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.
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.
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.