What do you do when you can’t for the life of you figure out what someone else is trying to tell you — particularly if it sounds important?
And what if you’re the person speaking or teaching, and your listeners just don’t get it, no matter what you say?
We live in a culture that prizes information, communication, and human rationality. In that regard, it might be nice to think that the gospel story would be about clear communication and careful listening, with hearers making up their minds about whether or not to believe. But it’s not quite like that. Even Jesus’ own disciples were frequently mystified by what he said. Sometimes, it was because Jesus spoke in a roundabout fashion. And sometimes, they didn’t understand no matter how clearly and directly he spoke.
In John’s gospel, as Jesus nears the end of his last time of teaching with his disciples — known as the Farewell Discourse — he tells them this: “Soon you won’t be able to see me; soon after that, you will see me” (John 16:16, CEB). We as readers, knowing the story already, assume that Jesus is referring to his arrest, death, burial, and resurrection.
But what if we didn’t know the story, not any of it? What sense would we make out of Jesus’ words?
That’s the situation the disciples are in. And John lets us in on the confused and comic scene. The disciples want to ask Jesus what he means, but they don’t, and instead fall to discussing it among themselves, even though Jesus can hear everything they’re saying:
Some of Jesus’ disciples said to each other, “What does he mean: ‘Soon you won’t see me, and soon after that you will see me’ and ‘Because I’m going to the Father’? What does he mean by ‘soon’? We don’t understand what he’s talking about.” Jesus knew they wanted to ask him, so he said, “Are you trying to find out from each other what I meant when I said, ‘Soon you won’t see me, and soon after that you will see me’?” (vss. 17-19)
What he says next, however, isn’t any clearer. He refers to the cross and the resurrection, but describes their reaction to these events without explicitly naming them:
I assure you that you will cry and lament, and the world will be happy. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman gives birth, she has pain because her time has come. But when the child is born, she no longer remembers her distress because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. In the same way, you have sorrow now; but I will see you again, and you will be overjoyed. No one takes away your joy. (vss. 20-22)
He speaks of their temporary sorrow and subsequent lasting joy, but not of the cause of either. One might argue, of course, that Jesus has told them about his coming arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection before, so they should have understood. But even then, it’s clear in passages like Mark 8:32 and 9:32 that even when Jesus tells his disciples straight out what’s going to happen, they can’t take it in. If it doesn’t compute, it’s as if it was never said.
As suggested in the previous post, Jesus knows that whatever the disciples need to understand, they will — eventually — after the resurrection and after Pentecost. Right now, it’s as if he’s preparing them emotionally: Remember, when you’re in the depth of despair, that I told you this would happen; remember too that I told you to expect a joy that no one would ever be able to take away.
He knows, better than either they or we do, what they are capable of hearing and what they need to hear. There might be a bit of freedom in that fact, the freedom to admit that we don’t always understand either.