Why we pay attention to Jesus? [Jesus story #1]

Ted Grimsrud—April 6, 2021

I recently looked back over the more than ten years I have been blogging at ThinkingPacifism.net. I realized that I have written quite a bit over these years about pacifism, Christian faith, politics, and other topics that have caught my attention (323 posts and counting). But in all that, I haven’t written very much about Jesus. I don’t plan to analyze why, but I am challenged to think about how the story of Jesus might be relevant to thinking about pacifism. So, I am starting a series of posts that will look at the story of Jesus as found in the gospel of Luke.

Jesus as a famous person

Jesus is a pretty amazing guy. Here’s this ancient character in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. He barely made it to his thirties and then joined countless other expendable people who the Empire considered worth executing.

Yet, in his afterlife, he became surely the most famous human being in world history. I guess somebody had to be the “most famous person,” but you wouldn’t expect it would be a character like this. Now, certainly, the story of Jesus has been twisted and turned, exploited for evil purposes, corrupted almost beyond recognition—but somehow sprouts keep shooting up through the rubble, bringing forth flowers, revealing something of the beauty of the original vision of this prophet who history can’t let go of.

Of course, I doubt I need to persuade my readers of the beauty of this vision—it seems self-evident, if we are going to think about pacifism we will want to think about Jesus. But we don’t necessarily think carefully about Jesus. I think it’s good to bring to the surface our convictions, our reasons for paying attention to Jesus.

But let’s start with a moment of reflection—what is your gut response to this question: “Why do you pay attention to Jesus?” To stimulate your thought, here are a couple of Bible passages—the first, from Isaiah, speaks of a vision the prophet was given about an agent of God’s healing, a vision Christians later related to Jesus. Second, a statement from Jesus himself from the gospel of Luke that in a sense addresses this question of why we should pay attention to him. It is his response to being asked about his own identity.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4)

The disciples of John [the Baptist] reported all these things [that is, Jesus’ teachings and healings,] to him. So, John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to [Jesus], they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:18-23)

One who paid attention to Jesus

Once upon a time, there was a brilliant young German scholar and musician who paid attention to Jesus. The seriousness with which he paid attention to Jesus led Albert Schweitzer to abandon an amazing career that combined being a professor of religion with being a world-renowned organist. He returned to school, earned a medical doctorate and spent the rest of his long life as a medical missionary in Africa—gaining enough renown to be named winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work. Supposedly Schweitzer hardly ever slept, that was how he accomplished so much—and even without sleep he lived to be 90. With proper rest he might have made it to 120.

Schweitzer’s most important scholarly work was about Jesus. In his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, he surveyed attempts by European scholars in the 19th century to produce a purely objective, historically accurate portrayal of Jesus—to get behind the obvious biases of the gospel writers to the supposed bedrock of fact.

Schweitzer scorned these efforts. He concluded his book with the famous image of various scholars peering deep into the wells of history looking for the face of the historical Jesus. They don’t realize that the face they see looking up at them is actually their own. They are not really looking at Jesus but only at a reflecting pool of water.

This image makes an undeniable, and very important, point—we all look at Jesus through our own perspective. We all look for stuff that matters to us and that speaks to our world. None of us can be objective about Jesus. We all run the risk of turning Jesus simply into a caricature of our own values and our own culture.

The impact of Schweitzer’s cutting insight, though, has been to serve unfortunately as a kind of cynical debunking tool. It’s a way to mock attempts to take Jesus seriously—ah, you’re just projecting your own interests onto Jesus and calling them his when you actually can’t know anything certain about Jesus at all.

Of course, when we look at what people have and do say about Jesus, we see such incredible diversity and countless contradictions and self-justifications. I have two books that focus on how Americans have presented Jesus—one’s called American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, the other Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession. These books make it very clear how indeed so many in our culture have confused a reflection of themselves for a picture of Jesus.

And yet….

Finding a kernel of truth in our culture’s Jesus

I think there may even be something we could call revelatory in this cacophony of images of Jesus that have been generated these past 2,000 years. Maybe we do see something of the truth in the sum of what humans, Christian and non-Christian, rich and poor, religious and secular, young and old, westerner and easterner, have and do say about Jesus.

This is how I perceive it. Jesus has become kind of a metaphor for human aspirations. He symbolizes what people want to be like, what people want life to be like. Now some people do want pretty sick things. So, we get images of Jesus wielding an assault rifle. Or a picture called “Undefeated” with Jesus the boxer, muscle-bound, leaning back against the ropes in the corner of the ring, his gloves hanging next to him, a satisfied, victorious, post-fight smirk on his face, and a banner labeled “Savior” hanging next to him.

Yet the thing is, most people see through that. Even self-affirming atheists and skeptics recognize that this macho Jesus isn’t right. Comedian Bill Maher, in his movie “Religulous” (the title comes from merging the words religious and ridiculous) goes on a 90-minute rant against religion, especially conservative Christianity. But several times he invokes Jesus as evidence on his side in his critique. You Christians are contradicting what Jesus was about, he says.

Several years ago, The National Catholic Reporter held a contest for artists to create representations of Jesus. The winner, a powerful painting called “Jesus of the People,” used a young African-American woman as its model (see the picture at the head of this post). I bet, though, if you showed a cross-section of people this picture and asked who it was, most would say, Jesus. Most people do see him as “Jesus of the people” (all the people, not just white, wealthy, powerful male people).

So, I think if we would pay attention to what people say and think about Jesus, we actually get a picture (overall) of something pretty interesting—and, I believe, not necessarily that far from the gospel portrayal. This is why this quote from historian Jaroslav Pelikan is important. “As respect for the organized church has declined, reverence for Jesus has grown. There is more in him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians. Now he belongs to the world.” As I would say it, Jesus has escaped the bounds of formal doctrine and top-down church domination.

This loosening of control over how Jesus is presented to the world has opened things up. We see an inability to prevent misuse and abuse of the message and image of Jesus, and yet we also see a ministering to wounded hearts, an empowerment for resistance to the domination system, and a reminder to so many of how the core convictions Jesus stood for contrast so sharply with the “American way.”

God’s vulnerability

We see in the story of the story of Jesus in our world a powerful reflection of God’s vulnerability. Take the story of Noah and the Flood. Each time I read about the Flood I am impressed anew at the picture of God’s vulnerability. Instead of an all-powerful, all-knowing, emotionally untouchable, above-it-all patriarch in the sky, we get in the Flood story a God brought down low by grief, a God whose heart can be broken by creation. Now, the story does tell us that out of this distress, God creates an overwhelmingly destructive flood. But the story then goes on to make clear that this retribution is deeply dissatisfactory to God. What comes out of the Flood is a new approach, one we could say embraces the vulnerability. God starts a long, fragile process of dealing with brokenness and alienation through persevering love.

The story of biblical Israel reemphasizes God’s vulnerability in the tangled path of faithfulness, alienation, obedience, injustice, destruction, renewal, tears, and fears. Then in the New Testament gospels we again see incredible vulnerability—God’s very son enters human life. He embodies this persevering love and gets executed as a revolutionary for his trouble.

The Bible itself reflects God’s vulnerability. It’s a book of writings by human beings. We develop all kinds of doctrines to assert its authority—but they all come down to human constructs, not to any inherent coercive power in the book itself. In fact, the Bible works to subvert human coercive power with its stories of suffering servants, corrupt kings, and communities of resistance.

In a nutshell, the vulnerability of God becomes our most powerful basis for belief. God’s vulnerability stands in contrast to all the energies Christians have and do exert trying to construct airtight arguments, to create and enforce overpowering doctrines, to restrict access to God and salvation with closed membership and closed rituals, and to silence doubt and questions and expressions of dissent. The true power of God to transform human hearts is the kind of power that, in Isaiah’s words, “does not break a bruised reed” (42:3). We trust Jesus because we don’t have to. We listen to the story and enter into it because it is an open story; it allows variety; it even allows contradictions and counter-stories.

And in this cacophony of many versions of the story, of many representations, as well as in the cacophony of the turmoils and traumas of life in this fallen world that seems so far from God’s intentions, we nonetheless do see Jesus. We can see in the amazing variety of responses to Jesus and the amazing variety of representations of Jesus, an affirmation by God of human aspirations. When you get down to it, and acknowledge all the terrible exceptions, human beings want to be like the “Jesus of the people.”

Another great, and in the best sense, I would say, iconic representation of Christ is also linked with radical Catholicism. This is the woodcut “The Christ of the Breadlines” by artist Fritz Eichenberg. The picture, which was created for and has become identified with the Catholic Worker movement, shows a Depression-era lineup of hurting people waiting in line for some food. Standing in the midst of the line is a humble looking character clearly recognizable as Jesus.

People, even skeptics such as Bill Maher it seems, believe that images such as the Christ of the Breadlines do give us an accurate sense of the true Jesus—and challenge us to be more like that ourselves. I think this is what Jaroslav Pelikan had in mind when he wrote that Jesus now belongs to the world. Jesus has been freed from church dogma and remarkably, the result has been growth in awareness of what his message actually was—and that this message centers on our highest human ideals.

So, we pay attention to Jesus because he does embody a lot of what we want to embody ourselves—we want to be truthful, we want to be kind, we want to be courageous, we want to say no to domination and oppression, we want to be in solidarity with people in need, we want to live simply, and we want to be generous in sharing our resources.

Looking closely at the story of Jesus

However, and this is a big however, while I believe that many of the various representations of Jesus in our world do point us toward a healing Jesus, yes, a biblical Jesus—we still would do well to solidify our understanding. The general sense of Jesus does echo the gospel accounts, I believe. Which then should become encouragement to look more closely at, to take more seriously, those very accounts. They provide all that we can know about the Jesus who actually did walk among us.

I think, though, we should read the gospels now in a kind of post-Christendom, or in a Jesus-who-belongs-to-the-world sense. What do we learn from this flesh-and-blood, pre-dogma Jewish prophet that speaks to our flesh and blood lives? This is what I want to reflect on in posts to come that will work through Luke’s gospel. I will focus on Luke not because it is uniquely truthful but mainly for the practical reason of keeping the focus as clear and simple as possible.

The passage I cited above, Luke, 7:18-23, can serve as a kind of entrée into the story. Let’s assume that when John’s disciples go to Jesus as ask him, “are you the one who is to come,” they had in mind, are you the promised Messiah, the Christ, the one God will send to bring wholeness to the world.

What is meant by Messiah (Hebrew) or Christ (Greek)? Maybe the story becomes clearer if we say that by “Christ” we mean one who truly shows us the possibilities of living as fully human persons, healthy and whole—and who provides access to this kind of living for others. A model, a guide, an empowerer. So, “Christ” is a character in solidarity with humanity, not who stands over against humanity.

So, John’s disciples ask our question—is Jesus this kind of character, a “Christ,” a model and empowerer for helping us be whole and fully human? How does Jesus himself answer? Typically, he doesn’t simply say yes or no. Partly, he recognizes that so much depends on what kind of “Christ” we are looking for. What he does do is name what it is that he stands for, what it is that he does.

This is what he says: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the leapers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22). The meaning of these words, their reception in Jesus’ world, and the ways God vindicates them make up the story of the gospel. For now, let’s just notice a couple of things.

Notice that we face a test here—what kind of people do we want to be? That will determine how we understand the validity of Jesus’s answer. Do we passionately desire healing in our own lives—and at least as much in the lives of others? Do we believe such healing, regardless of the resistance from those who benefit from the brokenness and alienation, is truly good news? If so, we will recognize that Jesus is the Christ—and we will pay attention to him because we believe he can and will help us find healing for ourselves and find power to be healers of others.

And notice Jesus’ utter vulnerability. He says, here it is. You are completely free to accept or reject this message. And (I would add), so it will always be.

More posts in the series “Jesus story” plus others related to Jesus

3 thoughts on “Why we pay attention to Jesus? [Jesus story #1]

  1. Ted, i’m looking forward to your series, as I wonder but cannot answer the question as to why I still pay attention to Jesus. Much to come! But I’m confused right out of the gate. What do you mean by “healthy and whole” (“by ‘Christ’ we mean one who (is) healthy and whole”) in the context of Jesus’ reflection of God’s vulnerability (“We see in the story of the story of Jesus … a powerful reflection of God’s vulnerability.”)? Eichenberg’s woodcut is of a sick and broken Jesus standing in line with other bent over people. I do not know how one stays healthy and whole, in the sense these words are commonly used today, and reflect God’s vulnerability. I want to reflect God’s vulnerability and yet I do not want to take on the world’s sickness and brokenness.

    1. Thanks, David. Interesting question about “healthy and whole” and “God’s vulnerability.” I guess it relates to Henri Nouwen’s idea of the “wounded healer.”

      I didn’t mean to have any deep or complicated notion of “healthy and whole.” But with your question, I realize I didn’t necessarily have in mind a notion that is fully compatible with how “these words are commonly used today.” This relates to “vulnerability,” I think. In our culture, “vulnerability” is not necessarily a prized virtue—which is part of what I’m getting at in this post.

      What I have in mind, though, is having strength and emotional sensitivity and compassion and self-awareness all at the same time. I don’t see the Jesus in Eichenberg’s woodcut as “sick and broken” so much as present with the sick and broken. But I guess such a presence certainly could involve some pain and vulnerability to the same dynamics that afflict the others in line.

      I suppose it’s about finding a balance where one is stable and strong psychologically in a way that allows one to care and serve and “reflect God’s vulnerability” without being overwhelmed by the pain and suffering of others. This is an interesting set of questions to keep in mind as we “pay attention to Jesus” in the weeks to come. I look forward to our conversations.

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