Uniform 04.27.2014: Good Things and Bad Things

Isaiah 53:5-8a; Luke 24:25-27, 44-47

Note: This entry contains spoilers about a specific episode of the television series, Doctor Who.

One of my favorite television shows, Doctor Who, follows a time-traveling alien who appears at some of the most crucial moments of history and attempts to right wrongs or redirect paths. Instead of dying from injuries or old age, he regenerates into a man with a new face and personality who still remembers everything he has done. The Doctor almost always has a “companion,” a friend who travels with him for a while and helps viewers wrap their minds around the various events and sometimes overwhelming themes.

Many episodes offer a striking application to real life, often with an accompanying quotation that I can’t forget. In one of the most powerful shows, the Eleventh Doctor and his friend Amy Pond end up in France in 1890, where they encounter the brilliant artist, Vincent van Gogh. Amy, of course, is familiar with both his paintings and his fame, and she’s startled to find that Vincent is a lonely, depressed man whose creations are mocked.

The Doctor often has to remind his companions not to attempt to alter history. Certain points in time are “fixed,” and only the Doctor can determine if any can be changed. Throughout the episode “Vincent and the Doctor,” Amy struggles to contain her excitement over the paintings. The two time travelers do seem to brighten Vincent’s outlook on life, and they develop a fondness for him that eventually causes the Doctor to offer a unique opportunity to the artist: he invites Vincent into the TARDIS (time machine) and takes him to view an exhibit of his art more than a century later. We watch Vincent van Gogh hold back tears as he realizes the value of his gift.

Amy is certain that this trip to the future will change Vincent for the better. Surely he will overcome his depression and go on to create many more paintings. But after she and the Doctor leave him in his own time, they return to the exhibit and find that he still committed suicide at the age of 37. Distraught, Amy looks to the Doctor for wisdom. He hugs her tightly and says, “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things…. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but, vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

I have often wished for my own TARDIS. There are certainly things I’d like to go back and undo, and it would be interesting to hop into the future and see where my life is headed. What if we could climb into a time machine and go back to the last week of Jesus’ life? What if the ancient words of prophets like Isaiah could have been fulfilled in a different way? What if we could stop Jesus’ death on the cross, help him avoid that pain and humiliation, and support him as the kind of political and religious leader we know he could be?

When Isaiah wrote about the one who was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (53:7), he wasn’t necessarily laying out the stepping stones for Jesus’ life path. He was speaking to a people facing division, exile, and war. He pointed out their failures, but he also told them how to repent, and he gave them hope. Many years later, New Testament writers applied Isaiah’s ancient words to Jesus Christ. Soon after his resurrection, Jesus himself talked to two disciples who didn’t recognize him. He highlighted these well-known Scriptures and revealed that he was fulfilling them (Lk 24).

Did Isaiah’s words lay the foundation for a “fixed” point in history? Did they describe, line by line, the exact things that Jesus would have to suffer? And when Jesus came along, did he do what he did because of what Isaiah had said? Or could he have walked a different path? We can only ponder these questions.

Personally, I think it’s a good thing that time travel is science fiction. It would be a devastating responsibility to choose what to change and what to leave alone. To me, it is comforting that the God who can see all of history, all of today, and all possibilities for tomorrow still lets us make our own choices. Could God wipe it all away and start over? Of course. Could God go back and take away Jesus’ pain and torment? Certainly. Is God the ultimate judge on the “fixed” points of history? I believe that God is.

And yet I’m filled with wonder and gratefulness that God lets us encounter the “pile of good things and bad things” in life. I have found that the bad things make us ever more aware of the good things. The terribly bad thing of Jesus Christ suffering and dying on the cross did nothing to spoil the amazingly good thing of his resurrection and the hope that it gives us. To me, that hope is the most important thing in the world. I pray that it is for you as well.

Discussion

1. Have you ever given any thought to time travel? Have you wished it were possible? If you could travel backward or forward in time, where and when would you go? What would you do?
2. We certainly aren’t able to travel in time and change the past. How can we handle our mistakes? What can we change in the present to help us heal from the past and get us on a better path for the future?
3. Do you agree with the Doctor’s quote about the good and bad things in life? Has this been true in your own life?
4. When you ponder the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, what are the “bad things”? What are the “good things”? What makes you grateful?
5. Now that we have moved through Lent, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, where do our steps lead for the rest of the year? How can we make the kinds of choices today that will lead to positive tomorrows?

“Vincent and the Doctor” (written by Richard Curtis and directed by Jonny Campbell), Doctor Who, 5 June 2010, BBC (UK), season 5, episode 10.

Reference Shelf

The recitation by Cleopas and friend in vv. 19-21a is a pretty good summary of the least that one should have been able to conclude about Jesus from Luke’s narrative—absent faith. Cleopas thus represents approximately the position of “the people” at this point in the story. Jesus was a great prophet sent by God (7:16, reported as popular opinion about Jesus), “powerful in word and deed” (4:36; 19:48). Blaming “our chief priests and leaders” for handing Jesus over to death reminds the audience that although the people also called for Jesus’ crucifixion, they had been grief-stricken before and after the crucifixion (23:27, 48), while the leaders had mocked Jesus on the cross (23:35). The people, then, were already on the way to repentance, but their leaders had not changed their minds. Finally, “we were hoping that he is the one about to redeem Israel.” This was Zechariah’s interpretation of the births of John and Jesus (1:68), which he elaborated as “salvation from our enemies and from the hands of all who hate us” (1:71). Luke notes that there were others looking forward to this day (2:38), hoping for the appearance of the Messiah (3:15); the disciples more specifically hoped that Jesus was a king (19:38) and that he would restore Israel’s self-rule (Acts 1:6).

But Cleopas and his walking buddy are not just “the people”; they’re members of the group of Jesus’ followers. Why is their understanding no clearer than the crowds’? Has the Son of Man returned only to find no faith among his disciples (18:8)? These two remark that “in addition to these things, this, the third day from everything that happened, has come”; it is not clear that they know the significance of “the third day,” and thus fail to remember Jesus’ prediction to be raised (18:33). They do remember the experience and testimony of the women, and report that some of the men then went to see the tomb, finding it as empty as the women said. But nothing seems to have twigged their memory of how Jesus predicted all this, and thus they are unprepared to recognize Jesus even though he stands next to them.

Odysseus, in his beggar’s costume, meets his wife Penelope and tells her that he entertained her husband in Crete. She asks him to describe Odysseus; he does, down to the clothes he was wearing, and she weeps as she admits that she prepared those very robes for her departed beloved. Now Odysseus tells her to dry her tears, and assures her that he knows that her husband is not dead, but waiting to learn “how he should approach his own island of Ithaca after so long an absence, whether to return openly or in disguise. So you see that he is safe and will soon be back. Indeed, he is very close. His exile from his friends and his country will be ended very soon.”

Jesus is less tender with his two disciples: “O fools and slow in heart to believe everything the prophets said!” “Slow in heart” might mean either “slow-witted” or “reluctant,” since the ancients considered the heart the spot where one thought and made decisions. Jesus’ reference to “what the prophets said” is expanded in v. 27 to “Moses and all the prophets” and in v. 44 to “everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms.” Clearly in v. 27 and in vv. 46-47, Jesus is interpreting Scripture, and so the primary reference for “prophets” in v. 25 is probably the Bible in its entirety. But we should probably also include Jesus’ own predictions of his death, since the two disciples admit that he was a prophet; and I wonder if Luke would include the male disciples’ slowness to believe the words of the women, who brought them the word of God’s having raised Jesus?

Luke believed that according to Scripture, “it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and [then] to enter his glory” by being raised from the dead and given a seat at God’s right. The Servant Songs from Isaiah as well as some of the psalms of lament speak of how a just man, rejected by others and numbered with the lawless, is handed over to death but then rewarded by God (Isa 53:12 LXX; Ps 30:5 LXX [Eng 31:4]—note that the next verse is “into your hands I commit my spirit”). “It was necessary,” then, because God’s plan, revealed in Scripture, had to be fulfilled. So Jesus had to be “handed over” from Judas to the chief priests to Pilate to death; because it was all pre-scripted, Jesus could with confidence predict it (9:22; 18:31-33). But the disciples failed to understand it when he predicted it (18:34), for the same reason they are clueless in this scene: “this matter was hidden from them and they did not understand what was being said.”

OK—why would God prevent the disciples from understanding Jesus’ predictions of his death, if that would have helped them deal with the shock of his death? And why call them foolish and dull- witted/reluctant for failing to understand what God had hidden from them? This is another example of the kind of paradox that Jesus’ Passion Narrative presented for Luke. Take Judas, for instance; one of Jesus’ own disciples handed him over—that was in the tradition Luke inherited and had to explain. If it happened that way, it must have been part of God’s plan, yet the one who betrayed Jesus cannot be held guiltless (22:22). Luke’s received tradition also made it clear that despite Jesus’ predictions of the cross, his death stunned his closest followers; Luke’s source Mark has the disciples flee in 14:50 and the women run from the tomb, saying nothing to anyone (Mark 16:8). This, too, must be part of God’s plan, in Luke’s way of thinking—“God must have prevented their comprehension” would make sense to Luke’s audience. But just as Judas should be blamed for his crime, even though it was “necessary” and even though he was under Satan’s control, so the disciples really should have remembered Jesus’ predictions and the words of the prophets. Looking backwards, Luke can reason that all went according to God’s plan, but he cannot completely excuse Judas’s treachery or the disciples’ failures to comprehend; they were all called to a much higher standard, to bearing their cross and following Jesus.

Resource

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 757-58.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum since 2001. She is a member of West Highland Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, spending time with her husband and two daughters, and watching British television shows. Her goal for 2014 is to learn to play the piano.

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