"He was born in a small village, the son of a peasant woman.This anonymous poem, to which I have added the sentence in coloured font, describes the dialectical mission of Jesus of Nazareth, born and executed in Palestine some two thousand years ago. It harmonizes with the biblical themes applied many times to Jesus: the stone rejected by the builders, has been converted into the cornerstone of the building (1). The rejected stone becomes the conerstone.
This dialectics of Jesus can be described as "a debate on God", employed by the "official" representatives of God. In this debate, Jesus ended up being accused and condemned for blasphemy, and later came to be proclaimed as the "Word" and the "Only Son" of God.
His blasphemy consisted in announcing, believing in, and showing evidence of, the presence of a God different than the god of religious and political powers -- a God of those people who were excluded and marginalized by those powers. In this way that anonymous man, who was no doctor, who held no public office nor wrote books, turned out achieving the greatest spiritual revolution of human history: he established the fact that the way to God does not pass through power nor through the temple, nor through the priesthood, nor through aesthetics, not even through the Law, but through the excluded people of history. This is a revolution that cannot easily be understood by us. But it "is there" -- and it is there for us too, to reveal what is in our hearts. As Simeon said: "This child will reveal the condition of many hearts" (Lk 1,35).
We begin by simply asking several of the first witnesses what Jesus meant for each one of them. It is important that we ask several witnesses so that the variety of answers might have the power to surprise us. Each answer has something to say and no single answer can say it all.
1.1 Paul: Liberation of Freedom
Paul was that fanatical persecutor of Christians who ended up becoming one of them and acting as leader for many of them. Like us he was not an immediate witness of the life of Jesus but only of his resurrection. Paul lived with the obsession of communicating his experience of Jesus. For him the truth of the gospel "is the freedom we have in Jesus the Messiah" (Gal 1,5 and 1,4); and this freedom arises from the fact that "in Jesus the Messiah there no longer exists Jew or pagan, woman or man, freeman or slave" (Gal 3,28). This message was so radical that twenty centuries of Christianity have not been able to give it sufficient reality.
This freedom emanates from the fact that a person no longer needs to win God for oneself (nor to reconcile oneself with one's own superego) on the basis of one's moral righteousness since "the Messiah has rescued us from the curse of morals" (Gal 3,13), without condemning us on this account to the slavery of desire. Why? Because God's unconditional love of towards every human being and God's being decidedly on the side of humankind have been clearly made manifest in Jesus.
This unconditional love gives back to the human beings dignity and tranquil
confidence that Paul expresses with the Jesus-sounding word "affiliation":
Christ came to make us children and his Spirit in us clamours "Abba" (Father)
(Gal 4,5-6). Alluding to situations known in his time, Paul qualifies this
filial freedom as:
(Rom 8,21 and Gal 5,13).
The fact that God permits the death of Jesus on the cross rather than doing away with his assassins(2), and that Jesus should act in the same way (without having recourse to God to escape from his tormentors) reveals up to what point God and Jesus are on the side of human beings. To this end Paul says that he does not wish to presume anything other than the cross of Christ (Gal 6,14) and that he is not interested in knowing anything other than "Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1Cor 2,2). But the passionate temperament of Paul is aware that speaking in this way is limited so in the same letter he proposes the most important teaching on the resurrection of the entire New Testament (1Cor 15). And in the previous letter he also recognizes that when "the heads of the apostles" ratified his gospel of freedom, they recommended too that "he should not forget the poor" (Gal 2,10) which he confesses he had done with all enthusiasm. We now move on to another witness.
1.2 James: The Poor of the Kingdom (Cf. Jm 2,5)
James, "the brother of the Lord" who had not believed in him during Jesus' life, witnessed an apparition of the risen Lord, and ended up believing in Jesus and being a leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem. It appears he had difficulty integrating his faith in Jesus with his old Jewish religiosity. But these same difficulties served in his experience of Jesus Christ, to underline what was most valid and definitive from the tradition of the Old Testament: the identity between God and justice.
Indeed, after his meeting with Jesus, James writes that "the faith in the
glorified Lord" is not compatible with treating the rich better than the
poor in the community, because this would be to "blaspheme the beautiful
name that we invoke", since the poor are "the chosen people of God and
the heirs of the kingdom" (Jm 2,1-7). If this holds true for the internal
relations of the Christian community, it will also lend strength to the
diatribes of the prophets against the rich where civil society is concerned.
Those that live saying: "We will go to that city, we will do business there
and make money ..." should know that " ... unpaid salaries to workers raise
protests in heaven. ...and these reach the ears of the Lord"; that they
are only "killing the Just One who does not resist", and that some day
they will have to face the coming of the Lord (Jm 4,13 - 5,8). These are
From the time of Luther, theology believed that some contradiction could be found between the moralism of this letter and the freedom of the Pauline faith. This contradiction is weakened considerably if we pay attention to the specific example that James uses to criticize faith without deeds (Jm 2,15-16): this type of faith could be likened to a person who seeing his brother hungry and cold, would limit himself to saying: " ... cover yourself up with warm clothing and eat well ...", without helping him in any way. That is to say: freedom without solidarity is a farce of freedom. Something that Paul too accepts.
Curiously enough, this language reminds one of the gospel of Luke (who was Greek and a disciple of Paul!) which was hard against the rich and had beatitudes for the poor. This shows that, though each witness processed the experience of Jesus in his own way, there were many things that they had in common because of their reference to the same Source -- Jesus (see too what we will be saying of St. Matthew in Ch 2, para 3,1).
1.3 John: The End of Religion
The writings said to be of John are not of one author but of a whole community, and while they were being redacted have passed through different phases. This community appears to have had the most intense experience of Jesus. No other writing of the New Testament speaks so intensely about Jesus. But, when speaking about Jesus, it speaks about God and about love towards others. He who does not know the Son does not know the Father (1Jn 2,23; Jn 14, 9). But one knows the Son "by keeping his commandment" (15,10). This commandment is the one of "Love each other". Although it appears to be an old commandment (in fact it is present in all religions), for the follower of Jesus it is a "new" commandment (1Jn 2,7), because Jesus has converted it into an experience of God. For this reason, if we love each other " ... we have passed from death to life and we have known God ..." (1Jn 3,14 and 4,7). On the other hand, if somebody says that he loves God whom he does not see but does not love his brother whom he does see (and whom, at times, is not loveable!) is a fraud (1Jn 4,20). The experience, therefore, of God made through Jesus by this community can be summarized in the phrase "God is love": which should not be separated from the other phrase: "God is light" (1Jn 4,7 and 1,5).
We warn that this gospel cannot be reduced to the sentence of Jesus "The Father and I are one", if one does not add to this the commandment of love. Because the first sentence was probably said to mark the difference between Jesus and ourselves and the exclusivity of Christ. To reduce it to a common mystical experience in which one can later incorporate everything runs the danger of incorporating everything except the victims who do not usually fit in with these experiences. The community of John warns expressly against this: "If somebody possessing goods of the earth, sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, the love of God does not dwell in him" (1Jn 3,17).
1.4 Peter: The Non-Violence of God
The author of the first letter of Peter appears to project his own experience of Jesus on the recipients of this letter when he tells them that "they have tasted how good the Lord is" (1P 2,3) and on account of that they love and believe in Jesus without having known him (1P 1,8). But he wants to warn them that this goodness they love turns God into something weak and into a stumbling block in this world, like the stone that was rejected by the builders (1P 2,6-7). And he wishes that this remembrance give strength to his readers to bear "being rejected for the sake of Christ" or "to suffer for the sake of being Christians" (1P 4,14 and 16): because in this way they will follow in the footsteps of Jesus Who did not commit sin nor did they find any deceit in his mouth, Who when insulted did not return insult for insult, nor did he reply to maltreatment with threats, and whose wounds cured us because -- dying for our sins -- he opened for us the way for us to die to our sins and live for justice (1P 2,22-24).
We do not know if Peter is the author of this letter replete with allusions to the Isaiah's suffering servant. But one understands that the letter was put under his name to evoke the Christian way of handling conflict. As well, the letter was in remembrance of Peter who, before his inner conversion, had replied with the sword and denied Jesus but was finally regenerated by his pardon. Whatever the case may be, the author of the letter tries to bring about that this non-violent attitude marks not only the social relations of the Christian (1P 2,10ff), his family (1P 3,1ff) and ecclesial (1P 5,1ff) relations but also his reply to persecution. Because in the measure he participates in the rejection of the cornerstone, he participates too in its final destiny. This leads to the formulation that "free men are not those who take freedom as a pretext for evil" but those who "by doing good try to close the mouths of fools" (1P 2,15 and 16).
The memory of Jesus in some of his first witnesses is revealed as a true shaking up in human religiosity and an authentic debate on God. Jesus seems to have spoken little about God. But he put in practice a God that was
Jesus must have been born towards the fifth year before our era. One of his biographers, who assures us that he has looked into the matter most carefully (in spite of various theories about literary forms) affirms that he was born in a cave that served as a stable or manger. He lived as a child in Nazareth, and, as was customary, learned the profession of his father. In the jargon of today Jesus was a construction worker.
Jesus must have listened to the preaching of John the Baptist since he went to be baptized by him. With this preaching (or perhaps as a result of a hypothetical contact with a Jewish religious sect called the Essenes) there developed within him a unique experience of God along with a particular consciousness of mission. I call it unique because it did not fall within any of the four religious/political (4) groups that divided the society in which he lived: neither in the aristocracy of the Sadducees, nor in the group of the practising Pharisees, nor in the group of "monks" of the Essenes, nor in what at that time would be the seed of those unorganized revolutionary "zealots" who understood the need for justice.
At most we could say that Jesus was very near these last two. However he also separated himself from the Essenes because he refused to despise the masses and to consider himself as belonging to the group of the "holy and pure". Also he separated himself from the "zealots" because he rejected terrorist violence as a means of liberation.
More than the Roman occupation itself (5) what appears to have irritated Jesus even more in connection with the Roman Empire was the collaboration of the sacerdotal aristocracy (Sadducees) with it. Finally, the fact that Jesus never married gives us another characteristic of the marginalization that existed in his society.
When he was about 28 years old, he began to move around in the towns of Galilee, Judea, Samaria and the Decapolis, announcing the coming of a divine intervention in history which he called the "kingdom of God". It also appears certain that in this itinerary Jesus eluded (deliberately?) the big cities.
This activity seems to have been marked by some "inaugural gesture". First there was his baptism by John, as though he was just another sinner, and with a kind of "filial" experience that confirmed his consciousness of mission. Then there was the discourse recorded in the fourth chapter of Luke. At the beginning of his ministry, in the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus stood up and publicly read verses from chapter 61 of Isaiah (suppressing perhaps the sentence that talks of vengeance). He commented that this prophecy was being fulfilled "this very day" before them. This event provoked the first serious conflict.
His approach was not only verbal. It was accompanied by a series of "eye-catching" healings of, contacts with, and being received by "impure" people. He often had meals with the socially excluded. Whatever be the case, his activity unleashed immediately a successful popular acclaim among the masses and an increasing reticence in "ecclesiastical" circles. The gospels merit credence when they describe Jesus surrounded by "masses", "crowds", "multitudes", and when they relate that those crowds were amazed by the "power of freedom" (exousía) of his words, which were not like those of the Scribes and Pharisees. The beginning of Mark also talks about this fame and success, and a pattern of "suspicious" conduct. In the space of just two chapters, Jesus touches a leper (=contracts impurity), calls a publican, breaks twice the law of the Sabbath and attributes to himself the divine power of forgiving sins. It is almost normal that this way of starting out should lead to a negative verdict by the "well-thinking" people (Mk 3,6). So it seems historically certain that Jesus rejected the way of power.
Towards the middle of his public life, an important crisis is produced: his disciples frequently receive the reproach of not understanding. The people, too, appear to be disconcerted. The evangelist puts on the lips of Jesus this hard reproach: "You look for me not because you understand my signs but because you have eaten to satiety". The Pharisees ask him for an irrefutable sign which Jesus refuses to give. The crisis led him to put his disciples to the test. It seems certain that thanks to an impulsive and generous confession of Peter, the disciples start resolving their bewilderment (6). They and the people in their wake were attracted more by the force of his charism than on account of having understood him fully.
The second part of his way, appears to have been marked by a more clouded horizon. Although the crisis does not alter the "touched bowels" of Jesus that were the driving force of all his activity, a search for new ways is noted -- less appearances in public, more dedication to his disciples, and some periods of refuge abroad (7). The testimony of the gospels seem credible too, when, in this second half, they recount fewer of Jesus' healings and miracles.
1.3 The outcome
The confrontation persists until Jesus decides to face it, by going up to Jerusalem to take it to the very centre of his Jewish faith. His stay in Jerusalem follows a similar pattern to that of his previous years: Clamorous success on his arrival (with the concomitant fear of the religious leaders), days of controversy in the atrium of the temple, some shaking words of Jesus regarding Jerusalem in which he defined the religious capital as one which "kills prophets and stones those who have been sent by God" and, finally, the decision of the high priests to accelerate the "final solution". According to the chronology of the gospels, less than a week in Jerusalem, and between one or two years of activity in Palestine. Up to this point he was very upsetting.
The biographical account does not permit us to say much more. Contrary
to what is usually thought, this is not only unfortunate but is also an
expression of a desired anonymity. One of the most ancient hymns
celebrating beleif in Jesus proclaims that his "divine condition" was not
an obstacle to him presenting himself as "one of so many and acting as
an ordinary man" (Phil 2,7ff). A presentation of Jesus would fail if the
reader did not succeed in imagining him as one of the ordinary people --
one more among the sinners who approached John to be baptized; walking
along the streets as an ordinary man, without any type of carriage or "limousine"
that would distinguish him from the rest of the people; dressed as the
Galileans of his time; using the baths and public pools with the possibility
of encountering those who were there (Jn 5,2ff), without the necessity
of building his own exclusive installations; dealing precisely with those
people whom the "in-group" avoided. The shortness of his biography is the
expression of the anonymity that is the essential factor of his theology.
1 The words of Psalm 117 are applied to Jesus in the synoptic gospels (cf. Mk 12,10) in the Acts (4,11), and in 1Pe 2,4 and 7. Partially also in Eph 2,20. Together with Psalm 109 and the poems of the Servant of Isaiah, it is one of the texts of the Old Testament that is most applied to Jesus.
3 The letter speaks of "orphans and widows" who in the society of the Old Testament were the paradigm of exclusion on account of their total lack of resources. As far as "the criteria of this world" is concerned, they seem to be those that are censured next in order that they do not enter the Christian community: "to treat the rich better and to despise and oppress the poor".
5 Although the possibility cannot be excluded that the evangelists toned down the opposition of Jesus to the Romans since the gospels were to be spread in the empire. As they must have done, no doubt, with the figure of Pilate.
Speaking in parables does not seem to be the fruit of this "change of tactics"
since it is chronologically before the crisis. It forms part of the colourful
style of Jesus. But later the evangelists understood this language as a
confirmation of the blindness of the leaders who "seeing do not see and
hearing do not hear".
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