray Jesus because Satan had "entered into" him (Luke 22:3).  He was given money, but that was not his motive (Luke 22:4-6). His motive was not rational but demon inspired.   Judas then led the crowd to the Mount of Olives, and among them were officers of the temple, chief priests, and elders (22:39, 47-54).  Luke completes the story of Judas in his second volume (the Acts of the Apostles).  Under the influence of what Luke regards as "prophecies" (Psalm 69:26; 109:8), he describes the death of Judas (Acts 1:16-20) as falling, breaking "open in the middle," and his bowels gushed out.
At the end of the first century in John's story there is no indication of money for information. Judas has become the helpless puppet of the Devil; Jesus knew ahead of time what Judas would do (John 13:11), and described him as a devil (John 6:70-71)—not simply "demon possessed," as Luke does. John cites a "prophecy" about a specific act of betrayal (Psalm 41:10), apparently unknown to the other evangelists. The character of Judas is castigated as only pretending to be interested in the plight of the poor, for he was really a thief (John 12:4-8), who betrayed his friends by taking money from the group's money box (John 12:6; 13:29). Twice it is said of Judas that the devil put it into his heart to betray Jesus (John13:2, 27).  While the chief priests and Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus (John 11:47-53), there was no collusion between Judas and the priests to accomplish it.  Judas, prompted by Jesus (John13:27), procures a "band of soldiers" (John 18:2-3) and leads the band of soldiers with their captain and officers of the Jews to a garden to seize Jesus (John 18:1-12).  Judas' fate is not described in John.
The Pauline allusion to an ambiguous betrayal has found four different narratives in a half century: (1) a dubious idea that an insider provided unnecessary information in exchange for financial considerations, shaped by figurative readings of unstated "scriptures" (Mark); (2) an enhancement of Mark's narrative, shaped by figurative interpretations ("prophecies") of Hebrew Bible (Matthew); (3) an enhancement of Mark's narrative attributing the betrayal to demonic possession, shaped by figurative interpretations ("prophecies") of Hebrew Bible (Luke); a mythical narrative of the transmogrification of Judas into a devil, shaped by figurative interpretations ("prophecies") of Hebrew Bible (John).
Where is the history in these imaginative fictions?  All four are clearly shaped by early Christian hermeneutic.  In Luke and John the betrayal is accomplished by the superstition (the ancient pre-scientific worldview) that the world is inhabited by demons.  Mark's depiction of Jesus as a public figure is a serious obstacle to the idea that an informer is even necessary.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University