Sunday, April 22, 2012

More Theses on Jesus

Still backtracking on Jesus with Fr. Michael Marigliano. Let's get right to it:

1. The parables of Jesus defy the conventional wisdom of every age. Those who first heard his parables were infuriated by them. They always upturned every expectation about the reign of God.

2. Consider the parable of the lost sheep. In the kingdoms of the world, when it comes to their defense, there is always breakage, there are always acceptable losses. But when the reign of God comes, nothing is expendable, nothing is to be wasted, and everyone counts. The owner of ninety-nine sheep will go after the one lost sheep, no matter how foolish it is to abandon such a rich portfolio of livestock. The cost doesn't count anymore; the worldly calculations no longer compute in the mathematics of the new heaven and earth.

3. Consider the parable of the leaven. In the Jewish law leaven was an unclean substance. Leaven breaks down membranes and lets things grow. Think of what Jesus is saying: God is like a woman(!) working leaven into the dough, secretly. This is an image of the reign of God?

4. Consider the parable of the mustard seed. Why was this a scandal to Jesus' hearers? It was against the Jewish law to sow unlike kinds of plants in the same field. When the mustard tree would grow, it would crowd out all other plants and attract birds, unwelcome guests wherever you are trying to raise crops. The reign of God is like this, like the unruly mustard plant and its avian dwellers? Like the very things you would chase away?

5. The parables, the sayings, the hard teachings: What does all this say about Jesus? The Gospel writers had to make decisions. They drew on the oral traditions and fashioned what the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles called an "orderly account" of Jesus.

6. How did the Gospel writers do? Their accounts, by the consensus of Church tradition, succeed, in their completeness, in inspiring faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Their accounts awaken faith in Christ. The same cannot be said of other texts on Jesus excluded from the canon of the New Testament, though they share with the canonical Gospels a historical knowledge of Jesus.

7. The shocking nature of faith in Christ is too often lost on believers today. The horror eludes most contemporary Christians. Think about it: the first disciples gathered around the broken, mutilated corpse of a criminal executed by the state and declared that this person revealed the power of God in its fullness. The crucifix has become the pre-eminent symbol of Catholic faith. Are Catholics so far inside the symbol as not to grasp the original horror, or the sheer folly and scandal of it all? There is a profound mystery here, one that Christians do well to remember.

8. The first disciples reflected on the death of resurrection of Christ by connecting those events with the life of Jesus. With Saul of Tarsus/Paul the Apostle, who never knew the historical Jesus, the theological development from Jesus of Nazareth to the Christ of faith is inaugurated. Paul, in his mission to the Gentiles -- that is, beyond the covenant people of Israel to the nations -- reflected on the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection in dialogue with Greek modes of philosophy. And Paul was not alone in doing this. The breadth and imagination and vocabulary of Christianity would change as it migrated from the thought-forms of Jewish culture to Greek culture, from the first and second centuries forward.

9. While the claim that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God caused divisions within the Jewish community, another kind of question disturbed Greek believers. If there is only one God, then how is God at work in Jesus Christ? How is God reconciling the world in Jesus Christ? Is Jesus a gifted human being appointed by God to be an instrument of salvation? Or is Jesus Christ literally God? Skilled thinkers would articulate and reconcile the Christian message and mystery in terms of Greek thought-forms. They included Tertullian, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzen, Augustine, and Jerome. They included the leaders of the first ecumenical councils of the Church. Their collective response, the Church's response, would be the doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity, and these responses would emerge interdependently.

10. We cannot understand how the Church came to speak about Jesus Christ without keeping in mind the ascendance of Greek thought-forms in the Christian tradition. In the Jewish memory, God is at work through signs and wonders; through anointed figures like judges, kings, and messiahs; through messengers like angels and prophets; through visions and trances; and through God's very Spirit. Jesus encompasses these figures and motifs in his person. Through him, God is known as a dynamic force. Hebraic language and thought-forms capture this understanding of God in the Jewish tradition. But when Greek followers of Jesus appropriated the Jewish traditions, they essentialized them, focusing on God's being instead of God's action. With this turn, contradictions become paradoxes. If God is the Father and Jesus is the Son, how are the two related? Is Jesus equal with the Father? How are the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of God married together? Because of the way they think, the Greeks have to work out these and a thousand similar questions. The Church has had to work out these questions ever since.

11. Language about Christ -- christology -- cannot capture the mystery of God, but it attempts to define a space in which the follower of Jesus can encounter the mystery. Contrary to conventional wisdom, even among Catholics, the Church does not say "say this, say that" about Jesus Christ. Rather, it is "do not say this," not so much as to forbid discussion, but so as to foster responsible speech about God in Christ, and a common ground for conversation. Of course, it doesn't always work out this way. Some teachers of the faith are like baseball purists who believe any change to the rules will change the game itself beyond recognition. And they see any and all new language about Christ as game changers.

12. Of course, the biggest game change happened when the Greek philosophical language of ontology and being, alien to the first followers of Jesus, became the definitive lens for viewing Christ and the dynamic God of Scripture.

13. In the fourth and fifth centuries, in the time of the ecumenical councils, the council elders invented vocabulary to describe and delimit the mystery of God's being so as to speak rightly about Christ. After various controversies, it came to pass that God the Father and God the Son were of the same substance (homoousios, in Greek) and one in being (consubstantial), while the Father had priority as the begetter of the Son. To say this affirmed the full divinity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Later controversies required the council elders to affirm that Jesus Christ, the divine Logos or Word of God, indeed had a human mind and soul. Eventually, after still more controversies, council elders arrived at a grand synthesis, declaring Jesus Christ was true God and true man, possessing both the divine and human natures without confusion.

It's gettting late, and I have barely shared all that I hoped I would share, but this gives you a taste of what our well-educated and engaging vicar provincial handed on to us last week. I'll get to the good stuff on sexuality on another day.

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