Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What it Means to Say That Jesus "Learned Obedience From What He Suffered." (Hebrews 5:8)

There are some verses in scripture that are so loaded in their implications for human and Christian life that entire books could be written on them and still probably not exhaust their meaning! Such is the case with Hebrews 5:8. The verse states that, "Son though he was, Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered." There are two "problems" that this verse highlights: 1) that Jesus needed (or chose) to learn obedience, and 2) that the "instrument" of learning was suffering. More to the point, we could ask, "why did the Son of God need (or choose) to learn obedience?" and "how did suffering lead him to learn this lesson?"

The importance of addressing these questions or difficult problems "head-on" cannot be overstated: they deal with how we relate to God (Father, Son, and Spirit) and how we approach the gut-wrenching question of suffering as an inherent part of life. To begin with, why did Jesus need or chose to learn obedience? Many Christians may find this difficult to understand because they have been inadvertently taught that Jesus, by virtue of being God's Son, was somehow "perfect" and therefore knew exactly how his life would play out, even from a very early age. It's almost as if Jesus had a "spiritual GPS" or blueprint that charted every turn, twist, and decision he was supposed to make well in advance. However, if Jesus had foreknowledge of the events of his life, this would hardly make him human, and, furthermore, it would hardly make him perfect (in the biblical sense)! A more scriptural notion of perfection has little to do with knowledge and performance and much more to do with embracing life and God's call to be as fully human as possible. Embracing life and being as fully human as possible also means to be obedient. Obedience is not primarily about doing what one is asked (this is the "lowest common denominator" approach). From the perspective of scripture and Christian spirituality, obedience is about love and responding to God's will that we be as open and responsive to the invitation, call, or demands of love at any given moment.

To embrace life and the fullness of what it means to be human was something that Jesus had to "grow" into - it was not automatic. There are actually stories in the Gospel where Jesus shows tangible signs of human development and growth. Take, for example, the story of the Canaanite woman who pleaded with Jesus to heal her son (Matthew 15:21-28). He initially responds by saying that he didn't come to entertain the requests of Gentiles such as herself! However, she is undeterred and seemingly teaches Jesus a lesson by saying, in so many words, that the Gentiles are also under God's care! Embracing life and being fully human apparently means that we not only learn from life but that we learn from others! Jesus was not above or beyond this.

Finally, Jesus was not beyond learning obedience, or learning how to endure in love, from what he suffered. As a matter of fact, obedience to God's call to love is most radically and deeply affirmed and honed when we say "yes" to this calling especially in the face of suffering. Suffering affects us as no other experience. Unlike the suffering of animals or other creatures, humans suffer far more profoundly because suffering poses a threat to all that we hope for and strive to realize in our lives, in the lives of others, and even in our world. We suffer because we love; and, when we love deeply, we suffer all the more. Obedience is "honed" through suffering in the sense that when we refuse to allow our capacity to be human and our willingness to love to be crushed by the suffering of life, we not only love, but, like God, we become love itself. This is precisely how Jesus learned the obedience of love by what he suffered: through refusing to allow his spirit to be crushed by suffering and becoming completely one with the God who is Love. Pat, TOR


Anonymous said...

thank u for such a meaningful article.