Over the new year, I had an interesting, though at times bizarre, interaction with a well-known church leader in Australia (such are the wonders of the internet). This person had posted a graphic/meme similar to the one here as a light-hearted New Year’s resolution, and I added the comment:
—Tell people they are sinners who need to repent.
—Perform amazing miracles of healing and deliverance.
What followed was an odd exchange, where I was told that, by making an apparently serious critique of the list, I was demonstrating a lack of sense of humour, but this was followed by an apparently serious critique of ‘Calvinists’ and ‘charismatics’ for their flawed theology—to which I responded by suggesting that the person themselves lacked a sense of humour!
A few weeks later, someone posted this graphic on my timeline, and my impression is that, far from being something merely humorous, this list is taken by many as a serious description of Jesus’ ministry and a characterisation of the kind of person we meet in the gospels. This is just one example of the way that we find it easy to trim off the parts of Jesus’ ministry, personality and actions that we find uncomfortable, and in doing so create a Jesus of our own choosing. I thought it would be fun to discover all the Jesuses in the gospels that look like the different groups of people we meet in church and society.
Liberals: good news! Jesus is just like you! He criticises the Pharisees for being too religious, and imposing their religious expectations unfairly on others (Matt 23.4). He appears to have a radical programme for social change, in which the poor are rewarded and those unjustly imprisoned are released (Luke 4.18), and this is rooted in a long-term vision for the inversion of social roles in which the rich and powerful are humbled, and privilege is removed (Luke 1.52). Judgement will be on the basis of whether we have offered practical assistance to those in need in the world around us (Luke 10.37, Matt 25.40).
Pastors: good news! Jesus is just like you! When he sees the crowds coming to him, rather than being overwhelmed, he is moved with compassion (Matt 9.36, 14.14, Mark 6.34). Out of a crowd pressing around him, he is able to pick out a woman in need (Mark 5.30) and he postpones his other activity in order to respond to her condition. He refuses to make a show of his miracles, but instead protects the dignity of those he ministers to by taking them out of the spotlight and treating them in private (Mark 7.33) and bringing healing in their own home away from the crowds (Matt 9.25, Mark 5.40).
Radicals: good news! Jesus is just like you! He just doesn’t seem to care what people think of him (Mark 12.14) and he taught his followers to have a similar disregard for the opinions of those in authority (Acts 4.19). He confronted those with privilege, and challenged their abuse of power fearlessly (Matt 23.16). He demonstrated his criticisms in dramatic symbolic actions which all would see and remember (John 2.15).
Introverts: good news! Jesus is just like you! He experienced some of his most important moments of affirmation and testing in long periods of time spent on his own, away from others (Luke 4.1–2), and made a regular habit of spending time alone, away not only from the crowd but even his closest friends, in order to be renewed and refreshed in silence (Mark 1.35).
Catholics: good news! Jesus is just like you! He was clearly an observant Jew, who was disciplined about going to church (synagogue, Matt 4.23) every week, and he observed the pilgrim festivals, with his family, like a good religious Jew (Luke 2.23, John 7.14, 10.22). He clearly believed in the importance of symbolic action (Mark 7.33, John 9.7), and engaged in communal rituals which he expected others to repeat (Luke 22.19, Acts 2.46).
Mystics: good news! Jesus is just like you! He engaged in some rather bizarre actions, spitting on mud and laying it on people’s eyes and ears instead of just praying (Mark 7.33), and doing obscure and apparently meaningless things like writing in the sand whilst people watched, without offering any explanation (John 8.6). People often found his teaching puzzling and obscure (Mark 4.13) and sometimes downright offensive (John 6.61, Matt 13.57).
Calvinists: good news! Jesus is just like you! His central message was not that ‘God loves you just as you are’ but that ‘the kingdom of God is coming, bringing judgement, so you must repent or perish!’ (Mark 1.15, Luke 13.3). He offered good news, but that good news was that God offered a way out of the coming judgement to any who would respond. He emphasised the narrowness of the true way of discipleship (Matt 7.13–14) and that, though many might like to follow him, in God’s sovereignty few are actually chosen (Matt 22.14). He spent time with sinners—because he believed they were sick, and needed the medicine of repentance administered by their true spiritual doctor (Luke 5.32). The invitation to follow him was an invitation to follow a hard path of self-discipline and self-sacrifice (Mark 8.34). He was more than happy to talk about judgement and the ‘outer darkness’ where people would, in agony, bitterly regret their decisions in life (Matt 8.12).
Charismatics: good news! Jesus is just like you! He did not minister, teach or do anything miraculous until the Spirit had not only come on him (at his baptism) but come on him ‘with power’ (Luke 4.14). Signs and wonders were integral to his ministry (Matt 11.5) and his followers clearly continued the same kind of miracles and healings (Acts 5.12).
Nationalists: good news! Jesus is just like you! He was quite clear that the Jewish people were special in the sight of God, and he had come to minister to them alone (Matt 15.24). He was quite rude to outsiders who presumed to think that they could share the privileges of God’s chosen people (Mark 7.27).
Grumpy old men: good news! Jesus is just like you! He often was tired and hungry, and this made him rather confrontational with those he met (John 4.6). He got fed up with the people he was teaching when they were slow to respond to what he said—and he wasn’t afraid to tell them (Mark 9.19). He even got fed up with his closest friends, and was frustrated by their failure to understand and trust him (Matt 8.26). When people made inappropriate requests, he was quite happy to insult them in the strongest terms (Mark 7.27).
End times speculators: good news! Jesus is just like you! He expected an apocalyptic doomsday to come, in which nation would rise against nation and there would be wars, famine and disease, all accompanied by cosmic signs of the sun being darkened and the moon turned to blood. And he appears to have expected his followers to read the signs of the times (Mark 13, Matt 24).
At one level, this is quite a fun exercise—but at another it is deadly serious, and offers key insights into Jesus as he is depicted in the gospels, and our interpretation of him.
First, it is really quite startling to realise what a complex and multi-faceted character Jesus is. When I started writing this post, I was planning to offer only four different profiles. But the more I reflected, both on the complexity of Jesus and our tendencies to select what we want to find, the more different aspects of his character I noticed. I have here teased out 11 aspects of his personality and ministry, but I suspect it would be possible to add more. (Do offer your own characterisations in the comments!)
Secondly, what is striking is the way that this complexity is actually found in all four gospels. We have a tendency to notice the differences between one gospel and the next, and that can be helpful in noticing the details, and seeing how each gospel is drawing out some particular theological priority in order to highlight it, not least in the context of speaking to a concern or an audience of interest. However, the danger with this is that we miss what is common—and this is much more significant and substantial than the differences. All these different aspects of Jesus are found in all the gospels—and this demonstrates both that the gospel writers don’t appear to try and flatten out complex, even apparently contradictory, aspects of Jesus, and that they all appear to be writing about the same subject, even when they offer different emphases.
Thirdly, the varied evidence of the text explains why people find it so easy to see the Jesus that they want to—since there is a large amount of diverse material there. But you can only do this by reading very selectively, and in the end (as someone, I forget who, said), if we worship the Jesus of our own choosing, we are not actually worshipping Jesus, we are worshipping our choices.
Fourthly, what this then means, when we get into arguments about who Jesus was and what he taught, is that the answer is to go back to the text—and not just selected bits of the text, but the whole text and the whole depiction of who Jesus is in the gospels. I have find this especially helpful in the current debates about ‘inclusion’ and sexuality and marriage. How did Jesus’ inclusion’ actually work, when he spent time with ‘sinners’ because he believed they were ‘sick’, and was happy to tell them so? What did Jesus in the gospels actually teach about marriage, sexuality and sexual ethics? These questions often take us back to the heart of the matter.
Fifthly, the tendency to make Jesus in our own image is a sign of declining biblical literacy both within and outside the church. And the really worrying thing about the future is that our ordained leaders are spending less and less time on studying scripture and how it is interpreted, in favour of doing more in context, learning about church growth and mission strategy. Is this really the right priority for the long-term health of the church, whose first task is to worship God as he has been revealed to us in Jesus, and call others to do the same?
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