Reclaiming the argumentative Jesus

The ex Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks is currently providing a thoughtful series of programmes on social morality for Radio 4, which pay close attention to the arguments of his contributors. But when he speaks on behalf of his religious community, as in his recent denunciation of Jeremy Corbyn, for alleged anti-semitism, he is less generous. I have written a few weeks back about the way in which pro- Israeli groups have misappropriated the term “semite” which refers to speakers of semitic lamguages, such as Arabs, Syrians, and Israelis, if it refers to anything. Their purpose in using this term is to suggest that the prejudice in question is neither as general as hating Jewish people, nor as specific as being opposed to the actions of the Israeli government, but rather a hidden Nazi desire to wipe out Jewish people from the earth. Jonathan Sacks is an efficient detector of this attitude, alleging its malign presence in some sneering remarks Corbyn made about English Zionists. My concern here is not to defend Corbyn from the charge of being anti- Zionsist and anti- Israeli, (these are political choices) but only from that of anti- semitism, which is seen as a racist choice and therefore allows Sacks to compare Corbyn to Enoch Powell. This sort of announcement is typical of the “official” Sacks, who in his very English way shares the tendency of Anglican archbishops to judge the moral condition of others, without being open to contrary argument.

This is a pity, for readiness to argue is one of the strengths of the Jewish religious tradition. The great texts of Judaism, the Mishnah and the Talmud, are full of argument, as are for example, the stories of the Hasidic Teachers. Such argument assumes that the experience of others is as valuable as one’s own and that human experience is always relevant to moral and religious truth. There is always a temptation for rabbis, priests, ayatollahs and ministers to elevate their own experience over that of others or to announce religious truths that are beyond experience.

Any attempt to reclaim the real Jesus from the distortions of his churches, would have to note that he liked argument. A large part of the four gospels is taken up with argument, and although we cannot claim complete historical accuracy for the gospels, it’s reasonable to claim that their common witness to the way Jesus went about his teaching is unlikely to be wrong. And there is no doubt that Jesus did appeal to human experience in his arguments, at least as reported by the first three gospels. He told stories for example, which helped  his argument because his depiction of human behaviour carried conviction. “ If your child asks for an egg will you give him a stone?” he asked, using the question to push his message: “If you, evil as you are, give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” The person who argues in this way gives his hearers opportunity to challenge him. Sometimes the human  behaviour provides a shocking illustration of divine behaviour as in the story of the prodigal son where the human father is almost culpably forgiving but Jesus argues that this crazy love is offered also by God. Again Jesus is almost inviting his hearers to argue that the father in the story is soft and negligent.

The human experience of the land, its crops and its creatures, is also used by Jesus, in his stories of growth, for example, where the miraculous contrast between what is sown and what is harvested is used to give an image of his own strategy as the one who plants God’s rule on earth. Or he uses the most basic realities of nature to depict  God’s radical impartiality. “He makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good alike, and brings rain on the just and the unjust.”

The purpose of God is the good of human beings, according to Jesus, so much so that he can say even of the cherished day of rest, “The Sabbath is made for man,  not man for the Sabbath.” If something is not for the good of humanity, it cannot be the will of God. These arguments of Jesus take the feet from those who teach that God’s will is a mystery revealed only to those and such as those; or that it is revealed fully in scripture and simply requires obedience. In his arguments with the religious leaders he fillets their arrogance by showing that their teachings have been bad for people.

In these Gospels, being God’s son does not excuse Jesus from the responsibility to respect human experience and to foster human good. In the hurly burly of moral and religious disagreement today, we need his essential modesty and sanity, so that we can contribute to debate without arrogance and listen without condescension. The ex-Chief Rabbi can rediscover this virtue where Jesus found it: in his own religious tradition. Or to be fair, in his own radio programmes.

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