By John B. Cobb, Jr.
Location: Emory University
The lectionary passages selected for today emphasize the connection between Jesus and Moses. Jesus’ ascent up the mount of transfiguration has many similarities with Moses’ ascent up Sinai. In addition Moses comes to see Jesus there. In the Exodus account God repeatedly states that Moses has found favor with God. In Matthew we read that God declares that he is well pleased with Jesus. Clearly Matthew wants us to think of Moses and the giving of the law to Israel as he depicts Jesus’ transfiguration.
In Matthew we read that after repeating the words spoken at the baptism: “This is my son, the Beloved, in him I am well pleased,” God goes on to say: “Listen to him.”
That can be understood to mean that the words Jesus speaks constitute a new law given by God, and that we are to obey this law. We can then understand Christianity as a new covenant based on a new law. The difference between Christianity and Judaism can then be found by comparing the content of the new law to be obeyed by Christians with the old law to be obeyed by Jews.
There are passages in the New Testament that read this way. The new commandment is that we should love one another. This is to supersede for us the complex legal codes of the Pentateuch and their subsequent development. This is certainly one legitimate way to understand what it means to be a Christian. A limitation of this interpretation, however, is that Jews can understand the whole of the law to be an exposition of the commandment to love God and neighbor. And Christians have always required more guidance in practical life than simply the love commandment. If Christianity, like Judaism, is a religion of the law, then the difference comes only in how the love commandment is unpacked.
This understanding of Christianity as a religion of law is widespread. Sometimes the law is understood to include, or even center on, accepting certain doctrines. Often it is thought to emphasize sexual behavior, despite Jesus’ near silence on this topic.
This understanding of Christianity as law sometimes becomes clear in conversations about homosexuality. On the one side, there are those who hold that truly loving people whose sexual orientation is toward persons of their own sex is to encourage them to find partners and to be faithful to them. The response from the majority of Christians is that Christians must draw a line around permitted behavior and that the Bible condemns homosexual acts. For them, to be Christian is to obey the Christian law. Whether on the basis of biblical proof texts or natural law theory, they are sure that Christian law speaks clearly here.
I find this dominance of law in the understanding of so many Christians somewhat puzzling and profoundly disappointing. The apostle Paul, the greatest theologian of the church, struggled so hard against it. He was followed in this struggle by Augustine, Luther, and Wesley, to mention only a few. The failure of most Christians to follow this great tradition, their reversion to law as the core of their religious thought and practice, is a serious judgment on those of us who are commissioned to be teachers of the church.
In Matthew’s account, there are indications of the deeper difference between Moses and Jesus. This difference may seem small on first consideration, one that is easily passed over and ignored. Yet it is important for Christians.
In the Exodus story, for all the interest in the figure of Moses, the focus is on the Law that God gives him: including the Ten Commandments, but much else besides. The great importance of Moses is that he mediates the Law to the people of Israel. Obedience to that law is the crucial matter, not personal obedience to Moses.
Our text today moves in a different direction. God does not tell us to obey the commandments of Jesus. God tells us to listen to him.God does not tell us that the words Jesus speaks are divinely inspired. God tells us that the person, Jesus, pleases God. We are to listen to that person.
A better way, then, of understanding the change from the mainstream of Judaism to the Christian sect is as a shift from centering on the Mosaic Law to centering on the person of Jesus, understood as God’s son, the Beloved. I believe this is an illuminating distinction. For good or ill, at the center of Christian faith is the person of Jesus.
Often Christians focus on this shift in a purely celebratory way, viewing Christianity as superseding Judaism, and understanding those who cling to the Law as benighted. This tendency has been a curse from which we are only gradually recovering. The truth is that ordering life to either center, like everything creaturely, is ambiguous in its consequences.
My interest this morning, however, is not in the ambiguities that arise from the centrality of the Law. We Christians need to consider, instead, the ambiguities associated with our shift to placing a historical figure at the center of our faith. Ambiguities include both positive and negative elements. I will begin with what to me seem positive effects.
A great strength of placing the person of Jesus at the center is that the resulting faith can maintain a certain fluidity and openness. Jesus did not provide a set of teachings analogous to the Jewish law. The closest he came are the teachings gathered by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount. But these cannot function as law in the believing community. When viewed as commandments, they present to us ideals that do not work in ordinary society.
Their impracticability does not make them unimportant. They are a call to perfection that, once really heard, cannot be forgotten or ignored. We measure all we do and think and feel against them, and we know that we fall short. We can listen to these words without being overwhelmed by guilt only because we focus on the one who spoke them. We experience the compassion and love that surround us in our struggle. We hear words of forgiveness. We know that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn us but to help and affirm us.
The primacy of the person means that in knowing Jesus we also know God. This is a bold claim, but it is central to our faith. We know the kind of person God loves and approves, the kind God calls a “son.” We know how the “son” teaches about the “Father.” The love and compassion, the forgiveness, we find in the son we believe is also the character of the Father. The Father is in the son, and the son is in the Father. This means that when Jesus is no longer with us in a historical form, the Spirit and Wisdom that were in him continue to be with us, leading us into new truth. A person teaches for each situation as it arises. The Spirit and Wisdom of God continue to guide and direct us as we struggle to find the meaning of the centrality of the person of Jesus in ever-changing circumstances. We do not have to absolutize particular sayings or texts as if they had a completely ahistorical character. The Bible is our source for knowing what is central to our faith. The Spirit and Wisdom of God guide us in understanding what that center means for us today.
But alongside these great strengths of orienting ourselves primarily to a person, it brings with us grave dangers of idolatry.
There is far greater temptation for Christians to worship Jesus that for Jews to worship Moses, or Muslims, Muhammad. If there is a tendency to idolatry in Judaism and Islam, it is focused on Torah and Koran. These are religiously central, and whatever is religiously central tends to be deified. Nevertheless, there is no serious tendency of Jews and Muslims to identify the Torah or the Koran with God, whereas many Christians have tended to treat Jesus as their God.
The creeds try to check this tendency, insisting on Jesus’ humanity. But they are also ambiguous and seem at times as much to encourage the tendency to idolatry as to block it. It is this tendency, far more than Jesus himself, the Beloved of God, that has alienated Jews and that prevented Muhammad from embracing Christianity. Yet there are still many who read the teaching that the historical figure of Jesus is God back into the New Testament and regard it as normative Christian teaching. For many Christians, this teaching about Jesus interferes with listening to him. To this day it drives away from the church millions who are otherwise attracted to Jesus and are ready to listen to him.
Perhaps an even more terrible consequence of the idolatry of Jesus has been the tendency to condemn all who look elsewhere for their central inspiration and even those who, while looking to Jesus, want the freedom to express their views of who Jesus was in other ways. Every religious community has a history of controversy and division. But the history of Christianity has been peculiarly fraught with mutual anathemas, persecutions, pogroms, and religious imperialism. We have much of which to repent. None of this has followed from listening to Jesus.
For many people the centrality of a person leaves too much freedom to that person’s disciples. They feel the need for closure. Someone must tell them how to think and what to do. Even when deified, Jesus cannot do this. Hence there has been a strong tendency to assign authority to the church. The authority could be invested in the community as a whole, but usually it was thought to be concentrated in the leadership. This leadership could speak for the church.
As a practical solution to the need for guidance, this has its value. But, unfortunately, church leaders claimed more and more authority for the church for which they spoke. Finally, some began to speak of infallibility. This is another form of idolatry. No creaturely statement can be infallible. And no creature is so related to God as to participate in God’s infallibility. The very freedom that Christians celebrate as the gift of their faith can become the reason for slavery to a new idolatry.
One would have hoped that the primacy of the person would have protected Christians from a third form of idolatry, that of the book. Alas, it has not. This idolatry has emerged in recent centuries and grown worse in our own time.
While Jesus was alive, listening to him no doubt freed hearers from any such tendency. He showed, of course, utmost respect for the received scriptures of his day, but he emphasized that his followers should go beyond the teachings of the book. In the generations immediately following his death, Christians continued to respect the Jewish scriptures but they freely and creatively produced new literature, influenced by their new centering on Jesus. There was certainly no idolatry of the book.
Even when they eventually decided which of these new writings to regard as authoritative, they understood that their selections were based on historical relationships. The writings they canonized were still creatures, products of human wisdom guided by the Spirit. Through the Medieval period, despite the great authority of the Christian Scriptures, the writings of later Christians and the classics of Greece and Rome shared authority with them. It was only with the Reformation that the sharp distinction between the Word of God and the words of men was effectively introduced. Certainly, for Luther the Word of God was first and foremost the person, Jesus, himself, and only secondarily the texts through which we learn about him. But others were not so careful. Protestants have been cursed with the danger that the authority of God is identified with the authority of the Bible taken as discontinuous with the authority of all other human wisdom. The proximity to idolatry has been close indeed. The infallibility rightly denied to the Pope or any other human being was projected on the Bible.
Much as I recognize the distortions and evils that have come from centering on the person of Jesus, I confess my own deep gratitude at the opportunity to participate in this kind of faith. I find such centering profoundly liberating and empowering. It makes theology and specifically Christology of great importance, but listening to Jesus does not point toward one final orthodox formulation to be imposed on all. It points to discipleship and to appreciation for all who struggle to understand and to articulate their understanding. It points to measuring all our teaching by whether it encourages the love of God and neighbor, and it gives us clues as to what that love means in ever changing circumstances.
I am grateful that my community does not confront me with a lot of rules to be obeyed. I can appreciate the wisdom that underlies such rules and the beauty of lives that are based on following them. But that is not the life I seek. I am glad to be a part, instead, of a tradition that seeks collectively to understand what God calls us to do and be in our time and grants me the freedom to work out my own pattern of discipleship as I listen to Jesus.
For me to listen to Jesus is to be confronted by an ideal that inspires and draws me, condemns me, and reassures me even in my condemnation. It is to long for a world in which God’s purposes are fulfilled and to try to orient my actions and thoughts toward allowing God to use me for some small steps toward the realization of that world. That gives me a sense that life has meaning, and that even my failures mean something in the eyes of God.
I am sure that the kind of life to which I am led by listening to Jesus is also ambiguous. The freedom it encourages is dangerous. It can lead to aggressive actions that, even when carried out with the intent of advancing God’s purposes, do more harm than good. The element of guilt that goes with listening to Jesus, when separated from the word of gracious forgiveness, can do, and has done, great harm.
But listening to Jesus, my sensitivity to these dangers is heightened. I am encouraged to take these risks rather than others. I am encouraged also to respect and appreciate those who follow other paths.
We live in a day when idolatry is rampant. Some forms of idolatry are those that attribute to the human Jesus, or the church, or the Bible what belongs only to God. Still more dangerous are the secular idolatries of nation, and today, especially of Mammon or wealth.
If we listen to Jesus, we will eschew all idolatries. We will affirm the creatureliness of all creaturely things. We will accept the ambiguity of all creaturely action. And in and through this, in every situation, we will seek to be guided by the Wisdom that was incarnate in the person of Jesus.