Space to ponder

Wednesday evening I was participating in our church’s Lenten study over Zoom. The group was discussing the stories commonly known as the cleansing of the Temple. All four Gospels present the story, each with a slightly different perspective. As we discussed the stories, I kept thinking of the layers of depth in the gospel narratives. Jerusalem was a multi-cultural and multi-lingual city. The feelings of faithful Jews of Jesus’ day about the second temple were complex. After more than 500 years since the destruction of the first temple, construction on the second had been going on for more than four decades. Ceremonies were conducted in the new temple, but there was also resentment of the role of the Roman government in its construction. John’s Gospel reports the story of the cleansing of the temple near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after the story of the wedding in Cana. The other gospels place the event in the final week of Jesus’ life. John reports that Jesus, in response to the questions of other Jews in the Temple said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The statement must have been shocking to those who heard it. They knew the history of the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple. They knew that it had taken five centuries before construction on the second had begun and that the current temple had been under construction for forty-six years. It is pretty obvious that Jesus’ statement wasn’t a literal reference to the physical building. John goes on to clarify: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”

One participant in the class asked, “How are we to take this story? Is it metaphor or history or biography?”

I think there is no easy answer to the question. Biblical literature, in general, is complex. Meanings lie at many different levels. We return to the texts again and again and learn new things each time we encounter them.

Somehow our conversation drifted to some of the challenges of language. The four gospels have different audiences and the gospel writers had different levels of access to the writings of the other gospels. We often refer to Matthew, Mark and Luke as “synoptic” or having the same point of view. This isn’t quite accurate, but the gospel of John definitely takes a different perspective than the others. These differences may have arisen in part from differences of language. Although all four Gospels were written in Greek, the native languages of their intended audiences may have been different. To the extent that John’s gospel focused on a gentile audience as opposed to a primarily Jewish audience, the language of the Gospel may have been more native to some of the intended members of the audience than was the case with the other Gospels.

I have never been good at languages. I have enough credits in French to have made it my minor in my undergraduate studies, but I never became fluent in the language. I can still read a bit of French, but I by no means can speak the language. In seminary, I studied Hebrew and Greek, but never rose above a rudimentary ability to decode the languages. I tried to learn a bit of Spanish as our congregation pursued a sister church relationship with a congregation in Costa Rica, but I remained dependent upon translators for conversation. As we hosted exchange students from Japan and our children traveled to Japan, I spent some time trying to learn some basic Japanese words. Later, when our daughter lived in Japan and we were able to make two trips to Japan, I decided to try to learn a few concepts rather than attempt to learn the language. It isn’t difficult for an English-speaking person to travel in Japan. The trains all have English language signs and announcements. It is easy to find English-speaking help in stations and other locations.

Still, I am fascinated by the impact of language upon culture. At a bare minimum, the language we speak influences our perspective on the events of the world.

I think that the writer of the Gospel of John was able to use certain poetic phrases and images because his audience had a feel for the depth of Greek poetry and language that was different from the audiences of the other gospels, despite the fact that Greek was the original language of all four Gospels. It is as if the stories of Mark, Matthew and Luke were told in Aramaic and Hebrew for a while before being written down in Greek, whereas John had some theology and some images that came from thinking in Greek.

Retirement has given me the luxury of time to ponder some questions in a different way than I did during my active working years. In a way it reminds me of my student years, when I would ponder a concept for weeks at a time, trying to figure out how it fit into the structure of my thinking. These days, a conversation often sparks an ongoing reflection. Days after our Zoom meeting, I am still thinking of what we said and of how I might have offered different ideas and insights to the group.

There is a Japanese concept for this kind of spacious pondering. The word in Japanese is “Yutori.” It can be translated as “relaxed” or “free from pressure.” It is a concept that has been at the heart of an evolution of Japanese education policy for several decades now. The idea is that children learn best when there is less pressure. This prompted more days free from school and changes in the curriculum to allow more time for unstructured learning. Japanese children still are immersed in a much more rigorous and more structured educational system than American children, but the idea of Yutori continues to bring about changes in educational policies.

I think that the concept of Yutori might also be translated as “spaciousness.” In Japan the word is used for the process of leaving early for an appointment so that you arrive early and have time to look around. Yutori is giving yourself space.

Perhaps retirement is a Yutori process - giving space. If so, it may be a good time for a new kind of learning. Bible study, which is a process of discovering depth upon depth, might be a good fit for this phase of my life.

At any rate, I seem to keep pondering and pondering is a way of learning.

Now I am pondering whether or not the break from in-person school and church is a “Yutori” moment for our society. Perhaps we have been given space to deepen our understanding.