Identifying with Nicodemus

Identification—who or what you identify with—is a major determinant of how things seem to you. Everybody knows that. It would seem obvious, then, that changing “who you identify with,” would produce big changes in how you understand what you see and what you hear.

And it does.

But changing who you identify with isn’t as easy as you might think. I’m going to get around to John’s treatment of Nicodemus in John, Chapter 3, but I want to play a little with identification first.

I heard a story long ago about a father who wanted to take his son to see a popular movie about Christians in Rome. Unfortunately, part of what was shown was the slaughter of Christians by lions in the arena. The father told his son about what was going to happen and assured him it was OK, it was just a story. But when the scene began, the son began tugging on the father’s sleeve. “Daddy, look at the little lion.” The father tried to quiet him, “We already talked about this, son. It’s only a movie.”

This happened several more times. If you are telling this story and if you have the time, make this part of the story come around several times. It builds up our appreciation of the father’s frustration. Then, finally, the father says, “What is it, son?” It is his chance, finally. “Daddy, look at the little lion. He ain’t gettiin’ any!”

So take a minute and think what that long-familiar “Christians in the arena” scene would mean to someone whose highest hope was that even the little lions would get something to eat; that they would not be forced to watch the bigger lions get it all. The father did all the explaining he could, but he did not attach the son’s interest firmly to the poor Christian martyrs, suffering for their faith, and move it off the fate of the poor little lion. It doesn’t matter to the story, but it is not hard to imagine that the son is on the small side himself and has to face the possibility that the bigger kids—bigger brothers?—are going to get all the good stuff and leave him nothing.

Just a guess.

When I study the first of the Discourses in the gospel of John, I might think I have my choice about who to identify with. I see three possibilities. Jesus, Nicodemus, and John. If you were raised in church, you already know that you ought to identify with Jesus, but what if you don’t like him? He talks funny. He’s not nice at all to Nicodemus. And the fact that you are supposed to like him best might not help. Particularly it will not help if, after a lifetime spent with this tension, you try to identify with someone else.

You might try to identify with Nicodemus, but there isn’t much Nicodemus to relate to. He is a stage prop. His only real function, apart from representing a possibly pro-Jesus faction of the Pharisees, is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying and, by that means, open up the next topic Jesus wants to address. If you do manage to identify with him, it is with his role as a victim. “Victim” gives a moral cast to the transaction. It is hard to identify with a stage prop.

Of, after you have been exposed to a number of scholarly treatments of this Discourse, you might try to identify with John. That’s where I am at the moment. That’s why I know how hard it is to change earlier identifications. John has to present Jesus as someone you could understand and follow. Nicodemus can’t, but you can. So you can join in the general laugher when Nicodemus is struck nearly dumb with the idea that Jesus is instructing this grown man to get back inside his mother’s body and come out again through the birth canal. Nicodemus says, “Surely you jest!” and we are supposed to think that he should have understood what Jesus really meant.

But what if you don’t understand, either, just how Jesus’ answer was a good one. That’s not on Jesus; that’s on John. It’s easier in Greek, the language in which the gospel was written. The word Jesus uses, the one Nicodemus hears as “born” can mean that; it can also mean “begotten.” And the word Jesus uses, the one Nicodemus hears as “again” can also mean “from above.” So “born again,” wrong as it is in the context of this conversation, is perfectly plausible and it isn’t wrong…exactly. But what Jesus clearly means—the understanding that fits naturally into the other things he is saying to Nicodemus—leans strongly toward “begotten from above.” It is the Heavenly Father who begets; it is from Him that the life comes.

Following the scholarly route, you can say that John is trying present Jesus as “the one from heaven,” and being the one from heaven, he speaks the heavenly language, he assumes the heavenly perspective. By giving to Jesus expressions that will be misunderstood by people whose minds are not ready but that will be the best news ever to those to whom the truth is revealed, John is saying something about Jesus. Jesus is Other. He is “not like us.” He is Someone to whom we can aspire.

If I had to guess, I would guess that as a communications strategy, that fit the audience John had in mind. Jesus is to be aspired to. One sign that you, the listener, are “begotten from above” is that you understand what Jesus means. And if you don’t, entirely, you want to. What, after all, are the implications if you do not?

That’s not really how a modern audience comes at the question. We hold that the speaker has the burden of communication and if we have not understood, the speaker has failed. You could think of Jesus of the speaker. It would be hard for a child not to and if they did, it would be hard to change later on. It’s more an emotional wound than a cognitive judgment. Or you could think of John as the “speaker,”—it is John who has chosen this mode of communication as a way to represent a crucial truth about Jesus. So if it doesn’t work, it’s on John. It didn’t work for Nicodemus, for sure. So we can criticize John for having chosen a communication strategy that doesn’t work as well twenty centuries later as it did at the time. You could, that is, if you could stop feeling sorry for Nicodemus. He is, after all, the “little lion” from the movie and saying that he just doesn’t get it is not all that different from saying that he isn’t getting any, even the leftovers.

I had hoped that I would be able to write this so that it was less transparently autobiographical than it has turned out to be. I am at the place in the process where I am trying to appreciate what John’s problem as a writer really is and to assess how well he does at this difficult problem. He needs to present Jesus as Truly Other, but yet as telling a truth we can come to understand and live by. That requires that we aspire to understand the speaker, when the current fashion is to critique the speaker for whatever part we don’t understand at the first pass.

I believe the truth of what Jesus says, as nearly as I understand it. I feel with Nicodemus. He had a tough night. I hope his wife didn’t ask him, when he got home in the early hours, how it went. I have a dawning appreciation for John’s strategy. It is daring, even for his people in his time, let alone for my people in my time. I find myself trying on, and then abandoning, other strategies he might have tried.

And the more such strategies turn out to be failures, the more willingly I turn back to what John actually did and I think, “You know, that a lot better than I thought it was at first.”

I’ll keep trying. If it starts to work better, I’ll let you know.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to Identifying with Nicodemus

  1. Michael Hale says:

    This is hardly going to be an insightful comment on a well-reasoned discourse; sorry ’bout that. But, that said, as I started to read this piece the phrase “It is hard to identify with a stage prop” struck a chord. Why do so many people identify with Trump when he seems to be nothing but a stage prop?

    And, yes, it’s off-topic, but I liked the phrase so much!

    Thanks for writing and sharing.

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