By Michael Rossmann
I had a friend, Kyle, whose father was a big practical jokester. For the first five and a half years of Kyle’s life, his father would refer to a fork as a hippopotamus, a knife as a giraffe, and a spoon as a rhinoceros. And, without any reason to think differently, Kyle assumed that these were what the utensils were called.
That is, of course, until Kyle went to school. It is painful to imagine just how awkward it would be to have the entire kindergarten class hear you say, “Mrs. Mitchell, I don’t have my hippopotamus to eat my peas and carrots.” Kyle’s basic categories of what was what were shattered.
Only later after I heard this story did it dawn on me that everyone else in Kyle’s family, including his mother, had to be accomplices in this potentially trauma-inducing joke on such a young kid. Fortunately, Kyle turned out to be a great guy, so I should say that I do not think this experience caused too much harm.
In reading the Gospels, we frequently notice Jesus breaking open the categories of those he encounters. Some people thought that the messiah would be a great military leader to lead the Jews to freedom from Roman rule. The idea that a crucified carpenter was the Christ was scandalous to many.
Even among the followers of Jesus, there were difficulties with his biography. Before becoming a disciple, Nathanael asks at the beginning of the Gospel of John, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” While we have a wider vision resulting from encountering Jesus after his passion, death and resurrection, and after 2,000 years of tradition and theological reflection, our experience with Jesus seemingly should involve surprise as well.
A Jesuit spiritual master and role model of mine, in growing in relationship with Jesus, he has a way of rearranging our furniture. That this particular Jesuit is blind — and thus rearranging the furniture in the living room would be a very large ordeal for him — reveals how important he believes it is that we be surprised through our encounter with the Lord.
In one particularly revealing Gospel passage, John approaches Jesus to tell him how he and the other apostles saw someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name, but tried to prevent him. Presumably, John feels as if he and the other apostles are “in” and others are “out” and is eager to share this understanding with Jesus. Perhaps, he even expects Jesus to compliment him on the job well done. Instead, Jesus tells him not to prevent this person and says that someone who does such a mighty work in the name of Jesus cannot actually be against them; whoever is not against us is for us. John and the apostles, thinking they have it all figured out, actually have it all wrong. This particular Gospel passage is a great example of Jesus rearranging the furniture of his apostles.
Perhaps we should be a little cautious if we notice that our image of Jesus happens to look a lot like ourselves. A good test for us could be to consider whether Jesus is someone who happens to be like all the people and things that we like and not like all the people and things we dislike.
Just as Jesus needed to correct John and the other apostles frequently, even though they lived and walked with him daily, we may need to have Jesus rearrange our internal furniture as well.
This Lenten season can be a particularly good time for Jesus to rearrange our furniture. We have been here before and know these readings that we will hear in Mass, but we may find ourselves noticing new things about Christ and our need for conversion. Through our practices of prayer, fasting and abstinence at this time, hopefully this season can lead to a deeper encounter with Jesus, the Lord of surprises.
(Michael Rossmann is a Jesuit scholastic at Loyola University Chicago and a 2003 graduate of Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).