He Learned Obedience

Gauguin's Christ in the Garden

Hearing these words from the Passion of Saint Luke, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done" (22:42) it’s difficult not to feel that we have intruded into a conversation between intimates, one we have no warrant to hear: Jesus pleading with his Father.

And we are told, "He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground" (Lk 22: 42). The scene has prompted many to question the very nature of Christianity’s God. How can a loving Father seek the death of the Son? What sense does it make, to say that God, angered at our aboriginal sin, could only be appeased by the Son’s destruction?

Advertisement

Through the centuries, countless attempts have been made to explain why Christ had to die, but the cross shatters our world and its logic. The very heart of God is exposed upon this branch. Here is a wisdom far beyond our ken.

Yet the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard does offer some insight in his work The Gospel of Sufferings. Commenting on Hebrews 5: 8, "he learned obedience from what he suffered," Kierkegaard suggests that only by entering into our human condition and taking up its alienation from God — even to the point of death on a cross — could the Son carry our humanity, and its freedom, back to God. As the Eternal Son of the Father, Christ was never anything but obedient, but he had to become a human Son, who, as one of us, could, and would, choose obedience. Kierkegaard writes:

Christ learned obedience; for certainly from eternity His will was in harmony with the Father’s. His free resolution was the Father’s will. But then when He came in the fullness of time, then he learned obedience from the things which he suffered; the things which He suffered when he came unto His own and His own did not recognize Him, when He went about in the humble form of a servant and sustained God’s eternal plan, while His teaching seemed in vain; when He, the only one in whom there is there is salvation, seemed almost superfluous in the world; when He accomplished nothing, nothing at all, when no one noticed Him, or, what was even harder to hear, when He was an object for the wretched dallying of curiosity. Oh, even when the evil arose against Him in wild rebellion, and bore Him, the Holy One, down to death.

The Father doesn’t directly will the death of the Son. The Father, Son, and Spirit will to enter human history in the person of the Son, and, in the Son’s proffered freedom, his obedience to the Father, to end our alienation. Freedom carried us away; freedom must bring us home.

He said, "If it be possible, Father, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not my will, but Thine." That He said this, is the first step of obedience, and that He drained the bitter cup is the second. If, without saying this, He had drained the bitter cup, His obedience would not have been perfect. Obedience indeed also inquires: first the appealing question and the inquiring prayer: whether it is the Father’s will, whether some other way is not possible. And thus His whole life was obedience, obedience unto death, unto the death on the cross. He who was truth and the way and the life, He who needed to learn nothing. He, nevertheless, learned one thing: He learned obedience. So near is the relation of obedience to the everlasting truth, that He, who is the truth, learns obedience.

In his human obedience, Christ fulfills freedom; he carries it home. But he does abolish it. Far from it. In freedom, we must yet choose to follow.

Luke 19: 28-40 Isaiah 50: 4-7 Philippians 2: 6-11 Luke 22: 14 - 23: 56

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The news from Ireland and the United States reminds us of Herod, of Pharaoh. What culture betrays its children?
The EditorsMay 26, 2018
A woman religious casts her ballot May 25 in Dublin as Ireland holds a referendum on its law on abortion. Voters went to the polls May 25 to decide whether to liberalize the country's abortion laws. (CNS photo/Alex Fraser, Reuters)
The repeal of Ireland's Eighth Amendment, which guarantees the right to life of the unborn, has passed with a nearly 2-1 margin.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018