As I write these reflections each day, I’ve been wondering about all the different people around the periphery of this story.
What did Mary’s mother think?
Did she believe Mary?
It’s your own daughter, telling the most outlandish tale you’ve ever heard. Is she telling the truth?
I wrote a novel, a sub-theme of which explored a character’s experience of being believed when she lied and called a liar when she told the truth. At that point, the question is no longer “what is true” but what the person hearing has decided is the truth…which turns out to be something different altogether.
People choose, when presented with information that contradicts their understanding of reality, whether to change their understanding or deny the information. A harsh example is how, when told of a tragedy, most, will say, “No.” Perhaps we won’t respond to a distant tragedy this way, but, verbally or non-verbally, initially we react to the unexpected death of someone we love by refusing it as fact. In the face of certain truth, we scream “No!” I think we would go on screaming, “No!” except that evidence overpowers us.
When I’ve made up my mind about something, which is to say when I have closed my mind to further information or further evidence, I will use whatever information comes my way to strengthen my position. I realized this, almost as an epiphany, near the end of seminary (which felt a little late in the game). Rather than looking at all sides of different theological issues, I had developed the habit of learning for the sake of reinforcing my arguments. I certainly wasn’t alone in this habit, but I felt convicted that this was a poor approach to theology and, I realize now, an approach rooted in fear.
What if I’m wrong about some things? What if I’m wrong about some central beliefs that I hold?
Often, the response to that is, “Well, I can’t be, because I believe what the church believes, I believe what the Bible says, and these beliefs are central to our faith. Therefore, I could not be mistaken.”
Yet, if we’re brave, we admit to ourselves that people have been wrong, over and over, not just a smidgen wrong but wholeheartedly, singlemindedly, unreservedly wrong. When we do pluck up our courage and look at this, for some reason we are also able to place ourselves in a different category from “those people” who believed so wrongly.
I’m fifty years old. When I was born, people still taught–pastors still taught–that God designed segregation between whites and blacks. Only a blatant racist would state that aloud today, but in my lifetime, we have gone from teaching that belief to teaching that belief is wrong. In those years, people trying to worship God in a congregation with blacks and whites together were considered to be rebelling against God.
That, of course, is someone else, someone not nearly as enlightened as we are, and it couldn’t happen to us because…because…we’re so enlightened now.
I don’t know whether Mary’s mother believed Mary or not. As we noted, Elizabeth believed Mary because Elizabeth had experienced her own crazy, ground-shaking miracle, so Elizabeth was in a position to let go of what she “knew” had to be true and believe what she saw and heard, what she was told, even those things that went against what she had previously believed.
Here’s another problem with looking back at the story from the end: we act like all the answers are obvious. We think we would have believed this news about a baby Messiah and a virgin mother, just like we think we would have believed in the resurrection if we had been in Thomas’s shoes. Because we know the answer now, we think we would have seen the answer then.
If we were living in the US South and standing in front of a school building where a tiny, skinny little black girl was walking into school, protected by armed U.S. Marshalls, with all the people screaming vile names and spitting on her, we would have seen–because we see now that they treated Ruby Bridges most unlike how Jesus would have treated her.
One aspect of this hubris is that we imagine that, no matter how we might have been raised, taught, or indoctrinated, we would see through it. Of course we would. That’s a little girl. Spitting on her is evil. Calling her names is shameful.
I think our inability to imagine that we might have gone right along keeps us from seeing when we are wrong now. If we know that we would have stood up against any evil we were raised with, then undoubtedly we would see any evil trying to persuade us now. Undoubtedly. Without doubt. I don’t need to doubt any of the things I do or say or believe, because if I were wrong, I would know.
People called Mary a whore. You know they did. Whether to her face or behind her back, they gossiped and murmured and judged and believed they were righteous in doing so.
The people screaming for Jesus to be crucified probably believed that they were seeking the death of a heretic. They likely thought they saw God’s justice being done when Jesus was put to death. Saul believed he was doing God’s will by hunting down and arresting followers of that Jesus…
Until Saul found out he’d been wrong. Until Jesus asked him, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
I’ve often wondered why Saul got corrected so directly. Perhaps God simply knew this was the man who would influence millions. Perhaps, as I suggested in “Miracle,” Saul still could have rejected that information and chosen to disbelieve. In that post, I looked at what miracles demand from us, what they cost us. Think about how much it cost Saul, in that moment, to admit he’d been wrong. It cost him everything of his life up until that moment. Everything he valued, everything he worked for, everything he believed he’d done for the glory of God.
Do me a favor? As you think on this, don’t skip to the part where Paul (post name-change) says, “I count it all as loss, compared to the surpassing knowledge of knowing Jesus Christ…” Of course, that is true. But that’s looking back from the end. In the moment, Paul had to regain his eyesight. He had to go meet with someone whom he’d earlier that week been hunting to kill. He had to sit at the feet of people whom he had considered God’s enemies and learn from them who God really was. He had to embrace that he’d been, utterly and undoubtedly, wrong. As wrong as he could have been. Seeing that, knowing it, was the only way Paul could learn the truth. Then, and only then, the truth could set him free.
The truth will set you free, but first it will kick your butt.
I don’t know what Mary’s mother thought. It would have been so hard to believe the impossible. Did God choose Mary because Mary was honest and therefore one might believe the impossible from her? Would it simply have gone against her character too much to lie like that? It’s possible, just as it’s possible that God chose Joseph because in his character he was merciful.
I don’t know what I’m wrong about. I don’t know what truth I’m failing–or refusing–to see. I do know I’ve changed more in the past ten years than I thought I would, since I imagined that I was reaching the age of “certainty.” Ha. I say “Ha!” to that.
Being wrong is not the greatest sin. God is faithful. God will lead us into truth. Refusing to see truth? Refusing to be led? That’s dangerous.
I don’t know if I would have believed Mary. Then again, I didn’t believe Jesus at first, either.
But I came around.