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Providence, Sin and Love, for Jews and Christians

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Aug 20, 2010

In the last issue of First Things, J. H. H. Weiler portrays “The Trial of Jesus” (June/July 2010) not only as the trial of Jesus himself but as a Divine test of Jewish fidelity. Would the Jews remain faithful to the Law even in the face of temptation by a prophet who tried to draw them away from it? Believing ultimately that they did remain faithful, Weiler concludes by raising this question: “Is it not possible…that in this double trial, that of Jesus and that of the Jews, everyone was following in the path of God?”

Weiler, who is Director of the Tikvah Center for Jewish Civilization at the New York University School of Law, seems intent upon offering an interpretation which leads to peace and mutual acceptance between Christians and Jews. As a Jew himself, he is understandably concerned about this “trial of the Jews”, for he thinks he sees in it the key to understanding why “the Jews” are referred to collectively as responsible for Christ’s death in St. John’s Gospel, and why “the Jews” have (sometimes) played such a hated role in Christian history since that time. After all, Weiler points out, in the Synoptic Gospels the Jewish people are typically differentiated, and it is only the leaders of the people who are considered guilty. Yet thirty or so years later, when John writes his gospel, he tends to attribute guilt universally to “the Jews”, and it is John’s expression which has seeped the more strongly into Christian consciousness down through the ages. Why?

Observing quite correctly that John does not refer to “the Romans” in an equally collective and condemnatory way, Weiler discovers the answer in the Jewish persistence in rejecting Christ over time. In contrast to the majority of Jews, the Roman centurion (here taken as representative of a type) proclaims on witnessing Christ’s death: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” But as a group, the Jews remain unbelieving. Therefore Weiler suggests, probably with justice, that it is not the specific guilt of the crucifixion which really animates the Christian disposition to blame the Jews, but the fact that the Jews—the very people to whom Christ was sent—in the main not only rejected him during his life but continued to reject Him after His death.

In defense of the Jews, Weiler interprets this rejection—and the subsequent blame of Christians—as arising simply because the Jewish people remained faithful to God. He notes a Jewish tradition growing out of chapter thirteen of the book of Deuteronomy (principally verses 1-5) which describes the possibility that a prophet sent by God, complete with signs and wonders, might try to seduce the Chosen People away from the Law—but solely as a Divine test of their fidelity, and “that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God” (Dt 1:5). Indeed, some Jewish commentators have applied this passage to Jesus.

Thus the Jews could pass the Divine test only if they remained faithful to the Law. It is this framing of the “trial of the Jews” along with the trial of Jesus that enables Weiler to suggest that, in the end, everyone was following God’s will. I offer again his closing sentence: “Is it not possible…that in this double trial, that of Jesus and that of the Jews, everyone was following in the path of God?”

An Injustice and a Mystery

The context for Weiler’s conclusion is important, which is why I have presented it at considerable length. Moreover, his conclusion comes very close to resting on a Divine mystery which Christians unreservedly accept—but not close enough, as we shall see.

First we must briefly establish our own Christian context for the trials and results which Weiler describes. It is necessary to note that St. John and subsequent Christians did not intend to blame all Jews. While the Jewish people have been much abused in history, those who make such a charge against the fourth gospel and the tradition of which it is a part are steeped in ignorance. For John himself was a Jew, as was the Master he served, and as were most of His initial followers, including all of the Twelve. So the collectivization of the Jews in St. John’s gospel must mean something else, and it does. John understood that the Jews are God’s chosen people, and that as a people (that is, in overwhelming majority and in union with their leaders) they did reject Christ. For John and for all Christians, that rejection is both a supreme injustice and a theological mystery. It is a monstrous injustice because of the care with which God nurtured this people and prepared them, step by step, for the day He would come Himself to shepherd His flock (see Ez 34).

And it is also a theological mystery because it seems to be almost ordained by God. We need to read all of chapter eleven of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans to get the full picture of this mystery, but perhaps this portion will suffice:

Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved…. Just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy. (vv. 25-26, 30-31)

We notice in passing that St. Paul speaks here more concretely than St. John of a “part” of Israel. In any case, this is the mystery which Weiler comes close to capturing in his account of the trial of Jesus and of the Jews. Un fortunately, his conclusion rests on a spiritually destructive confusion between God’s Providence and His active will.

A False Conclusion

Weiler’s conclusion is wrong at several levels. At one level I must defer to the historical and theological scholars of the period, but I have seen no evidence that the understanding of Jesus as a prophet testing Jewish fidelity (again, Dt 13:1-5) was significantly operative at the time, or that it played any role in the outcome. The possibility remains haunting, but in reality it does not seem to have been an issue. Weiler himself does not find an application of Deuteronomy to Jesus until the thirteenth century. Moreover, Weiler stretches the passage in question to refer to strict fidelity to the Law, but it actually refers to a prophet who will encourage the people to “go after other gods.” Granted, fidelity to the Law was often equated with fidelity to God, but in any case (as Weiler himself admits) the theological quarrel with Jesus was really over the interpretation of the Law—and over His own authority to interpret it definitively.

More importantly, Weiler has to ignore the entire Messianic tradition in Judaism in order to see the challenge of Jesus Christ through a lens so narrow that it reveals only a paradoxical divine tester who wanted to be rejected. So it seems to me that a more rounded picture of Jewish expectations would render Weiler’s theory unlikely.

And most importantly of all, Weiler fails to reckon with this question after the Resurrection. Deuteronomy enjoins the killing of the “tester” prophet, despite the signs and wonders he performs, but surely his resurrection would provide a proof that he was something other than a “tester”. If the Jews could not in fact make him stay dead, perhaps they might rethink their unfortunate guess, even if such an interpretation were at work. The Roman centurion is convinced of Christ’s divinity by the death alone; how much more should the Chosen People have been convinced by His Resurrection.

Finally, in proposing his tentative conclusion as a bridge between Christians and Jews, all of whom can reasonably be said to have been following God’s path, Weiler seems to forget that Christians regard Christ as God, not merely as a prophet, and whatever we might think of the dubious merits of Weiler’s prophetic test, God Himself has never wanted—and will never want—to be rejected by anybody. Again, to this assessment the Resurrection makes all the difference. What greater proof could there be that this Christ was indeed the Messiah, and that God Himself had come to shepherd his flock?

God’s Providence and God’s Will

And now, at last, we come to the gigantic spiritual mistake—a mistake highly relevant to all of us—which Weiler’s conclusion represents. As I’ve already mentioned, even from the Christian point of view—perhaps uniquely from the Christian view—we recognize something mysterious about the Jewish rejection of Christ, as St. Paul taught. Is it possible that God chose to imprison the Jews in unbelief so that the Gentiles might reap a benefit and then, having been glorified through the Gentiles, He will free the Jews to follow Him as well? In this sense, could the Jews therefore have been following the path of God? The answer, again, is no. The problem with this, and with Weiler’s framing of the whole issue, is that to think in these terms is to confuse God’s providence with God’s will.

Here we come to a critical point of understanding. It turns out that Weiler’s dilemma grabs our attention, and its mystery cries out for sympathy, not because it is a special problem but only because it is a common problem writ unusually large. It is, in fact, a problem with our understanding of how human freedom fits into God’s providence, a problem that we notice here at the very moment when that freedom was secured by the passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. For God constantly brings good out of evil, in our own personal lives, in the lives of peoples, and in the life of the world as a whole. In fact, one presumes that He is able to sustain a creation in which evil is permitted precisely because of this providential ability to bring good out of evil. Thus, good may ultimately come of some transgression, but the transgression is still a flight from God, a rejection of His will for us—in a word, sin.

Because we are all sinners, we all benefit from this capacity of providence to bring good out of evil in ways too numerous to count, though not necessarily indefinitely if we persist in our refusal to accept God’s will. It is something like this that Saint Paul has in mind when he cautions the Gentiles not to grow proud because of their acceptance of Christ, as compared with the Jews who rejected Him. We are typically afforded many opportunities in our lives; our wayward paths intersect with God’s designs again and again; each intersection is a potential turning point, a point from which—if we finally get on the right path—we can look back and exclaim: “Now I understand why God permitted me to be so wayward, and to undergo so much spiritual misery.”

The key is in this little word, “permit”. Obviously, nothing can take place that is contrary to the will of God in the complete sense. If God has determined that such-and-such a thing will not be permitted to happen, then it will not happen. Perhaps for this reason, Scripture commonly refers to sin as a result of Divine agency: e.g., the Lord “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (e.g., Ex 9:12), or “God has consigned all men to disobedience” (Rom 11:32). This is simply a mode of expression used to convey God’s permissive will. But when we speak of God’s will, we are typically referring to His active will, to His desire that we accept all His invitations to holiness in our own lives, and so respond positively to His love in ways that please Him. We are not referring here to God’s “permissive will”, the things He allows to happen even though they turn away from his active will by refusing some good that He has offered—the deprivation of which is called evil.

The Jews in general have been permitted to reject their Messiah. This is a far cry from thinking that they were following God’s (active) will in doing so, though they may well remain within the scope of God’s larger plan and providence. In this sense, it is never enough to ask whether we are fitting in with the plan or whether we are on one of the “paths” (as Weiler puts it) for which God has provided. Judas could say that he was following God’s plan, in a sense, when he betrayed Jesus, but he was still rightly filled with remorse upon realizing more fully what he had done, and repentance was still possible even to him. Until the day we die, we are clearly still within God’s plan or providence when we sin, and we may hope (without presumption) that our path will intersect with His again at some other point. But we have still sinned, because we have not accepted His active will.

The Right Question

The right question for Weiler and for each of us is not whether we are still within the bounds of God’s providential love, for we cannot on any account escape that love or that providence. Rather, the right question is whether we are doing what God wants us to do. The first century Jew was supposed to be asking himself not whether it was part of God’s plan that “the Jews” should reject the Messiah, but whether God wanted me to accept Jesus Christ as His Son. In exactly the same way, the 21st century sinner is not supposed to be asking whether it is part of God’s providence that he should fall into sin, but whether God wants me to do this thing I am contemplating, to avoid it, or to do something else.

Very often God’s Providence can and will accommodate one more sin on our part, one more rejection of His will and His love (which are the same thing). But the assumption that this will always be the case is called the sin of presumption, for both Weiler and ourselves. In fact, we can never know whether one more sin will be accommodated or not. We do not know what God knows; we cannot predict when, how or whether His providence includes a path that will bring us back. But we can know whether or not God wants us to commit this sin we are thinking about, and the answer to that question is always “no”.

Every individual Jewish person, both then and now, faced and faces exactly the same unavoidable question that each Christian faces each and every time he must respond to a spiritual question or a temptation. With respect to faith, what does God want me to believe? With respect to action, what does God want me to do? Jews and Christians both know that God loves them infinitely, that everything He asks of them is therefore for their good. So the question is always how do I respond to God’s invitation to return His love in this particular instance? The question is never about how my refusal to return His love might or might not fit into his Divine plan. This is the fundamental distinction which must be drawn between our understanding of providence, which includes both God’s active and His permissive will, and what we call “God’s will for us”, which includes only His active will.

Freedom and Sin

I grant that there are more mysteries to be plumbed here. The greatest is the mystery of free will. How is God’s providence compatible with our freedom? How is it possible that God’s plan can include the rejection of His only-begotten son by most Jews, and also the ultimate conversion of “the Jews” at some future time, and yet these men and women who rejected Christ can still be held accountable for their sin? Or to bring the question home, how is it possible that God’s plan can include whatever personal sin I fell into last month (for that sin did not, I think, somehow throw Providence off balance and force a hasty revision of the Divine plan), and yet God will still hold me accountable for my sin?

One of these questions may seem providentially gigantic—the question of the Jews and Christ—while the other seems hardly to register on the providential radar screen, But this makes absolutely no difference, for the “big” question and the “little” question are exactly the same. Weiler, I fear, has gotten so caught up in the Judaeo-Christian view of Providence that he has forgotten the Judaeo-Christian view of sin. God is outside time. He creates, sustains His creation, and sees everything that goes on within it all at once, so to speak, in the same eternity. He does not have to “adjust” for anything. There is no sequence in God’s view, nor any frame of reference we can use to help us learn “how He does it”.

There is indeed a mystery involved in our freedom, the more so because our freedom is made perfect through grace, which is a share in God’s own life. But as a general rule (there are presumably exceptions in the very young and in certain forms of mental impairment, compulsion and addiction), we experience ourselves as free, and we recognize too that there are some constraints on our freedom which make it imperfect, so that we must constantly work at improving the power and the scope of our freedom itself. Despite endless arguments against free will, usually advanced to justify “things as they are”, most of us have a good, healthy, strong and vibrant sense that we can choose. Despite any professed materialism, no sane person ever consistently acts as if he cannot choose. The argument a man raises against his freedom is always an excuse. For we experience always the reality of our freedom, and also the need to improve it. It is in this personal experience of freedom that we confront the reality of sin.

And so we must remember that there is no choice involved in being part of God’s providence or part of God’s plan. His providence and plan simply encompass us; He does not ask our permission. Indeed, without His providence and plan we would not exist. But there is always a choice about whether or not we will respond in love to God’s love—that is, to God’s will—or whether we will sin. Some good may or may not arise from our sin. That is not our affair, though we may certainly trust that more good by far will arise from our faith, our virtue, and our trust in Him. But at the judgment, we will not be asked whether we fit into His plan. We will be asked the same question Christ asked of Peter, probing to the very depths of his power to choose: “Do you love me?” And then, as if to verify our claim, He will want to know whether it was a false love that made us content to hide in one of the innumerable sinful corners of His plan, or a real love that impelled us to do his active will: “Did you feed my sheep?”

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: gallardo.vm5565 - Aug. 27, 2010 6:14 PM ET USA

    Simply put - This is great! If there is a part two to this or a follow up, I want it. I don't know how you do it so well but keep on doing it. I love the way you broke it down. God Bless.

  • Posted by: paul20105493 - Aug. 24, 2010 4:22 PM ET USA

    Your excellent article explores this issue much more deeply than I'm able. But on a more simple level, I don't see how breaking the commandments against lying and bearing false witness, which the Jewish leaders did at Christ's trial, and then executing Him based on false evidence, breaking the commandment against murder, can be interpreted as following God's will. (The charge that Christ blasphemed, negating the need for other evidence, is only valid if they could prove that He wasn't God.)

  • Posted by: Lisa Nicholas, PhD - Aug. 20, 2010 5:51 PM ET USA

    The same error you discern in Weiler's argument lies at the bottom of the "prosperity gospel," which argues that worldly success is a sign of God's approval. Anyone who buys into the prosperity Gospel cannot have read & understood either the book of Job or many of the psalms. God *permits* the wicked to prosper and the innocent to suffer, because He knows that He can nonetheless bring good out of evil; however, He *wills* us to do good, whatever may befall us, knowing that He will sustain us.

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