March 20, 2010


One day the temple master called his youngest disciple to sit and eat with him in private. This disciple had been a devotee for many years and had carefully followed the ways of his teacher, learning to emulate the life of the Master as best he could.

But the great Master was now an elderly man and knew that he was close to death. He was fond of this disciple, yet he feared that the disciple was still some way from achieving enlightenment–not despite the Master’s diligence but rather precisely because of it. And so, as they sat together the Master addressed his disciple, saying, “You have been a thoughtful and dedicated follower of my teachings for many years, and you may well one day become a great teacher. However, I sense that you are in danger of betraying me in your thoughts and actions.”

“Never,” replied the disciple in shock. “Since I was young I have followed your ways, never deviating from the path that you have ploughed. I never cease to reflect upon your words, and I never tire of engaging in the rituals and prayers that you have taught. I swear to you that I would never betray you, my great teacher.”

“But you fail to understand, my young friend,” replied the Master. “The fact that you have never betrayed my teachings, and the fact that you swear never to betray them: this is to betray them already.”


I wonder if this isn’t one of the chief lessons of the Incarnation. Specifically, if one of the chief marks of the gospel is an extravagance of grace, and all we do is exactly what Jesus said, no more, aren’t we already betraying the spirit of his sayings, if not the letter?

Similarly, when the Law was handed down it was not as though the Israelites simply took it at face value. No, they interpreted it, testing the law to see where it fit with their circumstances. We do this today, too; or do you not wear mixed fibers? Clearly people “betrayed” the law before, and it is even considered a good thing.

So maybe this is what Jesus was up to with the whole ascension thing. Instead of sticking around and telling us what to do and having us do just that and no more, he left. And he left it up to us. We work it out; we interpret it; we betray it. Sometimes we’re guilty of following the letter, and maybe it is at just these moments that Jesus would say, “this is to betray me already, what did I say?”

Contextualize. Create traditions. Revive old ones. Retire ones that have outlived their usefulness. Reinterpret. Betray.

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