A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians
As I typed those words, I was reminded of a conversation with a daughter years ago when she was an enquiring teen-ager. Being required to recite the creed she commented “For us men and for our salvation” then it has nothing to do with me! In a very particular way, the comment raises one of the issues with which this paper is concerned.
Another recollection that goes back, very much further, is of myself, in Sunday School, arguing with the venerable parish priest about his statement that I had crucified Jesus. In theological college, I had virtually the same argument with the principal, who reflected that it was no wonder I was such a bane in Sunday School! Neither in the intervening years nor in the decades since has anyone offered an explanation of the sacrifice of Christ that I have found convincing. I’ve read lots of the right books, even read St. Paul in the original but still there is something that simply does not work for me. It has always been a conundrum in the back of my mind for which I have never said, “Face it, I must be wrong.”
This issue came to the fore again while writing the material for my Lenten Project this year. For Lent IV the set reading for the Epistle was II Cor 5 :16 – 21 which is one of the texts where Paul sets out his theology of the Cross. The Gospel reading was Luke 11 :15-32 The Parable of The Prodigal Son, my considerations led to the following question: Does the image Jesus gives us of the father of the prodigal son match up to the image of God in Paul’s theology of the justification of Christ and the Cross?
Is this, in fact, central to the problem of Christianity today?
Barrett’s commentary on the Pauline text which heads this paper is as clear an explication as one can get and it does a great job of highlighting different aspects of the problem which I shall attempt to set out.
In a previous Lenten paper, I raised the question:
Has it ever occurred to you that the concept of sin is hard to maintain straight and clear since Freud?
That is one way of introducing a discussion about sin and attitudes to human behaviours which have altered enormously under the influence of clinical psychological investigation. Within the Judaeo/Christian tradition wrong and right, black and white, good and bad, have been fairly clear definitions from the earliest times, allowing for some variations in interpretation and the influence of Christianity. Preparation manuals for confession could give you a pretty comprehensive list of sins you might want (no not want) to confess. In the general run of daily life people knew what was right and what was wrong.
Things have changed. For example, in today’s world, sins of the flesh, specifically sexual practices, unless they involve harm to the young and defenseless, are no longer seen generally as bad, wicked or sinful. There are, of course, people whose faith rests in the literal authority of the bible for whom such leniency does not apply. Sex aside, and I guess, even criminality, what has changed so dramatically is the understanding of what motivates bahaviours. We now comprehend so much more of what makes for wrong-doing, harm to self and others, selfishness etc. and, while we may deplore, be scared by, or horrified by what has been done, we are inclined to go deeper and have a better grip on the motivation and its causes. Such in-depth investigation is a new thing in human history.
As I write I am aware of thinking in terms of ‘ordinary people’ going about doing ordinary things and committing ‘ordinary sins’, the questions that arise when one thinks in terms of national or global decisions seem like a different discussion but, I wonder, are they or are they the same problems writ large?
That’s a discussion for another time. Here we are more interested in exploring the meaning of the justice of God rather than the problems that justice encounters on a global scale.
If we as finite human beings can grasp something of the wider context for hurtful, wicked, mean, or sinful behaviour and maybe even have some compassion for the perpetrator, surely God must do more. “To understand all is to forgive all”. From the divine perspective all is known, not only what is but what has been and what will or could come in any situation.
We cannot understand the justice of God any more than we can understand the love and so the life of Jesus was meant to make that love more deliberately apparent and available. The parable of the Prodigal Son seems central to this intention. It is meant to be an illustration of the overwhelming and accepting love of the Father. One notices that the father didn’t say, “Well now that you’ve had your dinner and we’ve made a fuss of you it is time for you to account for all the miseries, pain and anxieties you have caused me.” In fact, the only aspect of injustice is that which the elder brother feels and it is marked out as being unworthy behaviour. In Pauline terms it would seem that the father’s justice has been overwhelmed by the father’s love not sitting parallel to it.
It leaves one with a strong feeling that this idea of God and justice, that the Father needed the sacrifice of His Son in order that the heavenly books should balance, is a case of man making God in his own image. The concept made perfect sense to Paul in his thought world and that of which he was a part and has continued to be preached in a patriarchal church ever since.
I would insert a proviso here in case I seem to be doing Paul a dis-service. I have accented one part of Paul’s theology of the Cross to emphasize the ways in which it has shaped the teaching of the churches. His thinking was much bigger, richer and more comprehensive than might appear from what I have written. The Pre-existence and the Resurrection were central to his doctrine, the imminent return of Christ was the motivation for his missionary endeavours. Trying to probe the mind of Paul is a lifetime occupation and, of course, can only be done via the mind of the researcher which will have its own biases and pre-conceived notions. This bias of course has been operative in commentators down the centuries who have had such trouble explicating Paul’s theology, even when they were quite sure that they knew what Paul was really about. Paul’s thought world and those that followed down the centuries didn’t always match; today they are poles apart. The whole practice, intention and performance of sacrifice was integral to religion in the ancient world, to us it is alien.
Furthermore, the teaching is that the unconditional love as per the father of the prodigal is because Jesus died for us, and is dependent on our believing in that. This suggests that God must have changed quite a lot in the period before and after the Crucifixion. It suggests that all those millions of people who lived prior were outside of the love of God. And those today who do not subscribe to the belief are likewise in hot water. The church has certainly taught that those who lived before Christ were not entitled to a place in heaven. That is so far removed from the image of the father on the road longing for a sight of his son returning, and weeping with joy as he welcomes him.
On the subject of parenthood, I do not believe that a woman, especially a woman who has given birth, could have dreamed up anything like Paul’s theology of sacrifice, nor to have agreed with it outright, though being ‘properly taught’ many women have and will consent to the teaching of those in authority who know.
I guess I just do not get how in unconditional love, there is any room for wrath when you know the whole setting, the disabilities, distortions and deprivations etc. that background the act that has caused the trouble. When you know the circumstances of a person’s childhood of pain and neglect that motivated the behaviour, surely the wrath should be at the parents who were neglectful, but then if you know all, you know what made them so inadequate at the job and so it would go on. Clearly unconditional love is the only hope.
Finally, there is the point that the son has to wake up to himself and make the call. It is consistent with the love of God, or, for that matter, a parent working from a place of awareness, that adult off-spring must be sufficiently self-decisive to make the move. There are some things that love will not do for us, it will not rob us of our personal responsibility, but that does not entail placing conditions on love. It is evidence of love to allow the beloved free choice.
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