[Easter, as sometimes happens, got me thinking about Jesus. This led me to think about how Jesus relates to our society and what he can teach us about living together. Yes, we should love everyone, but what does that mean for the structure of society? Obviously, I cannot answer that in a blog post and I am not qualified to answer it in a book. Instead I pontificated for a few paragraphs.]
Almost all scholars who study Jesus as a historical figure agree that, in his final years, he was an itinerant preacher and worker of miracles who taught in rural Galilee and, at least at the end of his life, in Judea. In the gospels, he, like his guardian Joseph, is depicted as a tektōn. A tektōn is a woodworker or a builder who builds with wood (as opposed to stone). This was not a high status occupation, and was not necessarily a highly skilled trade. In some cases, a tektōn could be a day laborer. Some contemporary interpreters of Jesus, particularly in America, try to present a much different picture of him, as a prosperous (even wealthy) owner of a building business. Linguistic implausibility aside, this is hard to reconcile with what archaeology tells us about Nazareth, where he lived. It was a small collection of modest to ramshackle homes. Other than Sephoris, which is not mentioned in the Gospels, most towns in Galilee were small and poor—nobody was getting rich off the construction industry near Nazareth. So where do these ideas come from? They find no support in the text of the Gospels. Instead, they are attempts to reconcile Christianity with the Vulgar Calvinism that has been a recurrent thread in the fabric of American cultural history. This Vulgar Calvinism is to be distinguished from Actual Calvinism. Actual Calvinism, when carefully considered, has a rigorous and malevolent Augustinian logic; Vulgar Calvinism is simply a clumsy rationalization of social difference: those who have money and power are also righteous because they are God's elect, while those who are poor and powerless are wicked and are destined for the fires of hell. The historical realities of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and that of his earliest and closest followers, is impossible to reconcile with Vulgar Calvinism. It is not surprising, then, that many American interpreters of Jesus have developed highly imaginative alternative versions of his life. However, if we insist on drawing our evidence from the Gospels, other relevant historical documents, and the archaeological record, we are forced to acknowledge that the Jesus so many of us revere as God's Christ was born poor and lived a life close to the bone.
We can hardly guess that his situation became more comfortable when he assumed the role of a homeless, itinerant preacher. Of this life he said to a would-be emulator, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man [Jesus] has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 [NSRV]). In light of this life situation, some of his teachings take on a new poignance.
When many Christians think of Christ's teaching, they think of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (NRSV). Indeed, this thread of teaching is found throughout the Gospel of John. I do not mean to downplay this soteriological aspect of Christian belief. However, if we examine the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), which were written earlier, we see a number of other themes that are equally important. Among these is the eschatological teaching that might be called the Great Reversal. Jesus preached a coming Messianic Age (or “rule of God”) in which the injustices of the current world would be reversed. Perhaps the best known expression of this idea is in the beatitudes of Matthew 5:3–12 (and Luke 6:20–26, where a smaller, and probably better-preserved, collection of blessings is paired with curses):
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:20–26 [NSRV]).
Much of his ministry can be seen as a proclamation that the future reign of the Lord's Anointed was making incursions into the present evil age. This includes the Great Reversal. The sick were made whole; the hungry were made full; humble fisherman, peasants, and even a tax collector (universally reviled) were proclaimed future judges over the twelve tribes of Israel. What does this mean for us?
It is well-known that conservatives think that Jesus was a conservative while liberals argue vociferously for his liberalism. Significantly, as transformative Historical Jesus scholar (and world-class organist, physician, and humanitarian) Albert Schweitzer pointed out, historical portraits of Jesus tend really to be portraits of the author. In complete fairness, it makes no sense to argue over whether Jesus was a conservative or a liberal, as if these terms represented timeless Platonic essences, since conservatism and liberalism—in this sense in which they enter this debate—are radically grounded in the particularities of twenty-first century American cultural and political life. Asking whether Jesus was a conservative or a liberal is like asking whether Moses was a Presbyterian or a Oneness Pentecostal. However, it is difficult to deny that Jesus was, in a generic sense, a radical—he pitted himself against the authorities and rulers of his time and place, whether they were the Pharisaic rabbis of rural Galilee or the Sadducee temple priesthood of Jerusalem with their many Roman entanglements. And he proclaimed a coming rule of God (inadequately translated as “Kingdom of God” in many Bible translations and emended to “Kingdom of Heaven” or “rule of Heaven” by the hypersensitive author of the Gospel of Matthew) in which the humble and downtrodden would be exalted. “The last will be first,” he said, “and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16 [NRSV]).
Neither Republicans nor Democrats would be comfortable with Jesus if he were to make an appearance in American public life. Republicans would attack him (accurately) as a dangerous and unpatriotic subversive. Democrats would not understand him at all and, in desperation, would dismiss him as “unelectable.” Even a serious consideration of Jesus of Nazareth as he is presented by the Christian Bible is impossible in American public life, despite the fact that so many American citizens proudly assert that they are his followers. Understanding is limited to a few Johannine platitudes, a simplified quasi-Pauline soteriology, and an unwholesome (mis)application of the Book of Revelation to current and near-future events. The result seems to be (largely) either a therapeutic Jesus who asks nothing or a muscular Jesus who uses his muscles to beat up gays and Muslims. If we really cared to know Jesus, we would pay more attention to the earliest sources we have about his life and teachings, the letter of Paul (which tell us only a few things about Jesus the man, and somewhat more about the theological Christ) and the Synoptic Gospels. Neither the therapeutic Jesus or the muscular Jesus, like the entrepreneurial Jesus of Vulgar Calvinism, can survive a careful reading of these texts.
When I read the Synoptics, I feel urged to humble myself, not just in a psychological sense, but in a socio-economic sense. I feel urged to use my power to lift up the downtrodden and marginalized. I feel called to undermine the hierarchies that keep the oppressed in their place. After all, if the Great Reversal is to break through into the present world of injustice, and we are to be the followers of Jesus, it is inconceivable that we should simply wait for him instead of emulating him. I see little in the Synoptics that has to do with conventional morality (you can find that, among other places, in the Pastoral Epistles—1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus—but these sources are far removed from Jesus). Instead, I find in them an unconventionally deep and stark morality that demands love extending far beyond our circles of comfort or the socially-mandated bounds of responsibility. It also demands—and this may be hardest for left-leaning people like me—a willingness to let God intervene and transform us so that, together, we may transform the earth. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10 [KJV]).
What does all of this have to do with resurrection? If, through the resurrection, the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ, even so (through the Great Reversal), the sting of poverty, the sting of injustice, and the sting of oppression, must be swallowed up in Christ Jesus. The notion of resurrection, in fact, makes possible the ultimate reversal: a man executed as an enemy of the Roman state and only lifted up on a cross of shame was, through the resurrection, exalted to the right hand of God. He beckons his brothers and sisters—in the slum, the bordello, and the prison—to follow.