For many, the person and ministry of Jesus has become a very comfortable part of life– so comfortable in fact that we can almost function on automatic when it comes to thinking and talking about him. One of my tried and true remedies against taking Jesus for granted has been to read the gospels more closely. When I have done this, I have found a depiction of Christ, which at times, has both startled and troubled me. Here are some examples of what I mean.
Jesus, the Friend of Outcasts. The religious establishment of the day regularly criticized Jesus for associating with the wrong people. He spoke with, ate with and spent time with a variety of those labeled as “undesirable” by the religious establishment, including swindling tax collectors, prostitutes, the severely diseased, Roman officials, and Jews lapsed from religious practice. Understood properly, this might disturb our view of Jesus for a couple of reasons:
First, it challenges the typical comfort zone of middle class people (like me) because we rarely come in contact with these types of people. Many of us have been raised in a circle which largely excludes people whose lifestyles are considered unsavory or improper in some way. We have come to consider ourselves as somehow a cut above those people and immune from their situations. The fact that Jesus would deliberately invite Levi the tax collector (otherwise known as Matthew) to be one of his inner- circle disciples, is so outside of the way we choose associates that it almost seems incomprehensible.
Then there is the very mindset from which Jesus befriended these social misfits. He cared about them, but he also expected that they would not remain in a lifestyle of selfishness, immorality, victimization or self-destruction. It is noteworthy that though Jesus did not condemn the woman taken in adultery, he gave her permission to become something new by commanding her to “…go and sin no more.” (John chapter 8). Change was both possible and required as proof of her repentance and faith.
It would seem in my own experience as one raised in the steady, consistent, hard-working and respectable middle class, that we are often willing to have compassion on outcasts as long as it costs us little. When we are involved with those in what would seem to be destructive lifestyles, we expect very little from them in terms of the ability to be other than what they are. A dishonest person is basically stuck in their dishonesty. The same goes for an immoral or physically disabled person. To many of us, a person who has a mindset of dependency will always be that way simply because they aren’t up to making the cut into our class—the respectable, stable, competent people. Jesus’ treatment of people turns these notions upside down.
The Jesus Who Loves His Church. During his ministry, Jesus gathered a group of followers and forged them into a community which was to be sacrificially devoted to one another. Upon his departure from the earth, this community became the Church. The book of Acts records the fact that as new people heard the good news about Jesus and believed, they became members of the community. Jesus taught them that his good news would only be demonstrated powerfully as the truth when his people are devoted to one another: “People will be convinced that you are my disciples through your love for one another.” This was no social club, no casual fraternity. This was a profound change of allegiance.
Many people in the Twenty-first Century are highly individualistic. Such a sacrificial community doesn’t suit either our personal sensibilities or our cultural patterns. Even when we do belong to a congregation of Christians, many of us are almost as likely to change our affiliations as we are to seek different employment. We complain about how the church doesn’t meet our needs. We seldom volunteer to help in any meaningful way. We are unconcerned when fellow Christians suffer. It is little wonder that outsiders aren’t terribly excited about the Christian faith. Why would they be intrigued about Christ’s Church when they see us behaving with such apathy towards something Jesus loves?
The Non-Materialistic Jesus. It has been correctly said that Jesus had more to say about money and possessions than about heaven and hell combined. He once advised a wealthy and very religious young man to sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the poor before being eligible for entrance into the Kingdom of God. He warned that it is impossible to serve both God and material wealth because one will always win out over the other. There isn’t enough room in a person’s heart for devotion to both.
Jesus was known personally as one who frequently had nowhere to lay his head at night. He was supported during much of his ministry through the generosity of wealthy patrons. At the end of his life he literally was left with the clothes on his back, and even these were confiscated by his executioners.
How do we square all this with our obsession over money, possessions, comfort and even luxury? Obviously some people are going to end up wealthy because of hard work, smart investments or fortunate birth, but never does the New Testament condemn wealth or possessions themselves. It is, however, decidedly against the kind of devotion to these things which makes them the central focus of one’s life and the keeping of them at all costs. Need I explain how uncomfortable this makes most of us?
The Non-Political Jesus. Everyone likes to find in Jesus an ally for their particular political and social views. Marxist guerillas in Latin America claim Jesus as a fellow revolutionary and liberator of the poor. Capitalists claim Jesus as a friend of free enterprise. Homosexual activists point out that Jesus never married and theorize a gay Christ in an effort to support their social agenda. Yet it is dangerous to read such foreign concepts into the Jesus of the New Testament.
If Jesus is examined impartially in the gospels, his teachings are strictly non-political. When asked if Jews should pay taxes imposed by their Roman conquerors, Jesus’ enigmatic reply was , “..give Caesar what is due him, but be sure you give God what is rightfully his.” Jesus was careful to pay his own tax to the Romans, yet he refused to acknowledge Rome’s ultimate authority over his life when facing Pontius Pilate.
This is not to say that his teachings have no political implications: they most certainly do. However, Jesus’ goal was never to transform governments or the social order, but to transform people from the inside out. Jesus acknowledged that he was indeed a king (in fact, rightful heir to the throne of David) yet he stated clearly that his kingdom was not of this world. It was something that people brought into their lives by choosing allegiance to him. It would spread from life to life until all nations would be represented and then it would come fully on earth. No armies would bring it by conquest; no governing bodies would enact it by law; no violent revolution would establish it by force. Although at times, Christians have attempted all of these methods to establish or enhance Christ’s Kingdom, in every case the result has been less than satisfactory.
It is an inner kingdom. It is a kingdom taking form through a brotherhood, a sisterhood, a family of faith. It is a kingdom growing despite (or even because of) persecution and hardship. Christ’s kingdom is coming with such certainty that no army, no law, no natural disaster can postpone it by a single minute. This is a radically foreign idea to most modern people.
Jesus as a First Century Jew. Twenty-first Century people can easily forget that, like the rest of us, Jesus was born and raised in a particular ethnic context. Like all Jewish boys throughout history, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day according to the commandment in Moses’ Law. At age thirteen, he became a son of the covenant (bar mitzvah). He attended synagogue, kept the sabbath, ate kosher and observed the numerous laws of Torah. The gospels show Jesus as very careful to make the journey to Jerusalem to attend mandatory feasts and participate in temple rites. Even his humor is Jewish (“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven.”)
For those outside Judaism, there is much in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life which can seem puzzling or culturally unintelligible. It is not unheard of, on the other hand, for Jews to investigate the gospels and find immediate common ground with Jesus, even after twenty centuries of Jewish adaptation and cultural change! So it should be no surprise that Jesus’ way of interacting with people, his concerns and his teachings are all very Jewish in character. A bit of reading up on Jewish custom and religious practice can make a huge improvement in one’s comprehension and insight into the story of Jesus as told in the gospel accounts.
But as a Jew, Jesus’ most severe criticism was aimed, not at Gentiles or even at Jews who weren’t taking seriously their obligations to the Law of Moses. He reserved his condemnation for the religious elites of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why? Because Jesus saw them as missing the point of the very scriptures they claimed to live by. He saw them obsessing over the minutia of the religious code, using it to elevate themselves in relation to others and manipulating people through guilt and intimidation. That is why his message to those oppressed by the power of the religious elite and despairing of any share in God’s Kingdom, was such truly good news.
The More-Than-Human Jesus. Certainly Jesus was born in a particular time and place (during the reign of Caesar Augustus in Bethlehem). He was entirely human as is shown in his human traits (hunger, thirst, anger, sorrow, death). But then there is that other side of Jesus, which may make us uncomfortable, such as his claim to be the Messiah of Israel. The New Testament spends a great deal of space showing how this claim is validated by the many prophecies concerning Messiah in the Old Testament (Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14, etc.) Yet the scriptural experts of his day couldn’t believe that a carpenter’s son, the circumstances of whose birth was dubious to say the least, from a backwater town like Nazareth, who had never attended any of the respectable rabbinic academies, could possibly be God’s answer to centuries of prophetic utterance.
More than this, Jesus claimed to be God in human form. In John chapter 8, we encounter Jesus saying to these very religious leaders that Abraham, some two thousand years before, had personally acknowledged him and had forseen his day coming. Jesus claimed that to see him, was in fact to see God. He claimed that he and God the Father were one: that is, somehow unified in nature and being. So incensed were the religious elites by all these claims that they plotted to kill him. Even today these claims, if taken seriously, must surely shake the conventional viewpoints of many.
The Living Jesus. The gospels assert that Jesus is literally, physically alive. Contrast this with the notion that Jesus was simply a tragic figure whose life was cut short before his calling was fulfilled. His disciples then were so lost without his magnetic personality that they began to talk about him as though he were still living. So after several generations, the belief that the deceased teacher from Nazareth was still alive somehow became solidified as Christian doctrine.
Of course, this line of thinking is pure nonsense. From what the gospels record about the circumstances of the resurrection it just doesn’t add up. Neither can this “wishful thinking view” possibly be right when the incredible spread of the early Christian message is considered realistically. The early Christians proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection from a very confident factual position. The location of Jesus’ tomb was common knowledge. No one could deny that it was empty. The likelihood of Jesus being mistakenly buried before he was actually dead makes no sense since the Romans were experts at the process of crucifixion. Even if that could be believed, the idea that a severely wounded Jesus could revive, roll away the huge stone and then escape the detection of those who were determined to eliminate him, is far fetched (to say the least).
More likely would be a conspiracy by his friends to steal the body and fake a resurrection. Yet even this doesn’t add up. The disciples were as sure as anyone that Jesus was dead. They were demoralized and afraid. Even if they had planned such a daring theft of Jesus’ body, they had proved their incompetence in such a mission when some of them unsuccessfully attacked a group of soldiers only days before at Jesus’ arrest. So the body-snatching theory falls apart as well. No, the best explanation, given the facts, is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave.
Conclusion: My advice is that if you think you know all there is to know about Jesus, maybe a serious and informed look at the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) might upset your comfortable views. Jesus isn’t someone you can easily categorize and put on a shelf. He still has the ability after all these centuries and across cultures, to make people squirm a bit. He also has the ability to call forth our deepest admiration and even devotion, just as he did twenty centuries ago. If you are content with some kind of dumbed-down Jesus, then you needn’t read the gospels with any kind of searching eye. But if you are brave enough to do so, brace yourself for some discomfort and perhaps a whole new life!