On the Easter Trail
Rabbi Jacob Neusner has observed that “‘Take up your cross and follow me’ is not the same thing as ‘study the Torah that I teach, which I have studied from my master before me.'” The situation is at once simpler than that, whilst being more complicated. Yet, the Rabbi was succinct: Only God can command us, and that the Jew looks for cultural markers to guide the social order, be it the family, the people as Israelites, and for the collective social order.
What is “Take up your cross?” We can find it in Matthew 16: 24. It is prefaced with lessons to his devoted students in the three verses before it. Jesus admitted that he cannot, nor will not, hide away from the religio-political authorities in Jerusalem who wanted to silence him and his teachings. Peter (who’s name at times refers to irritating pebbles in the sandal) attempted to criticize this seemingly imprudent move.
Jesus spent day and night with these fellows and Peter still didn’t understand. There were scores of zealots stirring up trouble against Rome. Jesus wanted no part of it. He would not run away and he would not hide like a criminal. What example would that make? All his lessons would be for nothing. Jesus demonstrated to one and all what he thought about this political wrangling. He would have no part in it. He would go to Jerusalem where his fate would be sealed. But first, he put Peter in his place for trying to compromise the integrity of his Master teacher.
Jesus continued, Ὕπαγε ὀπίσω μου, Σατανᾶ which means “Get behind me Satan.” Satan, in early Hebrew texts, began as שָּׂטָן, an adversary or accuser. The next section deepens this thought: “You are scandalous to me,” with σκάνδαλον a neutral noun refers to both moral and legal offence.
There is a lot more going on here than people suppose when they blythely repeat “Take up your cross.” For Jesus, the path he took did honour to all of his teachings and he did not succumb to shaping himself to what others wanted of him. He taught with words, yes. He also taught through his actions. This was paramount, the very substance of his heart. He taught to the end and beyond.
Neusner had an apparently different view. “Jesus has chosen with great precision the message he wishes to set forth with regard to the Sabbath…” On the Sabbath day, curtains fall, families come together, families form the community at worship, and in Torah study, within the synagogue. Neusner is concerned with ethics, sacred spaces and a holy time. “a great master is not one who says what is new, but one who says what is true, and the master that I seek is one who speaks to me, who wants to be found by me–so that I, too, may learn what God through the Torah has asked of me.” He wants a list of social order behaviour, a social contract to follow. It is the beginning but not the essence. A transformed heart is difficult to achieve: that is the point of Jesus, and all that he did. Lists falter in comparison.
Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus; an intermillennial, interfaith exchange, (N.Y., Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1994) 50, 72, 77.