Jesus is the elephant–the elephant of the story, the elephant in the room, and the elephant that is unlike any other.
Jesus is the elephant of the story. The story has become a well-known parable, tracing back to ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts some 2500 years ago. Commonly called “the parable of the blind men and the elephant,” the story goes like this:
A group of blind men learn about a strange creature, called an elephant, and proceed to examine it by physically touching it. Each touches the elephant in different places, and draws conclusions based on what he perceives from his manual examination. One feels the trunk and says the creature is like a thick snake. Another touches an ear and concludes it seems like a large fan Another touches a leg and knows the elephant is like a tree-trunk. Others touch different parts of the elephant and describe it as a wall, a rope, and a spear.
The story is used to stress such things as:
- Truth is bigger than we know, in fact so big we can ever really claim with confidence to know it sufficiently.
- We only perceive part of the truth, so we should hold our perceptions loosely and lightly.
- Our perceptions are just ours, always partial and subject to revision and change.
- We need other people’s perspectives to grasp the truth or more of the truth. Therefore,
- We should respect and honor one another, ask more questions, listen carefully, and learn!
These statements ring true in general. But, of course, human beings often “ring the other way around.” We think our perceptions are all or mostly the truth, and others are wrong or mostly wrong. We are slow to listen and quick to speak, and so sparks fly. Rather than learning to respect and value others, we sometimes view others suspiciously and fearfully as fools, deceivers, or worse.
Followers of Jesus insist that Jesus is the elephant. The elephant is real and the elephant is Jesus. In other words, truth exists and is embodied. We do not have to find this out for ourselves, Jesus claims to be the truth (John 14:6). The Apostle Paul spoke of God ordering the world in such a way that people may reach out and encounter the God they sensed was real but did not know (see Acts 17:27). In John’s gospel, Jesus claims: I am the light of the world, the bread that has come to sustain and support, the life-giver and flourisher, the resurrection and the life, indeed, I am the way, the truth, and the life. Once he claims, simply,”I am,”(throughout John’s gospel).
Jesus is the elephant, all of it, not as we pursue and perceive, and not as we are able to piece together from the fragments we and others have gathered. No, the truth has entered our world, manifest, disclosed, made known, and open to us–we have seen, heard, touched. The truth comes to, reaches for, and would embrace us. The truth pursues and perceives us, discloses all of us–the real, genuine us. The truth makes us truly ourselves. “I am” makes it so “we are.”
Jesus is the elephant, and a big one at that. On one hand, we do perceive and grasp only partially One that is too big for anyone’s full grasp. On the other hand, this very One perceives and grasps us fully and from all vantage points so that all of us can find full and authentic human being and doing. Jesus is the elephant of the parable, but bigger than in the parable. He is not only the object we observe, understand, know and love. Jesus is also the Subject–the Person–who observes, understands, knows and loves us alive and onward.
Jesus is the elephant, but not an elephant in captivity, kept in some zoo.
Jesus’ followers are also right to insist that Jesus is “the elephant in the room,” to cite an expression that has become a common conceptual parable. This parable envisions you, your friends, and maybe some who are not your friends, in a room. You move about the room, talk back and forth across the room, help each other see what is in the room, or what is outside yet framed by the room. All of you in the room know there is something else in the room that complicates or conditions everything you are doing. Something big, like an elephant. It’s “the elephant in the room.”
The elephant in the room is so big you wonder how anyone fails to see it. So big that once seen you can scarcely see anything else without also seeing it. This elephant in the room can be dismissed but can never be avoided. As this parable “works,” as the expression is commonly used, the elephant in the room may strike us as an obstacle or hindrance, an embarrassment, an unfortunate and intrusive disturbance someone brought into the room. Usually people in the room know the elephant is there. What’s more, they sense the elephant might hold the key to seeing things and doing things that are good or best, but not without hassle or bother or pain or burden. So, people just put up and shut up, and pretend not to see or acknowledge the elephant in the room.
But followers of Jesus choose to see and refuse to pretend. Jesus is there, elephantine in stature, impossible to ignore and desirable, even game-changing, to acknowledge. The Jesus who embodies truth fills every room we are in. Fills the room with the truth of Jesus’ self, the truth that brings light, beauty, love, life and hope to everyone in the room, to all the other realities present in or pressing upon the room, to every question or perplexity hanging in the air. The truth is present in Jesus, unavoidable like an elephant for those with eyes to see and hearts to embrace–the truth at the ready for all the things and persons there.
That Jesus is the proverbial elephant in the room is a good thing, though we are likely slow to recognize this or explore how. Most of the rooms we find ourselves in are full of people who are different, who think and act differently, whose differences create distance, raise hackles, provoke and offend, all the while outside the room the streets are stained with blood because the differences became clubs for assaulting one another. The elephant in the room rages against difference-based assault and attack, against difference-inspired fear and suspicion, and against violence of whatever kind generated and justified by such differences.
The elephant in the room named, among other things, Jesus (the Lord saves!) and Immanuel (God with us), is the very elephant of that parable–the way, the truth, and the life. This Jesus has said and done things that open a way not otherwise seen, offer a reality not otherwise experienced, and order a life not otherwise lived in response precisely to all the things on which we and others differ. When our scriptures testify that all wisdom, all that is right, and all that frees us trace back to Jesus (see 1 Cor. 1:30), they signal how good it is that Jesus is the elephant in the room.
So followers of Jesus bring to the table wisdom and power truly and epically elephantine in nature. What did Jesus say and do in relation to this? What does the work of Jesus mean for this? How might the Spirit of Jesus be drawing us toward this and away from that? When his followers, in the room with him, follow his lead, life is birthed, truth dawns, and pathways open. Suddenly the enormity and power of the elephant shakes the room, disturbs the peace, and begins reconfiguring everything good again.
At least, that’s the power of the elephant. Jesus is the truth and is in the room–the elephant in the room.
Yet he is unlike any other, or all others. He is the elephant, but unlike all the others in our experience. In fact, he is the strangest elephant ever. One of Jesus’ earliest followers saw and described this strangeness in other terms. “John the elder” called Jesus the proverbial Lion, the king of the beasts to be emblazoned on the most popular Messianic banners. The Lion frightening and fierce to behold, whose deafening roar could pierce the thundering of his world. But when John looked to see the Lion he saw the form of a lamb readied and offered in sacrifice (Rev. 5:5-6). In the unfolding story, the Lion established a kingdom, achieved his victory, and secured the world’s wellbeing by humbling, surrendering, suffering, and dying only then to rise again.
John’s Lion is this elephant in the room. As with the Lion, this elephant expresses his power, embodies his truth, engenders his life, and empowers his vision for truth, justice and God’s kingdom-way, by these same strategies best reflected as self-sacrificial offering and dying. Perhaps we could say the elephant bends low in the dust and surrenders to the schemes of mere mice, so utterly that his massive presence is nullified and negated by death. Only then to rise again. This elephant prevails, but in the strangest of ways.
His followers will prevail as well, as they follow his lead. They may be sure of this because they have been grasped by the one who is always faithful and true, the very One who is with them in every room, and whose strange self-sacrificing ways compel them.