Note: I wrote this in 1995, anticipating it would be a chapter in the book that became Living in the Overlap. Parts of it do appear, but this is the first time this "lost chapter" has been published in its entirety. I'd probably approach some things differently if I were writing on this topic today but I've resisted the temptation to edit or update it. I ran across it this morning and thought it might be an appropriate, if unconventional, piece for Easter weekend...
For months after I became a Christian, I would not say the name “Jesus.” It conjured up images of an effeminate flower child in sandals. I called him “Christ” instead. That had a masculine ring to it.
In fact, in my mind I had virtually split him into two people. Christ was the conqueror of sin and death. I had accepted Christ as my Savior. But Jesus was the ninety-pound weakling. I wasn’t sure what to do with him.
Several factors had conspired to give Jesus such saccharine connotations. Bad religious paintings depicting a bearded Jesus with the delicate features of a girl. Songs like The Name of Jesus is So Sweet, and Jesus is the Sweetest Name I Know. His own claim to be meek, which rhymes with “weak,” and to my mind was synonymous with “wimp.” Sunday school stories linking him with sweet little sheep and sweet little children and nice inoffensive behavior. He was like a young, thin, mahogany-haired Santa Claus who rewarded you for being good. Being his disciple would seem to be a pretty tame affair.
But when I started reading the Bible, setting aside my preconceptions, I was startled by what I discovered. I realized I had to overhaul my impression of him. If I had to choose one word to describe the carpenter from Nazareth, I would now choose the word “shocking.” Somewhere in my thinking, Jesus the bearded lady turned into Jesus the electric cattle prod. And I saw that following him meant expecting the unexpected. Being Jesus’ disciple demanded more flexibility and risk-taking than I had anticipated when I first decided to follow him.
As I searched the Gospels to discover what reaction people had to him, not once did I read that they felt “inspired” or “blessed” or any other bland religious-sounding word. Far and away the most frequently used word was “amazed.” I also found “astonished,” “surprised,” “filled with awe,” “offended,” “furious,” humiliated,” “terrified,” and others like them. At one point, after Jesus indirectly caused a herd of pigs to commit hari-kari by stampeding into the Sea of Galilee, the panicked townsfolk begged him to leave. The people of Jesus’ own village, Nazareth, were not so subtle. They ran him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. Would Santa ever elicit such responses?
When, in reading the Gospels, I visualized the reactions this maverick provoked in friends and enemies alike, I found myself envisioning a succession of dropped jaws, raised eyebrows, and double takes. What was it about Jesus that was so shocking? Three things—his actions, his teachings, and his claims to be God.
First, consider his actions. Jesus had a cheerful disregard for social conventions. The tax collector Zacchaeus, short in height and shorter on ethics, got more than he bargained for when he climbed a sycamore tree in hopes of seeing him,
Jesus called out, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
Zacchaeus was ecstatic, but the crowd was shocked. Zacchaeus was not only a traitor to his country, collecting taxes for the occupying Roman government, he also gouged his countrymen by forcing them to pay more than they owed. Didn’t this rabbi know that Zacchaeus was a sinner? It never occurred to them that it was precisely because Zacchaeus was a sinner that Jesus did what he did.
And Jesus’ strategy worked. The tax collector became a new man, putting his money where his mouth was.
“Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I’ve cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay him back four times the amount,” he declared. Jesus recognized that Zacchaeus’ newfound generosity was symptomatic of a deeper transformation.
“Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus said.
If the Zacchaeus incident caught people by surprise, we can only imagine the look on the disciples’ faces when they found Jesus talking with someone at a well in Samaria. She had three strikes against her. She was a woman. She was a Samaritan. And she had a “reputation”—after having lost five husbands, she hadn’t bothered to marry her current lover. Any one of these “liabilities” would have caused the average rabbi to shun her.
But not only did Jesus talk with her; he told her all her secrets and then threw in one of his own. She was the first person to whom he revealed that he was the Messiah. And this odd couple, the preacher and the pariah, became history’s most unlikely evangelistic duo. A successful one, too. During their two-day crusade, many of her neighbors realized that this teller of secrets was also the Savior of the world.
Then there was the time Jesus’ men ate grain from a field on the Sabbath. Certain Pharisees complained that this violated the oral traditions, which they held to be as authoritative as Scripture. But they found Jesus’ defense more outrageous than the alleged Sabbath-breaking itself. Scripture permitted working in the temple on the Sabbath, he said, and someone greater than the temple was standing in their midst. Simply put, Jesus seemed to be claiming that the holiest place of Israel, the dwelling place of God, was no longer the temple in Jerusalem but the temple of his own body. He was the place where God lives. “God won’t live there for long,” scoffed some of his enemies as they began plotting against him.
Among his more amazing actions were the miracles. Blind men saw, lame men walked, lepers were cleansed, demonized people were delivered, even the dead came back to life. After Jesus arrived at Lazarus’ funeral, Martha laid a guilt trip on him. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus said.
I know he will, in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha didn’t get it. But Lazarus did. After Jesus hollered, “Lazarus, come out!” the man who had been dead four days had no choice but to obey. As Reverend David du Plessis said, “Jesus spoiled every funeral he ever attended, including his own.”
Yet these miracles were not just flashy demonstrations of power or isolated acts of compassion. They were object lessons giving a preview of what the kingdom of God would be like when it arrived in all its fullness. Every healing was a demonstration that one day there would be no more sickness. Every deliverance was a demonstration that one day the Evil One would be rendered powerless. And every resurrection was a demonstration that one day death itself would die and God’s people would enjoy life everlasting.
But it wasn’t just Jesus’ actions that shocked people, it was also his teachings. Admittedly, much of what Jesus taught had been taught by other rabbis or at least would have been acceptable to them. But Jesus interjected one element into his teaching that no other rabbi dared to do. He interjected himself. Other rabbis might argue over whether you must lay hands on an animal sacrifice before slaughtering it, or what the legitimate grounds for divorce were. But they would always look to the Torah—the Scripture—as the ultimate authority. Jesus, however, came across like a traffic cop at an intersection with a malfunctioning stoplight, saying, “I know the light’s green but I’m telling you to slam on the brakes anyway.”
His teachings were full of this kind of language. “You’ve heard it said, ’Do not murder,’ but I tell you if you’re angry with your brother you’re in danger of judgment.” “You’ve heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I tell you if you look at a woman lustfully you’ve already committed adultery in your heart.” “You’ve heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye,’ but I tell you to turn the other cheek.” On the one hand he seemed to be saying that he, not the Torah, was the ultimate authority. On the other hand, he said that he did not come to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it. How are we to understand this?
I look at it this way. After I graduated from college I moved from Pittsburgh to Charlotte, where a new job awaited me. I loaded my seven-year-old emerald green Nova with my belongings, and got a map to show me the way. But I rarely had to look at the map. Why? Because my parents drove ahead of me in their burgundy-and-cream Citation, which carried more of my belongings. Rather than referring to the map, I just followed their car. In a sense, my parents became a living map that guided me to my destination.
In the same way, Jesus identified himself as a living map that must be followed; he was the embodiment of the Torah. Thus, although sometimes like other rabbis he told people to “obey the commandments” of the Torah, more often than not he simply told them “follow me” as if these two directives were synonymous. Not merely “follow my teachings,” but “follow me.” He talked as if nothing in life mattered as much as our response to him. “I am the vine; you are the branches . . . apart from me you can do nothing.” “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven . . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” No ordinary rabbi would exalt himself like this. It was sacrilegious, the babbling of a lunatic. Unless, of course, it were true.
Jesus’ teaching focused on God and his kingdom. “The kingdom of God” means “God’s reign.” Jesus taught that in some ways it had already arrived and in other ways it was still to come. His mission was to get people into the kingdom. And ultimately, according to Jesus, if you want to enter the kingdom you have to go through him. He claimed to be the gate, the door, the way. And these claims may have been the most startling words ever uttered, were it now for some other claims this roving carpenter made.
It was not enough that Jesus identified himself as the living temple and the living Torah. He also identified himself as the living God. He constantly claimed the prerogative to do things only God has a right to do.
He told people “Your sins are forgiven,” with less fanfare than a father saying, “Kids, we’re going to Disney World.” And his enemies responded, “Only God can forgive sins.”
“Before Abraham was born, I am!” Jesus told a crowd. And this ungrammatical declaration provoked them to pick up rocks to stone him. “I AM” was the name of God, the name by which God had revealed himself when he called Moses, and Jesus was deliberately using that holy name to refer to himself. But only God can call himself by that name.
After his resurrection, Jesus allowed the formerly skeptical Thomas to adore him as “My Lord and my God!” But only God can receive such veneration. Jesus’ claim to be God was either the most audacious lie or the most amazing truth ever spoken.
And after making such a claim, how could he also claim to be meek? I discovered that I needed to take a second look at the term. When I researched the Greek word translated as “meek” I found that it can describe a wild horse that has been tamed, or a king who chooses to treat his subjects kindly. In such contexts it has the connotation of “strength under control,” in which a strong being chooses to be gentle and forbearing.
When I think of meekness I think of the two dogs my brother and his family own. Jake is a powerful, happy-go-lucky chocolate Labrador. When he bounds to the front door he sometimes knocks over my two little nieces. One time he rammed into my father knocked out Dad’s trick knee. Tiki is a tiny Chihuahua. She’s so light you can barely feel her when she sits in your lap. But Tiki’s the bossy one. When Jake’s eating out of his dish, she’ll stick her nose into the bowl and edge him out of the way. With one slap of his paw, Jake could bat her across the room like a yapping hairy tennis ball. But for whatever reason, he just lets her take what she wants, then goes back to his meal. That’s meekness. Power under control. Power kept under wraps until the proper time for it to explode forth. Thus Jesus was not meek like some worm on a sidewalk, waiting to be stepped on; Jesus was meek like a firecracker.
I suppose it’s inevitable that if God became a man, that man would be the most shocking individual who ever walked the planet. But there may be another reason for his approach. If during a medical emergency your heart stops beating properly, the doctor may be forced to jump-start it by pressing a defibrillator against your chest and zapping you with electricity. A shock can be a lifesaver. It can be the most merciful gift you give someone. Jesus evidently determined that the most effective way to get people into the kingdom, to heal their ailing hearts, was to give them a healthy jolt.
Those who followed him inherited his tendency to shock others. The book of Acts chronicles Jesus’ disciples stepping out of their comfort zone to “turn the world upside down” by proclaiming his message and working miracles in his name. What gave these previously unremarkable men such boldness and power? Their conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead? Undoubtedly. The coming of the Holy Spirit? Unquestionably? But, in describing Peter and John’s trial before the Sanhedrin, Luke reveals a third factor: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” There’s something about people being with Jesus that makes sense out of the nonsensical. As Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard, who was the Archbishop of Paris, observed, “To be a witness does not consist of engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
Jesus had a habit of turning people into living mysteries. A woman with a past becomes a woman with a future who introduces her Samaritan village to the Jewish Messiah. A crooked little tax collector straightens up to become a big man who loses his wealth and finds salvation. A four-day-old corpse steps out of a tomb and into a world where he becomes a metaphor for the new life offered to everyone. Unlikely events, all of them, until we take note that these people had been with Jesus.
And we, too, may be amazed at the transformation in our lives as we draw close to the carpenter from Nazareth. Like his earliest disciples, we must be ready for anything. There’s no telling where we’ll find ourselves when we take the risk of following our unpredictable leader.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry many people chose to follow him. Many others rejected him. And a handful, a powerful few, decided that the Galilean firebrand was too dangerous to go on living. Jesus was arrested and tried before his country’s highest court, then tried and executed by the Roman authorities. His body was buried in a tomb that was then sealed with a mammoth stone and guarded by sixteen soldiers. At last his exasperated enemies had what they wanted. The troublemaker was dead. Silent. Still. His men were hiding. Terrified. Defeated. His opponents breathed a collective sigh of relief. For the first time in years they could go to bed at night without wondering what mischief a certain carpenter might cause the next morning.
“Finally,” they said to each other. “No more surprises.”