David Swartz "RELIGION WITH AN EDGE"
biblicalfictions.com
Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
The Son of Joseph

or The Will to Christ 

 

 

    an inquiry into the dynamic

    an inquiry

 

             of

             of Christ’s faith

 

 

     for Robert Jelliffe

 

          and for Johanna

 

 

Every high priest has been taken out of mankind and is appointed to act for man in their relations with God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins; and so he can sympathize with those who are ignorant or uncertain because he too lives in the limitations of weakness.  That is why he has to make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people.  No one takes this honor upon himself, but each one is called by God, as Aaron was.  Nor did Christ give himself the glory of becoming high priest, but he had it from the one who said to him: YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BECOME YOUR FATHER, and in another text: YOU ARE A PRIEST OF THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK, AND FOR EVER.  During his life on earth, he offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard.  Although he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering; but having been made perfect, he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation and was acclaimed by God with the title of high priest OF THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDAK.

 

 

                           ))))))))))))) THE JERUSALEM BIBLE

 

      HEBREWS 5: 1-10

 

 

 

 

A TENTATIVE INTRODUCTION

 

 

It might seem that the supreme obstacle to a faith in Christ as more than simply mythical phenomenon is the persistence of a basic attitude toward the Gospels and their apparent contradictions, the contradictions of the messiah portrayed both in act and spoken word, as static.  It is far too apparent that the Christ of the only documents available to us displays, when viewed statically, a morass of wayward impulses, many benevolent certainly, but others, when taken in isolation, offensive in the highest degree, notwithstanding they are human.  I would hope to contend that Christ, the only Christ we can ever know, was in fact human, but a human willing himself Christ.  If he in fact attained that goal, even at the expense of the millions who have followed doggedly all the false leads his life provides, is certainly up to conjecture.  On the other hand, if he in fact attained to Christhood, even if only at the final moments of his beatific, tortured life, then the Christ he attained to and the Christ we must receive into our hearts is not necessarily the various stages of his development, the false leads, the false turns.  A Christ attained is a generosity BEYOND grace.  That Christ willed to Christ seems apparent.  That he attained to it is for anyone to conjecture.  My OWN investigation ends on Calvary.  Should there be a Resurrection, it would seem figurative, but certain at least in our hearts.  The man who wills himself to Christ cannot arrest his willing at those incomplete moments in Scripture where there is so very little of the God we would wish our Savior to have become, at a God who would condemn even an innocent fig tree to wither.  The Christ that died for our sins would not have meant to exclude the sin of not believing in him, not at least in the final dynamic of his faith.  In this sense there is only so much Christ as Christ achieved.  We MUST will to Christ even if we will toward myth, for it is the very willing that can alone create a faith for each of us that is worthy of the being we would will toward.  With this in mind, it is impossible NOT to be Christian.

 

 

FIRST CHAPTER

 

 

Christ’s genealogy, as traced in Matthew, arouses no small curiosity, as if this very first account of our messiah is paradoxical to such extreme that anything that might follow would seem suspect, a figment.  If Christ, as we are told in subsequent passages, were in fact conceived by the Holy Ghost, why enumerate each stage of his descent from David through the very individual least likely to be his father—Joseph himself?  Not only the Virgin birth but the star in the East, the wise men, the slaughter of newborn infants, the flight of the holy family, the whole constellation of portentous signs accompanying the arrival of one male child would seem “megatonic” on the part of any number of contemporaries or near contemporaries striving to ensure the proper credentials for an infant destined to make, as they hoped, THE greatest mark on history.  One might sincerely question the necessity of all that mystical freight.  Surely the final agony is statement enough.  Even the entire apparatus appended to Golgotha in the form of Christ’s presumed resurrection hardly rivals that first scenario, Christ at conception.  Lop off both ends and we may be left with some small historical verity, certainly a verity that will bear examination.  That a special child came into this world is evidenced by his first recorded utterance, by his behavior.  Let us trace utterance and behavior and how they complement each other.  In our will to Christ, the former seems to provide the surest touchstone, utterance, what Christ made of it, indeed, what Christ made him make of it.

 

 

i ((((( The Twelve Year Old in Luke

 

 

The story is obstinato, a melody drummed into every main-stream Christian child since his first days in Bible school—the amazement of the learned elders at such a young child to display such “intelligence.”  (2:47)  Discovered missing after his parents had already completed a day’s journey by caravan, he is sought for three additional days before found “in the Temple, sitting among the Doctors.”  (2:47)  It would seem that had his religious propensity been more readily known the finding would have been FAR more expeditious.  Either the young boy had hidden his inclinations or they were a tendency he had just newly experienced.  Certainly he had been “filled with wisdom; and God’s favor was with him.”  (2: 40)  And yet this prodigy’s behavior seems to be only the most recent development, for Mary asks, “’My child, why have you done this to us?’”  (2:48)  The reply is Christ’s first recorded words, a clear indication that here are his first recognized leanings toward messiah, here now, though early in life—“’Why were you looking for me? . . . Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?’”  (2:49)  And then it is stated by the narrator—“But they did not understand what he meant.”  (2:50)

     Had all the freight previously loaded upon this young male’s life been “Gospel,” a delay of three days would have been highly unlikely.  The child, any child, born of a virgin, would have aroused no astonishment in his family by being attracted to doctrines of the sacred Law and their discussion in a traditional house of worship.  The child was wise; “God’s favor was with him.”  (2:40)  By all indications he was in some measure a prodigy, both in his spiritual and intellectual attainments, but by no means had any of his past signaled to those most closely connected to the boy a mission of great portent.  For the most part he had been rather ordinary, the bright young offspring of a carpenter.  It becomes even more difficult to assign credence to his conception, to the whole mystical prelude to his first pronouncement in Jerusalem, the utterance of a young man, having perhaps hidden his leanings, having perhaps first discovered them, willing himself toward Christ.  Even now the will would seem tentative.  The boy has not yet discovered his manhood.  It is most unlikely that Jesus, the son of a Virgin, came screaming into twenty centuries of controversy and religious fervor at the very moment of his birth, even at the moment of his conception, a completed messiah.

 

 

ii ((((( Christ and the Baptist

 

 

The several accounts of Christ’s baptism are remarkably close, a few altered pronouns in the utterance from heaven, some greater detail in Matthew.  The Baptist’s declarations are of the larger consequence, for if Jesus is recognized by that angry prophet as the one more powerful than he, so great that he, John, is “’not fit to carry . . . [Christ’s] sandals’” (Matthew 3:11), then the mark of God must have already been written largely upon the young man from a stretch of years undocumented in Scripture.  The declarations are the first hint of an aspect of Christ’s messianic self-image, the thesis of a dialectic which MAY be resolved only at the very final utterance on Golgotha, a thesis Christ seems now and again to assert beyond his polar humanism, the consummate tenderness we find, for example, in the Beatitudes, that antithetical nature which would seek to forgive a universe.  Surely the Baptist would have it otherwise—“’ . . . he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.’”  (Matthew 3:11-12)  Sadly, Christ would seem to accept such a role, so much as he has sought out the very man who has proclaimed it—“’Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.’”  (Matthew 3:15)  Jesus demands BAPTISM.  The sky opens.  A dove descends.  In Luke, God—“’You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you.’”  (3:22)

     At first sight we would seem to have completed messiah.  On the hand, historical verity aside, the Son proclaimed is at this first halting stage of dialectic (I lack a better term) “winnower,” that one being who is to gather up a company of chosen and cast all else into eternal fire.  One can dispute to eternity all heavenly portents as described by our Biblical sources, the siddhis (miraculous powers) manifested by Christ or the force of God resting on his chosen son.  The eternal lies, however, in the TRUEST NATURE of the given Christ and to what extent such siddhis reveal it.  At this stage of his mission there is mercy; there is an abundance of wrath.  In time the pendulum swings.  Sadly, millions will perish for some small portion of that total self.  In the third chapter of Matthew there is much of Jahweh in evidence, small nuance of the grace which wills itself toward Christ.

 

 

iii ((((( In the Wilderness

 

 

The possibility of taking the accounts of a young man’s first temptations as literal seems slight at best, for their narrators could only rely on his subsequent reports for historical verity.  Even so, here in our small inquiry, they have their place.  Forty days without food and water could summon the whole gamut of spiritual turmoil, hallucinations, epiphany, whatever, and if, as they must, the three temptations are had from the messiah’s account, then they were certainly real to him, a man without bread willing a stone to such; a man whose growing sense of himself is messianic willing triumph over certain death, all at the hands of his adversary, the very doubt which assails him, externalized as Satan; a potential messiah falling at the feet of a temporarily greater power to ensure an earthly kingdom.  Certainly we cannot assume that a carpenter’s son proclaimed by the Baptist as “’the Chosen One of God’” (John 1:34) could have been made to “stand on the parapet of the Temple” (Matthew 4:4) and told by the evil one to throw himself down without attracting an entire hoard of the curious.  The event remains in this sense Christ’s alone, a fiction that attains to verity only by what it reveals of the man who has summoned it.

     Here, the three rebukes Christ issues to the Tempter are at first sight rather bland truisms—

“’Scripture says:

   MAN DOES NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE

   BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT COMES FROM THE

   MOUTH OF GOD,’”

                       (Matthew 4:4)

and

“’Scripture also says:

   YOU MUST NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD

   TO THE TEST,’”

                       (4:7)

and

“’Be off, Satan!  For Scripture says:

   YOU MUST WORSHIP YOUR GOD

    AND SERVE HIM ALONE.’”

                       (4:10)

The thrust, however, is less so.  Christ, if the Wilderness passages are something more than a fabrication of several narrators, at some point in his life, either at the original hallucinatory episode, or in recounting it, must have considered himself (1) a man relying not simply on bread but the word of God, (2) the Lord God Himself, and (3) a God who must be served alone.  The episode itself, whether fictive or touched by historical verity, cannot be dated, and yet the dynamic is clear.  Where the two poles fuse, where supreme human and a type of Jehovah become the embodiment of one total entity, we may at last be assured that Christ IS Christ.  The partial being most of us have tried to worship is as divisive as this same mythical creature Scripture has rendered from a very real Wilderness.  He has fared no better in our hearts.  The wilderness we live in his name is as treacherous as any potential messiah might have ever endured, as total as the Milky Way.  One would hope that at some point in this messiah’s life (1) and (3) coalesce into (2).

 

 

iv ((((( A Sermon on the Mount

 

 

This Sermon, the words of our particular messiah, will remain for all time a massive document.  To deal in such small space with a work of this magnitude must seem presumptuous at best.  And yet we content ourselves with what it reveals of character and not so much its message, with the impulse of its prescriptions and not a content which can, in fact remain untouched by any discourse, certainly not as yet by the freight of verbiage which has accumulated over twenty centuries of hazardous explication.

     Aside from the Beatitudes, the Sermon remains primarily an ethical treatise.  And yet the Beatitudes seem, for our purposes, critical—for what they reveal of the Christ who fashioned them, since at this moment in his biography his blessings rest on the wretched of the earth.  If the exclusivity of his grace is already pronounced, it is of a sympathetic nature, resting certainly upon the most obviously deserving, the “’poor in spirit . . . THE GENTLE . . . those who mourn . . . those who hunger and thirst for what is right . . . ’”  (Matthew 5:3-6) etc., so that if there is, in fact, salvation either of this earth or of what is beyond, this Christ will have it for the outcast, such societal victims as might justly thirst for messiah.

   The remainder of the treatise is, again, ethical.  We say this not to diminish its importance.  For Christ here on a hill near Capernaum the emphasis is THOU SHALT NOTs and the punishment attendant.  The THOU SHALTs are just as imperative.  For a young man willing himself, the ground rules are laid.  From a thesis of benevolence couched in the enumerated Beatitudes, to the repeated antithetical threats of damnation—“’if a man calls him “Renegade” he will answer for it in hell fire.’” (5:22); and “’the road that leads to perdition is wide and spacious, and many take it,’” (7:14); and “’But everyone who listens to these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a stupid man who built his house on sand.  Rain came down, floods rose, gales blew and struck that house, and it fell; and what a fall it had!’” (7:25-27)—the dialectic is thinly veiled.  A being wills himself toward Christ, but the will is halting.  This exclusivity of Christ’s early messiahship is one of only a faltering humanism, of a prophet unsure of his following.  Here the threats are certainly less virulent than in subsequent Scripture.  It is understandable that the very setting of his calling would will an exclusivity, that the Christ of Matthew’s recorded Evangelical Discourse would will his paradise for (1) the traditional outcast, for (2) such as pursue their ethics beyond even the Law itself, and for (3) those who listen to his words and act on them (and the implication is, to his words alone).  We must marvel at this great Sermon.  And yet it is not enough to tell his disciples, “’Do not judge, and you will not be judged . . . ’”  (7:1)  One must hope that in time the man who wills himself God heed his own admonition.  Certainly in the agony of Golgotha there is no further imperative to frighten the disbelievers.  There is only “’Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.’”  (Luke 23:34)  The pendulum swings throughout his short life from a widening to a constriction to a widening of his warm embrace, from the wretched, to the Jews, to Gentiles alike, to those who simply love, to those who follow in his name, to those who in fact even arrange and carry out his torture, to Judas, Pilate, to (may I risk further blasphemy?) even the Christ himself, TO SATAN, EVEN GOD.  Yes, we must ask if this Christ permits God to forgive himself.  It seems that the error of twenty centuries of Biblical exegesis has been disarmingly simple—by no means have we overvalued Christ’s presence through a blind adherence to the literal text; we have UNDERVALUED him through a lack of critique.  If Christ attained to the Christ he willed, then there is far more of him than we have yet had the largeness to concede, far more than in his halting beginnings even he himself would have ever conceded.  Christhood requires no further Resurrection than an admission of that simple presumption, no greater miracle than Christ’s utter grace.  If Christ was Christ achieved, then we need look no further.  We need not look at all.

 

 

SECOND CHAPTER

 

 

Whether the Christ of Matthew is the “Son of Man” (9:6) or the “Son of the living God” (16:17), the principle of exclusivity wars with that of inclusivity in his role and message.  Christ in the three years prior to the Last Supper displays polar tendencies, a propensity for wrath and judgment, an inclination toward tolerance and forgiveness.  It is very much as if he is not certain from one increment to the next whom to include in his paradise, as if, even in those phases of his earthly existence when he is most a humanist, there must still be strict guidelines for admission to his Father’s kingdom, for the journey into Christ’s heart.  The threats are often so drastic we would wish them away, incredulous that a man of such abiding love would resort to eternal fire and damnation as leverage for his own aggrandizement, for that of his disciples as “fishers of men.”  (4:20)  The miracles themselves are troubling.  Though early on he cautions everyone involved to hold them secret, it is obvious they will not be held so, and in time the interdiction is dropped.  Christ openly calls upon his command of the miraculous, not so much, one might conjecture, for the benefits accruing to the lame, the possessed, the paralytic, the prematurely dead, but for what moment they represent to the onlooker.  Come what may, it seems this Christ would HAVE his personal Christhood, no matter. On the other hand, such antithetical passages as 12:32, 19:25-26, and 22:34-40 reveal the loving creature he must also will himself. The pendulum swings wide, for the willing is fraught with danger—a being who would aspire to the final grace of the Passion must resist, by the same token, a boundless egoism along the way.  Understandably, no one, not even God, would want the sacrifice to go unnoticed.  The temptation is really Christ’s, that the very impulse which would have him champion the outcast must scarcely resist in its sheer dynamic BURNING IT INTO THEIR HEARTS.

 

 

i ((((( A Son of Man

 

 

The “winnower” described by John the Baptist is clearly manifested as early as Christ’s lament concerning the lake towns—“’Alas for you, Chorazin!  Alas for you, Bethsaida!  For if the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  And still, I tell you it will not go as hard on Judgment day with Tyre and Sidon as with you.  And as for you, Capernaum, did you want to be exalted as high as heaven?  YOU SHALL BE THROWN DOWN TO HELL.’”  (Matthew 11:21-23)  There is not only fire and damnation for the sinners.  Christ makes it focal, that those to understand are the simple—“”’I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.’” (11:25)--, that those to be saved are exclusively such who, understanding, have thrown all allegiance to the man who has spoken—“’Everything has been entrusted to me by the Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’”  (11:17)  Although his “’yoke is easy and . . . [his] burden light,’” (11:30) it is HIS yoke and HIS burden, and at this stage in his progression toward Christ, toward completed fact, there is no fact before him.  The principle of exclusivity is completely in operation, a principle that, taken in isolation, appalls, but, on the other hand, ensures his following, the solitary individual granted such preeminence that even our secular calendar turns on the date of his birth, here our very lack of faith 1,985 years of age, no more, no less.  And yet, in Matthew 11, Christ is hardly complete.  Nor is he completed by the account of Resurrection.  It is the Christ of Golgotha and not the Christ who orchestrated it we must will our searching toward if even the Resurrection is to be more than simply allegory.  Strangely, it is the HUMANITY of Christ which ensures his Christhood, and not what he has borrowed from the very God he sought to redeem.  We that will ourselves toward Christ, granting him utter humanity, cannot fail to participate in that redemption.  In a very real sense, the Resurrection is a measure of the generosity of the human spirit.  It has little to do with God.  Nothing to do with a God who would will his children into fire.

 

 

ii ((((( A Son of Man, a God of Wrath

 

 

Between the messiah of Matthew 12 and Matthew 13, the contrast is marked and disturbing.  In the earlier chapter, it is almost as if the Christ, so overcome by his own basic humanism, has to LOOK for someone to condemn.  The principle of exclusivity is here so tenuous that the standard of admission into Christ’s paradise either here on earth or beyond seems arbitrary, the best he could come up with, hardly to be taken as more than the vestige of a propensity that will assert itself again in the next chapter.  Indeed in 12, “’He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.’” (12:30), but “’And so I tell you, every one of men’s sins and blasphemies will be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.  And anyone who says a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but let anyone speak against the Holy Spirit and he will not be forgiven either in this world or the next.’”  (12:31-32)  Nowhere else in Scripture beyond Golgotha is there greater testimony to the Christ’s INCLUSIVITY.  In 13, however—“’The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that provide offences and all who do evil, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.'’ (13:40-41)  Christ reiterates just a few lines later—“’This is how it will be at the end of time: the angels will appear and separate the wicked from the just to throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.’”  (13:50-51)

     This polarity, the consummate humanist and angry Jehovah, coming so closely on each other, underlines the whole paradox of Christ’s nature.  If Christ is Son of Man, if he is also a wrathful deity, how are we to live in his name?  The very virulence of the latter propensity, to wrathful deity, has condemned twenty centuries of those who would will themselves Christian to traits of character which would make the angels weep.  The tears they would weep are in fact the tears of Matthew 12, the tears of a man willing toward Himself, toward such grace as would forgive simply everyone, step back, hedge a bit, to exclude merely those who just happen to, oddly enough, blaspheme against the Spirit; toward a grace which would, for all intents and purposes, forgive a universe, every child who has entered it, even the blades of grass.  Toward Golgotha there are MANY false turns.  One might speculate that they participate to no small degree in Christ’s final agony.  It is not inconceivable that toward the very end he saw what we would make of them.

 

 

iii ((((( Further Oscillations

 

 

From Matthew 19 through 22 there is wide divergence in the faith and practice of the Savior.  The pendulum is in motion, a fierce oscillation from the mystery of 19, to the vindictiveness of 21, to the solitary commandment of 22, a supreme example of ethical humanism, particularly as rephrased in Luke.  The mystery of Matthew 19 is that Jesus makes it in the first instance clear that “’it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.’”  (19:24)  And yet, “When the disciples heard this they were astonished.  ‘Who can be saved, then?’ they said.  Jesus gazed at them.  ‘For Men’ he told them ‘this is impossible; for God everything is possible.’”  (19:24-25)  In the first instance, the rich are excluded.  In the second there is grace.  In one brief passage, the dialectic of angry Jehovah and loving Savior is clearly delineated, and yet, grace coming on wrath seems to cancel the former—for the mystery is really that ALL are subject to the mercy of God, since “’for God everything is possible.’”  (19:25)  HERE is the Christ of INCLUSIVITY.  It is not surprising that Matthew 21, just two chapters beyond, is so disturbing—“As he was returning to the city in the early morning, he felt hungry.  Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it and found nothing on it but leaves.  And he said to it, ‘May you never bear fruit again;’ and at that instant the fig tree withered.”  (21:18-19)  Although  Christ uses the incident to finally illustrate the power of faith—“’ . . . even if you say to this mountain, “Get up and throw yourself into the sea,” it will be done;’” (21:21), the act itself seems unworthy of messiah, a rather startling vindictiveness, a heedless display of his siddhis we would wish away, the wrath of a petty deity, a kind of “overkill” that detracts from the very gentleness and compassion his earthly significance must attain to.

     At last there is the Christ of Matthew 22, of Luke 10, a Christ whose embrace has opened to impressive breadth, the ethical humanist who requires of us simply LOVE, love itself, that we might share in his kingdom—“There was a lawyer who, to disconcert him, stood up and said to him, ‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’  He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law?  What do you read there?’  He replied, ‘YOU MUST LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, and with all your mind, AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’  ‘You have answered right,’ said Jesus ‘do this and life is yours.’”  (Luke 10:25-28)

     At this advanced stage in Christ’s growth the paradise of his father exists to promote the supreme ethical imperative for all mankind.  LOVE is the consummate virtue, without which there is no salvation.  In time, the agony of the crucifixion takes it one step further.  Completed messiah, the Christ we must ever will to, is the CONSUMMATE manifestation of a CONSUMMATE virtue, is FORGIVENESS itself, a forgiveness which experiences no limitation, which is all-inclusive, which can even extend to the very souls who have devoted their whole being to its denigration and failure.  In Luke 10, we are poised on the threshold of Christ.  We are poised at FORGIVENESS.