Many people encountering Jesus for the first time presumably bring their own views of what they are expecting to find. I suspect many find someone radically different to what they were expecting. This brings me to the Greeks in this morning’s reading from the gospel of John. Among those at the festival were some “Greeks” which for the writers of the time was sometimes the code word for foreigners. They came to Phillip and said to him “Sir we would like to see Jesus.” I don’t know if you noticed, but the reading didn’t say they get to see Jesus.
I suspect that Jesus might have known that theirs was just a casual interest so instead of inviting them over he starts explaining to his disciples the sort of commitment he is going to need from those who would follow him. And although he may not say so in so many words it is definitely not the sort of commitment you might expect from a tourist passing through, at least not one on the way to the next diversion.
At Pukekohe where I used to conduct worship as a visiting lay preacher, these words “Sir, we would see Jesus” are inlaid in a sign at the top of the pulpit presumably to remind the preacher that he or she is to present Jesus to the congregation and not simply present the preacher’s own ideas. Yet regrettably in this age where as George MacLeod used to say “Religion has become a hobby for the few” it is hard to escape the feeling that if it were possible to explain clearly enough exactly what Jesus expected, the preacher might not necessarily be invited back. Have you ever stopped to wonder why, if Jesus was so kind and wise and helped so many people, why exactly it was necessary to have him nailed to a cross. It is an interesting point. No doubt many sermons have been preached on the theological reasons why Jesus had to die, but this morning I wish to turn our thoughts to some psychological reasons why Jesus might have been seen as a threat – and from there look at some reasons why anyone who takes his teaching seriously might also sometimes be seen as rocking the boat.
When I was studying child and adolescent development at University I came across a behavioural psychologist named Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg made up some tasks in which people at different stages of development were asked to make moral choices – and then by careful observation he was able work out the way in which moral reasoning changed as people progress through and mature in their ethical reasoning.
What he discovered was fairly easy to understand. When people start out as small children, they start out with no clear idea as to what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. But because some behaviour leads to painful or unpleasant results – and some behaviour is rewarding, fairly soon they are doing what isn’t going to lead to pain – and what leads to happy results. This is stage one. Then all being well children come to accept verbal shaping. Bad boy… unpleasant …. Good girl ….. pleasant and soon they are behaving at least some of the time in response to this direction. Thump little sister when Mum is watching – “Bad boy!” ….. share toys with little sister – “Good boy!”…. And hopefully the child moves to this second stage where they seek verbal reinforcement.
Then there is the rules stage. And this is where old Testament teaching starts to kick in. Psychologically what is being taught and accepted is basic morals. The word “morals” comes from a Latin word “mores” – which approximately means the society acceptable ways of doing things. The ten commandments like: Thou Shalt not kill, Thou shalt not commit adultery are comparatively late developments in the history of civilisation- and apparently (or coincidentally) emerged from a related set of Babylonian rules called the Code of Hammurabi – some of which contained rules virtually identical to those the Bible talks about as the ten commandments as they were handed to Moses. These are very powerful rules which help a society to function smoothly and similar rules are remarkably widely accepted across most cultures. People who accept these are in the third stage of Kohlberg’s development.
At this point it is important to remember that not everyone gets to a stage where they accept such rules as applying personally to them – and certainly not everyone arrives at the stage where they will live within such rules all the time. But according to Kohlberg many people reach this stage where they are happy to accept and live by the commonly accepted rules for behaviour.
But the system does not end there.
For the next stage we are moving into the area the Greeks called higher ethics. Not everybody makes it to this level. This is the stage where there is a preparedness to examine the way one is living according to the rules to ensure one is making the best decisions. Socrates is credited with starting this – but there is a subtle difference between higher ethics and what we more commonly call morality. This is important to those of us who attend Church because this difference also explains one of the main reasons why Jesus – like Socrates before him would have to die.
“Ethics” is derived from the word ethos – which used to be pretty much the same as mores – in other words the acceptable way of living according to what society sees as being acceptable behaviour. But first Socrates, then Plato, Aristotle and a number who followed took ethics a stage further. So did Jesus. Both Socrates and Jesus shared this in common. They thought the rules ought to be able to stand questioning to find the basic principles which are more important than the rules.
It seems apparent from the stories about Jesus that they were the stories of a man who knew the realities of the human condition as well as his scripture. As such he would also have known that the rules considered absolutely unquestionable by traditional Jewish leaders didn’t always lead to the best outcomes. He had moved to a higher level along Kohlberg’s scale – where you lived according to ethical principles like loving your neighbour and set aside the rules if they got in the way of the love.
Historically, the Greeks, for all their talk about the value of philosophy, didn’t like what Socrates did when he put the rules under the ethical microscope. Socrates asked simple questions of important people and made them look foolish as they stumbled around having their rules shown up to be inadequate. They got angry -so angry in fact that they put Socrates on trial and forced him to commit suicide by drinking hemlock.
Jesus was no fool. When he healed on the Sabbath he knew only too well that the religious authorities knew he was breaking the rules and as Kohlberg much more recently pointed out, very few move through all the stages to that final stage where they are prepared to suspend the rules for the higher ethical principles.
Now look again at what Jesus was saying when he was told the Greek tourists wanted to meet him. If anyone wants to serve me – he must follow me. In other words part of this following would presumably mean he or she must adopt the same attitude to the rules – cast them aside if they are getting in the way of compassion.
Let’s leave aside all the theology for the moment and simply look at this challenge of Jesus in terms a modern social scientist might understand. If we put it in modern psychological terms, it might be recognising where Jesus was in terms of Kohlberg’s scale and where too he expects us to be. Was it surprising that the authorities wanted him out of the way. He was not where the majority were. They were at the dogmatic rules stage. Jesus was in effect challenging these limits of these rules and saying that there were important ethical ideas which sometimes had to be put first.
The tourist approach to seeing Jesus, or if you like, George MacLeod’s religious hobby observation, is that Church is merely the place to be visited, the place to encounter the Christian mores and the Christian customs. The tourist intention is to see Jesus as a curiosity to be admired – but not necessarily followed.
One of the modern dilemmas is to note that as society becomes steadily more multicultural is that the mores – the commonly accepted patterns or morals – become steadily more confused. The new immigrant arrives with a different set of religious principles and different attitudes to all sorts of daily moral decisions. And this is happening in other places as well as in New Zealand. On last Tuesday the BBC reported that in England the flood of new immigrants from India has caused a problem for those organising funerals because some Indian cultures like to conclude their funerals by burning the body in full view on a blazing pyre. That isn’t in the local rules.
Not all societies have the same attitude to women. Not all societies have the same attitude to marriage, to government, to dietary habits. Some Pacific cultures kill live pigs in the backyard at home for their feasts, some middle Eastern cultures wouldn’t dream of eating pork – or for that matter meat from the Supermarket because it has not been killed in an appropriate manner. It is all very well to say – well when they come to this country they simply have to do what the majority do – but the reality in this majority is no longer uniform in nature.
The other set of changes in the ethical landscape is of course the new set of problems which has come about with the explosion of knowledge. The horrendous power of new weapons means that we have to rethink society’s attitudes to war. The advances in medicine mean we have to rethink our attitudes to things like keeping people alive artificially in the hospital, and exactly what is reasonable in terms of issues like mercy killing and the limits placed on abortion. The interdependence of populations in various parts of the world means that we also have to rethink our responsibilities for those living in poverty. The mores provide uncertain foundations.
Remember like Socrates, and more recently Martin Luther King, Jesus operated at the top of the Kohlberg scale – determined to act on his higher principles regardless of the personal consequences. No doubt he would have been encouraging us to do what he did. See what the effect of the rule is to those affected people, then try to offer a solution based on respect and compassion for that person. He also made it clear that he wishes those who want to be called his followers to do the same.
I suspect in the long run, Jesus’ ethical principle of putting love of the neighbour first actually provides a workable solution for virtually every dilemma we have with our neighbours in practice. On the other hand it may also lead to calling for some rather different behaviours than those customarily considered correct.
This means that those who wish to go down that track marked out by Jesus, have to be aware that sometimes this may make them unpopular.
This leaves us with a question. Where we would be found on Kohlberg’s scale? Would we be found insisting the rules be put aside if necessary as we put heart and soul into finding the best compassionate answer for each ethical dilemma – whether it be the rape victim seeking abortion, the suffering patient wanting euthanasia, the one seeking healing on the Sabbath when the rules said no work on the Sabbath, the enemy seeking forgiveness – or would we be found among the majority insisting that the letter of the law be put first.
Before we too place a plaque on the top of the preacher’s lectern insisting that like the Greek tourists: “Sir we would see Jesus” first a question: Are we sure we understand the challenge to follow Jesus to the top of the Kohlberg’s ethical scale, as the Lord leads us through the remainder of Easter to the ultimate test of Calvary?