The practice of deciphering the Bible in literal terms continues today. It is perhaps somewhat understandable because the Bible is a mixture of historical, albeit questionable, as well as mythological tales. This literal view is overarching; it was so even in the seminal days of the Catholic Church. Most events attributed to Jesus are interpreted literally by mainstream Christianity: Jesus was physically born of a virgin. Jesus literally raised the dead and was physically resurrected. Jesus literally turned water into wine. These are all cornerstones of the Christian faith. Taken literally, these events leave us questioning their intention, motivation or meaning. Could they be read metaphorically?
In traditional Christian faith, Jesus performed these miracles because he cared for the people whom he was healing or saving. He was also demonstrating the power of God within him, providing a show of authority and a clear message that he is the only son of God. However, demonstrating one's power over physical substances to influence or sway an audience or people is an authoritatian show of force. Taking his words and life into consideration, this show of force is counterproductive to his purpose. After all, the Romans controlled the population by a show of physical, military or political strength. Obedience was achieved through sheer power and fear. Clearly, Jesus was not after a political revolution, as many in his day believed, but was rather primarily seeking a change of a different sort. He was seeking compassion and a transformation of consciousness, which leads to a new way of life; however, he could not force that upon people just as one cannot force another to love or to admire him. Authentic love, admiration or respect has to awaken from within one's heart. It cannot be bought or sold or brought about through fear. Jesus plainly tells us, in John 18:36, that he is seeking a kingdom that is not of this world: "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence." Jesus did not wish for people to obey him out of fear or to believe in him because he performed a miracle that no one else can. That would be an act of bartering and a sign of a fallible and insecure despot. Rather, he desired for people to follow him of their own accord, to live a richer life. This idea resonates in Matthew 9:13: "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice…" Jesus wanted gentleness and not fear, love and not appeasement, unity and not division. Let us review several examples of miracles and their potential metaphorical significance. In John 11:44, we read that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Whether or not Jesus literally raised the dead is inconsequential. If Jesus had raised a man physically from the dead, that man would have died again at some point. We know of no one alive today who claims to be the same Lazarus; therefore, if Jesus raised Lazarus physically from the dead, Lazarus must have died some time ago. Jesus did not give Lazarus eternal life. Or did he? It can be argued that metaphorically speaking, Jesus raised Lazarus and gave him eternal, inner life. Lazarus was dead in spirit and through Jesus, he was born again, made new and awakened to a rich inner life. This way of reading the scripture is more meaningful to us as human beings since we, as living human beings, can understand how it feels to be dead and to be reborn in our hearts, to see the world with new and brilliant vision. We know what it means to live on the physical plane and to feel utterly empty and lifeless, enjoying only fleeting moments of physical pleasure and cowering from pain and suffering. We know how it feels to live a mundane life, focused on traveling to and from a dull, mind-numbing job in an endless cycle of hope and frustration, of joy and grief, in a chaotic world that seems to have no mercy or purpose. However, we cannot relate to the reading of the scripture whereby Jesus raises a man physically from the dead because it has no bearing or impact on our inner life or everyday reality. This type of event is foreign to us and to our world. Moreover, the show of physical prowess by Jesus, if interpreted that way, encourages us to follow him out of fear or avoidance of what he can do to us or out of desire for what he can give us. It is actually a selfish motive on our part in the end. Many traditional Christians might argue that Jesus did exactly that which was foreign to our world. He had the power of God to change the physical consistency of our world. Certainly, the miracles of Jesus, if interpreted literally, are impressive but they remain outside the realm of our everyday experience and reveal Jesus as king of this world, contrary to his claims. Physical miracles only make us react through fear or desire and do not relieve the feeling of alienation within us. We fear the power of God so we am moved to accept Jesus in his authority or we desire heaven or health and so we are moved to the same conclusion. In either case, Jesus, through physical miracles, does not honestly capture our hearts. He remains outside the realm of our experience. However, through compassion, he touches and awakens our very being. And that touch is like an electric shock that resonates through every aspect of our lives.
In John 2:9, we read that Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast. Changing the chemical composition of water into wine is certainly an impressive feat. But again we must ask: Is there a greater significance that can affect a change within us? Even when traditional Christian faith goes beyond the literal message in this story, it tends to interpret this message by saying that Jesus, at this wedding, is the real bridegroom for humanity. But once again, this view fails to see the activation of the vitality or spirit of life and only retains focus on the person of Jesus and his power and authority. This passage, regarding turning water into wine, is one of the most poetic in the Bible. Jesus here plays the role of Dionysus, which in itself has some interesting implications. In contrast to wine, water represents the ordinary, the mundane, the flavorless, the colorless, the essential and bare necessity to sustain life or simple existence. Wine on the other hand can be full of flavor and color and aroma. Wine engages many of our senses and is attributed to the enjoyment of life and with mirth and with intoxication. With wine, we surpass mere existence and the basic sustenance of life. Wine represents the abundance of life. Therefore the significance of this miracle is that the message of Jesus can transform ordinary, daily life, that of the flesh, into abundant and extraordinary spirited life. With Jesus, daily, mundane life, and all the things in it, can turn into a constant wonder and affirmation once we are "born of the spirit." Our lives change dramatically and we enter a new dimension. We can become intoxicated with abundant spirited life if we can not only grasp the message but experience it. The passage in John 2:9 has its counterpart in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas where, in passage 13, Jesus says to Thomas: "Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended." The one who drinks from the divine wine will become drunk with the same vision as Jesus, and those who remain "sober" and do not drink will not understand him and think him to be a babbling fool. And so it is with many orthodox Christians. While they claim to be the rightful inheritors of the kingdom of God through the worship of Jesus and the literal (and self-serving) understanding of his words, they are in fact quite far from the intimate understanding of Jesus' words.