Of high and difficult commands

The religious commands and injunctions found scattered throughout the sacred books of the Jews are generally admitted to be of very uneven spiritual value.  Many represent interpretations of divine expectations which are ‘all too human’ – more revealing as examples of anthropology than of theology. From a theologian’s perspective, however, the many primitive and unspiritual ideas found in those ancient books are far outweighed (though not outnumbered), by a few inspired concepts which I think exhibit a spiritual acumen as high as any known in all the literature of religions.

What is more, I notice that some of the most high (and most demanding) OT exhortations were ascribed also to Jesus.  For example, Mat 6:48:

“You therefore shall be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”

appears to be the Gospel upgrade for the earlier divine command which in the Torah introduces the ancient ‘Holiness Code’ in Lev 19:2:

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy”

The divine Son puts an interesting new spin on the old, but I don’t see where his innovation has lessened its tough (seemingly impossible) requirement.  What he has done is to render the statement harder to misinterpret as a kind of guarantee of holiness in a person or group simply by dint of their covenantal association with God – an error which might lead one to brand all outside the covenant as unholy, as goyim.

As for the implied difficulty of following this divine injunction, I like the midrash offered by C.S. Lewis, which has Jesus saying:

‘Make no mistake; … if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect-until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.’   – Mere Christianity, from Chap 31 ‘Counting the Cost’


5 thoughts on “Of high and difficult commands

  1. I agree with your analysis. I have wondered what Jesus could have meant here, since we are admonished throughout the Hebrew scriptures certainly of our sinfulness, and how God is too far above us for us to ever understand. How we can be perfect seems an impossiblity. Although Jesus would not know how NT writers would interpret his actions, certainly that them of “we are all sinners” continued.

    Yet, Jesus apparently thought that what he believed of himself could be ours too if we were willing to commit. Still the standard seems a bit daunting! lol..

  2. I agree absolute perfection is impossible for finite beings like us, but the requirement to make some kind of perfection conceivable as possible might provide a warrant for an interesting category of the “next theology.”

    I can remember my teen daughter rejecting the theory of perfection as ultimate destiny because she interpreted it to mean we would all be the same.

    In the process of explaining how this might not be a necessary outcome, I realized Jesus must be talking about some kind of finite perfection that was very uniquely ours (in contrast to the infinite perfection of ‘Father’).

    Thanks for writing.

  3. Another striking essay, John. How much do you think Jesus was “a Jew of his time” – e.g., his telling his followers not to pray as Gentiles do, his near-refusal to see the Syro-Phoenician woman, his saying “my mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, etc. And how much was Jesus, as an embodiment of Spirit, a “universalist” for whom the Jew-Gentile barrier was less important than entry into the Present Kingdom? Not trying to put you on the spot here, but maybe in the future you might consider a post or series of posts on this question…?


    Steve B.

  4. This is a good question, but I am definitely of the later persuasion. In fact I would argue that we have less warrant for designating Jesus “a Jew of his time” than we have, say, for designating Martin Luther “a Catholic of his time.” Or for designating Washington and Jefferson “English subjects of their time.” All three designations do render results for historical analysis, but not conclusions.

    And with regard to Jesus I say ‘less warrant’ because I think Jesus is ‘a greater than’ all that which can be encompassed in his temporality.

    We really have no critical apparatus for determining whether the examples cited of his Jewishness are not artifacts of his Jewish followers’ own racial and religious preferences – things remembered in their own context of Jewishness (which was certainly not overturned by Jesus, as the Acts of the Apostles makes plain). Authentic sayings and asides, perhaps, but hardly worthy of inclusion in the record of his revelation.

    And yes, all this is only to anticipate a series of posts which I have in fact been contemplating on this controversial question of modern scholarship.

    Thanks for writing, and for wondering.

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