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Jesus, the Buddha and the Prodigal Son (EHJ Series)

"The church as school, Jesus as teacher, and Christianity as lifestyle are all part of taking the historical Jesus to church."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

Consider this: Suppose you had the opportunity to spend a couple afternoons learning from the historical Jesus and the Buddha. After listening to the lessons they offer, which one would you follow? Jesus likely said things like, "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27 / Q) and "The empty jar is full because it is empty" (Thom 97:1–4). The Buddha likely said things like "A mind unruffled by the vagaries of fortune, from sorrow freed, from defilements cleansed, from fear liberated—this is the greatest blessing" (Mangala Sutta), and  "The root of suffering is attachment" (Sunakkhatta Sutta, Pali canon).

In attempting to grab a couple representative quotes from each, I quickly realized that (1) it's hard to know what quotes are authentic, and (2) it can be hard to decide which quotes best convey each teacher's world-view. By the way, if you think you're on safer ground finding the historical Buddha than with the historical Jesus, think again. Here's one entertaining response to this problem. I've also heard David Galston, whose book we've been discussing the past several weeks on this blog, warn about the problem of the historical Buddha on at least one occasion.

Nevertheless, the quotes above I hope convey that Jesus is most often associated with loving where hate is expected, and giving where greed is expected. In other words, his wisdom turns on irony. The Buddha is most often associated with the problem of attachment to what is temporary/transitory. We suffer because we fixate on what ought to be rather than practicing openness to what a given moment brings.

These are not identical attitudes. They don't necessarily cancel each other out, but they set different priorities. So who would you follow?

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 5 of 9, "Life Practices and Schools in Antiquity," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Chapter 4

David Galston suggests we understand the essence of teachings associated with Jesus as a "Trinity of Satire"—paradox, hyperbole, and irony. He gives examples of each, including the two quotes I cited above. An example of hyperbole mixed with a little irony is the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this parable, "the loser is celebrated and the winner feels jealous," Galston explains. "The one with all the power is insecure and cannot let it go to enjoy the moment. The one with nothing is having the time of his life."

If you have 5 minutes to spare, you can watch a video of David telling this parable and interpreting it.

David point out that Jesus' saying, "Love your enemies," is a paradox—an impossible statement. Once you begin to love your enemy, s/he is no longer your enemy. By embracing your enemy, the very idea of enemy becomes empty. Perhaps this was what sparked the philosopher Martin Heidegger to declare in Being and Time that our relationship with others is largely based on a false notion of "the they." He writes,

"We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the great mass as they shrink back; we find 'shocking' what they find shocking. The 'they', which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness." (164, emphasis mine)

In other words, we build up this idea in our heads of who the Other is, and we begin to think that we really understand that other person or other group, that we either are with them or against them. But when we have an authentic encounter with another human being, that whole notion falls apart. They are not the caricature we thought they were. "They" never existed at all. What we have left is another complex human being.

Would You Join the Jesus School of Wisdom?
David poses an interesting question here. If the whole issue of Jesus wasn't about deciding whether or not he is God, but rather, whether or not we would follow his teachings, would we do it? This is the third time I've read David's book. The first time was a couple years ago when it came out, and since then I've undergone some changes in perspective that offered me some surprises when I got to this chapter. I now doubt that Jesus has much meaningful to offer somebody who comes from a strongly agrarian perspective. I no longer believe the Jesus school demonstrates closeness with the land.

This is an important issue to me for two reasons: (1) Just because Jesus may have resisted the Roman Empire, doesn't mean he did so in a way that cultivates a positive relationship with the earth. Those are two separate issues. Jesus may not be a good role model for what to me is our single greatest challenge in modern life: replenishing our damaged earth. (2) Itinerant teachers like Jesus may also not offer good advice for long-term communal life.

If these two values are high on your list, you may need to search elsewhere for a school of wisdom that can provide helpful insights. That's how I felt after reading this chapter.

This claim might need justification. It's true that Jesus uses nature metaphors, but I think he has more in common with people who live in urban settings. Even today, especially today, urban life makes migrants out of us. "Though we fled from distant lands to America, we continue to live much like refugees, never staying long enough to cultivate the richest values possible in a specific place," says Ben Falk in The Resilient Farm and Homestead. "We need the opposite kind of culture, a people that mean to stay" (14)

We already know the Jesus movement involved itinerant teachers who traveled from community to community, dependent on those they met to sustain them. Galston observes the similarity between this practice and that of the Greek Stoics, who likewise lived with little beyond the clothes on their backs. They did this on principle; it was part of the lifestyle of the school. It makes me think of Thoreau at Walden's Pond. I value simplicity to a point, but simplicity is easier for the itinerant than to the person who stays in one place, embedded in a community with all the messiness that entails.

By contrast, agrarian people usually live in multi-generational households in the same basic landscape, and are deeply shaped by that landscape the longer they live on it. This attitude is present in the Bible, mostly in what became the Old Testament. "The very pervasiveness of agrarian thinking in the Bible challenges the common assumption that those who composed or edited the writings were members of an urban elite whose perspectives 'distort or ignore the everyday reality of [villagers'] lives," explains Ellen F. Davis in Scripture, Culture and Agriculture (3).

I am especially taken with Davis' interpretation of the Israelite's exodus from Egypt. She sees the commandments given to the Israelites as a way to separate them from the exploitative practices of Egypt (or, metaphorically, the Israel's ruling class at the time the story was written). "Exploitative agricultural economies were for millenia a fixed feature of various Near Eastern societies," she explains, "including that of Israel and Judah in the period of the divided monarchy" (72). She notes that in this story the Israelites are not allowed to keep the manna overnight. In short, they aren't allowed to stockpile or control the distribution of food.

In complete contrast to agribusiness in both ancient and contemporary cultures, the first story of Israel out of Egypt shows that food is, more than anything else, an expression of God's sovereignty over creation and generosity toward humankind. (73)

I would substitute "God's sovereignty over creation" in this sentence with something about honoring our inability to force life to come into being. Davis is right, I think, to identify the importance of gratitude. In every book I have read, and every interaction I've had with long-time farmers in their least frustrated and anxious moments, gratitude is their highest value. In the words of Rilke:

Though he works and worries, the farmer
never reaches down to where the seed turns
into summer. The earth grants.

In this, I at last find a commonality between the Jesus tradition and the land-based attitude I am currently cultivating in my own life. While I think anybody with commonsense knowledge of nature would disagree with the notion that ravens "neither reap nor sow" (how untrue!), and with the notion that worrying about the future isn't occasionally useful to a cultivator of the land (surely it's helpful to prepare for contingencies!), we can at least agree with Jesus on this: "Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these" (Luke 12:27).

Gratitude—for the earth, for others, and ultimately for our own fleeting lives—is a value I'd like to prioritize. Is that more in keeping with Jesus or the Buddha? I don't know enough about the life of the Buddha, or popular ideas about that life, to comment intelligently on it. However, Jesus' itinerant lifestyle suggests he resisted or was encouraged to abandon the ties to the exact lands and households that once sustained him. To be sure, he may have been forced out by social and personal pressures. I think this may have impoverished the lessons he taught in the particular area we most need wisdom today.

The Prodigal Son is the closest we come to what we need, with a twist: do we have the day-in, day-out staying power of the oldest son? Are we willing to celebrate what we have, including our brother, rather than be celebrated for nothing?

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Den förlorade sonens återkomst, Alex Kull (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Den förlorade sonens återkomst, Alex Kull (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Bibliography

David, Ellen F. Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Falk, Ben. The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1962 [Original 1927].

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.