I was reading an article recently about the radicalism of Jesus. It was an interview of a Muslim by a Jewish atheist-strange choice for expert opinions on Jesus. I also recently read an article by Richard Dawkins on religion. Gee, how about Pope Francis on molecular biology?
I am a generic Christian (after “Christian” I would answer “none” on religious affiliation surveys.) I have been in many denominations and was a missionary to the inner city for three years, working with disadvantaged kids. I lived there among them, because Jesus lived among the people he came to love.
I also founded and directed an interdenominational Kid’s Café and after school program in a rural black neighborhood. Quite frankly, I know more about Jesus than the above mentioned gentlemen ( and I have much to learn.) I don’t care much for “religion” which I define as the human attempt to organize human spirituality. It becomes infected with all the human failings found in any organization-power madness, violence in protection of that power, greed-the usual.
But Jesus…I have to agree with the officers who reported back to the Pharisees, having failed to arrest Jesus as ordered. “Where is he?” the Pharisees wanted to know. “No man ever spoke like this man,” the officer answered.
I’m not even going to address the nonsense that he never existed nor all the baloney about how unreliable the stories are. Let’s just suspend our disbelief and take a look at him as presented. Lots of stories in the Bible read like the folk tales but the four gospels do not (as you will know if you read much ancient literature.) Instead we find men reporting things they don’t understand, often shocked, constantly challenged and quite frankly not looking too good.
Jesus appears as a somewhat enigmatic, extremely intelligent construction worker/teacher. The world he came to was a mess. His nation was occupied by a foreign power and the population, quite naturally, simmered with resentment at the arbitrary commands and corrupt tax collectors. The official clergy were pompous, self-righteous jerks who came to hate him deeply. Xenophobia, racism and misogyny were rife. Welcome to the world, Jesus.
My reaction the first time I read the Sermon on the Mount was the same as his audience: “You’ve got to be kidding!” Not that I thought he was wrong; I just thought what he asked was beyond my ability to ever accomplish. When it says they were “astonished at his teaching” it does not mean they thought “Isn’t that lovely advice?” It meant they felt like they had been punched in the diaphragm. C.K. Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried.”
But he did not come to start a religion called Christianity. He came to establish a radically different way to live, extremely individual and personal, while affirming that yes, actually, you are your brother’s keeper-even scarier than that-you are to love your neighbor. Who is my neighbor? A clergyman asked, looking for the loophole. In response, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. What we may miss in the story is the challenge to Jewish racism, because Samaritans were despised by the Jews. At the end of the story, Jesus asked, “Who was a neighbor to the injured man?” The one who helped him,” the clergyman replied. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said. He often said “Go and do.” He had not come to teach us navel-gazing.
Jesus was constantly bumping up against his disciple’s materialism. They wanted a physical king and a restored kingdom; sometimes they just wanted him to provide perpetual dinner. He would not play their game. He was so challenging, they sometimes thought about leaving him. But where else could they go? No man ever spoke like this man.
Watching him interact with other people, you get the impression that he knew exactly who he was-to such an extent that he had absolutely no need to flatter or impress. This sort of directness and truthfulness can be very intimidating to we who so often hide behind masks. But not to little kids, who have the same quality. They seemed content to sit on his lap while he told the adults that unless they changed and became like the little kids they could not even see the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom was not something you enter after you die. It was among them, inside them, it was a way of life.
Contrary to many portrayals, he was not some pale, ascetic guru. He hung out with whores and drunks and worst of all-tax collectors. He was accused of being a glutton and a wino  by those self-righteous clergymen. He publicly told them they were hypocrites. Meek and mild he was not. Except with hurting people and sinners, which are a different kind of hurting people. With them, he was extremely kind.
He lived outside his culture. He did not look down on Samaritans, women or even Samaritan women who were shacking up. His admonitions to help the poor were extreme then and they are extreme now. The way we treat the “least of these” is the way we treat him. He is that poor person, that inmate, that sick, naked, hungry person. Now what will you do?
Jesus told jokes, got angry, confronted corruption and was a radical pacifist. He loved. He both said and demonstrated that love was the most precious and powerful force in the universe. He told us to love one another the way he loves us. He told us that if we love God and love our neighbor as we love our self, we have covered all of the commandments. We don’t need those commandments anymore, not the ten and not the 600+ rules in the Law, if we love the way he said.
Now “Go and do.”