The beauty of paradox

Dec 30, 2019 by

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Why do Christians have such difficulty reaching agreement? The answer may lie in the very nature of God and the gospel. Our challenge is to embrace a God of mystery who is also relational and trustworthy. This is a paradox.

A paradox is a truth with two sides that appear to contradict but in fact complement each other to make a fuller truth.

Embracing paradox is essential for faith and biblical interpretation. Consider a text replete with paradox: Jesus’ anointing at Bethany (Matt. 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-8). Just outside Jerusalem, two days before the Passover, a woman pours burial perfume over Jesus’ head.

In righteous disgust, the men who observe this act scold her for wasteful extravagance. The money spent on the perfume could have been given to the poor.

But Jesus stops them and says, “She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. . . . She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial” (Mark 14:6-8).

There is the paradox: evident truth claimed for opposing points of view.

My first instinct is to agree with the observers who declare the woman’s action wasteful. That perfume might have cost a year’s wages! Think how many hungry children could have been served. On the surface, Jesus’ response doesn’t fit with his message about helping the poor.

But, a paradox: Jesus says she has done a beautiful thing. Literally translated, “beautiful thing,” means a “good work.” And she has done this good work for Jesus, offering all she has. Her action implies she understands Jesus’ predictions of death and God’s plan for human redemption through a suffering Messiah, which the men around Jesus seem not able to fathom.

Her beautiful act was all about worship. It exuded profound love and respect. She gets it right!

I am reminded of the words from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, “The world will be saved by beauty.”

Jesus often underscores the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). This is what Jesus saw in the woman who anointed him with expensive perfume: heart, soul and strength.

But the Great Commandment goes on: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). The men who rebuke the woman perceive her action as counter to this commandment. Wasting expensive ointment implies a disregard for the poor.

But the two sides of the Great Commandment — love God and love your neighbor — are complementary in this paradox.

The challenge in biblical interpretation is to hold both sides of paradox as truth. We are called to embrace the truth of both/and, especially when we feel the tension of contradiction.

The tension of the woman’s act of loving worship and the dispute that followed was an enactment of the Great Commandment. We are to love both God and our neighbor in need. Jesus says both that the woman has done a beautiful thing and that you can help the poor any time you want.

Christians’ failure to embrace paradox goes far to explain our conflict and division. We focus on either/or thinking. We gather our favorite texts to prove our point while others stand on theirs. And so churches polarize and split, scorning each other as too liberal or too conservative, failing to recognize that two sides may complement each other to make a fuller truth.

In striving to be right, I have to ask myself: Do I become too confident, even arrogant, and thereby miss the paradox of God’s mystery and truth? By insisting on either/or thinking, do I end up with only half the truth?

We would do well to embrace the beauty of paradox, because there are so many examples of it in biblical faith:

— God’s transcendence and yet God’s immanence in creation;

— The deity and humanity of Jesus Christ;

— Scripture’s divine inspiration contained within the words of humans shaped by their cultures;

— Grace and law;

— Faith and works;

— Love and truth;

— Obedience and freedom;

— God’s love, kindness, mercy and patience alongside God’s justice, righteousness, holiness and judgment;

— The church’s simultaneous unity and diversity, composed of people with a variety of spiritual gifts.

Can we be a both/and community? Psalm 85:10 says it well: “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.”

Sheldon Burkhalter is a retired pastor, teacher and conference minister in Seattle.

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