Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?

Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?  

If Jesus Christ is the Lord’s vindicator, how can he be at the same time the Lamb of God?  In trying to understand this and more, I’m going to follow the lead of a marvelous work of scholarly imagination by Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.  This does not mean that I agree with it.

The winnowing fork

Consider the image of the winnowing fork, which Christ uses to separate the wheat from the chaff, burning the chaff in an endless fire.  Attributed to John the Baptist by Matthew (3:12), the image captures perfectly Christ’s self-description of his mission: to bring hope to the pious and powerless, and punishment to the rich, who have had their reward in this world (Luke: 6:23-24).  But the statement I will never understand is Christ’s explanation of why he speaks in parables.

And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables.  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (Mark 4.10-12)

No matter how many times it is explained to me in terms of Christ’s regret and understandable anger at those who will never understand (Young 1998, pp 263-264), I cannot make sense of Christ’s claim.  Why would he speak in code?  Are there no second chances?  This is not the statement of a loving God.  Christ’s statement has been explained as “the wistful longing of frustrated love,” but it doesn’t sound very wistful to me. 

Like father like son

“Turn the other cheek” has rightly been seen as central to Christ’s teaching (Matthew 5:39).   It was not central to God the Father. In this regard Jesus teaches a more charitable doctrine.  But consider Christ’s reasoning: turn the other cheek; forgive others as God has forgiven you, because it will get you into heaven.  Jesus might have said “be merciful because mercy is better than vengeance.” (Miles, Christ, p 96)  The love or caritas that is implicit in mercy and forgiveness is turned into an exchange, or rather a threat: forgive others or God won’t forgive you.

Jesus Christ remains his father’s son, a gentler version.  One who has come to teach us to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)  But at the same time Jesus continues to think in terms of power.  The power to forgive, and the power to destroy a human being endlessly. 

But God is not merely a God of destruction.  He is also a creator God, and humans are his masterpiece, the crown of creation (or so we like to think).  In the end Jesus will transform the meaning of power itself.

The two faces of Jesus?

Jack Miles explains what I have called the two faces of Jesus in terms of the transformation of God himself.  God the father and God the son are different sides of the same coin, a standard Christian view.  “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9).   What is remarkable about Miles’ account is the reason for God’s apparent transformation: he was no longer strong enough to defeat the enemies of Israel.

Gentiles may imagine that their own goodness, their own attractiveness, was a sufficient motive for God’s decision to bring them into the covenant that he had once reserved for the Jews. But if we approach this change from God’s side, taking seriously a Bible that presents his covenant with Israel as dwarfing all else in its importance to him, then we must seek the reason for the eventual expansion of the covenant in the troubled state of his role within it. The covenant had to be changed because God could not keep its terms and because, on the eve of a new national catastrophe for Israel [i.e., Rome], he chose to stop pretending that he could.  (Miles, Christ, p 108)

So what does God do?  He sacrifices himself.  In Jesus the Lord becomes the new Paschal Lamb, his crucifixion a new Passover.  In place of the earthly defeat of Israel’s enemies, God will sacrifice himself, purchasing eternal life for all mankind.  Not a bad bargain all in all.

Thinking about Christ in this new way requires we rethink power.  Power is not a matter of kings, armies, and heavenly hosts, but an act of sacrifice.  “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)    Or as Miles puts it,

henceforth, no unrighted wrong, no un-vindicated innocence, will be so great that this sacred drama cannot accommodate it. (Christ, p 224)

The Lord fails to protect Israel, but in so doing saves mankind forever.  As he is led off to his death, Christ says simply “take heart, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).  He means it, but on his terms.  He doesn’t exist to make your life easier or better.  He doesn’t exist to answer your prayers, no matter how earnest.  He exists so that you might have eternity.

The evidence

Miles understands his account of the meaning of Christ’s life as a literary account.  It is not historical; it does not rest on biblical scholarship, or scholarly exegesis.  It is the account that allows Miles to make the most sense of the radical discontinuity between God and Jesus, while still recognizing their unity.  God changes, one might even say he grows up, but Jesus Christ is still an adolescent.  There is much of his father about him.  But perhaps this is because humans cannot take a pure unadulterated Jesus.  He would be too much to bear. 

My account: God wants to understand what he has made  

My account is also a literary account.  That means it is not theological exegesis, but an attempt, like Miles, to account for the transformation of God into Christ while remaining God. 

The Book of Job is the literary climax of what Christians call the Old Testament, even as much beauty and wisdom remains, such as Psalms, which follow immediately.  After Job, God never talks to man again in the Old Testament.  The Book of Job, as I argued previously (Alford, 2009, pp 26-36), is best seen not just as God’s test of Job’s piety, but as God’s test of man: who is this man whom I have created?  What is he made of?  Does he have the right stuff?  Job is not just a precursor of Christ, a common Christian interpretation.  Job is the new Adam; like Adam he subdued the earth and multiplied humanity’s numbers.  But God still doesn’t know who Job really is.  Can he stand the pain of human existence?  Is he just faking his piety?  Is he unique, incomparable?

God becomes Jesus Christ so that he might experience the world as humans do, including human desire, human need, human love, human attachment, and human pain.  “The disciple whom Jesus loved” is a disciple loved as humans love (John 13:23, 19:26, and 20:2, 21:7, 21:20).  I believe that God in the form of Jesus willingly chose to suffer as humans do so as to better know his creatures.  God as Jesus also chose to experience human pleasure.  Wine was one of his favorites.

Conversely, Jesus Christ is how humans might know God.  God is unknowable.  As he says in Isaiah 55: 8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”  Even to imagine God without anthropomorphizing him seems impossible (Daniel 7:9). Theologically, I believe that Emmanuel Levinas has it right.  We see God in the face of the other, above all the other in need, to whom we owe everything.    It’s not hard to see how Levinas, a Jew, has become a favorite of Christians. 

Like Miles, mine is not a theological approach, but a literary one.  I too am concerned to explain the transformation of God into Jesus.  The difference is I see this transformation as one in which God wants to know his creatures, and allow his creatures to know him.  He is not revising the terms of a contract he can no longer fulfill.  That explanation makes no sense unless God is no longer God or Jesus, but some lesser deity.

From my perspective, it makes perfect sense to say that Jesus Christ is an approachable God, not only a God in human form (common in many religions and myths), but a genuine human who feels fear and pain as we do.  While it is not doctrinal to argue that God became Jesus in order to know his creatures better, my view does nothing to lessen his power or glory. 

And finally what is it about the strangeness of Jesus, “sweet creepy Jesus” as the old saying has it?  It serves to keep humans at a distance.  Jesus has become human, but no ordinary human. In some ways—but only some—he is as distant as his father.  His strangeness reminds us of that fact.

References

C. Fred Alford, After the Holocaust: The Book of Job, Primo Levi, and the Path to Affliction. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Jack Miles, God: A Biography.  Vintage, 1995.

Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.  Knopf, 2001.

Brad Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation.  Baker Academic, 1998. 

http: www.christianbiblereference.org/jparable.htm

 

11 thoughts on “Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?”

  1. That is very interesting and I shall look at the book you mention.Do you not think sometimes the Bible can be read as metaphors.
    In creativity, the ego must surrender to the deeper mind which can be a sort of death.Which is why it is hard.On the other hand. I find sometimes writing can be a form of play as Winnicott refers to in transitional space.I agree Jesus is sometimes harsh like cursing the barren fig tree.Even when I called myself agnostic I would cry out ” Jesus, help me” when I had nightmares while I was still asleep.So I must feel he is kind.Better not go on too long!

  2. Jesus is a puzzle to me. For me the trick to remember is that he is not my “personal savior,” but another face of God, and we should not expect him to be especially nice or kind. He is part of a triune God before he is the protector of children. I hope he is both. Here I find the concept of the trinity very useful. Fred

    1. I knew a Jewish man for a time.He compared getting closer to God as being like climbing a dangerous mountain.You might fall off!But in my unconscious Jesus must be someone who will help me as I cried out his name.I might become an atheist but my inner mind will remain a Catholic!

  3. I am thinking something like,explanation or evocation? I don’t quite know what I mean.I prefer the poetic image to logic now.
    When you see all the natural disasters along with our own evil human ones it seems that individuals don’t matter to God.And if that is so then everything is very mysterious.But I suppose God was there before language was developed so we can’t contain him in it perhaps or describe him
    Created anew every second of the day.
    I have ticked the box so I should get an email of anyone responds but so far it’s not worked; still we must have faith!

    1. If I had to summarize my feelings in a sentence, it would be something like ‘I pray to a God in whom I don’t entirely believe.’ But my prayers are real too. Well, maybe that’s two sentences. I try to capture some of this in my first post, Why I Pray. Fred

      1. I think for me it’s a bit like trying to tune in to a radio station.But when I was little we all used to kneel down in front of the fire and say prayers out loud before bed.I liked the feeling of togetherness and never doubted God’s existence until getting a very feeble textbook at school purporting to give Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God.That was a mistake!
        I understand your paradox in a way .It may be we encounter a deeper level of being where we are not all separate people.And admit we are not The King of the Castle

  4. I feel there is a lot of value in feeling that God is with us in our suffering especially mental or emotional suffering when other people may shrink from us
    Jesus being killed to me is about the evil of mankind.That we kill the good.I watched a programme about Martin Luther King last week and he is another example. I don’t feel God would require a “human sacrifice” for our salvation.Given the state of our world now it is hard to think we have been saved.It may make people feel complacent.
    I would not pass judgment on someone else, even a politician because we the people have made a society where such people can rise to the top.It’s a sign of a bad society.But I dislike watching such people on TV
    Well, it’s interesting to reflect on our ideas.So thank you for the stimulation

  5. Kathryn, I believe/hope that God is with each one of us, regardless of how corrupt society has become. I still judge people, but I don’t imagine that I am necessarily that much better. Just that a human world without judgment means there is no distinction between Roy Moore and someone who dedicates his/her life caring for the poor. If we had to be pure to judge, who could judge? Still, perhaps we should judge less and try to understand more. Fred

  6. Thanks for those clarifying thoughts on judgment.I was thinking of the way we sometimes judge others harshly when we don’t know enough but I totally agree with your line of thought.We have to make decisions and so we need good judgment for that.It may seem an instinct tells us someone is dangerous but even then it is a judgment.And the TV programmes or books trying to understand how people in Germany and Poland could treat the Jews so dreadfully and then go to Mass on Sunday.Sometimes people say the can keep things in compartments, but I have not been able to do that.Then again, I wonder how I would act in the circumstances the German people were in.But there were people like Maximilian Kolbe who gave his life to save a Jewish man.He was an old-fashioned Catholic strongly devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus.He was told at an early age by her he would be s martyr.I know Protestants don’t accept prayer to Saints or anyone other than God but I like one who is the patron of hopeless causes.I think he is St Jude.He always finds my lost keys and I prayed to find my Jewish cookery book and all of sudden it hit me on the head.God knows where it came from! We are a bit backward with statues and grottoes.:)

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