Jesus’s identity—and ours [Jesus story #7]

Ted Grimsrud—April 26, 2021

I stumbled across a quote from James Thurber, the American humorist who died about 50 years ago: “All people should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.” That’s a good word about understanding Jesus’s identity—one who lived a life of running toward mercy, the path to what matters most. Then I found another quote, a profound thought from a great philosopher—Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” In our story of Jesus, he comes to a fork in the road and takes it. And challenges us to do the same. Our question, as we read the story, is: What is this fork a choice between? Another way to ask the question: What about Jesus’s choice led to his death?

Why pay attention to Jesus?

I continue to ask the question, why do we pay attention to Jesus? Remember Albert Schweitzer’s image of modern-day people seeking to discover the historical Jesus. Modern historians peer down into the well of history and see a face and think they have found the actual face of Jesus—and don’t realize that the face they see is just their own. Schweitzer’s point is that historians, like everyone else, project themselves onto whatever image of Jesus they think they are recovering.

Now, I believe this kind of projection is not a fatal problem; we can’t help but see ourselves in Jesus. We wouldn’t pay attention to Jesus if we did not somehow think that he can help us understand ourselves, see ourselves better, become our best selves. Of course, we also wouldn’t pay attention to Jesus if we didn’t think there is in him something beyond ourselves, if we didn’t think that it is indeed possible to see something true, something of God, something that actually challenges us.

Here are a few texts that hint as to why we might pay attention to Jesus:

Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness; I have given you as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon. Isaiah 42:1-9

Do not put your trust in princes. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, who made heaven and earth, who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord upholds the orphan and the widow. Psalm 146

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant. Being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name. Philippians 2:5-11

The disciples of John [the Baptist] reported on Jesus’s teachings and healings to him. So, John sent two disciples to the Lord 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.” Luke 7:18-23

So why do we pay attention to Jesus? Let me mention the general kind of answers I think many people in our culture would give, and I think these are good answers as far as they go:

  • Jesus points to something hopeful, something uplifting.
  • Jesus helps us believe that things can be different and better.
  • Jesus can be our friend and companion.
  • Jesus offers something different from the tawdriness of our society.

These kinds of things are likely not that different from what many of Jesus’s contemporaries thought, why they paid attention to him. This would include even a great prophet such as John the Baptist. These hopes are all to the good. Jesus gave them good reasons for their hope.

The story of Jesus gets more complicated

Here is where we come to the fork in the road. We learn about this great guy. A wonderful prophet, a doer of mighty deeds. A healer. One who teaches with authority. To this point, Jesus has not really angered very many people. The storm clouds can only be glimpsed far in the distance. Many have questions. For most of them, this great character who caught their attention pretty much came out of left field. He certainly didn’t arrive having jumped through the standard hoops for a religious leader. But even Pharisees at first seem somewhat receptive and treat him with respect. John the Baptist himself is curious and hopeful. A Roman centurion (an agent of the institution that will kill Jesus) treats Jesus with great honor.

As we pay attention to Jesus, today, I could see the process working in a parallel way. We hear stories growing up or from our friends, we sense here is somebody special and important. So, we try to learn more. We have an attraction to Jesus—and we decide to listen to the actual story and see what it says. Luke’s gospel is one great version of this story. So, we start to read Luke. We could say there are two things going on in the early part of Luke—one is pleasant and hopeful, the other more challenging.

The first dynamic we see is the excitement and hope that Jesus’s birth stirs up. This is the kind of excitement a lot of Christmas songs pick up on. “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice.” And then the crowds flock to Jesus when he heals and teaches. This dynamic of excitement and hope can, unfortunately, reinforce a kind of superficial optimism, something perhaps present with Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness—bring us victory and prosperity, religious and political harmony, without upsetting the applecart too much. Crowd-pleasing stuff.

The second dynamic, though, becomes apparent the more we attend to the actual story. From the start, the message about Jesus is not actually a happy, easy change, fulfill all the superficial hopes kind of message. His mother speaks of disruption. Kings will be brought low. Think about it, do kings allow themselves to be brought low passively? Hardly. Matthew’s gospel makes this clear with its story of King Herod. He massacres Judea’s children when he learns of the birth of the “king of the Jews.”

Jesus himself, in the story, takes a couple of key moments to make his priorities clear. His first public proclamation places front and center deliverance for the oppressed, release to prisoners, good news to the poor. Again, how can this message not be challenging and disruptive, difficult and complicated to implement? Anything but happy clappy. Then, later, when he goes on to speak at more length, we get the same exact message—blessings to the vulnerable, woes to the rich. But in the excitement, the challenge of his message does not seem fully to be appreciated yet.

Who is this guy?

The big fork in the road may be seen in what we read about in Luke 7. Indeed, this is a great prophet, someone proclaimed as “Lord,” even. We have learned of another prophet, John the Baptist, a kind of Elijah returned to Israel. John may not have minded the possibility of discomfort, even woe, to the rich. But he likely expected the woes to be accompanied by the sword of judgment. He sends his disciples to investigate Jesus. They see his great works; then they confront him. Are you indeed the one to come? The great deliverer? The one who will set things right for us?

In raising this question, John’s disciples speak for many others across the social spectrum—is Jesus the one to lead a violent revolution against Rome? The one to unify the Jews under the authority of the Temple? The one who will ensure enough material prosperity to undermine those agitating for disruptive social change?

Well, as he often does, Jesus answers the question his own way, not with a simple yes or no. He gives some evidence, concluding with an implicit, “So what do you think?” What’s the evidence? “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 [John’s disciples], ‘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” (Luke 7:21-22).

This last phrase summarizes everything: “The poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus repeats once again the core message we see from the start of his life. He is the one to come, indeed, but as such his focus is on good news for the poor, on challenge to the status quo, and on God’s preferential option for the vulnerable and people in need. A social revolution indeed, but not based on the sword; based, rather on a message of love and compassion for vulnerable people, a message meant to permeate the entire social order.

What does it mean to say that Jesus is indeed “the One” in light of his answer to John’s disciples’ question? This is the key to the entire story. And it is here that paying attention to the content of the story becomes so crucial. When we pay attention, we will likely move from the quick and easy hope and excitement that a Jesus of wishful thinking elicits. We will likely move toward a fork in the road ourselves about how much attention we actually do want to pay to Jesus. Jesus’s answer is, in the end, a statement about his identity, for sure, and as such a statement about our identity. It’s also, in the same way, a statement about God’s identity. Jesus is the one to come—God’s Son, the revelation of God among humanity.

Jesus reveals God

Jesus as the One, Jesus as the revelation of God, Jesus as the revelation of what human beings are meant to be shows us what matters most in life. Jesus reveals God in the bringing of good news to the poor. We will find God among the most vulnerable of the human race. We will find God in works of service, in the politics of compassion, and in practices of transformative peacemaking.

Luke drives this point home—Jesus as “the One to come” who reveals God in bringing good news to the poor—with the powerful story that concludes chapter seven. A Pharisee invites Jesus as the guest of honor to a dinner party. A woman “who was a sinner” interrupts the party and offers Jesus her tears and ointment, bathing his feet. This offends the Pharisee. Jesus must not be much of a prophet if he doesn’t realize that this woman doesn’t belong here, soiling this meeting of righteous folk.

We know, of course, if we are reading sympathetically, that Jesus in his welcome, his unconditional welcome, of this weeping sinner, indeed in this very act, Jesus displays his essence as a great prophet. This is what the One to come does. Jesus comes to the big fork in the road: Either a ministry of acclaim and victory, or a ministry of resistance and suffering. This fork in the road faces us too as we discern whether truly to pay attention to Jesus.

The post-fork-in-the-road part of the story beginning in Luke nine takes us to the point where the story moves to a minor key. The darkening clouds we get hints of in Luke seven move to the center of the sky. Jesus foretells his death. He challenges his followers: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:61).

As we follow the story, we will move ever further from the pleasant, Jesus-as-our-best-self-image (valid as this might be as a starting point) to a Jesus-in-conflict image. It is only in this Jesus-in-conflict image that we get to the heart of Jesus’s identity (and God’s identity, and our identity if we to be fit for the kingdom of God). When we follow the gospel story, we will see that the conflicts that lead to Jesus’s death are not things unique to his story, necessary for him to be an atoning sacrifice so we don’t have to suffer. No, the conflicts are the very pattern of Jesus and the model for those who would live in this world as God’s people.

The pattern of Jesus in recent history

I’ll close with three modern examples of this pattern. It is uncanny, really, to look at the intersection of Jesus-oriented Christianity with the wars of 20th century America. We see the same dynamic in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War.

Jane Addams was one of the great practitioners of the social gospel a century ago. Her commitment, creative vision, and charismatic leadership led to the establishment in Chicago of a great work of “good news for the poor” called Hull House. Hull House combined training and assistance that empowered vulnerable people with a vital intellectual climate of conversation concerning the big issues of the day.

Then, the Great War (“World War I”) erupted in Europe, and American liberals (many of whom had supported Hull House) allowed themselves to be drawn into the war. Jane Addams spoke against the war before and after America entered—and she lost the support of many of her pro-war liberal benefactors. Addams was driven to deep depression at the hostility she faced for simply applying the same gospel message that underlay the Hull House work to the issue of warfare.

A little later came Dorothy Day, who encountered Jesus and began the Catholic Worker movement. As with Hull House a generation earlier, the Catholic Worker gained wide support for its creative works of service and empowerment. However, Dorothy Day also ran head on into pro-war passions. When the U.S. joined in World War II, Day and the Catholic Worker continued to speak against war—and suffered a great deal as a consequence. Their support dried up, they were forced to close many of their houses of hospitality, and the circulation of their newspaper fell dramatically.

The third example came in the 1960s. Following the path of Jane Addams and Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King embodied a Jesus-centered gospel that empowered the vulnerable. The Civil Rights movement, though facing tremendous opposition, accomplished tremendous good. King gained strong support in time from many good liberals, including President Lyndon Johnson.

However then, also following the path of Jane Addams and Dorothy Day, King applied the same gospel message that had fueled his work bringing empowerment to the vulnerable to saying no to war, the War in Vietnam. And, tragically, history repeated itself and King also lost a great deal of support from war-affirming former allies.

We can’t be surprised at these stories. We could find many more throughout history. When Luke presents us with a Jesus as the One to come, as God’s messiah, it presents us with a picture of reality. A challenging picture. When Jesus came to the fork in the road he took it—choosing the path of most resistance. In doing so, he revealed to all who come after what matters most. Compassion all the way down.

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

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