What do Jesus’ interactions with those who were suffering teach us about the value of human life?
The Revd Professor Richard Burridge has been Dean of King’s College London since 1994, and was appointed Director of New Testament Studies in 2007, and received a personal Chair in Biblical Interpretation in 2008. His doctoral thesis on the genre of the gospels was published in 1992 as What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography and he has been highly influential in our understanding of the type of literature we are dealing with when we read the gospels.
SIMON SMART: I’m speaking with Professor Richard Burridge.
I want to ask you about the value of human life. Now, what do we learn when we look at Jesus and the way he relates to human suffering? What do we learn about Jesus in that?
RICHARD BURRIDGE: Jesus’ concern throughout the Gospels is for those who are weak or who are suffering, who are being oppressed by illness, by spiritual powers, by political powers, or so on. One of the developments of my work on the Gospels as biography is that we look at Jesus’ deeds and words. And if you actually try to abuse the New Testament for contemporary debates about ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-abortion’ or euthanasia issues, there’s not a lot of text you can find that’s very helpful. But if you look at the way in which Jesus is constantly saying when people are sick he wants to heal them, when people are oppressed he wants to free them, when people are hungry he wants to feed them, you see that God is on the side of life in all its richness and all its fullness. It’s one of the words that John’s Gospel uses time after time after time.
SIMON SMART: Life to the full.
RICHARD BURRIDGE: Yes, and in John’s Gospel Jesus says “I have come that they may have life, and have life in all its fullness.” And that is an immensely powerful image for me.
SIMON SMART: It’s also clear from Jesus’ life that he talked about people living in light of the eternal kingdom. Now for people who follow him, what does that mean? And then I might ask you about those who don’t.
RICHARD BURRIDGE: God has created all of us to live in relationship to him – in this manifestation of life, and then in whatever else that lies beyond that. One of the problems that we have is the translation of these words into English, and the Old King James Version has great riches to it, but one of the problems with it is that it translates the word ‘eternal’ by ‘everlasting’. Whereas, the Bible talks about this world, this age – and the age to come. And I believe very strongly that the message of the Scriptures, as St Augustine put it, that he’s made us in our hearts restless until they find their rest in him. And so for me, it’s about in this world, in this life, learning to live as though God were in charge. And that fits us to spend the age to come, however that’s to be interpreted, also under the loving and gentle rule of God.
SIMON SMART: So how do believers who have the sort of perspective you’ve just outlined, interact with a world that largely doesn’t share that perspective?
RICHARD BURRIDGE: I think it’s important that believers interact with the world in one of several ways. One is that we might well commend what we believe by our lives. I think it was St Francis that said, “Preach the gospel in every way you can and use words if necessary.” And the trouble a lot of the time is that the church is so busy attacking the world that the good news sounds like bad news, it’s all like, “You’re a dirty, rotten, horrible lot, we want nothing to do with you. You must repent and change before we let you join our holier-than-thou club.” You know, Jesus spent all his time out there with the marginalised, the people who were disregarded by the religious establishment of his own day, and I think we’re meant to live in that kind of way.
The other is, that wherever there is goodness and truth and life and so-on, those must be coming from God, otherwise there’s another source of goodness and truth and life in the cosmos, and that doesn’t work. I don’t think that God is confined to working through the church – I’m very relieved that he’s not confined to working through the church – and I think it was Archbishop Temple who described mission as finding out what God’s already doing in the world and getting out there and trying to help it not prevent it.