Who was Jesus? An Emerging Portrait: Part 3

Prophetic, political, present-oriented, persistently inclusive, paradoxical, panentheistic

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

T his is the last in a series of columns about a new portrait of Jesus which is emerging. This portrait involves a new set of answers to these three questions: Who was Jesus? What did he hope to accomplish? What did he proclaim?

It focuses on the human Jesus who lived some 2000 years ago in 1st century Palestine under Roman rule. Last week, I focused primarily on Jesus as a poor peasant who advocated on behalf of the poor. He also rose beyond his humble origins, to speak with authority and confound the ruling authorities of his day. Let me continue with some other elements.

Jesus as prophetic

Jesus was a prophet. Let me be clear here. A prophet is not someone who predicts the future. In Hebrew thought, a prophet tries to discern where God is present in life and draw attention to that. The practical purpose of prophecy in this sense is to persuade the people (as a group) to change their way of life. Every prophet looked for a social conversion.

In particular, like the classical prophets of Israel, Jesus saw himself as a social prophet. He criticized the social elites of his time and advocated an alternative social vision. The result was that he was often in conflict with the religious and political authorities.

Jesus as political

As a social prophet, Jesus was obviously political. Even though many church leaders say we have to separate the political and the sacred spheres of life, it is quite clear that Jesus cared about all aspects of human life, including social, political, and economic.

Jesus became a model of radical social action for the world. The word “radical” comes from a Latin word meaning “root.” Jesus social action was radical because it went to the root of the problem. His solution sought to lead the Jews back to the root of their identity as God’s people.

Jesus was looking for transformation of the structures of his day, in which all people shared in the wealth of the universe. He lived among a people who were oppressed by the systems of the day—political, economic, and even religious systems. In confronting these systems, Jesus showed a way out of that kind of oppression.

Jesus as present–oriented

Jesus didn’t teach about a heavenly afterlife. He was immersed in the here and now. He was looking for the reign of God to become a reality on earth. He longed for people to live together in ways that made life whole, good and just for all people, not just for the ones on the top of the heap. When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven as Matthew calls it), he wasn’t talking about something that happens after we die. Jesus calls his followers to work with God to create a new order here and now.

Jesus as persistently inclusive

Jesus shared meals with social outcasts. He openly welcomed despised tax collectors, prostitutes and Samaritans. He touched lepers and healed those with mental illness. He reached out to include everyone. In Jesus’ world, there are no insiders or outsiders. All are welcome.

Jesus as paradoxical

A paradox is statement that seemingly contradicts reality or defies intuition. It seems unbelievable or absurd, but may be actually true. Many of the teachings of Jesus are contrary to popular belief and conventional wisdom both in the 1st century and the 21st century. Only Jesus would say “Love your enemies” or “The last will be first and the first last” or “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it.”

Jesus as panentheistic

Jesus believed that God was within and among us. He didn’t believe that God was located in a single dwelling place, either heaven or the Jerusalem Temple. God is to be found in all people, all created things. He showed people that he lived in an atmosphere saturated by God.

What did Jesus hope to accomplish?

Jesus’ message was that at the centre of everything is a reality (God) that is in love with us and wills our well–being. He painted a vision of a compassionate world in words, images and actions so that human beings could see reality from a totally different perspective and assume a radically new identity centered in God.

The kingdom of God is a vision of a radical transformation of human beings and institutions (social, political, economic and religious) so that they might express the character and nature of God. He believed that the rule of God in human lives and institutions will transform the social structures of hierarchy, domination and inequity to structures of equality.

The kingdom of God movement, begun by Jesus, is a gathering of people who have decided to follow Jesus along this path. It is a community of people who are committed to the new values of the new order. These are people who listen to the words of Jesus and act on them.

Jesus as persistently subversive

As a result of seeking that kind of transformation, Jesus was a subversive sage and a troublemaker. Like Socrates, Jesus undermined the safe assumptions of conventional wisdom. He focused on the poor, the sick, the handicapped—on the injustices of the world he saw around him.

As we embrace this new portrait of Jesus, we can see and hear his message with new eyes and ears. His message speaks to us clearly across the ages.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook