Jesus' Middle Way
Composed sometime before 1/31/2000 (and slightly edited on 2/6/2017)
by Philip McPherson Rudisill
Preface: I have entitled this essay "Jesus' Middle Way" with the Middle Way of Gotama the Buddha in mind. But I am not yet sure this is the appropriate title to consider the way of the cross, namely that it is between sin and the law. I think it may be more appropriate to entitle it "Jesus' Progressive Way". The notion is perhaps almost Hegelian in that the way of the cross becomes a new synthesis from the license in sin (Rome) and the straight jacket of law (Israel).
Jesus comes deprecating the law that "guarantees" God's protection for Israel. The law is faulty in several respects, one of which is that it was formulated by Moses in accordance with the demands of an "evil" people. An indication of this is the capacity of exclusion, e.g., a sinner from the body of the Jews and a wife from the marriage. Jesus himself lives the Garden rule, namely that we are one flesh and one body. Consistent with this he takes on as disciples not only sinners like Matthew, but even traitorous con men like Judas.
Another, powerful shortcoming of the law is psychological and, through that, also physical. God's love for all persons is evidenced in the life and work of this marvelous man, Jesus, who comes and gives freely, unstintingly, and precisely what people need in order to become whole. The message becomes garbled, however, in the mad rush for individual healing at the time, and there is little or no recognition of the true healing, of the soul. For it is the pleasure of the Father not only to give the world some healing here and there where Jesus is, but the very kingdom itself. And it is a free gift.
Now we are coming closer to the real problem of the law. The law is based on a deal, i.e., the people obey the law (even though it is insufficient from the very beginning) and God will protect the people. But it does not work that way at all. The good that God provides for Israel is not because they obey the law (for they do not), but in order that the love of God might be manifested in Israel and through Israel to the world. It is a free gift, and the Jewish people are wrong to think that they are earning it by compliance with the law (which they do not comply with anyway)!
The law in fact becomes insidious for this reason: we disobey the spirit of the law, i.e., the inclusive aspect of the community (no divorce, no condemnation), but we are able to get the lawyers and the wordsmiths to justify us in accordance with the law. The law becomes merely another obstacle to our selfish aims, and another fact to content with, like the law of gravity. We don't jump off cliffs, but rather build steps to get down; and likewise we do not thwart the will of God, but find ways around it.
No wonder Jesus was horrified at the sight that met his eyes. The law is presupposed as the means of obtaining God's favor (which is an error, the first error) and then it is sullied by clever lawyers who figure out ways around it by playing with the meaning of words (which is the great error and blasphemy).
God wants to give all people the kingdom, as a free gift; and all that is required is that one want it and accept it. To want and accept it is called salvation, for the workings of the kingdom are from within, namely in the transformation of the heart from selfishness, the heart of man (Adam)*, to the heart of community, the heart of Christ.
* Which is essentially, practically speaking, indistinguishable from the heart of Satan, except that the latter, which delights in evil for the sake of evil, is not subject to transformation, and which has never existed in a single man, except that man be insane, and thus captive to a spiritual disease. With regard to moral judgment, since the heart of man is inclined to convenience, and thus to evil if it is convenient, it is acceptable to speak of the heart of man and that of Satan as one and the same, but keeping in mind that a change is possible in the child of Adam) and no man does evil simply because it is evil, but only because it is convenient for some purpose.
Now this free gift, the heart of Christ, is available without cost to those who will simply ask for it. This is the essential procedure of salvation, namely: I must 1. admit that I need this heart, i.e.,that my life as it is is attuned and orientated to selfishness and thus excluding me from the community of God, which is sheer love for all persons, without judgment and without exclusion; and then 2. I must ask for the heart, i.e., humbly, i.e., like a beggar. Upshot: the self righteous will not recognize 1 (and therefore be unable to accept 2, and so Jesus calls them "truly lost") and the proud will not admit to 1 and certainly will be unable to ask for 2.*
* The fearful also have problems, but they may come to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness, and therefore are saved à la Nicodemus.
Jesus' essential reasoning: look! I am healing here and there, and this is a free gift. No one deserves this healing. Even those who are healed are selfish and fearful. The point is that I am the proof of what I am talking about, that God loves you and simply wants to give you the kingdom and wants you merely to accept it. Do not be mislead by the leaders. The leaders tell you to stick by the law, by the deal, for that, they say, is your solitary hope. They cite to you the Babylonian Exile and the Maccabean triumph, and say that we must obey the law. But they fail to tell you that God is not impressed with your formal law and your deceptive scam in trying to fool God. God knows that you are phony and that the whole thing is phony. He calls upon you, through me, through my very existence and presence here, He calls upon you to give it all up and to quit figuring out how to cheat and abuse one another and get away with it, and to trust him to provide what you need and simply to relax and to let him love you. If he sent me to you, and I give without asking for anything in return, surely you see how much he loves you. Give up your law and your subterfuge and take off your garments which hide your true feelings, and admit that all are sinners and stand in need of the salvation which comes from God. God is not mocked; you cannot have salvation except that it be authentic. O ye of little faith. How God so wants to take you in his arms!
The upshot: Jesus is condemned as the Sabbath breaker. The deal is that such persons are to be excluded from the community. For this to be meaningful in the case of a crass Sabbath breaker like Jesus who will not go away, this means death.* The people are led to realize that if the law is broken, i.e., if this man is allowed to live, having broken the commandment against the Sabbath, then the deal requires the people to destroy that man. Remember the Babylonian Exile (due to unfaithfulness to the law) and the Maccabean Triumph (due to faithfulness) and destroy this man Jesus so that we may hope some day that the deal-keeper, Jehovah, will destroy the Romans and remove them from our land and allow us to live according to our customs and laws, i.e., that we may continue to keep the deal, although, of course, making it as light on us as we possible can, i.e., by fashioning eruvs, where we can walk around on the Sabbath without walking around on the Sabbath, i.e., where we can physically walk around without walking around in a legal sense, i.e., where we change the meaning of words and sin (in fact) without sinning (in law).
* Perhaps the most awful curse in the entire scriptures is given in Exodus 31: 12-17, which deals with Sabbath breakers among the Children of Israel.
The Christian story now begins: this Jesus is resurrected and in that way proves the validity of his claim and gives his blessing to all the world, to the Jew, most certainly, but no longer because he is a Jew, but now because he is a child of Adam, i.e., a man, a human being. The love of God for the Jew is thoroughly undiminished; but now it is no longer original (as the Jews were wont to think, and based on the deal) but now it is derivative, i.e., because the Jews also are humans and therefore, in that way, are loved of God, i.e., as one of the other humans.
Now enters Paul, the Jew of Jews, the extremist, who does not know Jesus, but only his spirit in the lives of the disciples, and who is so affected by this spirit that he might be said to have been slain. He is resurrected as a new man, one who is filled with this same spirit as captured Jesus, but who is even more able to grasp his thinking with regard to the law than the others.
The disciples had difficulty in casting aside the law of God, for they continued to think in a dichotomy, i.e., if not the law, then that means that sin is OK and so that means that we will end up looking like the Romans with their animal behavior and excesses; but that is not the will of God. So then we remain with the law, but we modify the situation and convey the blessings of God to all persons, as long as they will remove themselves from the world of sin and seek to honor God's law in some way.
Baloney! cries Paul. Hogwash! It's all hogwash! If you do not accept the freedom given you in Christ, God's great gift to the world, then you are just a Jew and you must obey the law and make your appeal to the deal, and get what the deal offers.
But the deal offers so little. And that is all you get. That was the message of Jesus, according to Paul: if you appeal to the deal, the deal is all you get, and you are stuck forever in your sinful state.
The problem that you do not realize, says Paul, is that the law is sin for us, for we, since we are so exceptionally sinful and clever in our sinfulness, that we merely utilize the law as an obstacle to be contended with. And so it becomes an abomination in the eyes of God.
The problem that you do not realize is that there is an alternative to both the law and sin, and that is called the heart of Christ.
The genius of Paul lay in his recognition of the central quality of Jesus' teaching and in his conception of God's will in a world where the Jews refused to accept Jesus, even though he was sent to them by God.
Regarding his grasp of Jesus' teaching, Paul saw the middle way between the law and sin. This was not stressed by Jesus, although was implicit in his teaching, because he was dealing entirely with the law environment of the Jews. According to Jesus we discard the law and begin to love each other as family and to trust God to take care of situations where it would be in our interest to treat any body as an outsider. No more outsiders in Jesus' conception of the Jew. Once we get rid of the letter of the law and live by the spirit of the law instead, i.e., love, then God's kingdom begins to take form on earth and what Jesus did will be magnified many times by his followers, i.e., those who do as he said, i.e., love unconditionally.
But then the Jews raise a mighty objection: if we give up the law, assuming that we were wiling to give up the deal (as was Peter [off and on]), then what stops us from going straight away into sin and relishing that life and sinking into the pit.* The problem with the Christians, the Jews will assert, is that they are naive and will have the people becoming like the satyrs of Rome, which is an utter abomination.
* The best example of this, that I know of, is Fellini's Satyricon and The Damned, the former dealing with the license and abandon of the Rome of Paul's time, and the latter with the rich in Nazi-izing Germany of the 1920's and 30's.
Paul's solution is almost Buddhist in form, i.e., the middle way, the way between law and sin, i.e., the way of Christ. We remove the law in its entirety and with it all guilt and shame and with it also all conniving and legalistic wrangling (which still infects many churches). The law served to show us what sin is, but in doing so, since we humans are the problem, since we are sinful, we merely look upon this law as an obstacle to be gotten around in some way, and so become exceedingly sinful, using the law (designed to keep us from sin) and a means to more sin.
And yet we cannot fall into the abyss of the Romans. For that is utter abomination, where people not only sin secretly (like the Jews do), but openly and praise sin and promote it shamelessly, where men, in their utter and dismal collapse in search of kicks, even go after other men and animals to inflame "one more time" their dying, satiated passions and lusts.*
* The ultimate result of which, as any experienced, promiscuous "sex fiend" can tell us, is the jaded state known as satiation where only the hunger remains, but nothing adequate to raise our body to life again in order to eat. A situation that must be closely akin to hell, where we can do anything we want, but there is nothing that we want to do. The general principle is this: familiarity breeds contempt, e.g., I have already "done" that guy (speaking now as a homosexual); I need some thing else now.
The middle way is the removal of the straight jacket of the law and the controlled release of the spirit, not the spirits of the unsightly, but rather the spirit of Christ which is contained and controlled and directed via the law of love. We dismiss the law and in its place we have the spirit of Christ, i.e., the law of universal neighborly and fraternal love, and so then we begin treating all persons as though they were family and neighbors and ourselves.
The result is called the Kingdom of God, and it leads to what is called the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of God is where God transforms us into the likeness of Christ, and gives us the strength we need to do that, and in the Kingdom of Heaven, we are are transported into bliss (which for many is only a taste, an antepaste, of what is coming, but which is experienced in the flesh).
Now the inertia of the flesh is sinful and remains so and must be eradicated, perhaps even in accordance with the laws of nature which also are called, in this regard, the laws of karma, i.e., what you have put into the flesh remains there until its can be released. Thus our journey is painful and we are buffeted by the flesh.
Now there is a tendency to think that the God of Jesus has abandoned us Christians, for it is not easy to emulate him, and we are often beset by enemies who will not leave us alone, but who seek to ruin us. This causes us no concern, however, Paul declares in no uncertain terms, for our relationship with God is not based on our works at all, as though we were trying to impress him in some way* but rather entirely on the sincere desire of our hearts to become one with Christ, to possess his heart, and to love as he loved, without counting costs or blessings.
* Perhaps the sin of the young John Wesley.
Therefore God provides also the heart of Christ, and we receive it by sheer faith in the story of Jesus, namely that God did love all the world so much that he gave his only son, Jesus, to make this clear so that the world might live the life worth living, i.e., the life of Christ.
So, Paul continues, there is no fear of sin, for we eschew sin in the very fact of our salvation, for our salvation is the development of the heart of Christ in us and our fervent prayer to become like Christ and to be strong in that faith so that God can use us as God will, even without our knowledge and permission (although God gives him a blank check in faith anyway).
To make the point emphatic, Paul declares in Galatians that if any Christian obeys the least law because it is a law and not because he or she thinks it is the loving thing to do, then that person is a Jew at heart and must appeal to the deal, and that means that the man must become circumcised and obey the entire law. For the Christian is not subject to the law, but rather to the spirit of Christ (a/k/a the law of love, i.e., of treating others the way one would want to be treated, i.e., in love and concern and as though no one were more important).
In a parenthetical note to the current day: if a man refuses to engage in a homosexual act, for example, with another man because it he thinks it is forbidden by the scriptures and not because he thinks it is exploitative or demeaning and thus forbidden by the law of love, then that man is a Jew and must become circumcised by a Rabbi and must endeavor to make his appeal to God on the basis of the deal with Abraham and Jacob, etc. For him the way of Christ is excluded and he reverts back to slavery to the law and all that that entails. For the just shall live by faith. See Christian Liberty, appendix 1.
And so the way of Christ is very, very simple to grasp, although not so easy to implement due to the inertia of sin in the flesh: the law is seen as an obstacle and a source of shame and is summarily dispensed with; once and for all: Goodbye! The alternative is not the life of sinful license, for that was the whole purpose of the law, to get us away from that (and which was thwarted merely because it is we who are sinful and not actions of themselves, and so we merely utilized the law as a means of getting what we want, e.g., sinning with the express intention of asking for and receiving forgiveness in accordance with the very law itself, the greatest abomination of them all!). So we do not return to sin (from which the law was to given to save us), but rather we graduate to the realm of love where we seek, with God's help, to implement the heart of Christ.
Wesley, with the help of both Luther and Paul, finally got it into his head that it was God that would provide the heart of Christ, and would do it in accordance with his divine plan, and that we needed merely to respond to the movement of the spirit in our lives and to believe at all times in Emmanuel.
So then, when we get rid of the law, we are able to enter fearlessly into the realm of freedom, without fear of sin, for we know that it is God that has brought us thus far, and it will be God's grace that will take us on further.
"Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise him! all creatures here below; praise him above, ye heavenly hosts! praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost."
I will want to add something about the sin of the Christian, which is a throwback to Jewish thinking, namely that there are do's and don't's entailed in the Christian faith (such that cannot be derived from the law of love, but which must be given originally and as a revelation--a most grievous fault of some Christians). According to this sin we believe that some actions are wrong, but do them anyway, but not in anguish but in full intention of asking for, and receiving, forgiveness for them after commission, thus with calculation as is common with the Jew and the Baptist (among others, and I am speaking here stereotypically, of course, and as presented here). The mark of the sinner is calculation, i.e., to give the least possible for a given benefit, and reluctance, and the resentment that arises upon the fear of having giving up more for the gospel than is required for heavenly bliss. This is covered to some extent in the essay on the Golden Rule and more completely in that entitled "Baptist Thinking".