Why do I believe? Part 7 – Jesus

I suppose I should make some numerological significance about the fact that Part 7 of my series just happens to be about the one who is the central focus of my faith, but a good pithy observation eludes me at the moment.  Instead I’ll just come out and say it … a strong influence on my faith is the character of Jesus himself as we see him portrayed in the canonical gospels.  There are a number of things about Jesus’ character and teachings that I simply find attractive, and I want to focus on a few of those in this post.  My purpose here is not to say that other teachers, philosophers, or leaders of other faiths may not also have said or done attractive things, nor is it to compare and contrast.  That can wait for other installments (if ever).  For today I want merely to focus on the good I see in Jesus.

I must start with love.  So many who encountered Jesus–in fact, nearly everyone but the self-righteous jerks who tried to run the religious show–found in him a guy who welcomed them as they were.  In fact part of what irritated those religious leaders was the way the (to their minds) unsavory folks not only came to Jesus, but seemed to congregate around him (Matt 9:10-13).  The working classes, the low-level bureaucrats for the occupying empire, the drunks and whores and insane and even those with incurable diseases … these found in Jesus not a dismissive stare or a turned back, but rather a welcoming hand and even a raised glass.  Even those in religious power who actually came to Jesus asking honest questions (think Nicodemus – John 3:1-21) got what they came for and more.  Really, the only people who didn’t find Jesus particularly loving were those who, if they actually bought into what he said, stood to lose their power and position.  To the rest, Jesus’ message was a simple “come!”

The love Jesus displayed was no syrupy artifice or blind acceptance.  The gospel writers record a number of encounters where just as Jesus demonstrated his warmest welcome, he called people to very different lives than they had been living.  To the guy who was all wrapped up in his money and his good deeds, Jesus commanded him to divest his wealth (Mark 10:21).  To a man he healed in the temple (John 5:14) and to a woman he rescued from stoning for adultery (John 8:11), Jesus’ command was to “sin no more.”  Part of what I find so desirable about Jesus’ brand of love is that while it had no barrier to entry, no one who entered could avoid being changed.

Jesus had a powerful drive for justice.  He started out his ministry announcing Jubilee (Luke 4:18-19), a revolutionary concept in divine economics that I wonder if ancient Israel had ever practiced.  Repeatedly he expressed his indignation over people treating others unjustly, particularly if they were doing so in God’s name (Matt. 23:4, Matt. 21:12-13).   The famous parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) is all about how we treat “the least of these.”

But perhaps the part of Jesus’ character that I find most compelling is the way he promotes altruism — particularly if it goes unrecognized — as a good in its own right.   Jesus made a big deal that giving his way was giving done without condition, even to enemies (Luke 6:35) or maybe more accurately, especially to enemies (Matt 5:43-48).  Perhaps nowhere in all of the gospels is Jesus’ standard as clear as it is in Matt. 6:1-4 (here quoted from NRSV):

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Of course another thing that the above passage illustrates is that Jesus had a gleeful sense of humor.  He was not above skewering the self-absorbed.  I’m also pretty sure he had the crowds roaring with his metaphor of trying to get a speck of sawdust out of some guy’s eye while a 2 x 4 is sticking out of your own (Matt 7:3-5).  And his bit about the teachers of the law being white-painted graves (Matt. 23:27) had to garner more than a few snickers, I’m guessing.

It may strike a reader of this article that I’ve left some very important stuff out here.  I’ve said nothing about Jesus’ sacrifice, nothing about death and resurrection, nothing about divine incarnation, and frankly very little about theology at all — at least in the classic sense of the word.  This is not because none of those things are important to me; in fact, there’s plenty of evidence all over this blog that (some of) these things matter to me a great deal.  But they aren’t what draws me to Jesus in the first place.  I don’t come to Christian faith because I’m looking for a cure for my sins, or life after death, or some sort of divine encounter.  Though many find it hard to believe, if I really became convinced that these latter things were not even in the picture I still don’t think I’d change most of my life choices.  There is a purpose, a beauty, an other-directedness about the life Jesus modeled, that I find powerfully compelling.  Not that I’m remotely close to achieving anything of the sort.  But to me, it seems worth the attempt.

9 thoughts on “Why do I believe? Part 7 – Jesus”

  1. sydney

    Dan

    Got a jump-start on my day thinking about love of Jesus!

    A few things you said stood out to me.

    You said the only people who didn’t find Jesus particularly loving were those who, if they actually brought into what He said, stood to lose their power and position (we know in trying to hold onto what we consider life, we lose it. It is in losing it that we gain it!) :) So Jesus!

    I also like what you said: Part of what I find so desirable about Jesus’ brand of love is that while it had no barrier to entry, no one who entered could avoid being changed. What a point! I’m going to tell my friends about this one (remind them).

    All can ‘come’ to Him – it’s an open invitation, but part os this is we are changed.

    We clearly see transformation of the larva to the butterfly. Should we not see the metamorphisis of believing in Him & turning from our ways… from immature to the mature stages of the ‘who’ has come in and given us His Spirit. WOW!

    Thanks again Dan.

  2. Mark Carlton

    Dan, I would agree with much of what you see in Jesus, but I would add what I learn about him from the Gospel of John and the rest of the New Testament. I think too often these days people try to understand Jesus out of context. They ignore the uniqueness of his ministry as Israel’s promised Messiah and the fulfillment of their messianic hopes. Ignoring this context they tend to project his unique mission forward into our day and age and end up creating the very kind of Christianity Gandhi (who I also admire) found so obnoxious. But this would be a very long discussion.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      While I agree with you on the symptoms of a misdirected Christianity, I’m not sure I accept your diagnosis, Mark. That Christianity Gandhi do rightly derided is not the result of considering the actual claims of Jesus at all, but rather of superimposing onto Jesus’ story a sin-and-redemption narrative that purports to place him in a Messianic context without ever truly grappling with what Messiahship meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day, or with the ways Jesus subverted that meaning.

      You’re right it’s a long conversation…perhaps one we can have some day.

  3. Mark Carlton

    Hi Dan. Actually, Gandhi liked the sin-redemption narrative. Consider this quote: “A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.” The things he had problems with were the exclusivist claims of Christianity, the idea of salvation without works, and most especially, the idea that the gospel required the rejection of ones own culture and the embracing of a foreign culture, which was very much tied into the idea of Christendom that I have been discussing with Lawrence.

    I believe that the sin and redemption narrative is in the synoptic gospels, though not as obviously as in John and it is the center of the Christian Gospel. But completely understanding the narrative requires us to place the claims of Christ in their historic context. I also would suggest that the world “subvert” is a bit too strong. I would word the sentence, the way Jesus’ Messianic ministry fulfilled or frustrated their expectations. I say this because in many ways Jesus was what Israel was expecting, or at least many in Israel (the Jewish world of Jesus’ day was not monolithic.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      That’s another long discussion. You may wish to explore my thoughts on the “Atonement” subject heading here. The short synopsis is that while I believe the scriptural testimony to be clear that Jesus did take care of a lot of problems around sin, it was never the main focus that today’s evangelical narrative would have us believe.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Paul’s narrative is very different from the narrative of those who claim to be describing Pauline theology. I discovered this a few years ago when I read all of the Pauline Epistles back-to-back in the space of two days. What emerged clearly from that read, but that I had not seen before, was the simplicity and consistency of Paul’s overall message.

      Paul spent his entire career post-commissioning, on his passion to introduce Gentiles to Jesus. An important part of this passion was his defense of the Gentiles against the efforts of Judaizing Christians who wanted to enforce Jewish dietary (and other) laws on Gentile converts. It appeared to me that Paul’s various discourses on atonement and sacrifice were all in that context … in other words, when Paul is talking about Jesus fulfilling the sacrificial system, he’s doing so in the context of arguing that the law no longer applies.

      This is what I tried to get across in my post Enough With Salvation Already!, in which I argue that yes, Jesus did take care of sin, but salvation from sin is not the central point of Jesus’ ministry.

  4. Mark Carlton

    Also, isn’t it the church’s historic narrative (witness the bread and the wine: This is my body given for you….”

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