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A Theological & Functional Study of the Whole of Jesus
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Chapter 2The Person in Relationship
As we journey further on this christological path, we need to be aware of what we pay attention to and what we ignore. The whole person Jesus presents becomes more vulnerable, making himself relationally accessible, and thus his interactions will be increasingly intense. And it may be our tendency at critical periods to veer off his embodied course and unintentionally or inadvertently find ourselves on “the road to Emmaus.”
This is where Jesus found two of his disciples in this familiar post-resurrection scene (see Lk 24:13-32). Yet, the text informs us that these disciples “were kept from recognizing him” (v.16). Since the verb “kept from” (krateo, to hold, restrain) is in the Greek passive voice, this is usually taken to mean the disciples were unable to recognize (epiginosko, to know specifically) Jesus either because of God’s action or Jesus’ post-resurrection body was slightly different, making his appearance harder to recognize from before. I suggest their own predisposition and bias kept them from making connection with Jesus—indicating a Greek reflexive passive of the subject acting upon itself.
While these disciples solemnly reflected on the tragedy over the weekend and their bewilderment on this third day, notice the transition in Jesus’ interaction with them. At first Jesus engaged them as if to be ignorant of what was happening (24:19). This gives the disciples the opportunity either to discuss events and information, or to focus on the whole of Jesus’ person and relationship with him—just as we have the opportunity in this study. Being predisposed as they were, they talk about the events and information about Jesus of Nazareth. This is not to say such discussion is irrelevant, or even unimportant, but it should not be at the expense of ignoring, diminishing or minimalizing what is most important in Jesus’ life and practice.
Ignoring the deeper significance of Jesus’ whole person is a prime indicator of where we are. Jesus intensifies his relational work with these disciples by confronting (not merely chastening) them with where they are: “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe” (24:25). These are strong words which clearly demonstrate how the disciples are accountable for where they are. The word “foolish” (anoetos) also means ignorant, mindless, stupid; it emphasizes culpability of the subject person(s) and describes one as intellectually reckless or negligent, failing to think responsibly, having no sense and implying that one should have known better (cf. Gal 3:1-3). It means neither a lack of education nor an inability to think but a failure to focus and think it through (cf. syniemi, as discussed in the previous chapter). The word “slow” (bradys) of heart stands in contrast to swift, quick in response. Thus, “slow of heart” here means to be reluctant, dull, unresponsive, that is, to trust Jesus and take him at his word.
Their “foolishness” and “slowness” were not because of what God did or anything circumstantial. Even as Jesus further connected for them various pieces of God’s self- revelation (24:27), their hearts did not respond (“burning within” but not responsive, v.32) to his whole person vulnerably pursuing them for relationship. Their predispositions and biases—a function of their perceptual-interpretive framework—resulted in their hearts being functionally withdrawn from Jesus in relational distance despite immediate physical proximity; and thus they were oblivious to his vulnerable presence and insensitive to his intimate relational work. This was a consequence of their own action, which they did to themselves.
What appears to be a rather passive and somewhat innocent course by these two disciples is in actuality their willful decision to veer off the path of the embodied whole of Jesus. As his followers, they functioned irresponsibly and in effect relationally rejected him by their actions, however inadvertent. Yet, Jesus does not admonish his disciples merely by exposing the old without also giving them the opportunity for the new to be raised up. While holding them accountable for where they are and giving them responsibility for their response to him, he keeps pursuing their hearts by breaking bread with them (24:29-30). By partaking of and participating together in the vulnerable presence of his person, they would experience intimate relational connection with him. And as Jesus concludes his relational work with them, their perceptions finally make a qualitative shift to know specifically (epiginosko) who this person really is (v.31).
This post-resurrection interaction is used to introduce us to the
increasingly intense interactions of the whole person Jesus in
relationship to be discussed in this chapter in particular, and the
rest of this study in general. This christological path, however, is
incompatible with the function represented by “the road to Emmaus.”
What course we take will essentially define what we pay attention to
and what we ignore. As we follow Jesus, we need to ensure that our
predispositions and biases reflecting where we are (and our
perceptual-interpretive framework) do not result similarly in our
own hearts being functionally withdrawn from Jesus in relational
distance despite full narrative proximity, and thus detached from
the vulnerable presence of his whole person and insensitive to his
intimate relational work.
In understanding that the person presented by Jesus is a function of the whole person—nothing less and no substitutes, thus irreducible—we now need to understand that Jesus’ whole person is a function of relationship in the trinitarian relational context and process—nothing less and no substitutes, thus nonnegotiable.
Since God’s self-disclosures in Jesus are presented to us specifically for relationship, Jesus’ sanctified life and practice is about how God does relationship. We can grasp how God does relationship by following the face of Jesus in his face-to-face interactions. It is the significance of this function of relationship in the trinitarian relational context and process which brings coherence to God’s thematic action throughout human history: planned by God before creation and started at creation before the Fall, formalized in the covenant and fulfilled by Jesus the Christ, while currently being brought to eschatological completion by the Spirit—discussed further in the next chapter. In this complete Christology the whole gospel clearly emerges for experiential truth of Jesus’ full soteriology, the significance of which is only for relationship together.
The most significant relational function in the incarnation of how God does relationship is Jesus vulnerably disclosing his relationship with his Father. Ontologically, they are one and their persons are equally the same (consubstantial, Jn 10:38; 14:11,20; 16:15; 17:21), thus inseparable (never “to be apart” except for one unfathomable experience on the cross, Mt 27:46). As trinitarian persons (not modes of being) in the qualitative significance of the whole of God (not tritheism), they are intimately bonded together in relationship (understood conceptually as perichoresis) and intimately involved with each other in love (Jn 5:20; 14:31; 15:9; 17:24). This is the relationship of God which Jesus functionally makes evident about the Trinity (discussed in chapter nine).
At Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration (transformation), the Father openly said: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17; 17:5). The term for “to be well pleased” (eudokeo) can also be rendered “delight.” To be pleased with a son expresses a common bias about parental approval of what a child has done; on the other hand, to delight in a son seems to focus on the whole person with a deeper expression of what a parent feels. I suggest “delight” better expresses the qualitative heart of the Father in intimate relationship with the Son about his qualitative whole person, and thus should not be interpreted as the Father’s approval of the Son’s performance. In other words, the Father delights in the Son and loves him for himself, not for what he does. If we are predisposed to parental approval, we will ignore the deeper significance of their relational involvement.
Moreover, it is important to pay attention to their language as they interact. In the Father’s expression above, his words to the Son are simple, what can be considered “ordinary” language of the heart, and thus intimate. Jesus’ language with the Father in the garden called Gethsemane (Mt 26:39,42) and on the cross (Mt 27:46) is painfully simple and disarmingly direct language—words straight from his heart. There are no platitudes, formal phrases or “sacred terminology” in their interaction—simply communication from the heart, and thus ongoing communion together in intimacy. Yet, their intimacy can easily be ignored by our relational distance or even be reduced by a non-relational quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework.
Their interaction at Gethsemane needs further attention for us to understand its theological and functional implications. As the vulnerable disclosure of how God does relationship, Jesus functions in the only way he does relationship—the relationship of God, nothing less and no substitutes. This particular interaction demonstrates the relational process of family love involved in the Trinity’s relationship with each other. Consider: what had been planned together even before creation and was now being fulfilled by the incarnation, the Son astonishingly did not want to continue; and imagine what the Father feels upon hearing the Son’s request. This is a strong contrast to an earlier interaction (see Jn 12:27-28). Despite the unique circumstances, what we need to understand about the Trinity and grasp for our relationships is why this interaction even happened at all.
Certainly human weakness is involved in this situation but this is not the significance of this interaction. The incarnation was predicated on the principle of nothing less and no substitutes, and thus always functioned in relationship on the basis of nothing less and no substitutes. Why this interaction even happened at all is because by the nature of their relationship such an interaction could happen, was “designed” to happen, therefore was expected to happen. That is, what this interaction signifies is the complete openness (honesty as it were) and vulnerableness of their whole person (not reduced to roles and performance) with each other in the intimate relational involvement of love as family together. By being completely vulnerable here, Jesus makes evident how they do relationship together. In other words, the trinitarian persons can (and need to) be their whole person before each other and intimately share with each other anything, so to speak—without the caution, restrictions or limits practiced in human relationships since the primordial garden (cf. before the fall they “were both naked and they felt no shame,” Gen 2:25). Anything less than and any substitutes of their whole person and these relationships necessary to be the whole of God no longer would constitute the Trinity (whom Jesus vulnerably disclosed) and therefore becomes a reduction of God.
In addition, the incarnation principle of nothing less and no substitutes not only functionally defined who Jesus is in relationship but also functionally determined whose he is in relationship. The Son did not reduce his person with the Father by becoming overly christocentric. Not only did he openly express his desire to avoid the cross but he clearly expressed his deeper desire “yet not as I will but as you will” (Mt 26:39). The Son’s prayer was not about himself, though he openly expressed his person. This was not a matter of the priority of the individual, which also includes not merely the individual desires of only the Father. This was about the whole of God, the Trinity qua family. There is no aspect or function of individualism in the nature of the Trinity, though each is distinct in their person and unique in their function. As a trinitarian person, the Son made evident the interdependent (functionally in conflict with independent) relational nature of the Trinity as the whole of God’s family. Furthermore, in another interaction the Son also defined how the Spirit never functions independently but only interdependently in the whole of God (Jn 16:13-15); this points to the Spirit’s work as not for the individual’s agenda but always for the whole of God’s family, the church (cf. 1 Cor 12:7).
The relationship of God necessitates the function of the whole person, yet never centered on oneself and thus always as a function of relationship in the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. What emerges from the relational dynamics disclosed between the Father and the Son is that the most significant function of relationship is signified by God’s love. Their family love constitutes the Trinity’s relational oneness (functional communion) reflecting the ontological triunity of God.
Yet, love (agape) should not be perceived in reductionist terms, which unfortunately predisposes many of our notions of love to diminish the importance of the whole person and the significance of relationship in likeness of the Trinity. God’s love, however, of each other in the Trinity is not about what to do (reductionist substitute)—as if the persons of the Trinity needed to do anything with each other to demonstrate or prove their love (cf. Jn 15:9,10). As the Father made evident at the Son’s baptism and transfiguration, the Trinity’s love is only about how they are involved with each other’s person. The synergistic (and perichoretic) mystery of this qualitative involvement is so intimate that though three disclosed persons yet they are one Being, though distinct in function yet they are indistinguishably and indivisibly one together—without relational horizontal distance or vertical stratification. And this relationship of God is disclosed not for our mere information but made accessible for us to experience in relationship together in likeness. This accessible relational experience is the functional purpose of Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17:20-26).
In the context of his full prayer (known as his high priestly prayer), the purpose of Jesus’ sanctified life and practice (Jn 17:19) is directly correlated to and causal of this relational outcome to experience the whole of God in relationship together. To call his prayer a high priestly prayer is accurate because this is Jesus’ intercession (cf. Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25). Yet, formalizing Jesus’ involvement in this vital interaction with the Father tends to focus only on what Jesus does, and his role as high priest, rather than on their relationship together. His role and what he does in it functionally serve only for this relationship, the relationship of God as family.
Jesus’ sanctified life and practice is always about relationship
first and foremost, even while interacting (praying) with the
Father. Thus his all-embracing prayer reflects the whole of this
relationship—and its theological and functional implications—further
and deeper than any other moment in the incarnation. All of God’s
thematic action in human history since creation is enacted directly
for this relational outcome—nothing less and no substitutes. The
whole, therefore, of sanctified Christology (which involves a full
soteriology) is only about being intimately one together as the
whole of God’s family (what we are saved to). This then makes
his summary prayer more than high priestly, but it functions more
completely as Jesus’ formative family prayer. It is his
formative family prayer which keeps unfolding the functional
significance of the relationship of God throughout this study.
In likeness of the communion of God (in the Trinity), our communion with God (with persons in the Trinity) is disclosed to us in Jesus’ sanctified life and practice as a function only of relationship, redeemed (from the old) and transformed (to the new) relationship. As we continue to follow the face of Jesus in his face-to-face interactions, how Jesus does relationships with various human persons is an extension of how he does relationships with the trinitarian persons of God. This extension is clear because Jesus never engaged in reductionism by reducing his person and how God does relationship. Nor does he reduce human persons who are an extension of God’s image and likeness created with the relational design and purpose of the relationship of God. Reductionism always counters the function of God’s self-disclosure as nothing less and no substitutes.
What distinctly characterizes these relationships in Jesus’ vulnerable sanctified life and practice is without reduction: functional communion in the intimate relational involvement of love at the deepest level of qualitative significance (both the heart of God and the human heart created in likeness). Jesus makes his whole person accessible to them for this relationship.
Our predispositions and biases rooted in reductionism create functional barriers to perceive, receive and respond to the relationship of God. The implication of this is sin—that is, sin as reductionism—from which we need to be redeemed (functionally freed for relationship). As the functional key, Jesus unlocks and opens the relational door to the process of transformation (completed by the Spirit) for functional involvement in the relationship of God. This need for redeemed and transformed relationship is evident as Jesus is further involved with others, notably his disciples and close followers.
Two of his close followers were sisters, Martha and Mary, whom Jesus loved along with their brother Lazarus (Jn 11:5). When defined by what they do, these sisters are commonly characterized as different types: Martha oriented to a life of activity and service, while Mary by a life of contemplation and worship. We get a deeper and different understanding of their persons as Jesus interacts with them face to face in relationship. How they functioned in relationship together reveals where they truly are, and also deepens our understanding of the relational significance of Jesus’ sanctified life and practice.
Their first interaction takes place because “Martha opened her home to him” and his disciples during his later Judean ministry (see Lk 10:38-42). The term for “opened her home” (hypodechomai) denotes a distinct act of caring for them by Martha, which she apparently initiated; also, identifying it as “her home” is unusual when there is a male in the family. Her hospitable and kind action is certainly well received by this likely tired and hungry group, and could easily have been the basis for significant fellowship. But fellowship is an issue in which the function of relationship is critical.
Thinking relationally is always more difficult when the surrounding context defines persons in fixed roles and confines them to the performance of those roles. The non-fluid nature of their sociocultural context made individuality outside those roles an aberration; thus the norm not only constrained the person but also limited (intentionally or inadvertently) the level of involvement in relationships. These barriers made the function of relationship critical for Martha since she was a product of her times.
The person Martha presented to Jesus was based on her role and what she did, which she seemed to perform well. By defining herself in this way, she focused quite naturally on her main priority of all the hospitable work (diakonia) to be done, that is, her service or ministry (diakoneo, Lk 10:40). This work, on the one hand, was culturally hers to do while, on the other hand, was an opportunity for her to serve Jesus. Yet, defining her person by what she did and the role she had also determined what she paid attention to and ignored (from her perceptual-interpretive framework) in others, and thus how she did relationships. More specifically, Martha stayed within the limits of her role in relationship with Jesus, whom she related to based on his role. This can be seen clearly in their second interaction when Lazarus died (see Jn 11:1-40).
Since the persons Martha and Mary each presented to Jesus coincide in both situations, a composite from both narratives will be used to give us a fuller understanding of how each functioned in relationship with Jesus. Before returning to their first interaction, in this second interaction Martha extends herself again to Jesus when her brother died (Jn 11:21); she didn’t lack in initiative. Her opening words to Jesus are exactly the same words (see Greek text) Mary would share with him in their encounter later: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.21, Mary in v.32). Yet, while expressing her discouragement and seemingly holding Jesus accountable, in the same breath she qualifies her words with an indirect statement: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (v.22). Whether she was suggesting or requesting that Jesus do something, her indirectness was probably true to cultural form by not asking Jesus (Master, Teacher) for a favor directly.
Furthermore, Martha stayed within the limits (functional barriers) of relationship between men/rabbi and women. Her indirectness evokes from Jesus a simple yet personal response of what will happen: “Your brother will rise again” (v.23), implying his relational involvement with them. Since Jesus had already taught about the future resurrection from the dead (Jn 5:28,29; 6:39,40), Martha must have learned that before by making reference to it here (v.24). These words by Martha are what a good student would be expected to say. On the surface of Jesus’ response, he then seems to take her on a short theological exercise, yet he is really trying to make deeper relational connection with her at the vulnerable level of her heart—“believes in me,” the intimate relational work of trust (vv.25-26). Martha responds with a clear confession of faith (v.27) but without the intimate relational connection with the whole person of her faith, who is kept at a relational distance as she goes back to call Mary. Later, even her confession is called into question, as she is tested relationally by reductionism: the fact of the situation vs. the person of her faith (vv.39-40).
How Martha was defined by her sociocultural context and what defined her person predisposed her to Jesus and biased how she did relationship with him. With this cultural perceptual framework, she paid attention to Jesus in his role as Lord and Teacher but overlooked his whole person in this interaction; she concentrated on serving Jesus but ignored being relationally involved with him in the first interaction. Consequently, she neither exercises her whole person nor experiences her whole person with Jesus in the function of relationship imperative for his followers.
Revisiting their first interaction, Jesus redirects Martha to what is more important and redefines for her what is truly necessary (Lk 10:41-42). There is an underlying conflict here with Martha’s cultural perceptual framework; Jesus doesn’t directly deny Martha her framework but shifts her to the deeper qualitative framework of the relational context. Despite the work that needs to be done and the circumstances related to it, he basically tells Martha not to let that define her and determine their time together: “but only one thing is needed.” The word for “need” (chreia) means usage, act of using, employment, to signify that in which one is employed. Jesus is calling her to the primary priority (her vocation, as it were) in life: to his whole person in relationship together—not merely to occupy the same space as Jesus, nor merely to do what Jesus did (e.g., serve), but to ongoing relational involvement with him in intimate relationship. No greater priority should employ her life and practice.
This is what needs to define her and to determine their time together. This involves the call to be redefined, transformed and made whole, which implies Martha needed to be redeemed (to be freed). Though she took a small step to connect with Jesus in the second interaction, she needed a redeemed relationship to be involved with Jesus as Mary was (to be discussed shortly).
With all her dedication and good intentions, Martha essentially related to and served Jesus with reductionist substitutes and practices. In terms of how she related to Jesus under the influence of reductionism, what she paid attention to and ignored about both her person as well as Jesus’ person, including about their relationship, Martha inadvertently functions to reinforce counter-relational work. Such practice takes place all too commonly among God’s people, even while serving Jesus. This raises the concern about what it means to serve him and a pervasive issue we readily practice when serving Jesus: defining ourselves by serving, and thus being focused primarily on the work to be done. Jesus says “whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be” (Jn 12:26). In these words he said a necessary condition to serve him is to follow him and be where he is; that is, as discussed earlier, this is the function of relationship in ongoing intimate involvement with his whole person. Serving does not come first to define what it means to follow Jesus. The word “to serve” (diakoneo) comes from the word for minister, servant, deacon (diakonos) and has the emphasis on the work to be done, not on the relationship between Lord and servant.
This is a vital distinction for all his followers. Because in defining what is necessary to serve him, Jesus is also clearly definitive about what is insufficient to serve him: to focus primarily on the work to be done, or on related situations and circumstances, no matter how dedicated we are or how good our intentions. Jesus did not discount the particular service Martha was doing but how she engaged it. How we serve is just as important as whether we serve or not. Therefore, any reductionist substitutes and practices for serving him are not an option. For all his followers, Jesus makes paradigmatic for serving and imperative for discipleship: the function of intimate relationship together as the primary priority.
While Jesus called Martha to his whole person for relationship, Mary already extended her person to Jesus for this relationship—whom Jesus fully receives, “Mary has chosen what is better” (Lk 10:42)). The word for “chosen” (eklegomai) denotes simply the act of selecting Jesus, the naming of Jesus as the object desired, and thus expressing favor to his person chosen. Mary paid attention to Jesus’ whole person and focused on being relationally involved with him—the primary priority. And Jesus completely affirms her relational action: “and it will not be taken away from her” (v.42). “It” is a relative pronoun (hostis) from the basic relative pronoun hos (he who), which provides a better rendering for this context: “and he who is chosen will not be taken away from her.” The accessible Jesus vulnerably extends his whole person to her for relationship together.
Yet, Mary’s choice was not a simple one to make. She cannot be characterized merely as a different personality type from Martha, which predisposed her to extend herself to make better connection with Jesus. In these two interactions Martha actually demonstrates more initiative than Mary. They also were both constrained by their sociocultural context to the same fixed role. Mary had neither the privilege of an optional role nor could she be an exception. This is the reason Martha legitimately expected Mary to be like her, and why she tried to manipulate Jesus (“Lord, don’t you care…”) to make Mary fulfill her role (Lk 10:40). What was culturally hers to do was culturally also Mary’s.
Moreover, household roles and expectations were only part of the pressure Mary faced in her surrounding context. Mary seemed to ignore the work (diakoneo) which was culturally hers to do and chose instead to engage Jesus in a manner not customarily available to women. That is, she also goes against the religious culture by sitting at Jesus’ feet in order to be taught by the Rabbi (Lk 10:39); this is a privileged place forbidden for women and reserved only for men, particularly disciples (note also, that serious disciples usually were training for leadership). This takes place during an important period in Jesus’ ministry when he has intensified his private teaching of his disciples in preparation of their forthcoming leadership. Imagine then what his disciples thought (or even said in protest) when Mary sat next to them.
Yet, Mary is willing to risk ridicule and rejection (even by Jesus) by going beyond any religio-cultural constraints in order to pursue the person Jesus. She effectively doesn’t allow reductionism to control her life and merely do what is expected and comfortable—that is, to diminish her person and limit her relational involvement. By her choice, she clearly acts only on what is important and necessary: the whole person in the function of intimate relationship together. Jesus fully receives her person for this relationship and, in openly doing so, teaches his disciples not only a lesson on the relational priority of discipleship but also on the relational function of leadership (to be discussed later).
Her whole person functioning in intimate relationship with Jesus is even more evident as we see them in further interactions. Returning to Lazarus’ death and their second interaction, Mary quickly goes out to meet “the Teacher” who has asked for her (Jn 11:28-29). When she sees him she says the same opening words as Martha earlier (vv.32,21). These are her only spoken words, but not all she communicates to Jesus. When she sees him, “she fell at his feet” (v.32) and says the above while “weeping” (v.33a). Mary makes her whole person vulnerable and fully shares her heart with Jesus, which Martha doesn’t seem to do even with the same words. This communicates profoundly with Jesus, thus deeply moving his heart to make intimate connection with Mary (vv.33b,35,38). In these moments, she experiences her Teacher (didaskolos) more deeply and came to know him as never before. Their intimate connection is qualitatively distinct from the connection between Martha and Jesus moments earlier. This is the relational outcome in redeemed relationship of the whole person functioning in intimate involvement together.
Mary deepens her intimate connection with Jesus in a third interaction, which demonstrates even further how vulnerable her whole person is made to Jesus (see Jn 12:1-8). Whether she follows the lead example of the prostitute (Lk 7:36-50, to be discussed next) or acts spontaneously from her own creative heart, Mary makes another difficult and also costly choice (Jn 12:3). With the cost of the perfume (“worth a year’s wages,” v.5) added to her decision, she again acts contrary to prevailing cultural form and practice to literally let her hair down to intimately connect with Jesus—inappropriate conduct for both of them—and humbly with love attend to his needs. Mary is engaged in the deepest relational work of a disciple, which Jesus defines clearly for his disciples as “a beautiful (kalos, in quality and character) thing (ergon, work of her vocation) to me” (Mt 26:10, parallel account).
Mary’s action demonstrated the most relationally significant practice of diakoneo, in which she served Jesus while intimately involved with his person more than ever before. She gave her person to Jesus, and Jesus not only received her person but also received from her person. This continued to contrast with Martha’s diakoneo (Jn 12:2), though not to diminish that kind of service. Yet, we need to understand the ongoing choice of function involved here. Mary grew further in her person and experienced more of this relational outcome because she would not allow the counter-relational work of reductionism to prevent her from this opportunity to make intimate connection with Jesus. Without the restraints of reductionism on her heart, she seized the opportunity of the vulnerable presence of Jesus’ whole person (as he said, “you will not always have me,” 12:8).
Love functions this way, it always makes the person and the relationship most important—regardless of the need and work to be done. This is how Jesus functions with us and how he wants us to follow him and be with him. Thus, once again, the accessible Jesus not only received Mary’s person for intimate connection in the priority of their relationship, but he also clearly makes this relational process more important than even ministry to the poor—not its reduction because this involvement is how poor persons (among others, including Jesus) need to be served. Apart from Judas Iscariot’s motives (Jn 12:4-6), this was important to learn for the disciples who tried to reprioritize Mary’s act (Mt 26:8-9). While at this stage just days prior to Jesus’ death the disciples certainly have learned about wholistic ministry, they have yet to grasp the significance of Jesus’ whole person (thus theirs also) and the primary function of intimate relationship together (cf. Jn 14:9). They would change but not without difficulty, and certainly not without redemptive change.
What his early disciples needed to understand as experiential truth, we who have followed apparently have yet to grasp its significance. Jesus not only fully received Mary’s person and made her relational action more important than ministry. He further makes the sweeping claim: wherever the truth of his gospel is proclaimed and practiced (in ministry, mission and evangelism) in the whole world (without exception), Mary’s action will also be shared in remembrance of her (Mt 26:13, par. Mk 14:9). This is not a memorial to Mary defined by what she did. This is a defining moment in Jesus’ sanctified life and practice making evident the functional significance of relationship with him. Remembering Mary is somewhat similar to what Jesus said about remembering him (Lk 22:19). That is, the relational action of Mary’s person is basic to the gospel and the functional purpose of God’s thematic action and Jesus’ sanctified life and practice: the importance of the whole person functioning in the primacy of intimate involvement together in the relationship of God as the whole of God’s family.
All Christian discourse, at any level, throughout the world needs to involve Mary’s functional significance, as Jesus claims. This then urgently raises the question: Where is this person in our life and practice, individually and corporately as church? I suggest what has happened to Mary’s action in our midst is primarily due to what is involved in her counterpart’s action—gender issues notwithstanding.
As the focus shifts to the (likely) prostitute who similarly anointed Jesus (Lk 7:36-50), we need to be acutely aware of our predispositions and biases which may keep us at a relational distance from the issues involved.
The context of this dinner at a Pharisee’s house is traditional and thus well defined in terms of how persons are seen, their fixed roles and their relationship limits; this may be a banquet for Jesus attended by guests in conformity with the host, not an open affair (v.49a). Based on how she is defined and what defines her in this context, the prostitute is totally unacceptable to be even present in the background. Nevertheless, this “impure” woman breaches the religious life and practice of this gathering with even greater implications than those already discussed about Mary’s action. While both women exercised their person to pay attention to Jesus’ person and ignored the surrounding consequences for their action, the prostitute’s choice was even more difficult to make than Mary’s.
The difficulty begins with how she is defined and what defines her. Certainly, Simon the Pharisee, along with the other guests, had a clear moral basis for defining her as a sinner (Lk 7:37,39). The prostitute is not in denial about this fact for herself because that in actuality is the reason for her action. That is, on the one hand, the fact that she sinned is not disputed by anyone, least of all this woman; and, on the other hand, the reality she is forgiven and thus redefined is disputed by most present, but not by Jesus and this woman, most of all her. The reason Jesus doesn’t dispute her forgiveness is implied in the analogous example he describes for Simon: of prevailing debt in the Mediterranean world and the exceptional act of “debt cancellation” (charizomai, to give someone a favor, vv.39-43).
This woman already experienced God’s forgiveness and grace. She doesn’t present herself to Jesus in order to be forgiven. Her moral failure as well as reductionism no longer defined her person and thus determined how her whole person functioned in relationship. She demonstrated having been redeemed from that. And the clear functional indicator for this experiential reality is defined by Jesus as: the deep relational involvement of “she loved much” (v.47)—prevailing in one’s qualitative function. He then contrasts for Simon his behavior from hers: the minimum quantitative involvement culturally customary (with which he failed even to engage Jesus) and the vulnerable qualitative involvement of the heart of this woman’s whole person (which includes her former vocation’s tool, perfume, vv.44-46). And the functional indicator of not experiencing God’s grace is also clearly defined by Jesus as: the relational distance of “he who has been forgiven little loves little” (v.47b)—pervasive in one’s quantitative function.
As a Pharisee, Simon probably disputed Jesus by pointing to his many good deeds in keeping the Law. This love, however, is only a qualitative function of relationship—never reduced to merely the quantitative deeds of doing something, no matter the devotion or good intention. Since this love is embodied in a person who has first experienced God’s grace, then by its nature the act of love by this person functions from the same relational context and process by which God’s grace is experienced. There is a direct correlation Jesus establishes here as experiential truth.
Moreover, there is a functional distinction between this woman and Simon which is crucial to understand. There is a redemptive change in her which underlies her relational act of love. Analogous to debt cancellation, she is freed from the burden of her sin on her person and its relational curse. In addition, since, in being forgiven, she is now defined by God’s grace and no longer by reductionism, she is freed functionally from the constraints of reductionist substitutes and practices. Thus, this redemption gives her the freedom to vulnerably love Jesus’ whole person and to experience him intimately as never before, just as Mary did. Without their freedom the relational act of love would not have been expressed. Maybe deeds of “love” to substitute for this love would emerge—possibly as Martha expressed and probably as Simon performed—but not the relational significance of God’s love.
Jesus reaffirms to this woman what she already understood as the basis for her loving action—“Your sins are forgiven” (v.48). She may not have understood all the theology involved but she grasped deeply its functional significance. Then he prepares her to go forth in the surrounding reductionist context to function further as a person who has been redefined, is being transformed and made whole. As she vulnerably gave her person to his accessible person, he now vulnerably extends his whole person back to her (v.50): “Your faith (your ongoing relational trust in my whole person) has saved you (to relationship together in God’s family, sozo, and made you whole); go in peace (in the wholeness and well being of who you now are and whose you will always be).”
Despite the pressures she would continue to face from the surrounding reductionist context, her whole person and her function together in the relationships necessary with the whole of God will continue to grow (as Mary did) as long as the basis for her life and practice is God’s grace. This basis must (dei) by its nature be not only as the theological basis but, most important, as the functional basis. God’s grace was not new to Simon’s thinking. As a Pharisee, his theology from the OT likely included God’s grace. Yet, God’s grace was not functional in his life and practice—that is, function in the relational significance of God’s grace, which Jesus vulnerably discloses to him.
This is the primary issue involved in the absence of recounting Mary’s action in our midst. While God’s grace may be claimed as the theological basis for our life, the functional basis for our practice tends to be distinguished by reductionism more than God’s grace. This then renders having grace as a theological basis to functional irrelevance. That same kind of irrelevance may be ascribed to Mary—especially by males. The relational acts of love, however, by Mary and the ex-prostitute do not reflect a so-called gender-based relational orientation of women. Such a perception is predisposed by reductionism and reflects a general male bias embedded in the function of relational distance—which many females believe or accept also. To diminish the person and minimalize the relational act point to the underlying presence of reductionist substitutes and practice, both for the ontology of the person and for the relational purpose of human persons created in the image and likeness of the whole of God, the Trinity. These reductionist influences have the consequence of reinforcing (inadvertently or intentionally) counter-relational work, and thus are in conflict with God’s grace.
Yet, the relational involvement experienced in these interactions with Jesus is neither unique to types of individuals nor an unintentional action happening without deeper basis and purpose beyond the individual. This involvement is the relational function of intimately engaging Jesus in his relational context of family and by his relational process of family love. Jesus’ relational context and process are both trinitarian, and thus constitute the relationship of the whole of God: which is vulnerably disclosed to us for relationship because of God’s grace, which is intimately experienced by us in relationship together by God’s grace, and which then is the ongoing relational function of our life and practice only on the basis of God’s grace.
This is why Mary engaged the deepest relational work and demonstrated the most relationally significant practice of diakoneo, both of which clearly distinguish Jesus’ followers and the nature of who, what and how they are. This is what Jesus makes paradigmatic for serving and imperative for discipleship for all his followers. Yet, implied in Mary’s relational function and made explicit in the relational function of the ex-prostitute is their basis in God’s grace, not based on what they do and have. This is why the significance of this relational function is basic to the gospel, God’s thematic action and Jesus’ sanctified life and practice.
When we tend to submit to how the surrounding context (even at church) defines us by what we do (and attain) and have (and accumulate), and when the functional basis for our practice becomes defined by what we do and have (however unintentional or inadvertent), then we are under the influence of reductionism.
Further implications involve the ontology of the person and of relationship. The ontology of the person is diminished because the whole person is not affirmed, only the more quantitative aspects of a person. This outer-in approach to a person—focused on what one does and has—is constricting because this reductionist bias never involves the “in” aspect of the person; or it may envision a false dualism without the significance and function of the whole person. Likewise, the ontology of relationships is minimalized because whole persons are not intimately involved in the relational function necessary for relationships to be significant and whole. This deemphasizes in practice the functional priority of intimate relationships—both with God and with each other in the church. In these contexts, ontological simulations are substituted by reductionism for both the person and their relationships.
Reductionism is resistant to God’s grace because grace functionally
affirms the whole person and constitutes intimate relationships. The
difficulties seen in many of the interactions with Jesus’ person
involve this resistance to him who embodied God’s grace. The
experiential truth is: God’s grace demands nothing less and no
substitutes than the whole person and intimate relationship together.
Jesus makes this evident in the incarnation of his whole God person,
as discussed earlier, as well as in other interactions which are
important to understand in his sanctified life and practice and for
our life and practice.
When Jesus qualified “whoever serves me” by making antecedent the priority “follow me” (Jn 12:26), he established a problematic condition for all of us. This paradigm for serving and imperative for discipleship make our life and practice more difficult. Not only is serving more difficult now without the option of reductionist substitutes and with the nonnegotiable priority focused on the function of relationship; following Jesus is now made more difficult because the terms of discipleship are not only relationship specific with his whole person but also relationally specific only to God’s terms.
Once we understand that the ongoing function in relationship together must precede and be the priority over serving, then we have to grasp the face of Jesus. That is, we have to deal directly with God’s grace embodied in Jesus and relationship with him on God’s terms. Jesus made his whole person accessible to persons in their human context. This never meant, however, that Jesus functioned in relationship with them in their relational context and by their relational process—in other words, that relationship with Jesus could be on our terms.
“Follow me” is about both relationship and relationship with him on God’s terms. “Face to face” with Jesus involves a specific relational process involving specific persons. This means the “me” Jesus makes imperative to follow has to be the whole person Jesus vulnerably presented in the incarnation. The face of Jesus cannot be our image of him shaped by our own predispositions and biases—especially from a reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework—which certainly involve our interests, desires and needs.
This is the problem Peter had in coming face to face with Jesus. As we revisit some of his interactions with Jesus, we can understand the difficulty he had with the “me” of Jesus’ whole person as well as presenting the significance of his own person in face-to-face relationship.
While Peter clearly chose to respond to Jesus’ call to “Follow me” with his whole life (cf. Lk 5:10-11; Mk 10:28), the function of his whole person had difficulty responding to the face of Jesus. This is evident in their interactions, which will be examined for our purpose here by starting with their last interaction during Jesus’ earthly ministry (see Jn 21:15-23).
This post-resurrection interaction takes place obviously after Peter’s denials of Jesus prior to the crucifixion. Since neither of them addresses the pain of these moments, Peter apparently has been forgiven. Assuming this happened, it would be helpful to connect Jesus’ questions about Peter’s love less to his denials and more to the ex-prostitute’s relational act of love (Lk 7:36-50). The implication of connecting these would shift the focus from Peter’s future ministry—demonstrating his love (or even proving it) by fully caring for Jesus’ followers—to how he needs to engage serving (cf. the issue for Martha).
The experience of forgiveness (and God’s grace) directly correlates to the exercise of love—an experiential truth Jesus established when defining the ex-prostitute’s action. Love is never reduced to the quantitative deeds of ministry but is only a qualitative function of relationship. Like the ex-prostitute, since this love needs to be embodied in a person who has first experienced God’s grace, then by its nature any act of love by this person functions from the same relational context and process by which God’s grace is experienced. The significance, therefore, of this woman’s (and Mary’s) relational involvement with Jesus is: the relational involvement of intimately engaging Jesus in his relational context of family and by his relational process of family love.
As Jesus questions Peter about his love and directs him to his ministry (“feed my sheep”), he is correlating the experience of forgiveness and God’s grace to this matter (“he who has been forgiven much loves much”). Thus, Jesus is focusing on Peter’s need to establish God’s grace as the basis for his life and practice. The outcome of this would constitute Peter’s function only in the context of God’s family and by the process of extending God’s family love. Yet, Peter is having difficulty intimately engaging Jesus in his relational context and by his relational process. This crucial relational involvement is not there for Peter despite his declarations of love for Jesus. Jesus knows this is missing in Peter’s answers, thus he once again calls Peter to the relational significance of “Follow me” (Jn 21:19b).
When Jesus redirects Peter to the relationship and the need for deeper involvement together, Peter demonstrates his relational distance by paying attention to John (“what about him?” v.21), and thus in effect ignoring Jesus’ person vulnerably pursuing him. This apparently strains Jesus’ loving patience. His response to Peter—“what is that to you?” (v.22)—expresses rebuke from Jesus which Peter needed. This is why Jesus, then, emphatically makes it imperative to Peter: “You must follow me”—the only imperative Peter needed to hear and focus on. As the last words (and the first words to begin their relationship, Mk 1:17) Jesus says to Peter, he once again calls Peter to be redefined, transformed and made whole.
Even up to the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus is calling Peter to his whole person for intimate relationship together. The functional implication of this is that the influence of reductionism is still preventing Peter from functioning deeper in the relational involvement of following Jesus’ whole person. This is a functional barrier for Peter to go further in the relational progression, in which Jesus takes his followers to relationship with the Father as his very own in God’s family together. While Peter often represents the early disciples as a group, his difficulties are of his own choosing and doing. He has had various opportunities to be redeemed, yet his reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework always emerged to resist God’s grace. This all becomes evident as we revisit some of his earlier interactions with Jesus.
Two confessions of faith characterize Peter’s discipleship. One confession came when Jesus separated would-be followers from true disciples (Jn 6:68-69), discussed in chapter one. The next confession came when Peter affirmed Jesus’ deity, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” which Jesus acknowledged Peter as having received this revelation from “my Father” (Mt 16:16-17). Yet, confessions of faith are insufficient to follow Jesus’ whole person—even confessing his deity. Peter had yet to grasp that God’s self-disclosures are only for relationship; and he needed to engage Jesus face to face.
He would have that opportunity moments later when Jesus vulnerably disclosed the painful course “he must” (dei, necessary, unavoidable) take to the cross and the resurrection (Mt 16:21). Rather than receive the face of Jesus (and God’s grace), however, Peter takes Jesus aside as if to counsel him (maybe partly from the confidence gained due to his confession), not to console Jesus. Peter acts boldly “to rebuke him” (v.22). The word “rebuke” (epitimao) means to censure, rebuke; it is an abrupt and biting charge sharply expressing disapproval, harshly taking someone to task for a fault (cf. Mk 1:25). The word implies that Peter expressed a warning as he confronted Jesus on this absurd disclosure. “Never, Lord!”—the word (hileos) functions in such phrases as an invocation for overturning evil (cf. in our vernacular, “God forbid!” or “Absolutely no way!”). We have to appreciate Peter’s honesty in sharing his feelings with Jesus. In this sense, Peter made himself vulnerable to Jesus. Yet, despite his honesty, was he really opening his whole person to Jesus? The answer involves why Peter had these feelings.
Jesus’ response to him helps us understand. He responds back even more strongly by identifying Peter as the enemy (v.23); contrast this with moment’s earlier (v.17). Why, because he was a “stumbling block” to Jesus; the word (skandalon) always denotes enticing or trapping its victim in a course of behavior which could ruin the person. Compared to earlier (v.17) when Peter was influenced by the Father’s revelation over human reason, Peter shifted from theological confession to his function on the basis of human rationality. “Have in mind” (phroneo) means to think, have a mindset—that which underlies one’s predisposition or bias. This is the activity of one’s perceptual-interpretive framework, which also involves the will, affections, conscience, therefore to be mindful and devoted to that perspective—that is, for Peter’s function, at the very least. In other words, it defines what he pays attention to and what he ignores, thus determines how he will function as a person and in relationships.
Peter had strong feelings against Jesus’ self-disclosure because that was incongruent with his perceived image of God and what God should do. This is not merely about his messianic hopes and expectations but exposes a deeper issue. That is, Peter’s perceptual-interpretive framework reduced Jesus’ whole person and determined the terms of their relationship; this then redefined Jesus to function in Peter’s context, not his trinitarian relational context, thus to be something less than and some substitute for the One whom Peter professed to be earlier. Under the influence of reductionism, Peter resists God’s grace by trying to prevent Jesus from going to the cross—for Peter’s redemption, which he clearly demonstrates the need for, particularly from reductionism. This is how reductionism influences us to function in life and practice contrary to what we believe theologically—a common pattern not unique to Peter.
This influence of reductionism is further understood as it prevents Peter from a significant relational connection with Jesus. Six days after the above interaction, the face of Jesus is presented the most vulnerably than at any other moment during the incarnation. This happens when Jesus is “transfigured” (metamorphoo, to transform, to alter fundamentally) before Peter, James and John (Mt 17:1-9)—a privileged experience for them.
The transfiguration marks a pivotal point of Jesus’ disclosure of God’s glory, which these disciples have the unique opportunity to experience further and deeper: the “visible” heart of God’s being, as Jesus is transformed to exalted form and substance (cf. Moses’ face, Ex 34:29); the intimate relational nature of the whole of God, as the Father, along with his Son, communicates directly with them in relationship (cf. with Moses, Ex 24:15-16; with Elijah, 1 Kg 19:8-18); and the vulnerable presence and involvement of God, as made evident in this amazing experiential moment. At this reunion of key persons in God’s family, the whole of God’s thematic action coheres from the past (represented by Moses and Elijah) with the present (presented by the Messiah in God’s glory embodying God’s grace) to the future (by the present constituting reality of God’s kingdom/family). In the Father’s relational communication (an extension from Jesus’ baptism, Mk 1:11) further made with these disciples to build relationship together, two vital messages summarize all that God relationally has disclosed, promised and experienced with his people: (1) the full affirmation of his Son in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love, and (2) the clear imperative (“Listen to him!”) for all his followers to pay attention and respond to him in his relational context and process—because Jesus communicates the whole of God, not only with his words but from his whole person.
The whole of God’s glory is vulnerably disclosed in the face of Jesus (cf. 2 Cor 4:6). Moses and Elijah responded to God’s glory “face to face” on God’s terms to build the covenant relationship together. What does Peter do with God’s glory; how does he respond to the face of Jesus?
God’s glory is not disclosed to observe for information, or merely to behold in awe, but only for relationship—by the necessity of God’s being, nature and presence. When Peter wanted to erect three tents (for Jesus, Moses and Elijah) as the opportune purpose for him to be present (Mk 9:5), consider what this does to the whole of God’s heart and intimate relational presence vulnerably presented to him. In the tension of this vulnerable moment Peter resorts to the past, both immediate and distant, which is still present in function for him. His old mindset (perceptual-interpretive framework) exposed by Jesus six days ago, quickly expressed itself further when he tries to constrain God’s glory to a place—just like the OT ways of relating to God indirectly in the tabernacle (tent). Once again, Peter reduces Jesus’ whole person and relates to the face of Jesus on his reductionist terms, not Jesus’ relational context and process as the Father makes imperative for him.
Certainly Peter’s fear factors in to his response, as Mark’s Gospel indicates (Mk 9:6). Yet, a response from fear mainly points to what Peter relies on in his life and practice. An analogous example of such response by Peter to Jesus’ person and relationship together is their interaction walking on water (Mt 14:22-33). In this experiential moment, Peter initially engages Jesus’ whole person (“if it’s you…”) in Jesus’ relational context (“…tell me to come to you”). The situation is not the primary matter to pay attention to here but the relational process of their involvement together is. Peter is making his whole person vulnerable to Jesus on Jesus’ terms—though there is some element of “prove it” contingency to Peter’s faith, yet not in a passive sense without Peter’s full relational involvement. Unfortunately, Peter only pays attention to Jesus’ person and the relationship for a brief significant moment. Then he shifts to the situation, which thus produces the fear causing a response to Jesus only in the role to save him from his circumstances. The significance of this shift, in contrast to the beginning of this interaction, is: Jesus’ person is reduced to what he can do and the primacy of relationship is replaced by the situation and circumstances.
The situation and circumstances are real, but they cannot be the priority to create the context for relationship with Jesus nor be the terms to determine the process of relational involvement with Jesus. A reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework makes this shift (often subtle), notably when there is tension in the relationship. Back at the transfiguration, Peter’s shift to the tents exposes: the reductionist substitute he uses for the face of Jesus; how reductionism diminished his direct relational involvement with God’s glory embodied by Jesus’ whole person; and thus the relational distance he maintains from intimate relationship together with Jesus and the whole of God as family. The relational consequence is that how Peter functions directly prevents their relationship from functioning together in the relational significance of “Follow me.”
In his reductionism Peter continues to resist God’s grace, and thus he functions neither in the importance of the whole person nor with the primacy of intimate relationships. Yet, since Jesus neither defines his person nor does relationships in Peter’s reductionist terms, along with the Father he persists in his relational work to extend family love to him. At the transfiguration, it is also important for us to understand Jesus’ relational action and not merely pay attention to his words. After the Father spoke directly to the disciples, Jesus pursued them and tenderly reached down to touch them (Mt 17:6-7). The word for touch (hapto) involves not just physical contact but touch with involvement and purpose in order to influence, affect them, notably Peter—that is, by his relational messages from his relational context of family and relational process of family love.
Jesus’ pursuit of Peter with his whole person for Peter’s whole person continues in a defining interaction for all his followers, in which Jesus begins to make evident “the full extent of his love” (Jn 13:1-17). His footwashing tends to be oversimplified as symbolic of servanthood or spiritual cleansing, yet we need to understand the relational significance of this action. The phrase “the full extent of his love” (eis telos), which Jesus partially makes evident in his action, means: the complete, ongoing thematic action of God’s family love (signified by relational involvement) initiated in the covenant and now embodied and fulfilled in Jesus’ whole person. Besides in the hours to follow to the cross, how does Jesus make evident “the full extent of his love” in this moment?
If the context of his footwashing is not limited to only the situation and circumstances—as prevailing as they are just prior to his death—Jesus takes his followers deeper into his relational context and relational process. For Jesus, the time now is not about going to the cross, rather “the time had come for him to…go to the Father” (13:1). This situation and circumstances neither define Jesus’ person (though they certainly will affect him) because he is defined by the trinitarian relational context of family; nor do they determine his action because he functions by the trinitarian relational process of family love. All of his actions thus are for relationship. As the embodiment of God’s grace, Jesus’ whole person functions to affirm the importance of the whole person and to constitute intimate relationships together as family—by redeeming and transforming the person and their relationships.
Jesus’ footwashing directly overlaps both with Mary’s footwashing as the relational action of intimate involvement in family love and with the ex-prostitute’s footwashing as the relational act of love emerging from the experience of God’s grace. Contrary to reductionism, their involvement is the relational function of intimately engaging Jesus’ whole person in his relational context of family and by his relational process of family love. In that upper room with his disciples, Jesus functions with the same relational involvement to intimately engage these future leaders of his family with his relational context and relational process. What is the significance of this for God’s family?
By extending God’s grace to his followers, Jesus makes his whole person fully vulnerable to his followers. Since God’s grace affirms the whole person—which reductionism resists—grace demands nothing less and no substitutes. And Jesus doesn’t allow anything less or any substitutes of his own person to be in direct relational involvement with them.
It was cultural custom for the host to provide water for dinner guests to wash their own dusty feet, at the very least (cf. Jesus’ comment to Simon, Lk 7:44). Hosts with greater means would have a household servant wash the diners’ feet as they reclined at the table to eat. While Jesus demonstrates his humility (as the Teacher, Lord, Messiah) to assume the footwashing work himself, even more significant is “the full extent” of his relational involvement (signifying his family love). Nothing less and no substitutes of Jesus’ whole person than he personally assuming this footwashing would be sufficient to constitute his relational involvement of family love—that is, as the embodiment of God’s grace. Furthermore, grace demands nothing less and no substitutes of persons to constitute the intimate relationships of family; this is what the ex-prostitute teaches us and Mary demonstrates for the relational significance of the gospel, as Jesus said earlier in intimate relationship with them contrary to reductionist substitutes and practice. Likewise, in relation to his disciples no household servant could substitute for Jesus and nothing less than Jesus’ whole person could make evident this family love.
Functioning fully in his relational context of family and by his relational process of family love, Jesus engages his disciples. Footwashing doesn’t represent so much how far (or “low”) Jesus is willing to go, as much as the feet are symbolic of the depth level of relational involvement Jesus engages with them. In other words, no level is too deep or beyond any limits for relationship together, which reductionism resists and tries to redefine. God’s grace demands this and constitutes this intimate relationship of God’s family. This not only makes Jesus’ whole person vulnerable but also makes his followers’ whole person vulnerable. What does Peter do this time with the face of Jesus?
If Peter’s perceptions of Jesus had changed, we could expect a different response than the time he tried to prevent Jesus from going to the cross. Yet, Peter’s response to Jesus washing his feet (in the Greek aorist subjunctive mood with a double negative, Jn 13:8) is the strongest expression of categorical denial and refusal of Jesus’ action. Did Peter not learn anything from their previous confrontation? While he appears to have accepted Jesus’ pending death (cf. Mk 14:31; Lk 22:33), though with mixed reactions (cf. Jn 18:10-11), he has yet to experience redemptive change from reductionism.
Once again Peter functions from his reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework. Under the influence of reductionism, he not only defines his person primarily by what he does but he also defines Jesus this way. Then, of course, just as with the issue of the cross, there is absolutely no way Peter’s Teacher (culturally, students served the teacher), Lord, God could do this servile act. If Peter subjected himself to this, he would only reinforce Jesus’ and his indignity or humiliation. And, once again, we have to appreciate Peter’s honesty; yet this is what he pays attention to while ignoring the significance of Jesus’ whole person and the relational involvement necessary for intimate relationship together. The relational messages in Peter’s response to Jesus are: Jesus couldn’t be his own person; he has to be the person Peter wanted him to be; and Peter would determine how their relationship will function. Despite Peter’s honesty, do we get a sense of his whole person?
I suggest, there is a deeper issue also involved here which creates an even more formidable barrier to intimate relationship, as an infectious byproduct of reductionism. This interaction with Jesus very likely stirred up mixed feelings in Peter. Based on his reductionist substitutes and practice to define himself, that’s how he functioned in relationships. As the prevailing practice in human relations from reductionism, Peter also essentially compared people on a human totem pole. This process of stratification placed Jesus at the top and Peter below, if not at the bottom. On the one hand, Peter felt very strongly that his servile act (just as the cross scenario) was not worthy of Jesus. In this structure, conversely, Peter would feel also that he was unworthy to have his Teacher, Lord, Messiah, God wash his feet, however strong the feeling. The latter feeling more fully explains Peter’s relational rejection of the intimate involvement of Jesus’ whole person in family love, and thus of God’s grace—all while professing faith to the contrary. In his unworthiness, Peter was not open to the vulnerability of such intimacy, even despite Jesus being more accessible to him than at any other time.
Jesus is making evident to Peter that to “Follow me” is a function only of relationship, not of confessions of faith or of serving, however devoted or well-intentioned. He told Peter his washing was necessary for Peter to have a “part with me” (Jn13:8). “Part with” (meros meta) means to “share with me,” which involves the relational function of communion together. This is about ongoing intimate involvement in relationship together, not about forming the beginning of a relationship (cf. “in me”)—nor about so-called communion activity, which is how Holy Communion tends to be observed in church. “Follow me; and where I am, my [disciple] also will be” (Jn12:26). Jesus’ whole person was vulnerably involved with Peter in this relational act; and that’s where Peter needed to be to participate in Jesus’ life, and how it was necessary for him to function in order to have intimate involvement together. Just as with Martha, this is what needs to employ Peter’s life and practice.
This relational significance of Jesus’ involvement to make evident the fullness of his family love and God’s grace still escaped Peter. When he asked for “my hands and my head as well” to be washed (v.9), his reductionist framework only saw Jesus in the quantitative act of purifying, not in the qualitative function of relationship. Peter was embedded in his surrounding context, which still prevailed in his life and practice. Consequently, Peter’s whole person remained in relational distance and had yet to vulnerably engage Jesus in his relational context and process.
Yet, without redemptive change from the old (namely reductionism) we cannot expect Peter to be transformed to the new—as the ex-prostitute teaches us about God’s grace and Mary makes functional about the gospel. The same reductionism pervades our life and practice today; and we experience the absence of intimacy in our relationships, even in the church, likely more than in any other historical period. The reductionist substitutes and practices prevailing in modernity need to be redeemed, transformed and restored to God’s design and purpose, as Jesus vulnerably made evident in his sanctified life and practice. Without such changes, we will practice our relationship with God on similar terms as Peter continued to struggle in.
The influence of reductionism always resists God’s grace (which affirms the whole person and constitutes intimate relationship together) by redefining the person to something less and by counter-relational work displacing intimate relationships with substitutes. Grace demands the function of the whole person to be vulnerable to each other (hearts open and coming together) to constitute intimate relationship—nothing less and no substitutes.
God’s grace embodied in Jesus functions vulnerably with the whole person and thus is deeply involved with Peter in family love. And the relational messages to Peter ongoingly from the face of Jesus can be summarized: “To ‘Follow me,’ Peter, it is never enough to make confessions of faith (however crucial) and merely to serve me (however devoted); you have to let my whole person be intimately involved with you and vulnerably wash your feet; but, and this is critical, in order to let my whole person be intimately involved with you, and you with me, you must (dei, necessary, unavoidable) let go of your old (notably, reductionist substitutes and practices) and then let me go to the cross for you so that you can be redeemed from the old and transformed to the new in the function of intimate relationship together as family in ongoing family love.”
A reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework shifts these relational messages to the critical issue: how does unworthy Peter measure up to these expectations in ongoing life and practice? As the footwashing interaction also points to, the underlying concern for Peter was: how can he be worthy of this relationship? Various interactions with Jesus demonstrate how much he defined himself by what he did, or at least said he was going to do, which Peter depended on to establish himself as Jesus’ disciple. Their relationship throughout the Gospels indicates his vacillation between, on the one hand, trying to establish himself by his own efforts and, on the other, not being able to measure up and likely feeling unworthy. This is characteristic of those who define themselves by what they do or have.
Yet, the face of Jesus clearly emerges from the constraining context of reductionism to bridge the relational distance to make evident “the full extent of his love.” Embodying God’s grace always functions in the relational involvement of family love. And what all his followers need to grasp from Jesus (and the ex-prostitute) is the experiential truth: experiencing God’s grace also always functions in the relational involvement of family love.
The ongoing experience of God’s grace is a fundamental issue for those who define themselves by what they do or have, and then depend on that to establish worth in their relationships, both with Jesus and with others. It is especially problematic when these persons are active in serving Jesus. By washing their feet, Jesus is not reinforcing a reductionist self-definition and worth but gives his followers the deepest experience of the new basis and base for relationship with him and each other. After he washed their feet, he asked them: “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (Jn13:12). “For you” (hymin) is in the Greek dative form and should be rendered “to you,” because this wasn’t a mere deed “for you” to observe as an example of what to do in the ministry of the gospel. Rather “to you” involves Jesus’ relational action vulnerably disclosed to them in order to experience “the full extent of his love.” “Do you understand” (ginosko, to know, comprehend, experience) is not related to knowing information about Jesus and what he did, but rather involves experiencing Jesus’ whole person and intimate relationship together in his relational context of family by his relational process of family love.
In direct opposition to reductionism, Jesus displaces the roles (Teacher, Lord, servant, messenger) used to define him and his followers and dissolves the stratified relationships those roles promote (Jn 13:13-16). Jesus only sees their persons as family together; and family love is the only way his whole person is intimately involved with them. Just as Mary and the ex-prostitute functioned contrary to reductionism, all his followers are called to be redefined, transformed and made whole to function “with me” in his relational context of family and by his relational process of family love. This deep experience of his family love (and thus God’s grace) is the basis for their relationships and is the ongoing base by which to function with each other. This is the base experience his new commandment points to, which distinguishes his disciples not as mere servants but as family together (Jn 13:34-35)—a relational progression to be discussed further in the next chapter.
Yet, this deep experience of the new basis and base for relationship with Jesus and each other has a tendency to get redefined or renegotiated—even unintentionally or inadvertently. This susceptibility often becomes a common practice particularly in a surrounding context influenced by reductionism and its byproduct of feeling unworthy. To share in this experience with Jesus and to share this experience with others, however, cannot be reduced and still be the same experience. Its significance is constituted only as a function of the whole person vulnerably involved in intimate relationship together.
When Jesus tells his followers to wash each other’s feet (Jn 13:14-15), this directly addresses the issue of unworthiness. Peter genuinely and rightfully felt unworthy in relation to Jesus at different times (cf. Lk 5:8). Reductionism functionally redefines this condition of unworthy (not necessarily theologically) and substitutes practices to achieve one’s worth. Since Peter was under the influence of reductionism, he needed to take to heart the relational message from Jesus implied in the experiential truth of this experience: “I, ‘the holy One of God’ who embodies God’s grace, wash your feet even though you are not worthy.” Yet, Peter (or any of Jesus’ followers) cannot merely receive the relational action of God’s grace as one not worthy, and then redefine it as a deed for him to perform in order to try to be worthy. This effort to measure up to Jesus’ perceived expectations is a reductionist practice that resists the reality of one’s whole person. The fact that Peter is not worthy is not a problem for Jesus and God’s grace, yet it is problematic for Peter. Since grace affirms the whole person, grace demands nothing less and no substitutes of his whole person, however unworthy.
When Jesus said “you also should wash…you should do as I…,” “should” (opheilo) can either be taken as an obligation, an obligatory duty to one another, or be understood with relational significance as to be bound, that is, bonded together in the relationship of God’s family. Since Jesus said “as I” (kathos, to show agreement between), he clearly means only the latter; perhaps his use of opheilo instead of dei involves the relational responsibility to choose clearly to function contrary to reductionism, just as Jesus, Mary and the ex-prostitute did. If Peter (or any of Jesus’ followers) takes this as a duty to measure up to for his worth, he renegotiates the terms for relationship together and the significance of Jesus’ purpose and function. By doing so, then, Peter would continue essentially in function to prevent Jesus from going to the cross for him and God’s grace to redeem and transform him.
What Peter needs to grasp from Jesus is: grace demands the whole of his unworthiness also—nothing less than this person and no substitute practices for this person in relationships. Grace is the experiential truth with the implied relational message from Jesus: “I, ‘the Son of the living God,’ die on the cross for you because you can’t make yourself worthy no matter what you do and have.” Since grace constitutes intimate relationships together as God’s family, grace demands only this one conclusion about the function of his self-worth, which otherwise would be a barrier to this intimate involvement together.
God’s grace demands that we fully be our whole person—nothing less (and nothing more, no embellishments) and no substitutes (and no role playing, however devoted or well-intentioned). This is who and what Jesus presented in the incarnation and made accessible. Since the whole person is neither in a vacuum nor to be isolated, this person functions only for relationships. The grace of God’s self-revelation in the incarnation of Jesus functions only for relationship. As the embodiment of God’s grace, Jesus’ person vulnerably discloses not only who and what God is but also how God is, which is only for relationship together. Therefore, God’s grace demands our whole person to function together in the relationships constituted by the full relational function of Jesus’ whole person in the trinitarian context of family and the trinitarian process of family love—that is, functionally constituting the intimate relationships together with the whole of God as family, and thus persons redeemed and transformed to function in relationships together intimately by family love in likeness of the Trinity.
What God’s grace demands of our person is irreducible, and what
God’s grace demands of our relationships is nonnegotiable. This is
who, what and how Jesus is, and who, what and how his followers must
(dei, necessary by its nature, not obligation) be to function
in relationship “with me.” To have grace as the functional basis and
ongoing base for our life and practice involves nothing less and no
In the complete Christology of Jesus’ sanctified life and practice, Jesus’ whole person functions both to make God accessible only for relationship by vulnerably disclosing the whole of God, as well as to pursue us for intimate relationship together by his relational work of redemption and transformation. If we are beginning to grasp the importance of the ontological integrity of Jesus’ whole person and the relational significance of how he functions, we have to make necessary changes to reflect this. For example, what we pay attention to and ignore necessarily must be redefined. This would reprioritize how we function in our life and practice to focus on the functional importance of the whole person and the primacy of intimate relationships. Sanctified life and practice involves only these two functions, with nothing less and no substitutes.
This raises an issue about the relationship of God and a lingering question about Martha. Why wasn’t how Martha served at that stage of her growth process sufficient for Jesus? With similar attention to a profile like the rich ruler (discussed in chapter one), Martha’s service would be a welcome addition to and sought after by many churches for some type of service ministry. If churches were as definitive as Jesus, this would significantly reduce the amount of church practices. Yet, this is not an issue of perfection and the excellence of performance but rather the necessity of qualitative involvement by persons and in relationships. Thus, this goes back to the incarnation principle of nothing less and no substitutes.
Since we’ve all been on the road to Emmaus, we may ask if it’s reasonable or fair to be held accountable for all of God’s self-disclosures in the incarnation—just as Jesus confronted the two disciples on the road earlier. This would not be the right question to ask. The issue should be, if it was reasonable or fair for God to make accessible nothing less than and no substitute of the whole of God, and also if reasonable or fair that Jesus’ person was always vulnerably involved with nothing less than and no substitute of his whole person.
“Nothing less and no substitutes” is a vulnerable disclosure of the relational ontology of the whole of God, the Trinity; and as God’s self-disclosure by grace, the relationship of God is epistemologically irreducible and nonnegotiable. Moreover, the relationship of the whole of God becomes an experiential truth when our reciprocal involvement is vulnerably nothing less and no substitutes; this must not be confused with the perfection and total performance of that involvement, which would reduce the involvement to more quantitative than qualitative. Therefore, given how the whole of God embodied in Jesus vulnerably engaged us for relationship, the reasonable and fair question then becomes: can there be any other sufficient response back to God than nothing less and no substitutes of our whole person? And consider further and deeper the implications for us today of Jesus’ words to those turning to the road to Emmaus: “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to [be relationally involved].”
Followers of Jesus cannot ignore the function of Jesus’ relational imperative in their life and practice, both individually and as church. Yet, why would we ignore its significance if it is the basis for deeply knowing God and experiencing Jesus as never before (just as for Mary), and the ongoing base for experiencing intimate relationship with each other together as God’s family? This raises two interrelated issues in our life and practice, of which we need to be aware:
We need to account for these particularly in the presence of reductionism. For example, a reductionist image of Jesus predisposes or biases us to limit our involvement with him, and thus creates a barrier in relationship together (just as with Peter). This turns what we may think is accessing the face of Jesus into a substitute for intimate relationship and into something less than his whole person. This then is an ontological simulation and epistemological illusion from reductionism. Without being able to distinguish this in our practice, we can inadvertently reinforce counter-relational work rather than engage the relational imperative in how we function, serve or even practice church together. If this identifies correctly where Martha was, how can Jesus affirm her service without reinforcing reductionism and its subtle counter-relational work?
This addresses the deeper issue. Any aspect of our life and practice (individually and as church) which functions to diminish the whole of Jesus’ person and to minimalize intimacy in the relationship of God becomes a matter of sin—specifically, sin as reductionism. Whatever creates functional limits to perceive, receive and respond to the whole of God is the relational function of sin. We need to grasp what is involved here. Reductionism is not merely a conceptual framework but more importantly an underlying counter-relational process struggling against the whole of God. There is an ongoing tension and conflict between God’s relational work of grace and Satan’s counter-relational work, which we cannot rationally ignore or relationally avoid.
Since God’s grace demands the function of the whole person to be vulnerably involved with each other (hearts open and coming together) to constitute the intimate relationships of family, reductionism actively resists this. The functional implication commonly overlooked in our Christian contexts is the functional reality (serving as truth): reductionism has become an acceptable alternative to, and a prevailing substitute for, the demands of God’s grace.
The ontological simulations and epistemological illusions substituting for the whole of God and God’s creation (original and new in Christ) are increasingly normative in our life and practice, rather than an exception. While reinforcing counter-relational work is often inadvertent, its pervasiveness in our practice makes our function more like intentionally unintentional. The reality functioning in our midst is: reductionism separates the whole individual person and distances the collective whole of God’s people from the whole of the trinitarian relational context of family and relational process of family love. This has embedded the local Western church in reductionist substitutes of individualism and voluntary association characterized by privatism—to be discussed in later chapters. While these matters are certainly relational consequences from other contextual influences (such as modernity), the full understanding of reductionism can only be gained from adequately perceiving Satan’s counter-relational work.
In the life of a church, and in our everyday life, the priority of relationship over ministry, service and other work is certainly difficult to reconcile in practice, given situations and circumstances—and, more importantly, given our investment in what we do and have. Yet, this is compounded when God’s grace is not the functional basis and ongoing base for our life and practice. For example, relationships are not simple and relational work is not easy. This can appear too demanding to measure up to, or it can be a threat to our worth—both based on what we do and have, as well as the fear of losing what we have attained and accumulated. This is true of a church which fills its pews with “rich rulers” and “Marthas” to define its success, rather than relying on Marys and ex-prostitutes to fulfill its purpose and function in the gospel; this reflects a shift to reductionist substitutes. Moreover, even if the Jesus we follow is not a popular version but the biblically orthodox Jesus, this doesn’t guarantee how we will practice relationship with him. We can still function with an orthodox theology in relation to him but on our terms, not his.
At the risk of oversimplification, this clearly renders us to a difficult position—much as Peter often found himself. That is, in terms of how we function, there is no neutral or intermediate position between the relational work of God’s grace and counter-relational work (which may appear as normative in a surrounding context). We either let Jesus go to the cross functionally for us or we do it by ourselves, even if we claim salvific grace. We either let Jesus ongoingly wash our feet or we resist by keeping our relational distance, even while we participate in the activity. We either are relationally involved or we simulate it with some substitute, even though we advocate relationship. Besides resisting grace, these alternatives reinforce counter-relational work. At this stage in our transformation, we certainly cannot function completely in the relational work of God’s grace; yet we should not have any illusions about our alternatives being anything more than reductionist substitutes—that is, essentially being a neutral or intermediate function. Even acts of common grace are not neutral but imply God’s relational work of grace.
Partaking of Jesus’ whole person and participating in his sanctified life and practice are both only a function of relationship, specific only to God’s grace. His followers have no valid option to this—only the sin of reductionism. What Jesus makes evident in his sanctified life and practice and, therefore, clearly defines for us as necessary to be whole, thus irreducible and nonnegotiable, are: (1) the primacy of relationships, (2) the intimate nature of these relationships, and (3) the equalizing of persons in the process of relationship (an issue, which Mary and the ex-prostitute experienced from Jesus, to be discussed in later chapters).
Jesus’ unequivocal call to us is that we be functionally redefined, transformed and made whole. In this relational work of grace, the accessible Jesus invites us and vulnerably engages us to partake of and participate in the following: the relationships constituted by the full relational function of his whole person in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love. In our response—necessarily as a whole person and together as church—partaking of and participating in his vulnerably shared life is experienced together as family most significantly in the Lord’s Supper. The celebration of the Eucharist is the coherent act of communion with the whole of God, as the whole of God’s family, not a mere remembrance of what Jesus did. Thus, our involvement around his table together is only a function of relationship, not a liturgical activity. However you perceive the nature of the communion elements, partaking of and participating in the whole of God’s life in relationship together is specific only to God’s grace, and thus the demands of grace, nothing less and no substitutes.
Yet, how we engage in the Eucharist is critically correlated to the two interrelated issues raised earlier in this section: (1) the accessibility of the face of Jesus we ongoingly respond to, and (2) our everyday image of Jesus shaped by our perceptual-interpretive framework. The first (1) engages Jesus’ whole person at the Eucharist in his trinitarian relational context of family and by his trinitarian relational process of family love, because this is the relational reality Jesus constituted for us to experience together—the relational work of God’s grace. The second (2) is engaging our image of Jesus at the Eucharist in an ontological simulation substituting for both the face of the accessible whole of Jesus’ person and the intimate communion of relationship together, which renders the partaking and participating to an epistemological illusion as a mere ritual activity—thus reinforcing counter-relational work, however unintentional.
This tension between the relational work of grace and counter-relational work needs to receive much more attention in our life and practice. If what defines us in our life and practice cannot clearly identify grace as its functional basis and ongoing base, then we cannot account for the influence of reductionism. Regardless of the extent of its influence, this tension will continue in our midst (cf. Lk 4:13) because it involves a process persisting until the eschatological conclusion. The issue, however, is not about its presence, only its influence. Just as Jesus demonstrated in his temptations, until we can fully account in our practice for Satan’s counter-relational work, reductionism and some form of its substitutes for the whole will remain influential in our midst. Just as the ex-prostitute taught us in her life and practice, until we address reductionism as sin, we are susceptible to its controlling influence on our life and practice, and thus we will lack the freedom (and maybe even the motivation) to love with vulnerable relational involvement (just as Jesus loves us)—even while practicing good deeds.
The relational work of Jesus’ whole person clearly puts us in a tenuous position—just as Peter experienced in those two interrelated interactions in the upper room and after the resurrection. Jesus’ paradigm for serving and imperative for discipleship vitally make our life and practice more difficult now without the option of reductionist substitutes, with the main priority on the function of relationship, and in relationship together only on God’s terms—just as Martha needed to understand and grow in.
This raises some critical questions which require our response, both as individual persons and together as church, including the Christian academy. What have we done with the relational significance of “Follow me” and the importance of Jesus’ whole person in the “me”? And, thus, how have we redefined discipleship in our context, assuming we pay attention to discipleship? Given an open review of these matters, what will it take to restore the experiential truth of God’s grace as the functional basis and ongoing base for defining our persons, for engaging our relationships, and for practicing church—just as Jesus made evident in the footwashing? “Unless I....” “Listen to him!”
©2008 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.