The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, is the longest-serving Primate in the Anglican Communion. Yesterday, on the Sunday before his retirement, he was the preacher on the Radio 4 Sunday Morning worship, in which he talked about Jesus’ sacrifice for us which is illuminated, but can never be exhausted, by examples of human sacrifice. He then raised a key question in relation to God’s compassion and inclusion: why would anyone be opposed to it? His answer is worth reflecting on carefully.
How then is Jesus God’s light to our world? It is because of His compassion and acceptance of all kinds of people in the gospels since He believed compassion was God’s defining characteristic towards humanity. Why should anyone object to that? It was because the religious authorities of His time regarded God’s chief characteristic as holiness, based on the Book of Leviticus, which said people should reflect God’s holiness, and so it was their task to protect that holiness.
Holiness meant having nothing to do with anything that was regarded as unclean or impure. Tax collectors were to be avoided because they did so on behalf of a foreign power – seen as impure. People who were sick were seen as unclean because the terribly twisted common belief was that their wrongdoing was responsible for their sickness. The poor were regarded as impure because wealth was seen as a blessing from God. Men were [apparently] seen as more pure than women because of menstruation and child-bearing.
Jesus turned this system on its head by touching and mixing with all those regarded as impure and unclean – lepers and haemorrhaging women, tax collectors and sinners. He ate with all kinds of people, women included, where sharing a meal was regarded as a sign of acceptance and welcome. He told stories such as the Good Samaritan that were critical of the purity system. The priest and Levite ignored the injured man because contact with death or illness was seen as a source of impurity, whereas the Samaritan, regarded by Jewish society as belonging to an impure race acted compassionately towards the man on the Jericho road.
So too the father of the prodigal runs out to greet his son – something no Jewish father would have done because the son had put himself beyond respectable society by demanding his share of his inheritance before his father’s death, had squandered it all in riotous living and ended up looking after pigs so making himself impure for a multiplicity of reasons. None of that mattered, Jesus said, to a God whose nature was that of forgiveness and mercy. (from 17.10 to 19.40 in the programme).
There are some serious problems with this reading of the gospels, pitting compassionate and welcoming Jesus against the nasty, obsessive, Jewish religious authorities. The first, and most obvious, is that Jesus himself did actually appear to be concerned with holiness, even if his interpretation of the implications of that was different from the Pharisees. The core of his preaching was that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’ and that this called for both repentance and faith. It is commonly claimed that the word for repentance, metanoia, meant ‘to change one’s mind, to think again’, but in fact it is used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) to translate the Hebrew shuv, meaning to ‘turn’ from sin. So central to Jesus’ proclamation to his hearers is that they needed to turn from their sins, their unholiness, in order to receiving the kingdom of God that he was bringing in his teaching, healing and deliverance.
This is made abundantly clear in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 to 7, where Matthew gathers together Jesus’ teaching on particular themes. Far from relaxing the demands of holiness outlined in the law, Jesus appears to raise the bar: it is not good enough simply to act according to the commandments—you also need to turn from any internal ambiguity about these demands. (Compare the closely related ethics of the letter of James, where we are to imitate God in being without a trace of double-mindedness.) In amongst this, Jesus demands not less holiness than the Pharisees, but more:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5.20)
‘Righteousness’ in Matthew (a term which comes seven times) has a very Jewish sense here of ‘doing the right thing, as God requires.’ During his teaching in the temple area, towards the end of the gospel, Jesus makes the importance of the Pharisees’ teaching even clearer:
So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matt 23.3)
There is absolutely no doubt both that Jesus exercised a radical approach to table fellowship (as Morgan points out) and that this offered a serious challenge to the status quo. But it is far from clear that such fellowship suggested that holiness didn’t matter, or that it was about inclusion regardless of response. Jesus’ explanation, that he has come to call ‘not the righteous but sinners’ is left slightly ambiguous in Matt 9.13, but both Mark 2.17 and Luke 5.32 make it clear: ‘I have come to call sinners to repentance’. (The ESV helps us out if we have any lingering uncertainty: ‘I have come to call those who know they are sinners and need to repent.’) Jesus is radically inclusive: he includes all in the call to leave sin behind and live a life of holiness. This is reinforced in his criticism of the Pharisees in Matt 23.23:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former!
Note his final comment: in Matthew, Jesus appears to support the commitment to detailed observance, provided it does not undermine the observance of ‘weightier matters.’ In saying this, Jesus is standing four-square in the OT prophetic tradition found in Is 58.6–12 and elsewhere. From Barry Morgan’s sermon, you might get the impression that to follow Jesus meant that you needed to stop being a Jew, but from the gospels and Acts the early Christians looked much more like a Jewish renewal movement than anything else, and there is good evidence that Jewish believers in Jesus felt no need whatever to stop being Jewish, even after the growth of the Gentile mission.
It is particularly unfortunate that Morgan offers this ‘Jesus v the Jews’ dichotomy two days after Holocaust Memorial Day, not least because of the theological tradition within which this approach stands. The contrast between ‘legalistic Judaism’ and ‘liberating Jesus’ can be traced back to Martin Luther, but it became particularly pronounced with the rise of Liberal Protestantism, starting with the work of David Strauss. A key concern of this movement was to use critical ‘scientific’ historical method to separate the ‘authentic’ actions and sayings of Jesus from those added later by the early church as mythology about Jesus; this approach is continued by a group who call themselves ‘The Jesus Seminar.’ One of the key criteria used to determine authentic material is the ‘criterion of dissimilarity‘, which only regards as authentic things Jesus did and said which were neither characteristic of Jesus’ own Jewish context, nor were taken up by Jesus’ earliest followers. There is a methodological problem here; imagine if someone described your life by referring only to ways in which you differed from your own culture and context? The result is bound to be an eccentric and inaccurate portrayal. But there is a deeper philosophical problem here: this approach offers an unJewish and then anti-Jewish portrait of Jesus. It has long been recognised that this way of reading the NT fatally weakened the Protestant churches in Germany and led to their failure to oppose Hitler’s anti-Semitism.
Along with providing historical credibility to Christian faith, Liberal Protestantism also sought to remove the supernatural or ‘religious’ elements, making the gospel a message of social change—and Barry Morgan does the same by interpreting the ‘kingdom of God’ in terms of social inclusion, rather than in terms of repentance and belief.
The theological goal of the Reformers and their successors was to align themselves with Jesus against legalism as part of the justification for separation from the Roman Catholic Church. So the dynamics of this approach and its application look something like this:
|In the NT
|In the Reformation
But in Morgan’s sermon, he makes a particular reference to Leviticus as part of the problem—despite the fact that Jesus reaches for Leviticus 19.2 in Matt 5.48 when commanding holiness, and for Lev 19.18 ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ when asked to name the greatest commandment (alongside Deut 6.4). Why would Morgan do this? I think because he is particularly committed to the acceptance of same-sex unions as on a par with traditional understandings of marriage, and dislikes any reference to Leviticus as offering support for the traditional view. He appears to hint at this in the second half of his sermon, where he comments:
We, too, live in a world where some show hatred towards those who do not live pure lives as defined by them. And this lack of tolerance of anyone who departs even slightly from the established norms seems in danger of becoming more rather than less fashionable as a way of thinking…
(This cannot really be a reference to wider society, since ‘purity’ isn’t a category in general public debate.) The theological dynamic has now been extended as follows:
|In the NT
|In the Reformation
|In the present
The problem, then, with those who oppose Morgan’s advocacy of same-sex unions is that they are like those nasty, legalistic Jews that Jesus clearly opposes. There is a similar dynamic at work when people claim (as they have to me) that Paul would accept same-sex relations if he had encountered the kind of partnerships that we now know of. But this demands that, as Morgan does with Jesus, we remove Paul from the Jewish context of distinctive ethics based on OT teaching, which are central to Paul’s argument in both Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6.
Jesus was in fact a ‘religious’ leader, not merely a social reformer, and he was one who, by and large, accepted with reformation his Jewish ethical inheritance. To ignore or deny this is to be drawn into a very damaging theological direction—and it doesn’t look like it is too good for church growth either.
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