Friday of Trinity 16: Where Our Lord Locates Our Identity

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And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother.

We got a hint of this in the previous devotion, when we saw how in the text it said, “and those who carried him stood still.” Who’s “him”?

And in the passage for today, who’s “young man”? Who is “he who was dead”? Clearly, the text, and Jesus, locate the man’s existence in the material body of the individual. They locate, to use the modern jargon, his “identity” in the physical body. The body still has a sex – “him,” “he” – and age – “young” man. He’s still of the species homo sapiens – young “man.” He is not simply a clump of physical stuff whose true “Self” or true identity is separate and distinct from his body.

In other words, there is no support for Gnosticism in the language of the text. Gnostics would understand identity, and one’s person, as transcending the physical body. The true center of one’s being is not in his physicality, but in that “spark of divinity” certain elite people have. Scholars have also referred to this “spark of divinity” as the Self. And indeed, that’s our modern, existential understanding of Self, that it’s who we authentically are behind all the onion layers of external stuff we falsely might thing is us. Our sex, our family name, our country, our culture, our religion, these are all “the other in us” as one philosopher put it. Our “true Self,” rather, is something transcending the body.

It is because of this resurgent Gnosticism that people will talk about being “a male in a female body” or vice versa. It’s the reason why cremation is on the rise, because as one funeral director once told me, “People will just say, throw my body to the curb; it’s not who I really am.” It runs so much funeral piety: “He lives on in our hearts.” (Really? So if the possibility of his vivified flesh were offered, you’d say, “That’s OK, he’s still alive in my heart”?) It’s partly the reason why tattooing is popular: the body is just a canvass for self-expression after all. It’s why marriage is understood not as the compatibility of two biological bodies intended for reproductive copulation, but as a more transcendent “love” that has nothing to do with bodies. It’s why we can even have a discussion of when true “personhood” begins independently of when biological says the human body ultimately begins, at the embryo.

The bottom line is this is our predominant philosophical view of the human person: the body is an outer carcass of a transcendant “self” where our true, authentic personhood exists. This is Gnosticism. It is not what Jesus demonstrates in our Gospel this week.

Were the text to speak in Gnostic terms about the situation, the “young man,” when he died, would have been floating around somewhere else. He would have ascended to the heavens, or gone to the light, or dissolved into eternal oneness. Jesus would have ordered his hovering Self to return to that carcass. Instead, Jesus speaks of the carcass in personhood terms: him, he, young man. The text says, “he who was dead sat up and began to speak.”

For that matter, even how many people think of the death of people prior to Christ’s resurrection, there are some problems. According to many peoples’ thinking, the young man, when he died, would have gone either to heaven or hell. Presumably he would have gone to heaven given Christ’s positive posture toward him. So, he’s floating around in heaven, awaiting the second coming when he’d reunite with his body, and suddenly Jesus calls his spirit back down into his body.

I don’t go with this understanding, mainly because Jesus says no one has ascended to the Father, as of that moment in time prior to His resurrection. Also, the Old Testament teaches that those who died went to Sheol, which is simply the place of the dead, the grave. At best they may have gone to this place known as Abraham’s Bosom, which itself could be a simple metaphor for the land of Israel, the place of burial for the faithful dead. On these terms, the young man would have been experiencing more of something like a soul sleep.

In any event, the bigger point is that Jesus connects this young man’s personhood not to some spirit or self floating around independently of the physical body, but with the physical body. This gets into the interesting question which helps us distinguish Hebrew from Greek understandings of the human person: Are we incarnate spirits, or animate bodies? The Greeks would have answered with the former; the Hebrews, the latter. We are animate bodies. Our bodies are what “we” are, and the spirit God gives it animates it.

True, when we die, “the spirit will return to God who gave it.”  (Ecclesiastes 12: 7) But what is the nature of this spirit?  Is there a consciousness to it?  Does it have a sense of self awareness?  The Psalm says, “For in death there is no remembrance of You; In the grave who will give You thanks?”  Or is “the spirit” simply the principle of life, which always belongs to the Lord ultimately, so that at any time He can cause that spirit to reanimate that lump of dust in which our true identity lies?

Based on how Jesus treats the young man, we’d have to go with the latter. Else we have that issue of the young man’s conscious soul floating around somewhere in bliss, when suddenly he’s drawn out of his bliss and caused to go back into his body. Where’s the mercy in that, for the young man? “I was doing great floating around in heaven, and then all of a sudden this Jesus guy forces me back into the fallen world in my fallen body. That kind of sucked!”

The Gospel is pretty clear in how it understands things. The man’s identity and personhood were right where Jesus placed it, in his body. That is, after all, what He created, what He became, and what He came down to redeem.

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