During a recent National Public Radio interview with Joseph Ellis, author of the best-selling Thomas Jefferson biography, "An American Sphinx," a caller asked, "What would the author of the Declaration of Independence be saying and doing if he were alive today?"

Ellis replied, "I never answer that question. You can't plant cut flowers."

It's impossible to cut people embedded in a specific time and culture out of that period of history, and then plant them, unrooted, in another time and culture. No matter how essential for our freedom and history, Thomas Jefferson was rooted in another time. How can anyone know what he'd say or do today?

Uprooting Jesus

We have to be careful not to think the same about Jesus. When Christians are confronted with problems, questions and issues which the carpenter from Capernaum never faced, we often ask, "What would Jesus do in this situation?" For instance, how would He treat divorced and remarried Catholics? What would be His slant on the Common Ground initiative? What would He say about the current gender and martial restrictions on the Catholic priesthood? Which side would He take in the capital punishment debate? In other words, we try to plant a first-century Palestinian Jewish prophet in our time and culture.

The early Christian community didn't have that problem. They made no attempt to cut the historical Jesus out of His natural surroundings and plant Him in different soil. Though we're embarrassed to admit it, they never used "would" about Him. The reason is simple: They weren't followers of the historical Jesus; they were disciples of the risen Jesus. They imitated a live person, someone rooted in their own day and age. They never had to ask, "What would He do or what would He say?" They simply inquired, "What is He doing? What is He saying?"

In some ways, we look at faith differently from Joshua in Sunday's first reading (Joshua 24:1-2, 15-17, 18). Reminding the Israelites of Yahweh's past actions on their behalf, he asks: "Whom will you serve?" Will you serve gods who never did anything for you, or will you serve Yahweh "who brought us and our ancestors up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery?"

We Christians not only serve a God who did marvelous things for us centuries ago, we also serve a God who lives and works among us now, the God whom John follows and speaks about in the Gospel (Jn 6:60-69).

Risen Jesus

At the end of a discourse which conveys a Eucharistic theology different from that which we're familiar with in the Synoptic Gospels, John mentions that many of the disciples of Jesus remarked, "This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can anyone take it seriously?" The risen Jesus, fully aware that His disciples were murmuring in protest at what He had said, asks: "Does it shake your faith?" In other words, "Does it shake your faith to go beyond what the historical Jesus said and did?"

Obviously it does, since "many of His disciples broke away and would not remain in His company any longer." Scripture scholars remind us that these are Jesus' disciples in the 90s, not the 30s, disciples who wanted to stay with the historical Jesus, not "go" with the risen Jesus.

What happens if we apply this same reasoning to the second reading (Eph 5:21-32)? Is it enough just to mention that Paul was a man planted in his time and culture, someone who tried to "christianize" everything he encountered, even marriage? Because he lacked the insights of modern psychology and our experience of gender equality, he could say nothing else except, "Wives should be submissive to their husbands" and "Husbands, love your wives."

We can't ask, "What would Paul say today, with such insights and experience, about husband-wife relations?" True Christians ask, "What is the risen Jesus, rooted in our time and culture, saying about these relationships?"

Knowing nothing of this historical/risen Jesus stuff, my parents still knew the priest giving them their marriage instructions was wrong when he told my mother that my father should always have the last word in any disagreement. They were married in 1938, not 38.

(08-21-97)