August 24, 2012 by jmar198013
You may have heard the stunning report from earlier this week about the octogenarian Spanish woman who ruined a century-old fresco of Jesus. The familiar figure of Standard White Jesus has been disfigured into what one observer has christened “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.” The local authorities have announced that they may be taking legal action. The elderly “restorer,” Cecilia Gimenez, meanwhile is said to have experienced a nervous breakdown over the fiasco.
Local authorities claim that Gimenez acted on her own initiative to “restore” the painting, which was something of a local treasure. But Gimenez tells the story differently. Gimenez insists it was the local priest who instructed her to restore the painting. “The priest knew it and everyone who came into the church could see I was painting,” she says.
When I first heard this story, I thought, “That’ll preach!” I just wasn’t quite sure how.
My first thought was that this story is a sort of parable about what the church tends to do to Jesus. Rather than faithfully image him as “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12), we deface him. We deface Jesus by buying into the consumerist ethos of our culture. We deface Jesus by banging imperial war drums along with Caesar. By our racism. By our homophobia. When we embrace a regressive political conservatism out of slothful expediency without pausing to reflect on whether those policies honor Jesus. By our disdain for the poor. Our trampling the head of the indigent.
The list went on and on and on and on …
Then long about lunchtime, the Lord convicted me. A still, small voice nudged my burning ears. You might be named after the prophet Jeremiah, the voice said, but that doesn’t give you a compelling reason to go about delivering Jeremiads.
Let me be frank. I am still frustrated with the church, and with myself, for all those reasons and more. But it is disingenuous, unloving, and non-constructive to point the finger at “the church” as a monolith. It isn’t as if we all got up one morning and said, “You know what, I’ll bet Jesus would be really proud of us if we went around being smug, self-righteous, and exclusive busybodies.” That’s not how the real world works.
I discussed my thoughts on the potential sermon-illustration-worthiness of the fresco botch with an acquaintance in a series of e-mails. My conversation partner began suggesting passages that might go along with the idea of defacing Jesus. One he mentioned was Matt. 23.15: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” (NLT) That gave me pause. Jesus was telling the scribes and Pharisees that their converts were defective. They did not faithfully embody the Torah. That certainly wasn’t because God’s Torah was defective. It was because the Pharisees and scribes were defective teachers.
That’s when it came to me that Cecilia Gimenez claimed that, despite what the public had been told, she did not take it upon herself to paint over the fresco. The priest told her to do so. The disfigured image of Christ was an unfortunate side-effect of her doing what her spiritual leader told her to do.
It made me consider the words of James 3.1-12:
Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.
A lot of folks read these words as a warning to not curse, gossip, or backbite. That, I believe, is a misreading. A case of right idea, wrong scripture. James is clearly saying all this in the context of speaking to the teachers within the church. Those who shape the church’s consciousness and steer us in certain directions. Those who teach are the “tongue” of the body of Christ, the church’s mouthpiece. They have the capacity to steer the church in both faithful and unfaithful directions. And James warns that when those who teach steer the body of Christ in unfaithful directions–those that render Jesus unrecognizable–the results are hellish.
In other words, if you have a church that’s blessing God and cursing their neighbor with the same mouth, best scrutinize the teachers. After all, we can only give what we have received.
The ruined Spanish fresco with its defaced Jesus has been called a tragedy and a travesty. The real tragedy and travesty is when the church, which is supposed to image Christ, is steered by its leaders into forms of life that render Jesus unrecognizable.