All of us here, I should imagine, will take as our strong conviction, and will put that into practice in our own devotional lives, in our preaching and teaching, that we have in Scripture (broadly) reliable information about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and that that scriptural record informs, nurtures and underpins our faith. The good news, as it were, is that such a view is more fashionable in scholarship now than it was twenty, fifty or perhaps even a hundred years ago. A few months ago I attended a conference for clergy of the Berkshire Archdeaconry at Windsor Castle (there are some advantages to being in the diocese of Oxford if you look hard enough), where a distinguished retired New Testament scholar said that while Jesus was indeed the “clue to God,” and that we could see the “sense of God” in Jesus, the Gospels, with all their, as he put it, “variety and contradiction”, could have no privileged status beyond being separate, episodic responses to the “Jesus event”, and were useful only insofar as they took us “through Christ to God. ” Now there is much there that one would want to agree with; certainly, Christians worship Christ, not the Bible, and we are not, like other monotheistic religions, “people of the book,” but the people of God, the people of Christ – we follow a person, not a set of written instructions. Yet that retired professor addressing us at the was getting behind the times – we do want to speak more positively of the scriptures, and what they tell us about Our Lord; uncritical scepticism is no longer quite so fashionable, no longer holds the floor. The list supplied by E.P Sanders in his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, although it might seem incredibly spare to us, is probably fuller than it might have been in the past; in his category of those things which are “beyond dispute” about the life of Christ, he includes the facts that Jesus called disciples, and among them an “inner circle” of twelve; that he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee, preaching “the Kingdom of God,” that in about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for the Passover and created a disturbance in the Temple area, that he had a final meal with his disciples; that he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the High priest, and that he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. And although he will not seek to define or explain them, Sanders is equally sure that the disciples “had resurrection experiences” of their Lord after his death. Before we hear some of the ultra-sceptical comments from earlier scholars, it is worth noting these words from the final pages of Sanders’ book: “in the midst of mystery and uncertainty, we should remember that we know a lot about Jesus.
Now to go back a bit. We need to remember that for a very long time, theologians and biblical scholars of every persuasion beyond what we would call the “fundamentalist” have been saying, in effect, “we can’t really know anything very much for sure about Jesus – all is speculation, and/or pure faith.” R.H. Lightfoot, in the famous ending to his Bampton Lectures in 1935, is a classic example: “for all the inestimable value of the gospels, they yield us little more than a whisper of his [Jesus’] voice, we trace in them but the outskirts of his ways. Only when we see him hereafter in his fullness shall we know him also as he was on earth. And perhaps the more we ponder the matter, the more clearly shall we understand the reason for it, and therefore shall not wish it otherwise. For probably we are at present as little prepared for the one as for the other.” Albert Schweitzer in 1954 famously wrote that Jesus is the one who “comes to us as one unknown,l’ Barth tells us that “Jesus Christ is in fact historically so difficult to get information about,” Bultmann, out on the far left (or should that be far right) of historical scepticism says “I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.” Redaction and form criticism (I said this was going to be a broad brush) take as their starting point the basic premise that all we can investigate is the matter of how the four evangelists assembled, arranged and edited material which had been culled from hypothesised but undiscovered sources, or passed on in the oral traditions of early Christian communities; thus the question is not “what does this tell us about Jesus?”, but ” what does this tell us about the relationship between Mark and Matthew, Matthew and Luke, Q and Luke”, or whatever. We began to speak naturally (and I confess I still do, as often as not) not of “what Jesus says,” but of “what Mark says,” or “what Luke says.” More recently still, so-called narrative criticism and the application of various aspects of (themselves highly questionable) literary critical theories to the reading of the Gospels have spawned endless studies in which the assorted late twentieth century concerns are miraculously found to the fore in the pages of scripture.
Now of course we cannot simply throw all this out and imagine ourselves back in some prelapsarian or precritical state, in which we are going to turn up the pages of St John’s Gospel to find explained for us there precisely how Our Lord is “one and the same Son, the Same perfect in Godhead, the Same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly Man, the Same consisting of a rational soul and a body, homoousios with the father as to his Godhead, and the same homoousios with us as to his manhood…. one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only begotten, made known in two natures which exist without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” and so on and so on. (I’m sure you all immediately recognised the Definition of the Council of Chalcedon.) We can never go back to thinking in anachronism, to hoping to find doctrine and dogma spelled out for us in the pages of scripture; but then this shouldn’t worry us – Catholics are after all supposed to believe in the development of doctrine. Moreover, it is exciting and enriching to begin to grasp the creative minds and profound theological genius of the evangelists, and our faith should only be strengthened and illuminated by, say, studying the synoptic gospels in parallel. What we do want to say though is, isn’t it incredible that we – scholars – have wanted to ascribe so much to the evangelists, and so little to Jesus himself; have been so sure of the motives and meanings of (say) the early church, or John the Baptist, or Paul, but not Christ Himself.. We want to say too that it must be possible to find an authentic picture in the scriptures of the whole thrust of Our Lord’s ministry – his “work” and his “teaching” to use the terms of this conference; it is not just a purely “forensic” matter of trying to establish which sayings of Jesus are or are not authentic. We can do without the “Jesus Seminar” of the mid-1980s North American scene, in which New Testament scholars gathered to vote, using coloured beads, on the likely probability of any one saying truly going back to Our Lord himself. A colour-code was employed; red for authentic, pink for “probably authentic,” grey for “probably inauthentic” and black ”definitely inauthentic”. (A contemporary writer – who will be much mentioned as we go on – puts this rather well: red – that’s Jesus! pink: sure sounds like Jesus. grey – well, maybe; black :there’s been some mistake here.”)
To begin to understand why there have been so many, if not false, then at least ultimately sterile avenues which “Jesus scholarship” has walked, we need to do a little historical surveying, and to go back to the turn of the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment and critical rationalism wrested from the control of Pope and preacher the icon of the Christ of orthodoxy, the divine redeemer and saviour of the world; and the greatest of the iconoclasts was the German sceptic H.S. Reimarus (1694-1768). In his Fragments published posthumously in 1778, he declared that if people were to ask serious historical questions about Jesus, they would discover that Christianity were simply based on a mistake Jesus was not a divine figure; he was a Jewish revolutionary who, having failed in his mission utterly, was put to death, and whose body was later stolen by his followers, who wrote stories claiming that he had risen from the dead, and who, capitalising on this fairy-tale, founded something called the catholic church from whom all bad things came. Reimarus dived in where both Catholic and protestant orthodoxies had scarcely trod – into the matter (as he saw it) of the actual historical facts of Jesus’ life. We have to say that in this, he (and those who followed him) did the gospel – and the gospels – a great service; never again could the life of Jesus simply be an irritating or trivial detail in between the great saving truths of the incarnation and the Cross; the life, as well as the birth and death was going to matter. (Catholics have at least on the whole been fairer in according some significance to Jesus’ life; where Protestantism has foregrounded the cross to the exclusion of almost all else, at least traditional Catholicism, in its assertion that Jesus came to found the church, has conceded that during his lifetime, as well as after his resurrection, he taught his disciples in order to pass on to them what they needed to know.)
From Reimarus and the Enlightenment assault on orthodoxy flows the great river of the “Quest for the historical Jesus”, and it’s divide into the two streams running in opposite directions but emptying into equally unhelpful seas – or at least one unutterably awful sea, and one choppy but navigable sea. (Apologies for such a terrible metaphor). The one stream begins with the attempts of the nineteenth century protestant liberals to “rescue” from the demolished ruins of history the “timeless truths” of the “message” of Jesus, to hang on to his moral and ethical teaching while removing from the story anything embarrassing to the modern mind, and to turn him into the architect and champion of the Anglo-Saxon Whig version of history in which the climax of all things (and presumably of God’s purposes) is rationalist postenlightenment Europe built on the fatherhood of reason and goodness and the brotherhood of man (at least intellectual Protestant man.) All particularity is removed from the Gospel; Jesus was someone who went about telling everyone to be nice to each other who could, on this understanding, equally well have lived at just about any time and in just about any place: the “message” is timeless, generalised and abstract. Christianity becomes above all a stepping stone in the “history of ideas;” and (I expect you’ve been waiting for the moment when I trot this one out), the “Christ of faith” becomes utterly divorced from the “Jesus of history.” And of course a subsidiary flowing ultimately from this stream is the view that virtually all we can find in the Gospels relates to the concerns, disputes and practices of the early church, Jesus Himself is simply submerged by too many layers of over-writing ever to come out into the light. The second major stream – and a far more potentially productive and positive one, even if it carries within itself one serious mistake – is that which really flows from the Albert Schweitzer’s shattering book published in 1906, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. I chose that rather tired adjective shattering for deliberate reason; the work of this young (Schweizer was not yet thirty when it was published) philosopher, musician, historian and philosopher literally shattered all the portraits of Jesus which had been drawn since the time of Reimarus to the turn of the twentieth century (not quite true: Schweitzer himself built on the work of Johannes Weiss, 1863-1914). Instead of “Jesus the preacher of timeless truths”, Schweizer located him firmly within the context the Jewish beliefs of his day. Jesus, he said, expected the coming Kingdom of God – by which, crucially, Schweizer understood the end of the world, indeed the complete destruction of the space-time universe. He also believed himself to be the Messiah, but told his disciples to keep this a secret; Judas betrayed the secret to the authorities, who had him arrested and crucified. According to Schweizer, Jesus understood his own death in terms of the Jewish tradition that, before the Kingdom of God came, Israel would undergo a great period of suffering, and that he, Jesus, taking the part of the whole of Israel, the true Israel, upon himself, would go out alone to meet that suffering. As we shall see, Schweizer was right in two crucial insights; first, right to rescue Jesus from the timeless void of being a purveyor of generalised moral truths, and to set his mission firmly within the context of first-century Judaism; second to insist that Jesus understood his own vocation as the Messiah (not the same, lest we get too excited,as saying that “he knew he was divine”), that he had self-awareness. Schweizer reinstated the “scandal of particularity”: Jesus was a Jew, and was shaped by the Judaism of his time; Jesus claimed something unique about himself. The big problem with Schweizer’s analysis is of course this: he posits a Jesus who was utterly convinced that the end of the world was nigh – and it didn’t happen. I guess it is fair to say that, depending on their theological predispositions, people have reacted in one of three ways to this fatal flaw in Schweizer’s argument. One “move” is to suggest that all the texts which look as though they might refer to the end of the world in fact refer to the second coming of Christ – that way lies milennerianism and a different kind of fundamentalism. A second is to say that Schweizer was right about Jesus’ expectations, but that it doesn’t matter that he (Jesus) was wrong – it confirms the truth of the incarnation to accept that Jesus made mistakes, as it allows him to be fully human – we all make mistakes, don’t we? is the argument here. The problem with this (and I seem to recall that this was the argument much in favour when I was at theological college), is that once you have admitted that Jesus was mistaken about one thing – one rather considerable thing – it is a natural move to suggest that he might have been mistaken about anything – and we all know the consequences of those sort of arguments. The third move, of course, is the ultra-sceptical one: if Jesus was mistaken about this thing, then clearly we cannot believe him about anything, and Christianity is built upon a fraud.
So, who do you say that I am? The choice before us at the moment would appear to be between an ethical/moral teacher whose message has been so evacuated of anything dangerous or specific as to be entirely anodyne: certainly not someone who you would be inclined to take up your cross to follow; and a Jewish Messiah who was wrong about the most important part of his message, and therefore presumably no Messiah at all.
Let us then hold on for now to the conviction that a proper understanding of Jesus which does justice to the particularity of his life and teaching, to the central Gospel call to make a decision, for or against Jesus, to the language of challenge and judgement as well as summons and welcome, all depends on holding firmly to the first century Jewish context. Virtually all modem scholars agree on this. Leaving to one side for a moment the question of whether Jesus predicted or foresaw the end of the world, we can think further about the kind of “theological environment” in which Jesus taught, healed, and proclaimed the Kingdom. What constituted the fundamental mindset of a first century Jew; what were the beliefs about God, his people Israel and the world, which would have shaped the attitudes and expectations of one, like Jesus, who would have been immersed in the Jewish scriptures and the Temple cult? Where, we might say “was Jesus coming from?” As we begin to understand this, so we can see in his work and teaching not timeless ethics or morality but extraordinary convictions about how and why God was acting in a new way towards his people; and crucially, how He was acting in a new way through the words and actions, through the very person of Jesus himself, and how Jesus himself understood and proclaimed this. And our understanding of these things will bring with it the a solution to the Schweizer problem, of Jesus’ apparent wrong expectation of the end of the world. The picture which should emerge is one of the Gospel accounts as being not impenetrable walls screening us of from the “real” Jesus, but thoroughly credible and reliable, with a “high” notion of Jesus’ own self-awareness and self-understanding, an undeniable sense of His own vocation as the agent of God, through whom alone God was doing something decisive. If that stops short of us being able to say “the Gospels tell us that Jesus knew that he was the Second Person of the Trinity,” then it is a long way as well from the old lie that “Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom, and the church proclaimed Jesus” – the liberal lie that we must minimalise the unique saving power of Jesus at any cost. The person of Our Lord, to come back to our theme for the day, is indivisible from the works or the teaching.
The most fundamental thing of all which we need to grasp concerning the basic attitudes and assumptions of the first century Jew is the concept of exile, or to be more explicit, exodus and exile. Israel was God’s elect, the chosen people, the covenant people, the people who had been led out of slavery in Egypt by the one true God, who had revealed to them his name and given them his commandments and the law, and brought to freedom in the promised land. The Lord himself travelled with the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness, present in the Ark of the Covenant. Now (jumping forward a few centuries) a Temple was built in Jerusalem where the Lord would dwell, and to which all nations would one day be drawn, and a Royal house the house of David – established which God had promised would never fail, as a further sign of the election of Israel, Temple and Royal dynasty went inextricably together. Again and again, Israel reneged on her side of the covenant with YWHW; again and again her God remained faithful. Eventually, in a sequence of events of unimaginable theological political and national catastrophe (and those three categories would of course been indistinguishable in the Israelite world-view), the land was overrun, the best of the people carried away into captivity and exile in Babylon, and the temple destroyed. Eventually, this time of captivity came to an end, the people returned from Babylon, built the Second Temple, and defined themselves as the covenant people of God by a closer conformity than ever to the Torah, the Law. Now, I deliberately said just now that the time of captivity – Babylonian captivity – was over; the key point is that, for the Jews of Jesus’ time, the period of exile was not. Yes, the people were restored to their land, but now that land was once again in pagan hands, ruled via the agency of a puppet dynasty (the Herodians) by the Roman power. None of the promises of what would actually happen after the return from exile made by the prophets – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Isaiah (see especially Chapters 40-66) – had in fact come true. The power and domination of the pagans was not broken; YHWH could scarcely be said to have returned to Zion, the covenant had not been renewed, nor the peoples’ sins forgiven; the Second Temple could hardly be said to be the true, perfect and final one. In short, it was clear that God had not yet finally acted in history to save and restore his people; something more was still to be done. The key phrase here is “in history”. It must be emphasised that the pious hope of first century Jews had nothing to do with the end of the world, or the coming to pass of a new world beyond time and space (what we call “heaven”), but of concrete, actual events coming to pass in history, in which God would act decisively once and for all to set his people free and bring in the Kingdom. Here is the sword with which to cut through Schweizer’s knot: the coming of the Kingdom would not have meant for Jesus, any more than it did for any other first century Jew, the end of the world: it meant the end of exile, true liberation, and the rule of YHWH, the climax of the covenant between the One True god and his people, neither annihilation nor a mere state of inner peace of mind, but visible, historical, unmistakable. It is among people with this basic expectation and hope (as well as uncertainty as to why the Kingdom has not yet arrived) that Jesus comes, preaching this same Kingdom, and preaching that it is coming into being in and around himself:
Before we go any further, I need to acknowledge a major debt, or I may get slung inside for plagiarism. It is Tom Wright in his books The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God who expounds (I don’t think it would be quire fair to say “invents”) the thesis that the first century Jews were longing for, and looking for, the end of exile, the return of YHWH to Zion and the coming of the Kingdom of God (as a set of this-worldly events), and that Jesus saw these hopes announced and fulfilled in himself, although in a way that was quite unexpected. These books are clearly the most serious contemporary contribution to the rehabilitation of the historical authenticity of the gospels, and the fact that Jesus had a high degree of awareness of his own unique vocation and status as God’s instrument and agent, indeed as the Messiah. Wright’s books (which I do thoroughly commend) are almost exclusively concerned with the synoptic gospels, and he does not allow any “reading back” of later Christological formularies into their pages, and rightly so; but if you take what he does posit as a reasonable assessment of Jesus’s self-understanding based on Matthew, Mark and Luke, and read John and other parts of the New Testament in the same light, you do indeed build a strong case for a more orthodox christology than most biblical scholars have allowed for many years.
Jesus, then, comes proclaiming the Kingdom, proclaiming that God is acting climactically and decisively in his dealings with his people Israel to end their exile, forgive their sins and bring in his rule: but that he is doing this through the work and person of Jesus himself. Israel is to renounce it’s worldly ambitions of nationalism and self-rule, and to turn its back on any military resistance to the Roman empire, and to follow Jesus, even on the way of the Cross. This is the most dramatic, dangerous and defining characteristic of Jesus’ teaching and actions: to be God’s people will no longer depend on adherence to the Torah, or participation in the Temple cult, or occupation of the land, or membership of the Israelite ‘family” but rather on loyalty to Jesus. This was Jesus’ staggering claim, the claim that the People of God was being recreated around himself, with himself as their leader. Jesus calls the twelve into existence not to be the primus inter pares, but to be the one set apart, the leader, the one who calls; the one who commands his disciples to leave everything and follow him, promising them nothing more (or less) than himself. Jesus speaks of himself as the bridegroom; and his feasting with the tax collectors and sinners foreshadow the messianic banquet and the great feasts which Hosea and Ezekiel promised would be shared by YHWH and his people when Israel’s time in the wilderness had reached its end. He invokes again and again of course the image of the shepherd: not just a royal symbol with roots deep in the traditions of the Davidic monarchy, but fulfilling the time promised in Ezekiel 34 when YHWH himself would become the shepherd of his people taking over from the false shepherds who had lead the flock astray, who had fed themselves instead of the sheep. He speaks as the new lawgiver, the new Moses – or rather, more than the new Moses, for he does not bring instructions from another, but speaks on his own authority, redefining and deepening the law in everything from food, to divorce, to land, to the Sabbath, to relations with non-Jews, in a way which could only be appropriate for the coming of the new age and the final return from exile. In his actions – most emphatically in his attack on the Temple itself, but also in his direct pronouncements of forgiveness, thus circumventing the “official channels” of Temple sacrifice – Jesus declares that all that was found in and through the cultic life is now accessible through himself. We need only to look at the systematic replacement of the rites of each of the major Jewish festivals in John, in which Jesus himself becomes the true water for purification, the living bread, the light of the world, life itself, fully to appreciate this point. In his parables – the Prodigal son, the Good Samaritan, the Lost Coin, the Pearl of Great Price – Jesus again and again shows how the old boundaries, the old landmarks denoting the covenant people of God are crumbling in the face of the arrival of the one who comes to bring in the Kingdom, announce the end of exile, and enact the rule of YWHW. Once we begin to understand the way in which Jesus is giving a dramatic “twist” to existing categories and concepts, and re-applying them to himself, then we become aware that nothing less than the language of finality and crisis will do.
As well as heralding the arrival of the Kingdom in his own person, and inviting others to follow him, Jesus’ words and actions as recorded in the gospels carry a very large element of judgement. If(as we want to argue) Jesus had a strong sense of his unique role that in and through his own life and ministry the Kingdom was coming in, then it would not be a matter of no consequence how those who heard the message responded to it. Not hearing the message, not heeding the call, would not simply be a matter of loss, of missing out on something good, but of disaster, calamity, destruction. There could be no middle way; either Israel repented and followed Jesus, turning its back on all its pretensions to and preserve itself through by worldly means, or it would surely be crushed, destroyed once and for all. Jesus followed consciously in the steps of the prophets, but, if you like, only more so: repent, follow me, or surely face the consequences. It has often been asserted that the language of judgement and destruction which we find in the New Testament can only be correctly understood as originating from long after the time of Jesus – the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 is the usual cause cited. However, if we are confident of Jesus’ own self-understanding, and if we accept the finality of the choice he offered to the Israelites, then we should have no difficulty in accepting that it would have been perfectly natural for Jesus to have used such language and painted such pictures. He stands (as has already been said) foursquare in the tradition of the great prophets who preached the judgement of YHWH on Israel for her apostasy, for her failure to live as the covenant people of God; and yet he pushes this tradition even further, with the crucial “twist” that, should Israel fail to repent, fail to grasp the decisiveness of the moment, then the disasters which once befallen the pagan nations of old would befall her. We need only recall the oracles of judgement against Chorazin and Bethsaida (Luke 10) to get the point.
We should not be surprised by this powerful language of judgement, nor try to shift it away from Jesus’ own ministry to some putative moment in the life of the early church. If we are convinced by the arguments that Jesus had a high sense of his own vocation, that he was the agent and herald of God’s decisive moment in his dealings with Israel, that he believed that their could be no third way between repentance and disaster, then it is entirely logical that he would include in his preaching the assertion that there would be an open demonstration of the fact that he was right, and (unrepentant) Israel wrong. In other words, there had to be a clear sense that Jesus himself (and those who followed him) would be vindicated. We see this not only in predictions of disaster for the on the unrepentant, but in the promise of reward to the faithful – see, for example, Matthew 10.32, 16.28 or Luke 12.6.
Before they can be rewarded, the disciples will be exposed to all manner of trials; they will be hauled before the authorities both Jewish and pagan, and a time when the whole of society is torn apart with a reign of terror, accusation and recrimination (see Mark 13. 12 – 13), they will find everyone against them. Despite every betrayal (the scriptural background for this can be seen in the passage about betrayal and vindication in Micah 7), they must stand firm; they will be rescued, even if that is only after a time of utter calamity, scattering, and flight. As we understand this pattern of judgement on the one hand, and vindication and rescue on the other, so it makes sense to say confidently that Jesus predicted not the end of the world, but that the world would never be the same again, decisively transformed both for those who would follow him, and those who would not.
So we can claim – generalising, as I said I would – that it is the inauguration of this new age in and through his own words and actions which constitutes the unifying and organising characteristic of the “work and teaching” of Jesus. Wright (in Jesus and the Victory of God, already cited) sees the parable of the Prodigal Son as the supreme paradigm of this: Israel, which has wandered away and pursued its own paths of folly, is – or could and should be – rushing home – returning from exile – because of the overwhelming, generous, unconditional – prodigal – love of her heavenly father; the elder son represents the sulky stay-at-homes, the ones who will not recognise what is going on, will not come to the feast – in other words, will not recognise Jesus for who he is and respond to him. We may or may not want to take the Wright analysis on board quite so neatly (although in its method it is pleasingly mediaeval and allegorical!); what is undoubtedly true is that the parable of the Prodigal son is about the welcome given to one who should be beyond welcome – a younger son who has offended twice over, by demanding his inheritance before time, and then squandering it; and that this welcome must be understood as part of a setting aside of old formularies and taboos – not because they were in themselves wrong, but rather because their time is up, a new era is at hand, with new rules (not no rules), above all a new way of being the People of God.
Now, I am not going to do all the work for you, and systematically go through the gospels showing how such-and-such a passage fits with the view we have been expounding – it would hold up lunch for far too long, and you wouldn’t have anything to do when you get home. In fact, a broad cross-section of the material should shore up the argument. The teaching of Jesus is surely about redefining, deepening and reorientating the Torah in a way which only makes sense when something new, decisive, climactic is occurring – indeed, when the Messiah has come, even if he is a very different kind of Messiah from the one expected. This is true of the Sermon on the Mount; it is true of the command to lay up treasure in heaven, it is true of the teaching about the Sabbath, food law, and divorce; it is true of the commands to cut of offending limbs and throw them into the fire and enter the Kingdom of heaven maimed rather than go straight ahead into judgement and calamity; it is true of the command to forgive and forgive again, seventy times seven – for forgiveness of sins and release from prison is a sign – perhaps the sign – of the return from exile and the rule of YWHW. It is true of the command to hate father, mother, wife, children and brothers and sisters – “yes even your own life” – and follow Jesus. It is the reason why, in addressing the rich young man in Mark 10 (17-22), Jesus deliberately replaces the first three commandments with the new commandment, “Follow me.” It is the reason why children are to be so honoured, and why the Kingdom will be for those who become like the little children. It is surely the clue to all the parables of sifting, discrimination the parables of the Sower, the wise virgins, the talents, the house built upon the rock. Although we must beware of talking too glibly of the “message” of the parables, the narrative framework to each is the same – they are about the two ways – and there are only two – of responding to Jesus, and their inevitable consequences – the unrepentant, those who will not listen will be the plants that choke and wither, will be those who are shut out from the feast, who will be punished for failing to respond, who will see their house totter and fall – this a parable, surely, with an eye on the Temple itself which Jesus had come to replace.
If we think of work rather than teaching, we see the inauguration of the Kingdom in the table fellowship with the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners; and, switching back to our previous category, in the parables of the banquets in which the first to be invited refuse to come or are found not to be worthy, while outsiders take their places. It is there in the “mighty works”, the casting out of demons “by the finger of God”, especially the healing miracles, and again especially those explicitly concerning those outside the covenant boundaries of the people of God – the racially or ritually unclean; in pronouncement of forgiveness; in the symbolic acts, the feeding miracles,the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree, and, supremely the assault on the Temple. All this essentially “synoptic” material in terms of what we might call “symbolic action” is of course deepened in the Johannine “signs” – it is of course in John that the “super-symbol,” the cleansing of the Temple is placed not at the end of Jesus’ ministry, but at the beginning, throwing its shadow forward over the whole of the fourth Gospel.
We have already said much about Jesus sense of his own vocation, his conviction that it is he himself who is the agent of the coming of the kingdom, and that Israel’s response to him (or lack of it) will bring judgement upon her. In case there should be any doubters, we can think for a moment of just some of the texts which point clearly to this which we have not yet considered; the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard, who, having rejected the prophets, finally seize and kill the son, the allusions to the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, to Jonah and the people of Nineveh; to the “Wisdom” saying at Matthew 11.28 (“Come to me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”) and Jesus reply to the followers of John the Baptist in Luke 7.
What we should do particularly as we approach the end of this session, is think more specifically about how Jesus understood not just his vocation in terms of his teaching and ministry, but his suffering and death. After all, in that question we approach the heart of Christian theology, the Cross.
It is in itself a huge subject, and the subject, indeed, of a separate talk: but broadly there are two very important things to say. First Jesus would have known well those scriptures, widespread and central to the Jewish understanding of the way the world was, that Israel’s present state of suffering was somehow part of the ongoing divine purpose, that it was in some way caused by her own apostasy; that it would however eventually come to an end through a time of great suffering; and that the present suffering would itself quicken, and lead into, the last and greatest trial, which would in turn bring about restoration and renewal. Second there is every indication that, as his own ministry progressed towards its climax, Jesus began to understand that he would take upon himself, in his own person, that whole state of suffering before vindication which was Israel’s vocation, that he would go ahead of his people alone to be the true Israel, the faithful Israel. This was the way of the Cross: Jesus came to understand that he would take upon himself the suffering that hung over the nation as a whole, shepherd king with the sheep, servant with the nation he was called to serve. He would act on behalf of, and in the place of, the Israel who was failing to be what she was called to be, and would fulfil her vocation (the vocation in which she had failed), on her behalf. In all of this, Jesus would have had in mind those crucial scriptures whose “story” he saw himself fulfilling: Ezekiel 34, Daniel 7, Zechariah; above all Isaiah 4055 and the picture of the suffering righteous servant.
If we glance quickly at the Last Supper, we can see how Jesus fused the great story of Jewish history – divine deliverance from tyranny, exodus/exile – with his own lire and coming death. At the Supper, Jesus involved himself in the final resolution of this great drama: indeed, he brought the whole of the story of God’s dealings with his people into focus upon himself. Like a magnifying glass catching and concentrating all the rays of sunlight on one point on the ground, it is at the Last Supper that Jesus draws the whole symbolism of Passover,and all it meant in terms of Jewish history and the Jewish hope, onto himself and his approaching fate. The words spoken in the Upper Room, and, in the great performative tradition of Jeremiah or Ezekiel, the deeds done, bring into one the vast themes of Passover, sacrifice and covenant, forgiveness, bread which is broken and wine which is poured out, and Jesus’ own body and blood. We can say confidently that by the time of the Last Supper, Jesus knew that his own final suffering was at hand, and that this was therefore the final meal he would eat with his followers; we can say (based on all that has been argued so far) that it is true that it was Jesus’ intention for this sacred meal to be continued by his followers in the future.
How far does such a high degree of self-understanding on Jesus’ part need to be limited to the later part of his ministry? As we have said, the style and manner of Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom meant that there always was an implicit self-reference, a Christology of sorts, in all that was said and done throughout his ministry. It is simply inconceivable that Jesus could have failed to see himself as more than a mere prophet, more than David’s son – but the Messiah – albeit, crucially, a Messiah called to reject the very courses of action that everyone would have expected him to take. And there is no reason at all to suppose that it was not Jesus’ own baptism at the hands of John, his successful withstanding of the temptations (whatever may or may not historically have occurred), and his transfiguration on the mountain-top, which initiated, refined, and confirmed, his messianic vocation.
The high degree of self-awareness, the messianic vocation for which we have argued, there for those who have ears to hear to hear in the synoptic, is, of course, pushed further in John and reflected back in the post-Easter setting of (especially)Hebrews and the Revelation of St John; in the former Jesus is cast as the true High Priest, the culmination of all Old Testament history, the one who enters into the true heavenly sanctuary, the one in whom divine wisdom is fulfilled, in whom God is found; in Revelation (which perhaps contains the highest Christology in the New Testament), we actually find worship of Jesus himself. What has happened (and of course this is the heart of Pauline theology passim – the references are simply too numerous to go into now) is that through the experience of Easter, the early church has come to believe that the decisive event, the climax of the history of God and his people is not (as Jesus believed) about to happen, but has happened. The risen Jesus has to make it plain to some of the disciples at least: Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things, and enter into his glory? (Luke 24.26).
We have travelled a long road to do no more than suggest that (despite the long generations of scholarly sceptics) we have far stronger ground for believing what most of us here believe quite naturally and unselfconsciously anyway – that Our Lord was who Christians say he was, the Messiah, the redeemer, and that he understood that himself during his own earthly ministry. But if the road has been a laborious one, it is one well worth travelling . Let me end by quoting you these words from no less a critically conservative source than the Jerome Biblical Commentary – hardly a hotbed of radicalism.
The quest for the historical Jesus helps give concrete content to our Christological statements and thus does play a useful role in theology. Against any tendency to evaporate Jesus into a timeless gnostic or mythic symbol, the quest reaffirms the scandal of the Word made flesh, the shocking identification of the fullness of God’s revelation with a particular Jew off 1st century Palestine.. while at first glance attractively “relevant” the historical Jesus win always strike the careful enquirer as strange, disturbing, even offensive. The exact opposite of the scholars of the ‘liberal lives”(who served as a clear pool into which scholars gaze to see themselves) he frustrates all attempts to turn Christian faith into relevant ideology. . . and is a constant catalyst for renewing theological thought and church life.
And we may add that for those who would bury Jesus under the ash heaps of the critics microscopic eye, the figure we find striding out of every page of the gospel witness is too vigorous, too vital, too different, to be quieted. In the light of the first Easter morning, the disciples understood that the death and resurrection of their Lord had changed the world forever, that their sins had been forgiven and a new age begun. In doing this, they were not plucking wild claims out of the air, but seeing confirmed Christ’s own promises, about the world, and about himself.
JMR Baker October 1997.