Who Is This Jesus?
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Each year at this time, we celebrate his birth, but it seems that his message has been lost amidst all the frenzied commercialism. We know the basics: that he was born, was baptized by John the Baptist, that his ministry probably lasted about three and a half years; that he was crucified by Roman authorities with the connivance of his local detractors. Christians say that he arose from the dead, continued for a period with his teachings, and then mysteriously departed. He is regarded not as simply another great teacher who said wise things but as the Incarnation of the Creator God.
He was probably short by modern standards, dark complexioned from long days in the desert and from trudging along the roadways of Palestine. He probably bore calluses from physical labor with tools during his early years. He would have worn a beard. He never seems to have owned a thing other than the simple clothes on his back. Although he occasionally traveled by boat or astride a donkey, most of the time he walked everywhere. His diet consisted of whole grain bread, vegetables, fish and red wine. Nearly everything we know about him is found in the written accounts of four men, only one of whom may have witnessed his acts of mercy and kindness and spiritual insights.
His oratory had to have been captivating, given that it is remembered and celebrated even now, over 2000 years later. His parables, especially “The Good Samaritan” and “The Prodigal Son,” are among the world’s most beautiful stories, their subtle, underlying messages packing even more punch than the tales themselves. He required no litmus test of anyone who sought him out. The multiple marriages and relationships of a Samaritan woman whom he met at a well were forgiven, although he admonished her to go forth and sin no more. He appears as concerned with the personal consequences of one’s offenses as with their effects upon others.
Those who obsessed on the minutiae of the law, while stubbornly ignoring its spirit condemned him for his association with society’s outcastes: Lepers, prostitutes, beggars, foreigners, the detested tax collectors and others.
His most stern rebukes were reserved for more serious violations. He preached that he had come not to contradict the Mosaic Law but to fulfill it. He defined the spirit of Law as requiring love of God and love of neighbor. He responded with the story of the Samaritan when asked who is one’s neighbor; all people are neighbors.
The polar opposite of the love that he insisted upon is hardheartedness. In the story of Lazarus and the rich man in St. Luke’s Gospel, the consequences of hardheartedness are illustrated in colorful detail. The rich man, impervious to the cries of the impoverished, pain-racked Lazarus at his gate, finds himself spending his afterlife in hades. Even there, he demands that the patriarch Abraham order Lazarus to bring him water with which to quench his thirst in his place of torment. In his arrogance and sense of entitlement, even in hell, he insists that the poor man Lazarus exists to serve him. His demands are denied, and his condition remains unchanged.
C.S. Lewis theorizes that hell is a very real, self-imposed condition, that each person is confined by his refusal to relinquish whatever deficiency of character lies at the root of his imprisonment. If given the opportunity, most, in the words of John Milton, would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. So it would seem to be with the rich man and others with the hardest of hearts.
In chapter 25 of the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus defines the vast difference between kindness and hardheartedness and at the same time identifies himself with all who suffer. “I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
Or, you did not. No room here for Ayn Rand’s, “I am not my brother’s keeper,” even among national candidates who profess to follow Jesus, but instead, “Store up treasures on earth,” whether in the form of filthy lucre or political clout.
Jesus preaches peace, but he is no pacifist. When he finds the sanctity of the Temple in Jerusalem violated by loud, raucous moneychangers and salesmen, he overturns their tables, arms himself with a whip, and sends them fleeing.
If one agrees with John Muir that cathedrals built by man pale in comparison to those created by nature’s God, one wonders how Jesus looks upon those who defile the earth today. It seems that all spirituality is inspired and nourished by a sense of wonder. The world of nature provides perhaps the most evident portal through which to wonder.
Love, agape, lies at the very root of Biblical ethics. The Decalogue mandates that one dare not lie to, steal from, murder, bear false witness against nor covet the wife of one’s neighbor/brother. In that spirit, one can only reason that it is equally wrong to contaminate the air one’s brother breathes or the water he drinks or to deny him basic human rights or a livable environment.
In his first Epistle to St. Timothy, St. Paul explains that it is not money but the love of money that brings out the worst in people. For those professing Judeo-Christian values, wealth requires generosity, an eagerness to share, “To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God,” in the words of the Prophet Micah. St. Paul tells us, echoing Jesus, that if we possess adequate food and clothing, the basics, we should be content. Jesus warns, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
In committing to follow him, we are expected to practice kindness, mercy, and forgiveness, and to struggle for justice. He denounces holier than thou attitudes, divisions of class or ethnicity, cruelty, rapaciousness, greed, self-aggrandizement, but extends the hand of forgiveness, friendship, brotherhood to even the worst of offenders, like St. Peter who denied him and St. Paul who persecuted his followers. To the degree that we are forgiving of those who persecute us, we will be forgiven, a hard saying, but he makes it clear that by our judgments we will be judged.
On October 2, 2006, a milk tanker truck driver named Charles Carl Roberts III entered West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania, shooting and killing five little Amish girls and severely wounding five others before taking his own life. Almost immediately, the local bishop admonished his people, “We must not think evil of this man.”
The Amish community reached out to the family of Roberts, concerned that his wife had lost a husband and his children a father, even establishing a charitable fund to help them with their loss. Thirty Amish attended Roberts’s funeral. The secular world was astonished by this act of Christian charity; the Amish and others were not.
S.S. Colonel Herbert Kappler was one of the cruelest persons to surface during the Holocaust of World War II. He was responsible for countless Jewish people being sent to the gas chambers. His hatred was especially directed at Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican”, so excellently portrayed by Gregory Peck in the movie The Scarlet and the Black.
Because O’Flaherty rescued and concealed 6500 allied servicemen and Jewish civilians in barns and convents from the Nazis, Kappler tried to have the kindly priest assassinated on more than one occasion. Lugwig Koch, the chief of the fascist police in Rome bragged that he would torture O’Flaherty before killing him if he got his hands on him. After the war, O’Flaherty visited Kappler in prison monthly for the rest of his life, overseeing his conversion to Christianity and baptizing him in 1959.
Whenever his church devolves into a coterie of mutually congratulatory “nice” people congratulating one another on their niceness, the life, the teachings and the sacrifice of Jesus is trivialized, as are the heroic acts of such as O’Flaherty and forgiveness and love of the Amish of Lancaster County. The church of Jesus Christ must at all times function as a free clinic, its doors flung wide open in welcome to all wounded and ailing souls.
Antebellum southern preachers who defended slavery and more recent ones arguing on behalf of segregation and racism, stand in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, but he warned of wolves in sheep’s clothing. He tells us that blasphemy, attributing evil to the Holy Spirit, will exact a heavy price; perhaps those who use his words to justify the marginalization or persecution of any group or individual do so at great spiritual risk.
It would seem that the foundation for any ethical system would be a simple question, “How would you like it?” that is, if the shoe were on the other foot.
Jesus offers the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
That is who this Jesus is.