From the time of the heretic Marcion in the 2nd century, “progressive” Christianity—Christianity “for the thinking man,” Christianity that is compatible with the views of culture’s brightest and best—has always been tempted to find an incompatibility between the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament and the dictums of YHWH in the Old. In the words of that font of universal omniscience, Wikipedia, Marcion considered “the god of the Old Testament … a jealous tribal deity of the Jews, whose law represents legalistic reciprocal justice and who punishes mankind for its sins through suffering and death.” It is this “jealous tribal deity” who calls “heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.”
“Contrastingly, the god that Jesus professed is an altogether different being, a universal god of compassion and love who looks upon humanity with benevolence and mercy.” Like all such “thinking men”—that is, people whose identity is wrapped up in the power of their own minds—Marcion insisted that Jesus’ message be compatible with the categories of meaning presented to him by the best human learning of his day instead of fundamentally challenging those categories. He wanted Jesus to be congruent with human wisdom, not an epiphany of wisdom beyond the reach of even the best humanity can produce. (Ironically, Paul, whom Marcion considered the best interpreter of Jesus’ message, has been warning us against this very thing in the readings from 1 Corinthians we have been hearing in church for the past few weeks!) Rather than Gnosticism or Neo-Platonism, modern Marcions will try make the message of Jesus comport seamlessly with Darwinism, Marxism, or the latest pronouncements of the American Psychological Association.
Of course, such syncretistic perspectives deliberately ignore the simple fact—undeniable by even the most suspicious historical scholars—that it was the faithful Jew Jesus who introduced the practice of referring to God predominantly as “Father.” Apparently, Jesus didn’t see any incompatibility between the ethics He proclaimed and the dictums of the God He called “Father.”
It also ignores Jesus’ plain words in passages like today’s from the Gospel of Matthew. In the Old Testament, YHWH said, “You shall not commit adultery.” Today Jesus tells us that we may not even look in lust upon someone who is not our spouse or we are guilty of adultery. The ethics of the Sinai covenant say, “get clean before you worship the Lord.” Today Jesus tells us that if we are worried about getting dirty, cut off our hand or pluck out our eyes. YHWH says, be responsible and do not sin. Jesus tells us that under certain circumstances we can even be responsible for other people’s sins. (Matthew 5:31-32)
The ethics of the Old Testament are demanding. The ethics of Jesus are terrifying. YHWH speaks of losing a land. Jesus speaks of losing our souls. YHWH said, “Do this… or do something (like offer a sacrifice) to make up for it.” Jesus speaks plainly of hell and tells us that we will be liable to its fire.
It is a commonplace for pastors to laugh at the “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” which was the mainstay of nineteenth century piety and produced for us iconic art like “Solomon’s Jesus.” But the Jesus who therapeutically affirms us because we are (in the words of last week’s Super Bowl halftime performer) “born that way” or who walks hand-in-hand with Marx into a future shining with justice and kindness as defined by today’s cultural elite is just as ridiculous and will be lampooned as such by future generations of Christians.
The Jesus presented to us by today’s Gospel, who has just spoken the beatitudes, exhorts just as did His Father in the Old Testament to “choose life that you may live.” He continues to press us to “hold fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.” He insists that we remember that the stakes in this life are far higher than land to be retained, but that our souls are on the line. He insists on simplicity, stating baldly anything more than saying “yes” or “no” to the proposed path of life comes from evil, and that anything obstructing such a wholehearted response to His message—even our own body and is insistent demands—is to be cut ruthlessly out of our lives.
Severed hands and eyeless faces are grim images that remind me more of The Walking Dead than a pulpit on Sunday morning, but perhaps that is the point. As I contemplate my own sermon this coming week, I find myself asking, if my preaching is too compatible with the categories of meaning I inherit from our culture, is my preaching is faithful? Does the Christian disciple need to look deformed or mutilated by the words standards in order to be faithful by God’s? The wisdom of God will always put to shame the wisdom of humanity. While the preacher must build a bridge between the thought world of Jesus and that inhabited by his or her congregation, has my preaching become wise by human standards but foolish by God’s?
Jesus’ warning to be “wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” is a warning for how disciples must interact with the world, not how they are to speak among themselves. How bold are we willing to be—how much disruption or dislike are we willing to personally court—to speak the whole counsel of God, Law and Gospel, to those whose souls we are charged with the care of? Paul reminds us that “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” Am I willing to lose admiration, position, and security for the sake of proclaiming the words of Jesus fully and directly as He originally did so?