Who was Jesus? This is the second of four sermons I’m preaching during Lent, exploring how Christians have answered that question ever since Jesus walked through the hills of Galilee, praying, teaching and healing, and turning over tables in the temple of Jerusalem. If you missed the first one, there are copies hanging in the hall outside the sanctuary, and all our sermons are posted on our website.
The only sources we have for knowing about Jesus, except for one or two sentences written by the Jewish historian Josephus referring to Jesus being crucified, are in the gospels. That is where modern, progressive Jesus scholars, like those in the Jesus Seminar, have turned in their quest for understanding the historical Jesus. It’s to those scholars, over the years, I have turned to better understand him.
To know who Jesus was, you have to first acknowledge that he was a first century Jew, born into poverty, raised in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee, living under Roman occupation.
In seminary I took a class on the Gospel of Mark taught by a Franciscan monk. During the class we looked at how Jesus was portrayed through the arts, especially film. Many of them brought us to tears - tears of laughter, as his Jewishness seemed to be erased, and he was presented as a tall, handsome, fair-complected, (sometimes even blond!) blue-eyed surfer dude. After all, who could fall in love with a Jesus who wasn’t physically attractive?
Truth be told, he probably looked more like a typical peasant from 1st century Galilee. Richard Neave, a medical artist, along with a team of researchers, reconstructed this image using an Israeli skull dating back to the 1st century. Then they used computer programs, clay, simulated skin and their knowledge about the Jewish people of the time to determine the shape of the face and color of the eyes and skin. They say he would have been about 5’1” and would have weighed about 110 pounds.
From the scriptures, we know he dressed like a Jew, wearing the traditional “tzit zit” or “fringes.” They were worn to remind them of the commandments of the Lord and that they were to follow them. We hear this in the story of the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 months and reaches out to touch them.
Mark tells us “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplace, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.”
In the gospels he ate like a Jew, keeping kosher, the dietary requirements established in the Torah. But he had no hesitation in bending the rules when it came to who he ate with: including sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors, as we hear in the story in Luke, of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, who was perched in a tree to get a better look at Jesus coming through town.
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
Not only did he go, he invited himself! Jesus followed the commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai - as far as he understood them. Amy Jill Levine tells us, “In some cases he agreed with the majority of the rabbinic tradition, in others he sided with the minority.” I would add, in other matters he forged his own path and understanding. We often hear him arguing like a Jew with the scribes and Pharisees, and other Jews. Jews are known for this - even today.
Jesus’ Jewishness colored his entire ministry. We can’t understand him and his teachings without knowing the culture and traditions he came from. Equally important, even more so, is understanding Jesus as a Spirit Person. Some call him a Jewish mystic, or a mediator of the sacred. It is foundational to everything else Jesus was. He’s one of those persons in human history, and there are many, to whom the Spirit was an experiential reality.
They come from many different cultures, but are central to the Jewish tradition. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Elisha and the prophets, all had experiences of God. So did Peter and Paul. A Spirit Person has vivid and frequent experiences of another level or dimension of reality.
Those of us in the modern, western world understand reality in material terms. It’s one-dimensional. A spirit person also experiences a non-material, multi-dimensional reality. Marcus Borg explains that “These experiences involve momentary entry into non-ordinary states of consciousness, and take on a number of different forms. Sometimes there is a vivid sense of momentarily seeing into another layer of reality: these are visionary experiences.”
Jesus had one at his baptism. “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ (Matt. 3: 16-17)
“Sometimes there is the experience of journeying into that other dimension of reality; this is the classic experience of the shaman.” We see it in the story of the transformation, when Jesus led Peter, James and John up the mountain and they experienced a non-material reality when Jesus was transformed before them: his face shining like the sun, his clothes becoming a dazzling white, Moses and Elijah talking with him when a “bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud said ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’
“Sometimes there is a strong sense of another reality coming upon one, as in the ancient expression “The Spirit fell upon me.” Jesus, in his first sermon, uses these words from Isaiah to refer to himself and his mission, as sent by God.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Well before his formal ministry began, Jesus expressed a strong, personal connection to God. When he was twelve years old, going to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover, unbeknownst to his parents, “he stayed behind, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished, and his mother said to him. ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke2: 43-49) Throughout the scriptures he speaks of and addresses God in an intimate way, calling him ‘Father’.
Jesus used spiritual practices: fasting and prayer, sometimes for hours. He most likely practiced a form of meditation or contemplation central to the Jewish tradition. And flowing out of those spiritual experiences connecting him to God, he spoke with authority. In Matthew, in his Sermon on the Mount, he uses the expression “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, … but I say to you.
He taught them how to pray: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt: 6:6) Like many Spirit Persons, or mystics, he perceived himself as a channel for ‘the Sacred,” instructing them in the ways of God.
It was by the power of the Spirit working through him that more healing stories have been told of him than of anyone else in the Jewish tradition. Even non-religious scholars agree that Jesus performed paranormal healings and what his contemporaries experienced as exorcisms.
In the story of the hemorrhaging woman; “She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” (Luke 8: 44-46) Was it the power of the Spirit working through a Spirit Person?
Those who use reason to base their faith on, ahead of scripture and tradition, might throw out these stories of Spirit Persons as mere fantasy. But these experiences did not end with Jesus and his followers. People continue to have them even today. The father of a friend of mine (he invented the Die Hard battery) studied with a guru in India, making multiple trips to his ashram every year.
His daughter told me he meditated for three hours every night. He described to her different dimensions of reality he experienced during his meditation. She said you could step on him during these times and he wouldn’t know it. He was one of the gentlest and most perceptive persons I’ve ever met.
Out of this Spirit Person named Jesus, came teachings of alternative wisdom. This is one thing most scholars today can agree upon about who Jesus was. Wisdom teachers teach us how to live, showing us a path to the wise way, and warning us of the consequences of following the path to the foolish way.
There are two kinds of wisdom. Conventional wisdom embodies the central values of a culture; what we are raised to believe is worthwhile, the dos and don’ts, what will lead to success and the good life. It comes to us from many sources. My grandmother instructed us to “clean our plates! Children are starving in other parts of the world!” Movies, social media, advertisements, impress upon us what we need to do and buy to fit in, to look beautiful, to be successful. We could all make lists of what our culture teaches us. It’s scary how social media is influencing disenchanted young men and women, to lure them into cultures of violence and terrorism around the globe.
First century Judaism found its guidance in the Torah, and folk wisdom of the culture passed on through writings like Proverbs. Their conventional wisdom was based on the dynamic of rewards and punishment. You reap what you sow.
Jesus taught a subversive, or alternative wisdom that questioned and undermined the conventional wisdom of his culture. He used aphorisms, short, great one liners, and parables. This was a Jewish language and way of teaching that invited his listeners to see something they might not see otherwise, such as:
“No one can serve two masters.” Well, they knew that. It was impossible to be a slave to two masters. But Jesus was asking them to look beyond the literal meaning to ‘who or what are the two masters?’ To what does this apply? Then let’s talk about it. The message is not only for Jesus’ listeners, but for us today. Although in many of them we need to understand the time and culture they came from.
Like aphorisms, parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son invite us to see in a radically new way. He used them to subvert conventional ways of seeing and living, and invited his hearers into a new way centered in God and God’s way. He used the language of paradox and reversal to shatter the conventional wisdom of his day. He spoke of a world in which the poor are blessed, the first are last and the last first, the humble are exalted and the exalted humbled. He showed us the wise way that leads to life. He said it was a narrow way and it’s hard.
It’s important in the challenging times we are living in, to take a good look at what our conventional wisdom is telling us. Is it a wise or foolish way? How would Jesus turn it upside down?
In his teaching I look to Jesus as a social prophet, in a long line of prophets in the Hebrew Bible: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah. Borg calls them “God-intoxicated voices of religious social protest against the domination system of their day. Jesus was a prophet of the Kingdom of God - what life would be like on earth if God were the king, not Cesar.’ In two weeks I will look at that Kingdom he spoke so much about, and ways we create it here on earth in our time.