Essays

I’m not Jesus. He’s not me either.

            A number of weeks ago I got into an online push-pull about what would happen to Jesus if he returned today. The assumption being that he would return to the United States, of course.

            What I objected to in the original post was assertion that Jesus would be killed. He would be killed because would let children out of cages at the Mexican-U.S. border or he would turn over tables on Wall Street. And besides, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and he was a lot like Jesus.1 I disagreed for two reasons. First, Jesus wasn’t a political or economic revolutionary. He was silent about slavery and the Roman occupation of Israel, two of the most egregious injustices of his age. Second, the U. S. isn’t first century Rome. While the criminal justice system in the U.S. is profoundly racist and classist, we do not publicly execute persons for acts of civil disobedience. And besides, MLK Jr. was assassinated by a racist individual; he wasn’t executed by the state.

            After a couple of weeks of thinking about this exchange, what continued to bug me was the error of projection, the mistake of projecting onto another person or being my own opinions, characteristics, view point, etc. The poster and his supporter were clearly 21st century U.S. liberals who were certain that if Jesus returned, he would be one too.

            My problem with this is two-fold. First of all, it ignores the historical reality of the unavailability of the historical Jesus. We do not have a reliable, factual, objective narrative about Jesus of Nazareth. We have four accounts that agree on some details, but differ on others, each written to a different audience, each with a different emphasis, and all intending to present the “Christ of faith” rather than the “Jesus of history.” In other words, we don’t know who Jesus was in the first century, much less who he might be in the twenty-first.

            Secondly, such certainty runs contrary to one of the common threads of the Gospels, that being that Jesus was not understood even by those closest to him. To imagine that he would not only be understood by us, but that he would be very much like us, is…well, a bit arrogant if not downright self-righteous.

            If Jesus would come again, he would—I have no doubt—encounter the same religious certainty that he did twenty centuries ago. What would happen? My guess is—unless we were humbly willing to not believe what we think nor cling to our reassuring narratives about reality—we would simply miss him as our religious forebearers did so well and so long ago.                      

            *It’s unfair to put my counter argument here without giving the original poster the opportunity to clarify and respond, but perhaps he will read this and respond.

Jesus Was a Second-Story Man

            Chimamanda Adichie has a wonderfully provocative TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story” (link below) in which she points out that we often regard others in the context of a single story, a single account, of who that person is or those person are. The error is familiar. “All Africans are…” “All doctors are…” “All Conservatives are…” The sentences are all-too-easy to construct.

            This thinking is perfectly understandable though. We view the world in terms of narratives, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, others, God, the Cosmos, and the bunnies in the backyard. And the simpler the narrative and more importantly, the better it fits in with our preconceived notions, our established narrative, the less our anxiety and the more attractive the choice. 

            Jesus calls his listeners to a second story, to go beyond the comforting narratives they treasure. He calls them to see beyond the narratives established by tradition, religious authorities, and their own personal fears. Again and again, especially with regard to persons in the margins of society, he says, “This is what you have heard. Now, listen again.”

            In the Gospel of Luke Jesus encounter Zacchaeus, a chief tax-collector, a Jew working for the occupying Romans. Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus house for a meal, and the action is seen by “all the people” who mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” Jesus declares there is more to the story with these words, “This man too, is a son of Abraham.” In other words, people, he’s one of us. 

            On another occasion Jesus dining at the home of a Pharisee named Simon has his feet anointed by an unnamed and uninvited woman. Jesus’ host says to himself, ““If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” In other words, that her adulation, and especially her touch, should be rejected. Jesus in response not only opens the Simon’s eyes to who the woman is but also to Simon is as well.

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:44-47)

            The parables of Jesus have the same vision-expanding, new narrative, intent. The Good Samaritan pushes a lawyer to a new vision of “neighbor.”  The Prodigal Son offers Jesus’ listeners a new way to see “tax-collectors and sinners” and God.

            In The Sermon on the Mount, a collection of his teachings in Matthew, Jesus challenges his listeners to move beyond even their sacred narratives with his words, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” and accept a new understanding of their own anger and insulting words; of adultery, divorce and consequently women; of oaths, revenge, generosity, enemies and persecutors. 

            Recently, a discussion on Facebook speculated about the consequences of Jesus coming to our time and place. Would he be a political radical? A religious revivalist? A woman? A person of color? Today I’d like to think he’d be a barista or a bartender who’d ask, “What’s your story?’ And after listening to the answer says, “Uh huh. What’s your second story?”

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