In our Gospel Reading this week we have an account of what is called “The Transfiguration.” It is compelling as it is dramatic. But from the outset it is clear that this experience is prefigured in Moses reception of the Law in Exodus 24 and 34. The echoes are strong: there is a high mountain (Mark 9:2/Exodus 24:12, 15-18; 34:3); there is present a special group (Mark 9:2/Exod 24:1-2, 16), the central figures glow radiantly (Mark 9:6 and Exod 34:29-30, 35), there is fear among the onlookers (Mark 9:6/Exod 34:29-30), a cloud appears (Mark 9:7 /Exod 24:15-18; 34:5), and a voice comes from the cloud (Mark 9:7/Exod 24:16). So, as one commentators says:
“The common features are so numerous that it is hard to escape the impression that the transfiguration story presents Jesus as not only the Son of God but also a Moses figure.”
This being the case we might well consider Jesus as the giver of a second law. A law, which in almost contradictory terms, is not a Law – rather a freedom from the Law. If you like, the new Moses delivers a new law, that by its very nature, frees us from old law: that is its purpose and its nature.
I have said it on occasions previously: Jesus, as the new Moses, ushers in a Law which by its very nature is psychological. It urges us to stop trusting in legalistic view of life and to trust the grace of God at work in our lives. If the Law of the Old Testament was “‘permission requiring” then the Law of Christ is “Permission-giving.” And this is the psychological nature of the new Law.
A good few years ago I was involved in setting up a brand-new school, somewhat alternative in its nature. It had as its basis a number of principles. (1) There would be no fixed lesson or lesson times: the children would contract with the teacher for their lessons (which would normally be one on one.) In essence, the learning experience was driven by the child and not by the teacher or school. (2) There were no fixed timings in the school day and children were at liberty to play and engage in all sorts of activities – provided there was a parent-helper or teacher keeping a watching (but not-necessarily-intervening) eye on proceedings. (3) Learning was not just out of books – learning could be had in many ways. I remember coming to pick up our children one day and they regaled me with stories of how they had tried to catch an eel in the local storm water pipe that day. The point of this – from an educational point of view – was that they learned to cooperate with each other, they learned about the environment, and even just what eels looked like. (4) Each pupil could summon a meeting to discuss another pupil’s behaviour if there was a grievance or dispute to deal with.
In short, this school was a ‘permission-giving’ environment. One that said (not quite in these words) get out there and explore! Of course, you might well think that it was a recipe for chaos! And frankly, on some days that is exactly what things looked like. But you would be surprised how often the children sought out lessons with the teacher. You would be surprised how quickly children took charge of their own education and even those who struggled often adapted well to so-called ordinary school when they graduated to high school. In fact, the ability to adapt was one of the many positive by-products of this style of education.
But let me come back to the permission-giving new Law ushered in by the new Moses. If we are going to engage this new Law then we must know that we are not replacing one set of ‘dos and don’ts’ with another set of dos and don’ts. Rather, we are replacing ‘dos and don’ts’ with a do. Like (but not exactly like) the rules of the school I have just described, the Law given to us by the new Moses gives governs our lives more by freedom than constraint.
But it is a frightening truism that freedom – or more correctly, too much freedom, too soon – can be the cause of anxiety. To use the education of children model that I have begun with, there is always a need to ‘hold’ and ‘contain’. A sense of no boundary at all, no line that should not be crossed can in fact be quite overwhelming for children – anxiety-inducing if you like. The alternative school that I was involved in establishing had few – but indeed – very clear rules, most of which related to how you treated your fellow pupils. So while you could argue, as I have done, that this was a permission-giving school, it was not ‘anything goes,’ it was not permissive.
Somehow, we need to get over the anxiety that real freedom can evoke within us. Perhaps it might help to consider a model quite outside biblical reference, and yet useful in the distinctions it makes. Kohlberg’s framework for ‘Moral reasoning.’ He talks of three stages and suggest that most never get beyond the second stage. Allow me to explain… The stages are:
- Pre-moral or pre-conventional stage
- What do I need to do to avoid pain (so long as I don’t get caught and punished – that’s my motivation.
- What’s in it for me! How do I get something good for me out of this.
- Conventional stage
- What must I do to be seen as a good boy/good girl
- What if everyone did that?!
4.5 “Why should I believe anything” (e.g. “all politicians are crooks’…)
- Post-Conventional 0r principled morality
- What will bring the most good to the most people. What is the right thing to do with all the circumstance taken into account?
- What will foster life in all its fulness for all living beings?
I maintain that, as with Kohlberg’s model, we pass through different types of moral motivations. But when we can let go of the fear of being caught (“don’t get caught,” “what’s in it for me!” or even “what will people say”!) then we are truly responding to the second Moses and his second law – to be free to act in the highest possible way. Amen.