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.