Who was Jesus? An Emerging Portrait Part 2

The human Jesus who emerges from examination continues to be a truly remarkable human being.

The Christ Pantocrator mosaic in the Hagia Sophia

The Christ Pantocrator mosaic in the Hagia Sophia

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Last week, I began a series of columns about a new portrait of Jesus which is emerging. It involves a new set of answers to three questions: Who was Jesus? What did he hope to accomplish? What did he proclaim?

As I begin to sketch out what scholars are discovering about the human Jesus, it’s important to note that he lived within the social, economic, and political context of first–century Palestine under Roman rule — a brutal time in which to live. The human Jesus who emerges from this new examination continues to be a truly remarkable human being.

Without formal education, he teaches an alternative wisdom that is still meaningful and challenging today. Although he was an intensely spiritual person, he is also profoundly political as he speaks out about the social conditions that created a class of people who were thought to be expendable.

There is, as yet, no firm consensus on all of this. Scholars argue over whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who expected the world to end within his lifetime or whether he was a non–violent social critic. But a new image is beginning to come into focus.

This week and next, I will sketch out some of the elements of that new image. Here are some ways in which Jesus is viewed today.

Jesus as a peasant

Yeshua (the name “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Joshua) was a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. As a carpenter, Yosep (Joseph) and his family were members of the artisan class, which was on the lower end of the economic and social scale. A carpenter or construction worker would be considered middle class today. But at that time, there was no middle class, and we must remember that in this regard Jesus was significantly different from most of us. Carpenters in 1st century Palestine were frequently itinerant because they had lost their land due to misfortune or indebtedness.

As a result, Jesus and his family ranked below those peasants who still worked their own land.

Jesus as poor and possessionless

Jesus was born into poverty. At his circumcision and presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem, his parents sacrificed a pigeon, the offering of the poor. Throughout his life, he identified with the poor and their plight.

Jesus and his family were not at the bottom of the ladder in his society, however. There were others worse off. The lowest level in the class structure were people who were considered to be expendable. Such expendables existed despite the high mortality rates, disease, famine and war because the lower classes produced more people than the upper classes found it profitable to employ in an agrarian economy. If they found work at all, they worked as day labourers. Otherwise, they wound up as beggars or bandits. In any event, their lives were brutal and short. Widows and orphans were also people totally without means, completely destitute and dependent on others for survival.

As a poor peasant, it also follows that Jesus had no possessions. He began his ministry as an itinerant rabbi, with nothing other than the clothes on his back. He depended on the goodwill of others for food and shelter. He encouraged others to sell their possessions in order to follow him.

Jesus as a partisan for the poor

Because he was part of the lower classes, Jesus empathized with those who were poor. A large part of his mission was “to announce good news to the poor.” He took the side of the poor. He became the voice of the poor. He stood with the poor over against the powerful elites that dominated their lives.

Jesus as a prodigy

As a peasant it was unlikely that Jesus was educated. Most peasants were illiterate and unable to read. They spent all their time trying to feed and house themselves and their family, and they had no time for anything else.

But there was something different about Jesus. He impressed those around him as “one who spoke with authority.” In conflicts with the ruling authorities of the day, both religious and secular, he was able to confound them. His teachings have lasted for 2,000 years.

Jesus as a spirit–filled person

Jesus was a spirit–filled person. He was one of those figures in human history with a deep experiential awareness of the reality of God. The Greek word for spirit is “pneuma”, which also means breath. A spirit–filled person is filled with the very breath of God. This is also the root meaning of the word “inspired”. Pneuma gives us life and animates us. Jesus simply could not conceive life without God. God was the deep foundation which animated his whole life.

Jesus as passionate and compassionate

Jesus was passionate about the reign of God. There was an urgency in his teachings. Jesus was also compassionate. He deeply felt the conditions of others. He saw compassion as a central characteristic of God. As Jesus understood the Hebrew scriptures, God had a particular compassion for the poor and the destitute. “Be merciful, just as God is merciful,” said Jesus. Be compassionate.

Next week, I will continue by offering more details of this developing portrait of Jesus.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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