As I read through gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus, I can’t help but notice how ignorant, spiritually immature and emotionally unstable his disciples often were!
They were all over the place in their reactions to what they saw Jesus doing and what they heard him teaching. They exhibited on different occasions behavioral manifestations of jealousy and competitiveness, terror and confusion, ignorance and doubt, anger and hardness of heart.
I can point this out and still respect and honor them for their part in the gospel story. They couldn’t help some of their reactions to Jesus any more than we could if we had been in their shoes. They could only know what they could know at the time. They were still captive to their carnal understanding. They weren’t yet filled with the Spirit. They weren’t from some scholarly rabbinical class that had a scriptural explanation handy for the phenomena they were witnessing.
But the most important thing to remember is that they were witnessing someone and something that had never existed before—the Christ. The disciples couldn’t just assimilate him into a preexisting conceptual model. He didn’t meet their religious or political expectations. How could they fully comprehend the presence of a humble, gentle servant leader who also had special powers as a miracle-making superhero? How could they make sense of his proclamations that he, the only-begotten Son of God, would be nailed on a cross, dead for three days, and raised again?
Assimilation, in the context of psychology, is an important aspect of learning. As an illustration, consider that a child learns the concept of “bird” by observing a robin and being told it is a bird. The child can then assimilate other creatures in that category that resemble the prototype. Hummingbirds, eagles, ostriches, and chickens—all very different from each other in size and appearance–can still be readily understood to be in the category of birds, even by a young child. All these species of birds meet the criteria to identified as such (i.e., they have beaks and wings, and lay eggs, etc.).
Within the sociocultural environment of first century Israel, the disciples knew how to identify a rabbi, a priest, a tax collector, a shepherd, a fisherman, a soldier, etc. They were aware of more subtle distinctions between say, Jews and Samaritans. These were existing categories that allowed them to identify and assimilate people into their social context.
Then along came Jesus, down from heaven, with words and works never heard or seen before.
This brings us to another essential learning process called accommodation. This is when, for example, the child who has internalized the concept of “bird” sees a fish for the first time. His brain looks for a category in which to fit this new experience and finds none. He knows it doesn’t match “bird.” He must accommodate by creating a new category called “fish.” Once he does this, goldfish, catfish, and sharks have a place to fit into his understanding of the world.
Jesus’ disciples—including us—at some point must make this accommodation. We must create a category that allows room for him in our consciousness. We must come to an understanding that there is this one person who exists in a category all his own, and we cannot try to fit him into some preexisting conceptual model.
He is the Word made flesh, firstborn from the dead, full of grace and truth. He was a creative Spirit, then a baby conceived in the womb of a Jewish girl. Then he grew to be a perfectly godly man, then a powerful teacher and prophet, full of the Holy Spirit. Then he became a suffering servant who endured a criminal’s punishment. Then a resurrected king, the firstborn from the dead.
No one else has ever, nor will ever, join that category on this side of heaven. He is our prototype, our only completely satisfactory example of what we’d like to be.
Accommodate that, my friends!
“Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing!”