Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Jesus or Moses?

In John's gospel account, Jesus is often compared with Moses. The many comparisons highlight the tension between the early Christians and their Jewish roots. It's clear that the message of Jesus divided the Jewish community.

Look at John 6, for example. This is Jesus out-Mosesing Moses. He's out in the desert and is followed by a crowd who are fed by a miraculous supply of bread. He even follows it up with a miraculous crossing of the sea, walking on it rather than walking through it. Sounds a lot like the Exodus experience, and the crowd knows it.
So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’
So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’
The story goes on to say that after this, many of his disciples left him and for a long while I thought they left him because his teachings were crazy, or because people just didn't understand the metaphor. With texts like these, it's no wonder that some people accused early Christians of cannibalism.

But this is far from the truth. The clue to the real problem here is back with Moses, and specifically in Leviticus 17.
If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.
Anyone who eats blood shall be cut off from the people. They will be expelled, excommunicated, rejected, and disinherited. They will lose their identification with the nation. Jesus doesn't reinterpret the principle of eating blood, he drives it to an extreme conclusion. Yes, the blood has the life and yes, if you eat Jesus' blood you'll be cut off from the people.

No wonder they turned away from Jesus. Seen in this light, he was preaching a message that forced them to choose between Jesus and their own heritage. Choose Jesus or Moses, you can't have both. If you choose Jesus, you'll drink his blood and be cut off from the people of Israel.

For the original audience of John's gospel, this might have represented their own struggle with conversion to Christianity. Many were rejected by their families because of it. But is the problem really Jewishness? I suggest that the problem is larger than that, and that it could be Australian-ness, or British-ness, or American-ness, or even Christendom. The problem that Jesus confronts is group identity. We're entrenched deeply within the groups that raised us; so deep that it gives us our identity. Jesus insists that to follow him is to leave that identity behind and be rejected by that group for Jesus' sake. To follow Jesus is to risk being cut off from the people you call family, from the land you call home; and at the same time, to follow Jesus is to follow the holy one of God, to hear the words of eternal life.

The contrast between Jesus and Moses is not about Moses the man, but Moses the symbol of what we inherited from our culture. When we follow Jesus we need to be willing to leave that behind, and to be rejected by those who remain there.

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