Saturday, March 8, 2014

Markus Bockmuehl on the Relationship Between 'Natural' Principles and Kingdom Principles in the Gospels

In his book Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics [2003, (122-126)], Markus Bockmuehl takes time to explore the concept of natural law in documents that were influential in forming early Christian ethics. In the excerpt below, Bockmuehl explains how in the Gospels, Jesus demonstrates a tension between the good order that God originally created and currently exists, and the good new order of the Kingdom of God that is both coming and is now here. (Emphasis below is his.)

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The Jesus tradition, then, does contain a number of measured moral appeals to the created order. Against this, however, must be set several important passages in which Jesus takes up a seemingly 'natural' state of affairs only to subject it to subversion and critique. On the one hand, of course, we find a respect for common customs and institutions, and an ethic that is indeed deeply compatible with universal social needs and human aspirations. On the other hand, the disciples are repeatedly challenged not to give unquestioning assent to the seemingly natural assumptions of the status quo: despite a hearty affirmation of creation, mere allegiance to existing conventions is not good enough.

One of the key subersive texts in this regard appears in the context of the second great statement about the Graeco-Roman political system, a kind of foil to the earlier passage about paying taxes to Caesar:

So Jesus called them and said to them, 'You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his live a ransom for many.' (Mark 10.42-45; cf. Matt 20.25-28; Luke 22.25-27)
On an initial reading, this text might appear merely xenophobic, expressing a characteristically conservative Jewish antipathy for the political practices of other nations. However, the case is perhaps a little more complex than that. First, Jesus observes the seemingly universal (and arguably 'common sense') fact that those with power tend to make the most of it: rulers exercise dominion. What is more, verse 43 even seems to take for granted the pursuit of 'greatness' as a normal part of the human quest for acceptance and recognition. At the same time, however, Jesus profoundly subverts the 'natural' Graeco-Roman political conventions pertaining to the whole system of power and personal advancement: his counter-kingdom is built on the exercise of ambition not through conquest and empire, but through self-giving service. Nature's kingdom might seem to those in power to teach the survival and success of the fittest, even 'the divine right of kings' (as later writers put it). The counter-kingdom of Jesus, however, expresses authority through humility and exalts the servant, the children, the little ones. Thereby the universal human conventions of power are deeply undermined. [...]

The paradox seems to be that loyalty to an existing institution (e.g. giving Caesar his due) can nevertheless go hand in hand with a deep structural distaste for its whole way of operating. The criterion for this disapproval lies expressly not in nature, public convention or common sense. Instead, it is rooted in a mentality that owes a lot to the Isaianic Servant Songs, and which is particularly embodied in the life and work of Jesus himself. In this case, Jesus deconstructs and reinvents convention.

Once we are alerted to this possibility of a deep ambivalence in the Gospels' use of 'natural' conventions, a similar pattern begins to emerge in several other cases.

Here, I would like merely to single out the Synoptic teaching on marriage and the family. Jesus appeals to the Creation account in order to honour marriage as indissoluble except by adultery (Matt 19.3-9 par.). He loves little children and repeatedly takes them in his arms and lays hands on them (Mark 9.36; 10.16 par.); children are said to be closest to the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, he himself apparently remained unmarried and may have endorsed the ideal of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven in terms that to Jewish ears would sound highly proocative (Matt 19.10-12). Luke is particularly strong about the implications: Jesus' hyperbole about the loyalties of the true disciple here includes even hating one's wife and children (14.26); elsewhere Luke preserves the statement that those who are worthy of the age to come do not marry at all (20.34-35 par.).

We are confronted with a deep ambiguity here. Marriage is strongly affirmed as integral to the original design of creation, and yet even marriage clearly takes second place to the requirements of the Kingdom of God and the new creation - where, according to an almost certainly authentic tradition, Jesus thought it would have no place. [...]

Finally, it is especially in some of the more apocalyptic passages that the Son of Man's coming judgement harshly disrupts not only human sin and injustice but also any merely customary recourse to nature or convention. 'On that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left; two women will be grinding meal together: one will be taken and the other left' (Matt 24.40-41 par.). Apparent 'normality' may not be taken for granted in the Kingdom, as we have already seen in relation to the subject of marriage. The man with only one talent [of money] may not just hide it and bide his time (Matt 25.18, 24-29 par.). The parousia [second coming of Christ] will be like the days of Noah: 'They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them' (Matt 24.37-39 par.). In Luke 13, the 'natural' cry for retributive justice in the face of Pilate's massacre of pilgrims meets only with Jesus' stark rebuff: 'unless you repent, you will all perish likewise' (Luke 13.1-3).

Quite what this subversion of natural conventions positively means for Christian ethics is not really spelled out. Nevertheless, Jesus' ministry makes it clear that extraordinary acts of mercy are required: this emerges, for instance, from the Sermon on the Mount and from the judgement scene of Matt 25. For the Jesus tradition, the moral order of creation is part of the will of God; and yet the right reading of creation is not self-authenticating, but remains contingent on the perspective of the Kingdom.

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