The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand it we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.
A month or so ago, I discussed Karl Barth’s admonition that we not replace the God with whom we interact, the God whom we worship, with a false God of our own devising. That is a tall order, and I believe that such a genuine interaction must be intimately involved with a development of a true relationship with Godhead–with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Historically, most radical reevaluations of the gospel have occurred as a result of application of the Pauline ethic, with its emphasis on Jesus as Savior. Calvin, Luther, and Barth all predicated their major theological contributions on Paul’s epistles, and, indeed, he champions a Jesus for the Gentiles, a Christ who has thrown down the law and replaced it with grace.
I’ve wondered before what such a re-envisionment of the gospel, proceeding out of John, would look like, with his emphasis on love (agape) and egalitarianism amongst the community of believers, and, indeed, Christ as Comforter and Son of God, the paradoxical Logos. That may well stand as a topic for another time; today I wish to consider what a re-envisionment of the gospel proceeding from Jesus Christ would resemble*.
The profoundly introspective level of honesty which discipleship of our Disciple requires is not easy to come by. Professor Jay Williams of Hamilton College recently wrote that,
We still read the words of the Sermon on the Mount; we speak of their profundity and grandeur, but, it seems, we do not pay much attention to what it is Jesus demands. Perhaps this is because Jesus says things we simply do not wish to hear. We would, in fact, rather listen to the voice of our own creation.
To go with him twain, to pray for them who despitefully use me, to let the day be sufficient to the evil thereof and consider the lilies of the field–I am far indeed from such awful actions, I know, but this is the Lord’s voice as recorded by prophets and apostles, and not that of my own creation. By recognizing Jesus as a moral teacher, it is not necessary that we renounce him as the Son of God.
“…The voice of our own creation.”
When it comes to the nitty-gritty details of Jesus’ life and actions, there is a dearth of information about motives and context in the New Testament. We don’t even really agree on what Jesus Christ meant by all that he said and did–much of it seems contradictory, both with itself and with later Christian teachings. Williams offers the following as the basic tenets of Jesus’ moral action and teachings:
“First of all, Jesus demands complete, voluntary poverty. …
“Second, Jesus requires his followers to renounce all family ties, indeed, even to hate father and mother and wife and brother and sister. …
“Third, Jesus demands a life of absolute non-violence. …
“Fourth, Jesus demands complete emotional control. …
“Fifth, although Jesus sometimes attends public religious ceremonies, such involvement regularly results in conflict. …Jesus seems to have little use for ‘organized religion.'”
I’d like to respond to each of these in turn, considering, however, that we do not have a non-self-contradictory picture of Jesus from the Gospels, and that some of these may be necessary for Christ to fulfill his specific mission as Savior, rather than as a general ethical imperative (teleological suspension of the ethical, as Abraham). I do not intend for these statements to lessen the severity of discipleship; I do intend for them to guide our perspective.
The first point is, I think, made dangerously here, as if poverty in and of itself were a good of first intent. The emphasis should not be on renunciation and poverty (this is an Augustinian strain of thought–mortification of the flesh), but on acceptance of our daily bread and gratitude therefore.
Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? …Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin….
—Matt. 6:25, 28
Such a consideration (or lack thereof!) will inevitably lead to some degree of poverty; I hold with C. S. Lewis’ assessment that
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.
–C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, “Social Morality”
We should not fall into the trap, then, of patting ourselves on the back for being poor, when, in very deed, our poverty is not a virtue. The broad field between the extremes of prosperity theology and hermetic asceticism contains the straight and narrow path, though it may lie somewhat closer to the latter.
Williams’ second claim, that one renounce all family connections, seems to me drastically out of line with many of Jesus’ other mortal actions. True, Jesus taught,
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. ·And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. ·He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
¶While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. ·Then one said unto him, “Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee.” ·But he answered and said unto him that told him, “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?” ·And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, “Behold my mother and my brethren! ·For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
But contrast these with the tender relationships he demonstrates with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (John 11:17ff)†,
Behold how he loved him!
and, with sobering finality,
Woman, behold thy son!
—John 19:26 (26-27)
In addition, Joseph Smith’s New Translation sheds light on the Lucan passage, rendering it as
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, or husband, yea and his own life also; or in other words, is afraid to lay down his life for my sake; cannot be my disciple.
The crux of the matter is not hatred of family, nor renunciation of family. It is that one’s relationship with God the Father and the Son takes precedence over any other relationship. By providing this relationship with the priority it requires, we are better able to reach out to others and emulate Jesus in our personal actions.
Thirdly and fourthly, Jesus teaches that we must live lives of nonviolence and discipline. This is abundantly true as stated, that Jesus’ moral teachings require acceptance of the marginalized and downtrodden. No power is to be used coercively, but all things are to be done in the spirit of love and concern. (There is a certain feeling I have on occasion experienced, a manifestation when a family meets together in council for the welfare of a member, and it is like nothing else in this world–this is my good of first intent, I must confess.)
There is an enormous body of literature referring casually to the body of the faithful as disciples, without consistent equation of that term with its parent: discipline. Neal A. Maxwell developed the concept of custom commandments tailored to exacting personal discipleship in many of his writings; here it will suffice to quote him as saying,
To be truly about our Father’s business, we must ever be striving to become more like His Only Begotten Son, Jesus! Developmental mortality should be just that. It surely consists of more than just passing through this world, since we, like Jesus, are required to overcome the world. …
His methodology for dealing with temptation is that which we should emulate, if we would escape: “He suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them” (D&C 20:22).
–Neal A. Maxwell, “The New Testament—A Matchless Portrait of the Savior”
[As we] navigate the road of discipleship, …we will become much more aware of and alive to the many possibilities for doing good that are present in life’s daily situations. …Nothing is really routine.
–Neal A. Maxwell, “The Pathway of Discipleship”
Maxwell’s emphasis tended to be on endurance and acceptance in the face of difficulty and hardship; it may just as well be applied to acceptance of Jesus’ lifestyle and moral teachings.
Fifthly, Williams seems to interpret Jesus somewhat iconoclastically as regards organized religion:
“…It would appear that Jesus calls upon his followers to renounce public worship, public exercises of piety, hierarchical orders, the Temple— that is, religion in any usual, corporate sense.”
I counter that Jesus has little use for hypocrisy, not for organized religion. Personal worship has just as many opportunities for hypocrisy as organized worship, though perhaps not as publicly. Jesus did not eschew the Judaism of his day–he regularly quoted it, taught in the synagogues, and observed the various feasts and rites required legitimately. The wrath of God was directed against those of the Pharisees who had leveraged the law into a vehicle for their temporal elevation (and these were still a subset).
It is somewhat difficult to establish from the Four Gospels alone that what Jesus intended to establish was a church, as opposed to a loose body of the faithful. Latter-day revelation has clarified the role of the institutional church as a vehicle for authority and salvational covenants, but this extends beyond what we observe in Matthew through John of Jesus’ activities.
An ultimate goal of the gospel is disciplined private worship. Achieving it, however, we still obtain salvation by interaction with a community, which is easiest in an institutional setting.
…That same sociality which exists among us here [telestially] will exist among us there [celestially]….
“Ye are only in the service of your God.”
So what are we to do in the face of such exactitude? Williams states,
…The cost of discipleship is exceedingly great and each person must decide whether he or she has the resources to build that tower and fight that war.
If our moral actions do not reflect the depth we perceive in our own devotion and faith, we need to remedy that situation immediately. How my own words now chill me! And to complicate matters, no righteousness of my own is of true value, for I fall so short of the righteousness of God and still rely wholly on his grace.
The most complete guide to Christian action, action after the nature of Christ, consists not of the New Testament alone, though it is rich with experiences and demonstrations by the Savior, especially the incomparable Sermon on the Mount. Further exposition and contextualization are found in the Book of Mormon; for instance, King Benjamin’s sermon:
…Ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
·Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just–·But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
·For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? …·Ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.
—Mosiah 4:16-19, 26
In all honesty, the question I must consistently ask myself is, “In which of these areas do I fall farthest short of emulating Jesus?” That answer, coupled with the guidance of the Holy Ghost, will show us the next logical development of our discipleship.
Ultimately, like the sons of Sceva, I have fallen victim to the same demons I set out to exorcise. I am reading the twenty-first century church into the meridian of time. I am attempting to understand something of the mind of God as seen through a two-thousand-year-old lens, obscured further by scholarship, bias, and pride. The only virtue of this analysis, if it may be called that, is that it may be no more incorrect than Williams’s, or Luther’s, or Barth’s. The danger of trying to interpret Jesus, or indeed any aspect of the gospel, is that one will interpret it in such a way as to validate one’s own actions and existence, rather than to create the germ of death and change and life.
*In the first place, that’s the wrong phrase to use, but the honest one. I should say, the gospel according to Jesus Christ, not proceeding from, but that simultaneously puts me as a final interpreter, not a preliminary and incapable one, of the word of God.
†I am not claiming these to be necessarily familial, but of that order.