Posted by: Philip Rushton | December 8, 2014

Jesus, Buddha, and Traffic Jams

“In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)

I am currently studying part of the Buddhist scriptures known as the Dhammapada, with a group of friends. This past week we explored the Buddha’s eight fold path toward enlightenment. The commentary we are reading suggests that our ability to progress toward enlightenment, “requires the concentration of a genius.” The author uses the brilliant scientist Newton as the prototype for the level of focus required to move along this path. Elsewhere he writes, “only through ceaseless effort can you reach the goal . . . human destiny lies ultimately in human hands for those who master the passions of the mind.”

I have also been reading a number of biblical texts that focus on the coming of the messiah. On the same day I read these excerpts from the introduction to the Dhammapada, I also read the passage in Isaiah where it says, “in the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”

In some ways this sounds very similar to the Buddhist teaching on meditation. Isaiah speaks here of the need to clear a pathway to the divine. We need to remove the clutter and create space so that we might hear the voice of God. This requires intentionality, and a commitment to spiritual practices. Things like prayer, study, and worship are means by which we prepare our hearts to receive God.

However, I think that this passage is also saying something radically different than the Dhammapada. Like Buddha, Isaiah evokes the image of a road or a path. What differs is that in the biblical story it is God, not us, who takes the journey. What we discover in the Christian scriptures is the beautiful and hopeful image of a God who desires to come to us! As John 1:14 articulates, “In Christ, the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. (The Message)”

As I reflected on Isaiah’s words about making a straight highway for God, I had this image of Jesus getting stuck in a traffic jam. Two weeks ago Julie, James and I packed up the car and endured Thanksgiving traffic because we longed to be with family. That excitement and desire of being with our loved ones motivated us to take the journey. In a similar way, the Christmas story pictures for us a God who is motivated and excited to get to us. His love for us is so strong that he is willing to endure all kinds of risk, humiliation and suffering in order to come close.

The problem is that many of our souls resemble a traffic jam. Our lives are so busy, impatient, and cluttered with material things, that it makes it difficult for God to get through. So Isaiah calls us to clear the way and make room for God.

However, the ability to clear the way is not limited to those who are brilliant and who have mastered the passions of the mind. On the contrary, the biblical story tells us that those who are most receptive to the coming of God are those who are vulnerable and weak. The good news is for the poor, the blind, the prisoners and the oppressed (Is 61, Lk 4). The process of clearing the way for God, then, involves coming to the humble recognition that we need God. That is why John the Baptist applies this passage by calling us to confess our sin and repent. The biggest barrier to receiving God is the prideful belief that we do not need him.

There are some who would lump Jesus in with Buddha. The gospels are often reinterpreted to mean that Jesus shows us a way toward enlightenment. This, I believe, misses the point of what the good news of Jesus coming into our world really means. Frederick Buechner sums it up this way:

As everybody knows by now, gospel means “good news.” Ironically, it is some of the gospel’s most ardent fans who try to turn it into bad news. For instance:
• “It all boils down to the Golden Rule. Just love thy neighbor, and that’s all you have to worry about.” What makes this bad news is that loving our neighbor is exactly what none of us is very good at. Most of the time, we have a hard time loving even our family and friends very effectively.
• “Jesus was a great teacher and the best example we have of how we ought to live.” As a teacher, Jesus is at least matched by, for instance, Siddhartha Gautama. As an example, we can only look at Jesus and despair.
What is both good and new about the good news is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love God too, but that if we will allow it to happen, God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself.

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Responses

  1. Allowing and surrender– I am 75 and I am just starting to get it. Re guarding the Buddha journey.The few who really get it are just that,The Few.Great insights, yet leaves every one else outside.Sort of an elitist Gospel.

  2. Thank God , He has prepared a way. Maybe now it is our turn to ‘prepare’ by bringing gifts. The Wisemen brought princely items but they were wealthy, My job is to bring whatever gift I have in my hand. ….Paz en Cristo….


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