174. Cross, Perfection and Sin

24 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.” [Matthew 13:24-26, NRSV]

The Crucifixion, by an unknown master, dates back to about 1450.

Perfection, Richard Rohr OFM says, is illusory, for it is usually blind to its own faults.

Rohr has observed that Jesus’ teaching on the wheat and the weed reported in Matthew’s Gospel (13:24-30) has had little effect on Western moral theology. We are, after all, a mixture of wheat and weed and always will be. This is actually pretty close to the whole tradition of Martin Luther, who taught that as creatures, human beings are always simultaneously just and sinful (simul justus et peccator).

The mystery of holding weed and wheat together in one field of life is what the Lord teaches (Matthew 13:29). Peace and happiness do not rest upon either a life lived in perfection or a life abandoned to sin. It is never a matter of either blinding ourselves to our own evil (and deny the weeds) or giving up in discouragement (and deny the wheat). The way paved by Jesus of Nazareth is to put aside an insistence on perfection not only in oneself but, even more so, in everyone around us; rather, we are to face the tension of having perfection and sin in the reality in which we live.

Nor is this a matter of accommodation to sin.

Rather, those who love Christ would hear the Good News with open hearts and grow a humility that is willing to carry the dark side of things not only in the sea of people around us, but first and foremost in oneself.  Unless one is able to face the existence of weeds in oneself, in addition to the wheat one boasts of possessing, one may tend to be ruthless and judgmental of others, instead of being compassionate and merciful towards them. The truth of the matter is, as Pope Francis has so piercingly identified for us, we must first in humility admit to the imperfections within ourselves and open our hearts to receive mercy, before we can act in ways that are merciful towards the external world.

Humility is needed to carry what Rohr calls “the dark side of things”. At the same time, courage is needed so that we may carry the good side as well. Rohr’s reflection gets really interesting when this leads him to write:

  • Archetypically, ‘the crucified one’ always hangs between these two thieves – paying the price within himself just as we must do.

What is so promising for a fecund Christological reflection is Rohr’s description of the scene at Calvary. Students of Christology do not need to be reminded that traditionally, something akin to Saint Anselm’s “satisfaction theory” has held sway since at least the eleventh century in the Middle Ages. Christians are commonly on auto-drive whenever they speak of the salvation achieved by Christ in terms that echo the following:

  • Human sins have angered God. On account of this divine wrath, God had turned His face away from humanity. The penalty for sin is death. Salvation entailed a full satisfaction of this penalty. Divine justice demanded satisfaction. However, mired as we were in sin, humanity was unable to pay that penalty. So God sent His Son to die on behalf of the sinning and incapacitated humanity. It was the Father’s will that the sinless Son must die for and on behalf of humanity’s sins for only He the Son could do so.So the Father sent the Son to die. The Son was obedient to the Father’s will. Christ died at Calvary as our substitute. His painful death was in satisfaction of the penalty for sin committed by sinful humanity. Christ the Son’s death on the cross having satisfied the penalty for human sin, God’s wrath was appeased, and  God again turned Hs face back to us, so that sinful humanity can again approach God. By His bloodied death at Calvary, therefore, Christ paid the necessary ransom. He had redeemed us from certain eternal death; His death had purchased our souls from eternal damnation.

The above summary may seem a little too simple, but it does represent the bottom line of what Christians commonly believe. You might want to mull over that summary again and see how much of it actually resonates with what you have both consciously and unconsciously held to be the Christian truth. For that, really, is a close summation of what many Catholics in coffee-corner conversation revealed to us as what they had learned from diverse places, including early catechism and Sunday homilies, as well as video tapes from pastors of various denominations in the United States.

As Karl Rahner SJ has pointed out, there are many ways to faith. If the theory sketched in outline above sits well with you, by all means use it. But, for others, implicit in such a model for understanding salvation may include the suggestion of a wrathful, vindictive, violent and even sadistic God – an image that is abhorrent and entirely disagreeable with them. For them, something akin to Rohr’s description is far more acceptable.

  • Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Always reflecting the Kingdom of God, his way is non-violent and courageously sacrificial. He accepts that the weeds and the wheat coexist in human lives. He being crucified between the good and the bad thieves exemplifies it. He forgave them both, along with all his persecutors -“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He had set the example and shown the way – the way of peace, of non-violence, and of sacrificial love, in obedience to the Father’s will. The Father did not send him to die, but to live a beautiful and noble life. And he was obedient to the Father’s will till death, to show the world that the evangelical values of which he preached were achievable. His being raised from death by the Father is the ultimate affirmation by God that Jesus’ way of the cross is the ultimate way of salvation. That is how Christ saved us – not to suffer so we do not have to suffer, nor to bleed and die so we do not have to bleed and die, but rather to show us that his way is the way after God’s own heart, to His kingdom of peace, mercy and love.

To be able to do all that, Jesus of Nazareth had internalized the love of his Father demonstrated very strongly at his baptism at River Jordan. Having internalized that love, he could show that love and reflect it back into the world. Others who had seen and heard him had been drawn to that love. It is well theologically and spiritually to read Jesus’ commands to his followers on the very eve of his Passion – “Do this in memory of me”; “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” – as embodying some of the most significant wishes of Jesus for truthful Christian living.

  • “True worship”, William Barclay helpfully insists, “is not the offering to God of a liturgy, however noble, and a ritual, however magnificent. Real worship is the offering of everyday life to him, not something transacted in a church, but something which sees the whole world as the image of the living God.”

Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to develop that love as best we can, for the benefit of the human environment, as that is the way of Jesus and so about the only thing, certainly the most important thing, we can take with us to eternal life. We do not get to take much else.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, April 2017. All rights reserved.

You are most welcome to respond to this post. Email your comments to jeffangiegoh@gmail.com. You can also be dialogue partners in this Ephphatha Coffee-Corner Ministry by sending us questions for discussion.