No, I’m not mocking Jesus. I believe he is the key to the world’s salvation. But I think it’s important to understand who he was, what he taught, and how he lived, before we claim him as being on our side… especially when we are “winning.”
What did he look like?
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so; little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong. (Christian Hymn)
Was Jesus strong? Was he a bro?
I think we typically use the word “strong” when we think of Jesus, to indicate that he must have possessed some kind of enormous religious willpower in order to keep from sinning. Or, that he defeated sin on the cross. Or, he had a spiritual strength which helped him heal people.
However, I’m guessing the modern American imagination will often picture Jesus as kind of a weak pushover, with dashing good looks, holding a lamb in his hands. Something like this:
There is also a common understanding that Jesus was a carpenter (who clearly took long breaks to walk in the woods and pose for Rembrandt paintings with sheep in his arms). Apparently, this may not have been the case; he may have been a mason, or a general laborer of some sort. Whatever his specific occupation, I’m sure he was stronger than I was, since he didn’t sit at a desk all day writing software.
We actually don’t know what Jesus looked like. There are some “guesses” out there, but who knows. What we do know (besides the fact that he wasn’t white), is that the Old Testament prophesies had this to say about what their Messiah was expected to look like:
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:2–3)
Kind of a loser, then.
How did he act?
Did Jesus strut from town to town, with a cocky spring in his step, showing off his ability to heal people and change water to wine, winking at the crowd, proudly claiming himself as the one Dude everyone should know?
Was Jesus a perfectionist, very proud of himself for not sinning, looking down his (Jewish rabbinical) nose at others for not living up to his own standard of living? Nope to that too. He wasn’t here to condemn the world — rather, he wanted to save it (see John 3:17). He was compassionate. He forgave others. He was quiet. Humble. Loving.
I think we often think of Jesus as way more GOD than HUMAN. Like, 90% God, 10% Human. “There’s no way he could have sinned anyway, he was PERFECT.” At least, this is how I think of him. But there are plenty of ways we can see his humanity in its full raw form. Here’s an example:
Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:32–36)
In this story, Jesus is comforting his friends who are mourning the death of their brother. Is this odd to you? The God of the universe, more powerful than any force in the cosmos, the one who created time, space, and physics… weeping?
Also, this is kind of a hackneyed thing to say, but Jesus hung out with the “wrong” people. For example, he dined with tax collectors (the Jewish guys who profited by collecting taxes from their people and giving it to Rome), prostitutes, and the outcasts of the day. There’s a story where Jesus has a profound encounter with a woman at a well who happened to be a Samaritan (think, half-breed with impure Jewish heritage)… even though “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (see John 4).
Point being, Jesus was not afraid to hang out with the outcasts. With the losers.
Where was he from?
Jesus was from the town of Nazareth, in northern Israel. There’s a passage where a guy named Nathanael hears about Jesus being the Messiah, and his reaction is “Really? The savior of the world is from… Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” (see John 1).
His reaction is similar to what I’d expect a UM grad saying when he was presented with the savior of the world, who happened to be from Ohio. Or perhaps Donald Trump presented with a Syrian refugee claiming to be the Messiah.
Anyway, I don’t know much about Nazareth, but apparently, it wasn’t that great.
It’s probably worth mentioning the Christmas story here, too. The savior of the world, the promised Messiah, born in a… barn? His first diaper change in a… feeding trough? Nothing strange or ironic here.
When did he live?
Jesus was a first-century Jew. His people were being policed and oppressed by the Roman Empire; essentially Israel was under military occupation. He was on the losing team from the day he was born.
Here’s an excerpt from one of his sermons:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:38–41)
Ever hear the expression “going the second mile” for someone? This is where it comes from. At the time of Jesus, a Roman soldier could essentially say “Hey, Jew! Carry my stuff, we’re going on a walk!” and the Jew would have to comply. (They were under military obligation to do so.) It’s hard enough to carry a 100 lb backpack a mile when you want to. Offering to your oppressor to go above and beyond? Absurd.
But this is what Jesus taught. By losing, you’ll win. He taught non-violence.
This was not the expected stance of the coming Messiah. Moses had freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt centuries before this, and now his people were expecting Jesus to rescue them in the same way, this time from Rome. Which is why, at the end of Jesus’s ministry, when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the people shout “Hosanna! Hosanna!” which means “SAVE US NOW!” (see Matthew 21).
But he didn’t save them. Instead, he surrendered, and was executed.
How did he die?
You’ve probably heard this before, but Jesus was subjected to the horrific Roman practice of crucifixion, from which we get the word “excruciating” to describe an otherworldly pain. Before the actual crucifixion, Jesus was publicly whipped (with a cat-o-nine-tails whip — a whip with many strands, tied to shards of glass and bone) and beaten, spit on, given a crown of thorns, then forced to carry the horizontal beam of his cross through Jerusalem, up the hill of “The Skull” (Golgotha), where his cross would be assembled and propped up, on full display to the townspeople.
Crucifixion was death by suffocation. Apparently, if you’re hanging by your hands, something happens to your airways such that you need to push up with your feet in order to breathe. If the victim hung for too long, the Roman executioner would break their legs so they couldn’t push up anymore. I guess this didn’t happen with Jesus, as we’re told none of his bones were broken. (Not sure this matters other than to fulfill a certain prophesy. It’s horrific no matter how long it took.)
Crucifixion was a common practice, and done in public, often to send a message to the people… “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU MESS WITH ROME.” What was Jesus’s crime exactly? Claiming to be a king. (Hence the crown of thorns.) But it wasn’t just Romans responsible for his death — his own people had betrayed him to the local authorities, to get rid of him.
If we are to believe that the God who created all things for his own pleasure and glory was subject to this… it’s completely blasphemous and ridiculous, is it not?
And what did Jesus say while on the cross? “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” And also, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
His friends betrayed him. God turned his back on him. Jesus lost.
When losing becomes winning
Then something interesting happened — he rose from the dead. Of course, not everyone believes this. Whatever happened, though, Jesus ignited a fervor in his followers. Before the gospels describing his resurrection were even written, there are other sources, like letters from the apostle Paul, which indicate there was a group of Jesus followers who worshiped him as God, claimed he had risen from the dead, and were spreading his message of non-violence and love.
What did the Romans do in response to these crazy new “Christians?” Lock them up. Beat them. Kill them. Crucify them.
What did the Christians do in response to that? Continue to love their enemies. Pray for their persecutors. Encourage each other that a time would come, when love would finally win (see the book of Revelation).
What’s your point?
God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (Proverbs 3:34)
Jesus taught of a Kingdom of God. This was not a kingdom which was going to overthrow mighty Rome. This was a kingdom of servants, who loved others when it was painful, who turned the other cheek, who sacrificed their lives for their friends.
A kingdom of the meek, the humble, and the downtrodden. And according to Jesus, God is on the side of the downtrodden.
This is a kingdom not of winners, but of losers.
Throughout human history, when a group gains influence, they often may claim to have the power of the divine on their side, even while violently oppressing their opponents under their thumb. Their victories are evidence they have the favor of their gods! (This type of thinking is chronicled in the Old Testament of the Bible, too.) When two such groups collide, who wins? The side with the stronger god.
Jesus subverts that paradigm.
Yet, he claimed to be equal with God.
If he was right, then as Richard Rohr says, God is not exclusively “all powerful” — but also “all vulnerable.”
If we continue to propagate a system of oppression, if we don’t care for orphans and widows, if we take advantage of the meek and downtrodden, if we insist on winning — we may be going against God himself.
Jesus said: Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. ( Matthew 25:40)
Is God really on my side?
Do we pray this way? “All powerful God, help me be victorious over my enemies for the sake of your reputation.”
Or do we pray this way? “All vulnerable God, teach me to die to myself, so my enemies may be lifted up.”
What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to be saved?
Is it being on the right team, believing the right things so I can be forgiven, and having some kind of peace that someday I will leave this fallen world behind and go to heaven?
Or is it joining a kingdom of servants, who continually die to themselves, love their enemies, and participate humbly in the ongoing restoration of the world?
When do we have our finger on the pulse of God?
To be continued. Thanks for reading.