Turning the Tables on Respectability

“Wherever Jesus went there were riots; wherever I go they serve tea.” ~ N.T. Wright

I’m no mystic but I have had a few inexplicable experiences; experiences which proved to be as informative as much as they were transformative.

One such instance was when I was a boy of about twelve years of age. I was riding home from school on an old yellow bus on a warm spring day. Since I lived out of town, I rode alone at the back of the bus for about half an hour every afternoon. On this particular day I remember sitting quietly while staring out of the window at the blossoming trees, looking but not seeing. I was caught in one of those contemplative moods that are fairly common for young men left alone with their thoughts.

“What will I do with my life? What will I be?” Suddenly, it occurred to me, in a moment of quiet inspiration, that while I didn’t have any idea what I would do, I had a very clear notion of what I would not do.

I would not drive a bus every day; I was far too driven for that. I would not be an employee. I would not be a drudge. I would not be a drone or dromedary. I would not be a serial number or a beast of burden. I didn’t have the faintest idea what I would do, but I knew that I would not punch a time clock. I would not sit in a tiny cubicle, loathing Monday and longing for Friday. I couldn’t abide the thought of grinding along until there was nothing left but the grindstone.

As Providence would have it, I was right. My adolescent daydream became my destiny. Though at times I have been broke (or at least badly bent), I have never been a drone. I have turned my back on quislings, rejected promotions on principle, and eschewed ladders that led to nowhere. Of course, my insouciance has gotten me into some trouble along the way, but that is what one finds on the road less travelled. I have been perceived as aloof and arrogant—an unstable upstart, a loose canon, a veritable rouser of rabble. But perception and reality bear little resemblance to one another. One wit called such obstacles the cliff over which a man falls upwards. I say, Amen.

I blame Mrs. Hill. She was my childhood Sunday School teacher and she started it. She taught me the stories of Jesus with her warm smile and worn out flannel graph. She would place paper figures of Jesus and the disciples on the flannel-covered board and move them about to illustrate the particular lesson for the day. I learned about a wee, little man and his sycamore tree, a boy who gave Jesus his sack lunch, and Lazarus who rose like an Egyptian mummy from the dead. But mostly I learned about Jesus. Jesus mean and wild.

I blame Mrs. Hill and her flannel graph for my contrariness. It was that story about Jesus turning the tables on the religious power-brokers of his day that got my blood up. To me this was the most exciting story of them all. Some of the more pious saints later told me that Jesus acted so “out of character” because he didn’t like the merchants selling their wares in the temple, but somehow I knew better than that. Jesus turned over the tables because he was mad as an old, wet hen.  If the picture of Jesus as a “raging rabbi” unsettles you then the point of it all is getting through.

He was angry.  He sent pigeons and penny-filled purses flying hither and yon. He scattered the sheep with cords and threatened the goats who were selling them for exorbitant prices. The zeal of the Lord consumed him. It was gnawing at me pretty good too.

She didn’t paint a portrait of the Jesus that could do wonderful shampoo commercials, with his silken hair and perfectly apportioned face. She taught us that the Lord’s Christ had fire in his eyes and lighting in his fists. He was the great iconoclast. He was no doormat deity. He was anything but respectable. That made him worthy of respect.

He saw Peter, James, John, Matthew, and the rest being drones and he told them to walk away from it all. “Follow me,” he said. And they did. They weren’t cut out to be cut outs.

He was paradox incarnate. He blessed the down and out and he cursed the high and mighty. He stooped down to prostitutes and stood up to pharisees. He wasn’t given to the trite dearlybelovedism of most modern ministers. He addressed his combative congregants as pit vipers, whitewashed tombs, bastard sons of Abraham, and other glowing appellations. And he did so without quenching one smoking flax.

I decided early on to follow his steps as best I could, turning the tables on those who sought to tame him. Is that a respectable ambition? I certainly hope not…

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