ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: The Good News is That Jesus is Stranger Than You Think But Better Than You Can Possibly Imagine

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Good News is That Jesus is Stranger Than You Think But Better Than You Can Possibly Imagine

The great theologian and missionary Albert Schweitzer said that Jesus was "a stranger and an enigma" to his generation! In his amazing review of Lives of Jesus written in the 18th-19th centuries he made the point that scholars had simply been making Jesus into their own image. Schweitzer's challenge was powerful when it was first written and it is powerful today. The temptation for all Christians is to shape the materials we have about Jesus to fit our own preconceptions and ideals. As much as possible we all want a Jesus that looks and acts an awful lot like us!

The problem is that Jesus just doesn't fit in any of the boxes in which we put him. For example, what happens when we try to fit everything that Jesus said and did in the "nice-compassionate-man" box? Well, Jesus actually breaks out of that box. Not only in the nasty outburst in the temple scene but in his encounter with a Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter. In response to her plea, "Lord, help me" Jesus said to her, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." Now that hardly seems like a nice or comassionate response by any cultural standard. And yet there it is. So we either have to worm our way around the not-niceness of the response and offer lame reinterpretations to make this incident fit our conceptions of niceness or maybe we just throw out the nice box altogether.

Here's a thought. Jesus doesn't have to be "nice" or "kind" or "loving" or "compassionate" or anything else. Maybe we shouldn't try to apply any external standards at all to the words and actions of Jesus. When we do this it actually places our human concepts above Jesus. In this way we turn ourselves and our human values and morals into the standard by which Jesus is judged! The result of this approach is that we just squeeze out all of the challenging material about Jesus' behavior and focus on the things that match our cultural and psychological conceptions of what is good and right. And whether the end result is a liberal or a conservative Jesus doesn't really matter. Either way we have an image of Jesus modified (in reality falsified) to suit our own tastes and preferences.

Let me suggest an alternate approach to the strange and difficult materials about Jesus in the gospel records. When asked by Moses to reveal His name God said, "I Am That I Am." Nothing like answering a question with a riddle! Interesting that Yahweh puts the emphasis on the "That" of his existence rather than the "What." Ultimately, what God is is dependent on the fact that God is! By focusing on the "That" of God's existence we come find a true answer to the question, "What is God?" The same is true of Jesus. Our task is not to judge "what" he said and did by our own human standards and values but to focus on the mere "That" of his existence. Instead of letting our concepts determine our image of Jesus we need to let the existence of Jesus itself shape our notions of what it means to be human, truly human!

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