Our struggle to understand the relation between the divine and human natures of Christ and how these interact can sometimes create problematic solutions to perplexing questions. Thus, for example, we have the notion (held by some) that the infant Jesus only pretended to be helpless and unable to speak, whereas, because of his divine nature, he was able to speak, understand, and possessed full knowledge from the first moment of his birth. This, in spite of Saint Luke’s informative insistence that Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man. Somewhat surprising, though, is the claim of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who in our second reading asserts that Son though he was, Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered.
Disobedience has come to be so closely associated with human sin, that the obedience of Christ would surely have been inborn and fully developed in one who was like us in all things but sin. So the question becomes: What does this learning obedience entail and does it suggest that prior to learning obedience, Jesus may have actually been disobedient? Yet, if that were true, would this not nullify the claim that he was sinless and perfect? Perhaps a physical analogy may assist us in trying to make sense of this learning obedience attributed to Christ.
As we know, the ability to walk and run are two physical activities that are still only latent in the healthy newborn infant. However, as that infant steadily grows and develops it gradually learns and acquires the ability to, initially, crawl, walk, and then run. Similarly, as an infant Jesus had yet to acquire full possession of all his mental capacities—the ability to speak, think, question, discern, consider various options, and (above all) freely choose. Until these abilities were developed Jesus presumably lacked the full ability to consciously choose. Thus, the question of obedience and disobedience wasn’t yet truly relevant.
We see something of this transitioning development in that mysterious episode of the “finding of Jesus in the Temple.” Jesus remaining behind in Jerusalem without his parents’ knowledge, may hint of disobedience, and yet when approached and gently chided by Mary and Joseph, we are told that Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. This is, perhaps, an earlier instance of what the Letter to the Hebrews describes as Jesus learning obedience. We presume that this learning continued during those hidden years in Nazareth preceding his public ministry. And as that ministry unfolded and headed inexorably towards the cross, it would be intense suffering (because of his obedience to the Father) that would complete his training in obedience.
Unlike Jesus, our sinful condition prevents this natural and unimpeded learning of obedience. In contrast, although we also learn obedience through suffering, this suffering is initially occasioned by our willful acts of disobedience and the simple consequences of our resulting poor choices. Thus, another way of expressing the idea that Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered is to say that all the suffering Jesus encountered served to awaken, test, and then confirm his fundamental inborn attitude of obedience to his heavenly Father. As we steadily grow, spiritually, we too are schooled in true obedience when we begin suffering as a consequence of saying our “yes” to the Father.
Despite our natural desire to avoid suffering, disobedience is not an effective means of escaping suffering, and only immerses us in suffering that schools us in nothing but misery. Saying “yes” to God’s will in our lives will involve pain, but it will not be useless suffering, since our growing obedience will increasingly liberate us from within and allow us to share in Christ’s own joyous freedom. For as Saint Paul reminded us, for freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery—another word, of course, for foolish disobedience!