September 2018

Which Jesus is the real Jesus?

Everyone claims Jesus as their own, in the way every political party loves to quote Jefferson. It seems there’s enough quotes, principles and ideologies to go around, no matter what you espouse.

Indulge me for a moment if you will.

For the decades between his death and the start of the Civil War, Jefferson was claimed by both sides, North and South. The North claimed Jefferson as pro-Union, citing his first inaugural address in which he said, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.”

A bit wordy perhaps? In a nutshell, if someone wants to dissolve the union, they have the right to feel that way, but reason would show them wrong in their opinion.

The South laid claim to Jefferson as well, after all, he was a slave-holding Virginian, who once stated that a little rebellion now and then was a good thing, that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Confusing, contradictory. Depending on the angle you look at it from, or the interpretation you need to find, perhaps. I prefer another thought: complex.

Jesus is much the same way. Indulge me again, if you will.

There’s the peaceful, almost effeminate Jesus, portrayed in art and antiquity. He is pale, cherubic, aloof. His hair flows down his back, his hips are a little wide. It’s hard to imagine Him raising a finger, much less His voice.

There’s the more macho Jesus, featured on t-shirts and posters. His muscles ripple, his bloody face and head sweat beneath a massive cross as he pushes it up, determined to go up the hill and die like a real man. It’s hard to imagine Him asking for help in carrying that cross, much less whimpering, “I thirst.”

There’s the pacifist Jesus, who won’t lift a finger to defend Himself no matter what. Rob Him, beat Him, mock Him, you win. He turns the other cheek, refuses to pull His sword, and allows Himself to be killed, though He has thousands of angels awaiting His command. It’s hard to imagine Him fighting back, much less standing over someone in victory.

There’s the warrior Jesus, the one I recently heard a famous preacher claim was the version he could worship, since he had a hard time worshipping a Jesus he could beat up. This Jesus rides a white horse into battle at the head of an army. His eyes light up in righteous indignation, he swings a sword that slaughters thousands and He never loses. It’s hard to imagine Him taking any lip from some smart aleck soldiers, much less actually turning His cheek so they could hit Him again.

There’s Blue State Jesus, who espouses socialism and equality at all costs. He’s an anti-capitalist, since that theory tilts toward greed and selfishness, and he stands against systems of power and hierarchy. He promotes a lifestyle of giving up whatever you have if someone else wants or needs it. He encourages His followers to go two miles when asked to go one, to generally give more to people than they ask for, and to side with women and children as a default position, since they are powerless to defend themselves. It’s hard to imagine Him shopping in a mall, driving a gas guzzler or eating a steak, much less killing the cow to get the steak.

There’s Red State Jesus, who espouses capitalism and nationalism as the twin pillars of His doctrine. He’s anti-government handout, since that’s what makes people lazy and inefficient, and he stands for power and might in the world because that’s what cities set on hills are supposed to do. He encourages His followers to buy a sword, for that’s their right, claims He has come not to spread peace but division, to turn a man against his father and a daughter against her mother, for division is a sign that there are clearly those who are right and those who are wrong. He has women around Him as hangers-on, serving His needs, but He populates His inner circle with men, since they are the real movers and shakers. It’s hard to imagine Him accepting people in the midst of their awful lifestyles, much less sharing a meal with them.

Did I generalize a bit too much? Was it a little unfair? Did I stir you one way or the other? Good. But stirred is what we can expect when we hijack Jesus for our own good; when we make Him to be what WE are; when we create Him in our image. As polarizing as the things are that I stated a moment ago, they all contain some little element of Scriptural truth in regards to Jesus. He did tell His disciples to buy a sword, and He also told Peter to keep it sheathed. Why bother to buy one at all? He spoke against the accumulation of wealth in which people build bigger because they can, and yet he tells a parable of the man with the most talents being given even more, because he is a better investor. The angels proclaimed that the arrival of Jesus was really the arrival of “Peace on Earth,” yet Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 10 that if they thought He had come to bring peace, they were wrong.

Is Jesus contradictory? Sure He is, but not in the confusing, hypocritical way that we count contradiction. He’s contradictory in that He speaks to different things in similar terminology. He promotes buying a sword because there is a time for a man to defend his house against the strong man, but He tells Peter that if you live by it, you die by it. In other words, own one, know how to use it, but do all you can to never have to, for the moment you find safety and security in knowing its there, you have created a new god, shaped like a sword, and by that god you will fall. Or something like that, at least that’s how I see it. And that’s the point; it’s always going to have a little element of “how you see it.” It’s unavoidable.

My wife and I laugh every time we drive by a local church who’s sign says, “No opinions, just Scripture.” I want to go some Sunday morning and wait for someone to interpret Scripture, by using the opinionated phrase, “I think this verse means…” The same church promotes cowboy boots and casual dress. Not sure they see the irony that choice in worship attire is pretty much just an opinion.

Does this mean that with Jesus, it’s just like Jefferson: use Him and His statements to serve your purpose? I don’t think it’s the right way to handle it, but I’m not naïve enough to think we aren’t doing that. However, I have a better way.

Perhaps we need to understand what Jesus came to do and just as importantly, what He did not come to do. By His own admission, Jesus came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. You and I are not part of that lost flock, therefore He primarily came, in His first advent for a group of people who are no longer alive. Much of what He said and did in His time on earth was aimed at the purpose of seeking and saving that which was lost, and by lost, He specifically went after the wandering and confused sons and daughters of Abraham. Sometimes they were tax collectors like Zacchaeus, and other times they were bleeding, suffering women, who grasped the hem of his garment. In any case, it was Jews first. The Gentile dogs could eat the crumbs that fell from the master’s table.

In His death and His resurrection, He took on the role of perfect sacrifice, no longer simply for Israel, but as the Lamb that takes away, “the sin of the world.” At Calvary, He pulled in heathen Romans soldiers and Gentile rulers. At the empty tomb, He signaled the end of an old way of dealing with man and the beginning of a whole new world. It was no longer Israel first, but now the middle wall of partition, separating Jew and Gentile was gone, and Jesus had created within Himself one new man.

But Jesus was not here to speak to politics, to shape policy or to interpret legal code. Jesus told Pilate that if His kingdom were of this world then his disciples would fight. This shows that for Jesus it was always something supernatural being manifested in a natural world. He wasn’t showing us how to form governments, write constitutions, dictate policy or run our military. He was showing us that there is more than meets the eye, that there is something happening behind the curtain, in the realm of the heavenlies and that realm wants to crash the party of the natural. If we would let that kingdom reign, we would treat out neighbor with decency and kindness, for we would see them as we see Jesus, and a cup of cold water to them would be the same as a cup of cold water to Him, and that would be a kindness we could all rally around.

Objectors to this line of thinking often say things like, “Well what if everyone took that attitude? What would the world look like then?” I think this is a strawman argument. First, not everyone will ever take the same attitude, no matter how good, or bad, that attitude might be. Second, it’s a weak and unrealistic argument to make. What everyone went vegan overnight? What happens to the agricultural industry, cattle farmers, or the stock market for that matter? Never assume that everyone will do what one person does, and if you are the one person doing it, don’t assume everyone else must come along for the ride.

It’s up to us to figure out what these things look like on the earth. We can’t look to Jesus as the example of the perfect politician or husband or warrior, or pacifist. We CAN look to Him as the author and finisher of our faith; as our risen Savior; as our example of what God looks like on the earth. Maybe we should stop hijacking the things about Him we want to fill our ideologies and ignoring the more difficult aspects of His teachings and nature. That will be easier to do when we realize much of what He said wasn’t to us, but all of what He did was for us.

Grace to you.