Chapter Three JESUS' LIFE AND MINISTRY
Faith and history
We have already seen that the Christian Scriptures do not present us with a straight biography of Jesus. Nonetheless, they do present us with valuable historical information on the life of Jesus that can be discerned with the aid of historical research, biblical scholarship and sound common-sense. This enables us to construct a portrait of Jesus of Nazareth with which historians, scripture scholars and believers alike can reasonably agree.
This historical approach does not bypass Christian faith; nor is it solely dependant on faith. In this sense, it is meaningful to make a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. We are speaking about the same Jesus, but we do not assume that the Jesus who is portrayed in the gospels as Lord and Saviour was experienced precisely this way by his disciples during their time with him in Palestine. The developed New Testament christologies are post-resurrection accounts which witness to post-resurrection belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Annointed One of God.
Literalist or fundamentalist readings fail to take into account the ways in which resurrection-belief transformed the disciples' understanding of who Jesus was. They assume, for example, that throughout his earthly existence, Jesus was always fully aware of his own divine status and, therefore, knew everything there was to know including the future events of his own earthly life and death. Such a fundamentalist reading of the Scriptures denies Jesus' full humanity; it also fails to appreciate that the gospels are complex faith-documents rather than simple biographies or straightforward histories.
On the other extreme are the rationalists who assume there is a total rupture between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. For them, Jesus of history is depicted as an ethical teacher, a moral reformer or even as a deluded fanatic who mistakenly preached that the world was coming to an end. In one rationalist account, the whole post-Easter Christ tradition is purported to have been made up by the apostles who were able to get away with the resurrection story by stealing Jesus' body. In another account, Jesus survived the crucifixion and married Mary Magdalene with whom he lived many years in Rome prior to dying a natural death. These approaches are not able to account for the transformation in the lives of Jesus' disciples nor in the fact that these first believers, who had known Jesus during his earthly life, now acclaimed this same Jesus to be Christ, Lord and Saviour.
Our approach is to adopt the centrist position which recognizes both continuity and development in the gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a matter of affirming that the gospels are based on real memories of what Jesus said and did. Accordingly, the stylized gospel accounts are grounded in the historical events of Jesus' earthly life now seen through the eyes of resurrection-faith. Without this continuity between faith and history, Christianity would not be based on historical reality but in a groundless myth.
The historical reality is that the person of Jesus impacted so profoundly on his followers that the encounter itself became integral to the interpretation of his identity. This is not dissimilar to our knowledge of living persons: we come to know others in depth to the extent that we encounter them in a living relationship. It becomes important, therefore, to keep the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith together as the full expression of the saving encounter with the mystery of Jesus' unique personhood. One writer expressses it this way:
'Jesus Christ' refers to an interpersonal event initiated by Jesus of Nazareth and received by the people he encountered. In relationship to Jesus people contacted the transformative power of divine reality. One response to this mediated encounter with God was to call Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One. It is interesting to note that Jesus did not call himself the Christ. Although Jesus had a definite consciousness of himself and his mission, it is difficult to tell if he ever used any titles for himself. But where he was reluctant, others were eager. It was the people who were saved through Jesus who bestowed the titles. 'Jesus Christ' designated a relational flow between Jesus and his followers. It is a Christian code, a compressed way of talking about an experience which the Gospel of John suggests could not be compressed into all the books ever written. [ John Shea, An Experience Named Spirit (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1983) ]
In this way, faith and history coalesce. Consequently, we need to approach the Scriptures with both the eyes of faith and the tools of historical research if we are to appreciate with any depth the mystery of the personhood of Jesus Christ.
Teacher and prophet
The most common term applied to Jesus is that of 'teacher' or 'rabbi' (thirty times in the gospels). Most likely, Jesus began his public teaching ministry as a disciple of John the Baptist. Like John, Jesus teaches the importance of faith and repentance; like Hillel, he teaches compassion and love; like other Jewish teachers, he is inspired by profound respect for the Scriptures. However, as we have indicated, Jesus developed his own specific style of ministry that differed from John and other teachers of his day. This is evident in the way that he teaches fidelity to the Scriptures while being opposed to strict interpretations on fasting, ritual purity and the Sabbath.
Jesus teaches a radical form of Judaism, but he does not see himself as starting a new religion. It is also important to recognize that Jesus was neither a professional teacher nor an ordained scribe. Like them, he does teach in the synagogues; unlike them, he also teaches by the lakeside and in the open fields. Especially distinctive is the way that Jesus directs his teachings to all--including women, children, sinners, the sick--and not just to the educated class or to a particular religious group. His message is not secretive or esoteric but is directed towards anybody 'who has ears to hear'. Moreover, Jesus differs from conventional teachers or rabbis by choosing his own disciples and drawing them into a relationship of friendship and mutuality.
In many ways, Jesus combines the offices of teacher and prophet. Prophets tend to arise in situations of cultural or religious crisis; they appeal first and foremost to alienated groups within a society; they are deemed to possess special gifts of insight into the nature of the present reality; and they are unusually gifted with rhetorical powers of speech. The ethical prophet is also noted for critiquing the unjust sufferings of marginal groups and for playing a significant role in redefining the tradition. Evidently, Jesus fulfills each of these criteria in his teaching ministry.
Nonetheless, there is a uniqueness to Jesus' ministry which defies all attempts to define him according to any particular set of categories. There is this unmistakable 'otherness' about him in his manner of proclaiming the reign of God, his miracle-performances, his addressing Yahweh as 'Abba-Father', his freedom in ministering to social outcasts, and his consistent claim to forgive sins. In all these actions, Jesus emerges as one who speaks and acts with great personal authority, an authority that seems to surpass the traditional role of the ethical Israelite prophet. Whereas these other prophets take upon themselves the task of speaking in God's name ('Thus the Lord says'), Jesus is recorded as speaking on his own authority ('I say to you').
Something of the uniqueness of Jesus' teaching and prophetic ministry is captured in the following quotation:
Jesus spoke with an immediacy and directness that seemed to come from the depths of the divine Mystery, and not merely from the expert interpreters of the time. He could speak as a Pharisee, as an apocalyptic prophet, or as a wandering charismatic story teller. At times he sounds like the Socratic teacher, challenging his students to ask new questions and to think anew. At other times he seems to be the wandering Greek Cynic preacher, suffering for his teachings and standing up against the corrupt authorities of his time. Many parallels can be drawn, but, in fact, Jesus of Nazareth stands alone as a unique religious teacher who was beyond comparison. [ Brennan Hill, Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives (Mystic CT: Twenty-third Publications), 62. ]
We can glean much about Jesus the religious teacher and ethical prophet by focussing on central aspects of his ministry. First and foremost among these is his teaching on God's kingdom or reign.
The reign of God
The notion of the reign of God is the central and recurring motif in Jesus' public ministry. It arises from the unique and incomparable religious experience of intimate union with God whom he dares to address with the familial title 'Abba'. The accounts of Jesus' baptism and transformation, all be they stylised post-resurrection accounts, witness to Jesus' acceptance by God as a special envoy or messenger. In both stories, the relationship between God and Jesus is marked by a surprising tenderness and loving personal concern. Moreover, Jesus is designated Son of God and spokesperson for God: 'This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased--listen to him' (Mt 3:17; 17:25).
It is in this context of Jesus' religious experience--his 'Abba-experience' and his sense of being chosen by God for a special mission to the world--that Jesus embodies and proclaims a new message for all people. It is a message of justice, love and peace which is, in Jesus' own language, expressed in the metaphor of God's kingdom or reign.
We have already stated that Jesus' religious experience of a personal and loving God needs to be understood in the context of his Jewish faith. It is equally true that his experience and understanding of the kingdom of God draws from the best insights of the Jewish tradition which understood God as king (Isaiah 52:17). However, by the time of Jesus, the understanding of kingdom had been largely distorted through people's experiences of various forms of tyranny and misuse of power. Jesus brings a fresh approach to the notion of kingdom by linking it to his own experience of a deeply loving and caring God whose only concern is to liberate people from the forces of evil and to empower them with a new life-vision.
In contrast to the more popular interpretations of his day, Jesus does not identify the coming of the kingdom with apocalyptic destruction, scribal legalism, secterian withdrawal from society, nor revolutionary uprising. Rather, through his words and actions, Jesus preaches a message of God's coming reign which is to be marked by personal, social and even cosmic transformation. However, for Jesus, the kingdom is not just a future reality. It is also 'at hand' in the here-and-now because God's compassion and mercy are available to all people at all times. This is the message in many of Jesus' parables and is proclaimed in his radical sayings and healing ministry. This coming/already-present reign of God is especially symbolized in the table-fellowship that Jesus establishes with all types of people including the marginalized and outcasts of society.
Jesus' preaching the reign of God is also linked to his call to conversion and the invitation to experience the wonderful closeness of God. In this way, the reign of God in Jesus' ministry emanates from his own religious experience. He emphasises that it is only God's reign or God's doing that is able to overturn evil and negativity in human life and history. Yet he also stresses that human beings must respond to God's invitation and so be converted to a new way of living if the reign of God is to become real. Moreover, Jesus directly challenges social and religious attitudes that act to keep the marginalized in their places of oppression. His actions in the temple, his friendships with women, and his advocacy for the poor, make it clear that his programme included a deep and fearless challenging of the prejudices and injustices of his day.
There is no single meaning that we can equate with this notion of God's reign as it occurs in the ministry of Jesus. It stems from the Jewish notion that God (Yahweh) is Lord and King: all creation is subject to its Creator (creation theology); and God's kingship is evident in the life-events of Israel's history (salvation theology). This provided Israel with a sense of expectation and hope that, just as God's reign manifested itself in past events such as in the Exodus experience, so it would be manifested in the future. Jesus radicalizes this message of the kingdom of God by indicating that its future fulfillment is already happening now (Lk.11:20) and is, in some way, associated with his own ministry and person (Mt.11:2ff.).
Consequently, the reign of God is not restricted to individual experience. It overflows into social and political action--but only, and always, on the understanding that God alone can enable the kingdom to happen. The kingdom of God is God's doing and God's gift. This is why Jesus not only ministers in the name of the kingdom; he also prays for it: "may your kingdom come!" The reign of God is the central focus and controlling horizon of Jesus' entire life and mission. In personal terms, it is a call to a complete metanoia or change-of-heart. In social terms it calls for the establishment of an alternative community based on the values of the Sermon on the Mount. In cosmic terms, it recognizes that God will bring the entire world and all creation to fulfillment. The reign of God is a mystical or religious category with profound political and cosmic overtones.
Jesus the parabler
One of the most distinctive features of Jesus' teaching and prophetic ministry is the manner in which he used ordinary stories to entertain and challenge listeners to a new way of experiencing God in their lives. These stories or parables are remarkable for their down-to-earth character and their ability to tap into people's everyday experiences. For example, they deal with meals and journeys, sheep and goats, coins and pearls, wheat and darnel, cloth and oil lamps, trees and birds. However, what is evident in the telling of the parables is the way in which they take an unexpected turn: the familiar becomes strange; ordinary values are turned on their head; listeners are forced to make a decision between two possible worlds or sets of values.
Take, for example, the parables of the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk.18:9-14) and the Good Samaritan (Lk.10:29-37). Good Jewish people in Jesus' day had fairly clear ideas about prayer and virtue: the prayer of good-living people (pharisees) would be heard by God, whereas the prayer of sinners (publicans) could not be successful; certain types of people (priests and levites) were good and virtuous, whereas low-class foreigners (Samaritans) were not capable of virtue. What we find, however, is that Jesus reverses the plots: it is the sinner's prayer that is heard by God; it is the foreigner who acts with virtue. More shocking still are the imputations that the prayer of the religious pharisee is unsuccessful and the actions of the holy priest and levite are sinful. Evidently, the initial hearers of these parables are led to a point of decision with regard to their own value-systems, religious judgments and moral actions.
We can recognize in these parables a three-stage pattern of advent (what people expect), reversal of expectations (what Jesus says) and the call to new vision and action (how people must change). This same pattern applies to the reception of Jesus himself in his mode of relating with women, the poor, foreigners and sinners. 1) Advent: good Jewish people associated with other virtuous people. 2) Reversal: Jesus associates and shares table-fellowship with the wrong mob. 3) New Vision/Action: my presumed religious virtues may be human prejudices. At the very least, one is forced to make a decision with regard to Jesus and oneself. In this sense, we can say that Jesus is himself a parabler: he proclaims the reign of God through words and deeds which shatter people's accepted world making them vulnerable to a new understanding of what it means to be human and a new experience of God.
The reign of God in parables
The parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Mt.13:44ff.) illustrate the relationship between the coming reign of God and its present realization. There is an urgency about things requiring a new way of seeing and acting. These stories challenge listeners to a change of heart or reversal of priorities if the kingdom--here symbolized as a hidden treasure or an expensive stone--is to be recognized and received.
This new and urgent vision of the kingdom, powerfully summed up in the Sermon on the Mount, is primarily a call to personal and social transformation in the name of the reigning God. The social dimension is evident in the parables of the Talents and the Final Judgment (Mt.25:14ff.). It is also at the heart of Jesus' own liberating praxis which is a further manifestation or symbol of the reign of God--a reign of justice, peace, forgiveness and love.
The intimate connection between present liberation and future salvation is also conveyed in the parables of the Mustard Seed (Mk.4:30) and the Leaven and the Dough (Mt.13:33). The God of Israel in Jesus' parables is not a God of the status quo or the unknown future, but a God who induces change in the here-and-now.
It is also helpful to read the radical sayings of Jesus as small but poignant parables of the kingdom. As reported in the Gospels, Jesus makes the following kinds of seemingly unreasonable demands on his followers:
Leave the dead to bury their own dead (Lk.9:60)
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek . . . (Mt.5:39)
Whoever tries to save his life will lose it (Mk.8:35)
It is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mk.10:23)
The first will be last; and the last will be first (Mk.10:31)
The things that come out of a person are what defile (Mk.7:15)
The kingdom of God must be received like a little child (Mk.10:15)
Such statements as these are meant to shock or jolt the hearer, to bring him or her to a deep form of self-questioning. Evidently, the reign of God is closely allied to the response of the hearer who may find all this too much and, like in the parable of the rich young man, walk sadly away. However, if one truly receives the message, one must change. To truly listen to Jesus' radical sayings is to already experience something of God's kingship in the world of the here-and-now.
In these radical sayings of Jesus, the three-fold pattern of advent, shock, new vision/praxis defies a merely rational or logical explanation. It is much more like the raw experience we have when somebody we love challenges our attitudes and behaviour. Initially we feel hurt and betrayed; we had not expected this to come from you of all people! Our life is thrown into turmoil. Then, we may just come to see that what the person has said to us and about us is true. We see that we need to change our ways, alter our very being, in order to be true to ourselves. To take another example on a social level, Australians are beginning to see and understand that, despite often best intentions, 'white' Australia has exhibited racist attitudes, or sexist ones, that need to be overturned. This is a hard truth to confront. Yet, only when that truth is most deeply acknowledge, can there be forgiveness, growth and reconciliation.
In like manner, the parables and radical sayings of Jesus draw his hearers to a moment of crisis and decision regarding their attitudes and behaviours. They are also drawn to examine their assumptions about God, the kingdom and Jesus himself. Either Jesus will be dismissed as another religious crackpot or everything changes!
It is often with embarrassment or at least dim understanding that people today approach the issue of Jesus the miracle-worker. Evidently, our scientific understanding of the world finds it difficult to locate the miraculous. On the one hand, we are confronted with the problem that some of the miracle-stories seem a bit far-fetched. On the other hand, there are those who want to take hold of the miracles of Jesus as some kind of divine proof that he is God. Therefore, we need to look at the question of the historicity of Jesus' miracles and then to ask what it is that the miracles are meant to convey.
The miracles are post-resurrection accounts. That is, they have become somewhat stylized in their reporting. Again, we need to recall that the Gospels are first and foremost faith-accounts rather than straight histories. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that some of the more far-fetched nature miracles have been borrowed from other traditions and attributed to Jesus as a sign of belief in his messiahship. However, the bulk of the miracles reported in the Gospels need to be seen as historically based: they are part of the earliest strata of the Jesus-tradition; they are certainly congruous with Jesus' overall mission of proclaiming God's reign in the world; and there is no evidence to suggest that the people of Jesus' time disputed the fact of such miracles (even if they disputed their interpretation).
It is helpful to compare the reports of Jesus' miracles with the reports of the magicians of his day. By contrast, Jesus' miracles are marked by moderation and constraint. They do not seek to be spectacular, to overpower the will of others, to be secretive, or to draw attention to himself. It must be remembered that in the Judaism of the day, magic was more often seen as a 'sign of the devil'. This means that the disciples and evangelists would have been inclined to ignore this dimension of Jesus' ministry unless they saw it as somehow central to his mission. For them, at least, Jesus' miracles were a sign, not of the devil, but of God.
Consequently, whatever the historical details of the miracle-stories, they were recognized by those who believed in Jesus as 'signs of God'. However, the miracles are not presented as proofs of Jesus' divine status. They were far too ambiguous for that. In this regard, it is interesting that Jesus is depicted on one occasion as 'refusing to give a sign'. It is also significant that neither Paul nor any other post-Gospel New Testament writer makes reference to the miracles.
As used by Jesus, the miracles need to be seen in context of his ministry of proclaiming the reign and power of God. They do not emphasize the notion of an 'extraordinary event' and, in one way or another, the performance of miracles is always related to the faith of the people and the wider community. Sometimes, Jesus' miracles are directed towards his desire to challenge traditional prejudices and attitudes such as the false notion that people's sickness is due to their sinfulness. Finally, it needs to be stated that the central miracle with regard to Jesus is his resurrection from the dead which is pre-eminently the act of God on and through Jesus to the world. All miracle-stories need to be seen in this light of the divine presence in the universe. Only with the eyes of faith, can miracle-stories be placed in this proper perspective of God's abiding presence in the cosmos.
The Jews of Jesus' time were awaiting what they understood to be the final or eschatological prophet who would usher in the 'last days'. Images of this prophet varied. For some, this final prophet would be a Moses-like figure or even an actual reappearance of a former prophet (Elijah and Ezekiel were popular choices). For others, this eschatological figure was associated with the formation of a political kingdom (people remembered the glory days of old when Solomon and King David reigned). For others again, the prophet was associated with the apocalyptic destruction of the present world.
By the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, Israel had been without a significant prophet for several generations. Moreover, under the yoke of Roman oppression, the sense of expectation had sharpened. It was inevitable that at first John, and then Jesus, were looked upon by many as this eschatological prophet for whom the Jewish people had been waiting. However, as inevitably occurs when people project their expectations onto others, there comes the time when hopes are dashed. Disappointment and frustration set in. Both the initial popularity of Jesus and the eventual animosity towards him are partly explained in terms of his identification with the eschatological prophet on whom Israel had pinned its hopes. When people's hopes are dashed, irrational and violent forces are often unleashed.
It is highly probable that Jesus understood himself as the eschatological prophet whose mission was to inaugurate the 'last days' of 'God's reign'. However, Jesus did not understand the reign of God in either narrow political terms (establishing a new political regime) or in traditional apocalyptic ways (the literal destruction of the universe). As we have seen, for Jesus the reign of God was linked to a new experience of the divine presence, something to be experienced in the here and now and yet whose final fulfillment was yet to occur. On the basis of the gospel portraits of Jesus, we can say that his understanding of the reign of God was both mystical--a new experience of God's presence in the here-and-now--and prophetic--the call to his followers to a personal and social change of heart.
However, for reasons we must now explore, Jesus' message and mission came to be interpreted as a threat to the religious and political status quo. Jesus is reported as noting this himself when he states: "A prophet is never accepted in his own country or among his own people".
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