A Lenten Meditation by J. Gerald Janzen: Jesus the Crucified Messiah and Paul’s Thorn [3/20/14]


Gerry Janzen is that sort of dear friend who ministers to and straightens my soul with regular emails of theological reflection and consolation. As the MacAllister-Petticrew Emeritus Professor of Old Testament at Christian Theological Seminary, Gerry is world-renown Old Testament scholar and theologian. He has been my unwavering conversation-partner since 1988 and periodically upbuilds me with emails spun-off at the moment but springing from the depths. I am including one such email that arrived on March 9th. It is a gift for our Lenten prayers and meditations.

Joe, it being the First Sunday in Lent, I heard a fine sermon this morning on Jesus' temptations (in Matthew) and—mainly—ours. The OT reading was from Genesis 2 & 3; the Epistle was the last half of Romans 5, starting with Adam.

The key sentence was quoted from some one: "What we don't transform, we transmit." And Lent was proposed as a way of grappling with our shadow side—that deep stuff we inherit that we don't want to admit is part of the dark side of ourselves and so project onto others—the demonic side of ourselves, our personal demons. And we were left with the question (as I rephrase it for myself): what, in this Lent, will we be willing to admit, confront, and offer up for transformation, and what, refusing to do so because we deny it is there, will we transmit?

(I remember Eileen one summer day, decades ago, confronting me with my chronic irritability toward the children. Recalled how I had spoken of my dad's chronic illness that crippled his drive to work, and how it left him often irritated with himself and then with us—me—and how often I had been scalded by his irritation. Then she asked, “Was I being irritable out of a cockeyed notion of loyalty to my dad, being irritable like him out of wanting to be like him out of my love for him? But I was healthy; I had no cause to be irritable. Wouldn't he be happy to think that I, in my health, would express my love and loyalty toward him by not being irritable, by changing that legacy?” She said it much more cleanly, surgically, antiseptically, than I am putting it. But the scales fell from my eyes; and from that day forward there has been a progressive change.)

Suddenly—because I've been continuing to work on issues surrounding Paul's thorn, a parallel suggested itself to me, heuristically. (I guess one should say I suggested it to myself—so as not to fob responsibility for a cockeyed idea onto some unidentified suggester. But I didn't think it up, it was just suddenly "there.")

If we take Romans 5:12-21, not juridically (all are under the sentence of Adam's sin) but dynamically (sin infects and disorders not only the sinner henceforth, but the sinner's progeny, through the way psychodynamic and spiritual legacies are behaviorally and symbolically transmitted), can we say:

AsJesus' engagement with the devil, in Matt/Luke 4:1-113, to his baptismal experience (with the heavens opened to him and the voice identifying him and his mission), SoPaul's thorn as a messenger of Satan,to his third-heaven visionary experience. (For as Luke makes explicit at the end of Jesus' temptations, "the devil departed from him "for a season" (KJV) or "until an opportune time."(RSV).

Jesus inherits the messianic vision, at his baptism; has it conferred on him, in all the Scriptural complexity of that vision's articulations. IF we may take the abba, Father prayer in Mark 14:36 as invoking Psalm 89:26—the only place in the Hebrew Bible where YHWH is directly addressed by anyone as "my father" (avi in Hebrew, in the Aramaic translation there, abba), with its surrounding verses, 22-25 and 26-29, concerning this "Son's" mighty victory over his enemies—then right up to Gethsemane the question posed by the devil or Satan is the question of how that Sonship/Messiahship is to be exercised, vis-a-vis other "powers." 

I take it that Austin Farrer is right, in his sermon, "Emptying Out the Sense" (in A Celebration of Faith) that in his identity/role as Messianic Son, Jesus empties that title and role of its conventional sense and fills it with a new sense. He transforms the vision of an all-conquering messiah who will rule the world by conventional power and wisdom, through his non-retaliatory undergoing of the Powers' judgment on him, and his reconciling mission to draw them into understandings of wisdom and power as of bearing evil transformatively for the good of all. As Paul says in Romans 12:17 "return to no one evil for evil, but repay evil with good." (Echoes of Yoder here of course.) 

But Farrer, taken flat-footedly, is too simply and one-dimensionally flat-footed. Here I would adopt the formula of Jon Levenson where he writes of the novum in Daniel 12 concerning individual resurrection: "When the belief in resurrection finally makes an unambiguous appearance in Judaism, it is…both an innovation and a restatement of a tension that had pervaded the religion of Israel from the beginning…Our exploration of the rabbinic doctrine of resurrection has traced its ultimate origin to the transformation that nature undergoes as a result of the Divine Warrior's astonishing victory…That transformation replaces sterility with fertility, childlessness with new descendants (and the return of lost descendants), hopelessness with a radiant future—death with life. Within the religion of Israel from the earliest time that we can identify it, the hoped-for transformation could not have been thought complete, or even real, without a restoration of the people Israel itself, and this perforce entailed a recovery from humiliation and defeat, a reconstitution of the broken nation, and its rededication to its redeemer and restorer. The affirmation that such a restoration could even bring back the dead was both innovative and deeply conservative." (Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006), 216-17, italics added.) "Both innovative and deeply conservative." So too with notions of Messianic wisdom and power.

The only thing lacking in Levenson's magnificent summary statement is engagement with the question of the transformation in our understanding of statecraft and its modes of wisdom and power. As I try to show in my paper on the Servant of YHWH as imago dei in Second Isaiah, the tension that had pervaded Israel's religion from the beginning included the question of the human institution of kingship: On the one hand, when Israel opts for kingship "like the nations," they reject God as their king (1 Samuel 8). For Israel's God is not simply modeled on conventional notions of statecraft as conventionally practiced in the ancient Near East (and in today's world of Putin and the Western Powers—all of them operating from the same playbook); and on the other hand, YHWH is presented as adopting kingship and working through it—David, in 2 Samuel 7; Psalms 2, 72, 89, 110, etc.

The tension, how resolved? In Second Isaiah, I argue, the tension begins to be resolved, in tentative sketch, with the Servant figure of Isaiah 53 asimago dei. In Jesus the tension is resolved, as kingship is transformed from within by one who confronts his shadow, in the temptations and onward, and through his faithful obedience to the transformative vision of the Father, "even unto death" (Philippians 2:6-8), is set forth as Lord of the Powers (2:9-10).

If there is an analogical relation between Jesus and Paul—I could drag Peter into the discussion, through his role at Caesarea Philippi, but the outcome would I think be similar—the question is, what shadow-self in Paul is he refusing to acknowledge, and thus, in not transforming, transmitting? I suggest that it has to do with his zeal for God.

In that connection, and in connection with the parallel I am drawing between Jesus and Paul, it is intriguing that both Jesus (in John 2:17) and Paul (in Romans 11:9-10) quote Psalm 69:9, "zeal for thy house has consumed me."

Does Paul's shadow side come out in his zeal, which manifests itself supremely, according to Philippians 3, in his persecution of the church?

As I have proposed and argued, (in "Sin and the Deception of Devout Desire," on Paul and epithymia, "desire/covetousness in Romans 7), Paul, like the Psalmist in Psalm 19 & 119, sublimated his desire-energies in making service of God through torah-zeal his chief desire. But, as with the psalmist in Psalm 119:104,113,128,163, love for the torah could carry with it hatred for torah-deviance and the torah-deviant. Combine such torah-zeal with a fervent hope in the coming of a Messiah conventionally understood, and what will the Messiah's rule look like, vis-a-vis the Messiah's and Israel's enemies? (This, Levenson doesn't bring under the umbrella of his transformative vision.) When some of Paul's fellow Jews express faith in a crucified religious figure claimed to be the messiah and claimed as risen from the dead—an oxymoron if there ever was one!—what a choice target for expression of pro-Messianic torah-zeal!

Until the confrontation on the Damascus Road. And the transformation that followed. Including the vision-report in 2 Corinthians 12. 

But.Once a zealot always a zealot. It's a kind of moral-spiritual addiction—all-consuming (sic! Psalm 69) zeal. So, just as Jesus had to confront the Satanic shadow within himself—a shadow as old as Eden—not only at the outset, but right up to Gethsemane, so all the more with Paul after his exalted visionary experiences. Lest he become carried away, once again, with his zeal, the prick of Satan's messenger reminds him of what such a zeal for God once led him to do—and this is what moves him to underscore, in Philippians 3, that he has not yet arrived. It is what moves him, at the end of 1 Corinthians 9, to face the possibility that, after all, his efforts for God—even in the name of Christ—should prove to be adokimos—unapproved "disqualified" (NRSV). Because, he had once before gone through the fires of God's judgment (1 Corinthians 3) and discovered that his zeal for God had been so much straw and worse.

Food for Lenten-thought: but always, undergirding such thoughts, the Gospel—that underneath all is the love of God in Christ that is greater than our failures to transform and our lamentable transmissions.



Comments welcomed.

Read More

Responses (1)


Share Your Response


Please enter the word you see in the image below:

Reader Responses

Lisa Wynn

responded on 03/22/14

“…transformation replaces sterility with fertility, childlessness with new descendants (and the return of lost descendants), hopelessness with a radiant future—death with life.” is a brilliantly distilled summary of so many biblical narratives.  And, the “undergirding” (loved the use of that word) “… the Gospel—that underneath all is the love of God in Christ” just boils it all down to an even richer reduction.

If this is an example of your inbox, the quality of emails you receive is quite exquisite compared to the dross which is my inbox!  Thank you for the blessing of sharing this gem.