A Second Look: Did Jesus Have to Learn Obedience?

5th Sunday of Lent (B)

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NOTE: In places where the 3rd Scrutiny is celebrated in preparation for the baptism of catechumens at Easter, the readings from Year A will be used.

Here’s an interesting question. Can Jesus learn? Our faith clearly teaches that Jesus is fully God. As God, Jesus is omniscient. He knows all things, which precludes the possibility of Him learning anything, right? So we might think Jesus couldn’t learn. But our faith also teaches that Jesus is fully man, like us in all ways except for sin. And human beings learn. So does this mean that Jesus, in His humanity, during His time on earth, learned?

Certainly yes. Growing up our Lord learned to walk and talk and all the other things toddlers learn. But even as an adult, Jesus continued to learn as He experienced human life. This is mentioned expressly in this Sunday’s second reading: “Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered; and when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him” (Heb 5:8-9). The scriptures are clear. Christ learned obedience from His suffering.

We can learn more what this means for us with the help of two saints.

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary on Hebrews, distinguishes between different kinds of knowledgeJesus, as God, knows fully what obedience is. But Jesus, as man, had to learn the experience of obedience. He learned this through suffering, and that is an important detail.

St. Thomas points out that Jesus learned how difficult obedience is because He obeyed in the most difficult matters, even to the point of dying on a cross. Those who have never had to obey in difficulty don’t truly know the virtue of obedience, Thomas argues.

To follow God’s will when it is easy for us is one thing. To follow God’s will when it is very hard for us is another. Jesus learned what means to be obedient to God even when obeying seems humanly impossible. In fact, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that through learning obedience in this way, Jesus was “made perfect” and thus “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him.”

In other words, we also have to learn obedience if we want to receive the salvation Jesus offers. By learning obedience Himself, Jesus becomes our teacher.

St. Leo the Great

Pope St. Leo the Great, d. 461 AD

Pope St. Leo the Great, in a sermon on Christ’s passion, says, “True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in Him our own humanity.” We can give all of our struggles, pains and hardships over to Jesus, knowing that He shares in those experiences. Jesus knows what physical pain is like. But He also endured spiritual and emotional pain.

Jesus wept at the death of His friend, Lazarus. Even though the scriptures don’t expressly mention it, we can be certain that Jesus mourned the death of His earthly father, St. Joseph, as well as other friends and family members. Jesus knows grief.

Jesus knows hunger. He fasted for forty days in the desert. He knows temptation, as the scriptures tell us He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. He knows thirst, as one of His last statements from the cross is, “I thirst” (Jn 19:28).

He knows exhaustion. He knows agony (Lk 22:39-46). He knows what it means to be betrayed by a friend, as Judas turned Him in to the Roman authorities. He knows what it is like to be abandoned, as all of the Apostles but John flee during His time of greatest hardship. He knows what it is like to be disappointed by others as Peter denies knowing Him.

He knows what it is like to be mistreated by those He loves, as the very people He came to redeem nailed His hands and feet to the cross.

In the same sermon, Pope St. Leo poignantly asks, “Who cannot recognize in Christ his own infirmities?” Jesus endured all the struggles of human existence. He knows them as God. But He also knows them by human experience. Whatever it is you are struggling with, Jesus understands.

By His suffering, Christ learned obedience and was perfected; and by our suffering, we can be perfected with Him. Again, Pope St. Leo:

The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours. If then we walk in the way of His commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price He paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too are to rise to share His glory.