4.15.2009

Following Jesus - II

In my previous post, I presented, as one of the challenges we face when it comes to knowing and following Jesus, that we all see Jesus through our particular lenses. (And by following Jesus, I mean not only that we must seek to live by his teaching, but that we must also seek to imitate his life). That is, not one of us comes to this quest objectively and without our own conditioning. When someone says we ought to follow Jesus, the question could legitimately be asked “Whose?” In the most sinister cases, this is an intentional manipulation to fit an agenda. In the more innocent and probably more common cases, this is an unwitting creation of Jesus in our own image—the way we want or need him to be. So, to the question “Who is Jesus and what does it mean to follow him?” we must first ask the question “Do we really want to know?”

There is a second stumbling-block to the quest to follow his words and imitate his deeds, and that is the question of whether or not it is a legitimate quest in the first place. This might seem like a weird thing to say. For a Christian at least, it seems like a very natural answer in the affirmative: “Of course we want to follow Jesus!” Nevertheless, it stands that even though so many regard Jesus as one of the greatest ethical teachers the world has ever known, hardly anybody—even those who profess to be Christians—shows actual concern to live by his ethics. And even though he was very good, very few seek to imitate his way of life. Why? Because—whether consciously or unconsciously—very few of us think that Jesus’ life and teaching bear any relevance to our personal or social ethics today. To imitate Jesus is not a legitimate or realistic quest.

This is not necessarily a perspective found only outside the church or Christian teaching. Consider how many of the following reasons are reasons you have heard from the mouth of a Christian or even from the pulpit. The following are some of the reasons Jesus is not taken to be relevant to our ethics today. (This is an adapted list, synthesizing surveys in The Politics of Jesus by J.H. Yoder, Imitating Jesus by R. Burridge, and The Sermon on the Mount by R. Guelich.)

+ The ethic of Jesus was an interim ethic, which Jesus only meant for a short time until impending end of the world. This is rather pessimistic view of Jesus’ life and teaching, famously put forward by Albert Schweitzer—who interestingly enough still followed Jesus in forsaking his academic career for medical missions. Nevertheless, he basically states Jesus prepared people for the impending kingdom of God, which did not end up coming, and so his teaching became irrelevant.

+ Jesus’ way of life was a simple, rural, or “face-to-face” kind of ethic, which may work in intimate interpersonal relationships, but has no capacity to work at larger societal or political levels. This is in part the assumption of many Evangelicals and those who hold to just war theory. Likewise, this is the assumption of democracy, which basically, demands that these ethics not be brought into public policy and that we find a common ethic for a pluralistic society. An example of thinking from which this perspective arises is in the logic: “It is one thing to turn the other cheek when your neighbor hits you, but that cannot apply to a society or community.”

+ Jesus and his followers lived as a small, persecuted minority with no power. Jesus’ ethic makes sense in that context, but provides us with few resources for the situation we find ourselves now in which Christianity holds a significant amount of political influence. This has really plagued us since Constantine and Augustine. At least in part, this gave birth the doctrines of the two cities and the Lutheran teaching of “office” (i.e., that as a Christian one holds a personal ethic of the kingdom of God but holds an “office” in the kingdom of the world, and what one must do in the worldly office may contradict one’s personal ethic).

+ It is impossible to establish one consistent and coherent ethic of Jesus. A couple of lines of thought may give way to this conclusion. First, historical criticism casts extensive doubts about what can be known of the the historical Jesus. “We can only know Jesus’ life and teaching after our excavation of the evidence, and only after we can reach consensus on that can we talk about his ethics.” Second, biblical theology often emphasizes the diversity of theologies and ethics found in the NT to the neglect of finding any unity. In other words, the differences—and there are differences—between the four gospels are emphasized without any attempt to describe their similarities.

+ Jesus was concerned with spiritual and not social matters. Jesus was concerned with the individual getting his or her heart right with God (i.e., personal salvation) and not concerned with establishing a way of life for a society. Another form is that Jesus’ life is only meaningful in that he fulfilled all righteousness and died on the cross for our sins. Thus, imitating his life becomes secondary and peripheral. He is our Savior, and we are saved by faith, thus the demand to imitate him is akin to legalism. We might find this in the Lutheran/Protestant interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount that presents it as an impossible ethic, which describes God’s will, and serves to expose our sinfulness and lead us to faith. Another perspective that may fit into this is the classical Dispensational interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount—that it represents the ethic of the future kingdom and thus is not binding for the church today.

There are many reasons why we may not take seriously the demand to follow Jesus: to live by his teaching and imitate his deeds. The second question we must ask is “Would we even be willing to follow?”

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