Brace yourself, this is not what you’re used to hearing

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Brace yourself. It is the season of Lent and time for some hard truth and intensive reflection.

Christian doctrine states that Jesus was both human and divine – the incarnate physical presence of God in the person of Jesus the Christ. But, we have to remember that the eyes of the people of the 1st century did not see Jesus as we have been taught to see him, so what follows may shock you.

In case in never occurred to you, Jesus was not a Christian. As a matter of fact, the living Jesus of Nazareth probably would not fit the visual image the Christian Church has held up for the past 20 centuries. He was a Jew from what we now call the Middle East, and in all likelihood he was dark skinned with dark, curly hair, short in stature, and wiry thin in build. There is no doubt that he would resemble someone very different from the western European artists’ depictions and the subsequent Victorian idealizations that made it into our Bible storybooks.

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So, Jesus was a Jew and he looked like a Jew living in Roman occupied territory during what we now call the 1st century. He grew up in a little backwater village called Nazareth about four miles from the Roman city of Sepphoris where his father Joseph probably worked as a “teckton,” a jack-of-all-trades laborer doing carpentry, stone work, and whatever else might have come to hand. Jesus and his brothers probably worked with him from a very young age. In a class conscious society, they would have been on the bottom rung of the social ladder.

His life would have been difficult, both physically and emotionally. His mother Mary would not have been venerated or even respected among her own people because everyone in the little town of Nazareth would have known that she became pregnant before she and Joseph were formally married. In the eyes of her community she would have been considered defiled and her son Jesus to be illegitimate – a mamzer, the Hebrew word for bastard.

As a presumed adulteress Mary was in danger of execution, which was avoided because her betrothed husband Joseph agreed to take her as a wife nonetheless, but just for safety’s sake Mary flew to the bosom of her cousin Elizabeth for refuge, and probably returned to Nazareth only after Jesus’ birth and the flight into Egypt. All of our idyllic Nativity imagery was unknown to Jesus’ neighbors and community. To them Joseph, Mary, the mamzer Jesus, and the rest of the family were simply poor trash.

As a result of being considered a mamzer, upon settling in Nazareth from Bethlehem, Jesus would have been looked upon as an outcast. By Jewish law he could not enter the synagogue or the Temple (Deuteronomy 23:3) nor could he have married a legitimate Jewish girl. Yes, the Gospel of Luke does say that Jesus was presented in the temple and it portrays Jesus attending the festival of Passover in Jerusalem with his family and teaching in the temple, but this passage directly contradicts Jewish law at the time and is part of the Lukan infancy narrative which is not found in any other texts anywhere (Luke 2:22-52).

Plus, the one time he is depicted entering and teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth he was not believed (Matthew 13:54-58) and while many times he is said to have taught in the synagogues the first to recognize him as divine were the demons that he drove out of people. In some places he was accepted, and in other placed he was reviled. His own family thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21) and many religious leaders thought he was demonic (Mark 3:22).

We have to remember, though, that the Gospels were written long after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and are not eyewitness documentaries of his life. The point here is that, in short, the life of the child and young man Jesus was likely not at all what has been idealized for us, and it was probably quite hard.

With all that in mind we now have to jump forward to the adult ministry of Jesus. Now remember, the eyes of 1st century Jews and Gentiles did not see Jesus as we see Jesus. To them he was initially a disciple of the prophet John the Baptizer who struck off on his own way. He taught and preached and those who heard him were amazed at his insights and knowledge of all things spiritual.

He called himself the Son of Man – that is “a human being” – 81 times, but is called the Son of God only by his disciples and by later interpretation in Church doctrine. This is not surprising since as a result of even his declaring that in him one could see God (John 6:46) he was called blasphemous for claiming to have any kind of special relationship to Yahweh.

Nonetheless he drew a large following of people who considered him to be a prophet, and some who even saw and proclaimed him as the Messiah, but the hard fact is that the religious establishment in the temple and the Roman authorities saw him simply as a radical preacher and a heretical troublemaker.

Once he had entered the court of the Gentiles and had overthrown the moneychangers and driven out the sacrificial livestock and their merchant owners he became not just a nuisance to the established order, but a direct threat to the status quo and their way of life and being.

As a result, Jesus was taken when he was most vulnerable after being sold out by a friend. He was jailed, tortured, given a mock trial, and executed in the most horrific manner possible as a deterrent to anyone who might try to exalt, imitate, or emulate him. He was buried in a borrowed tomb, but three days later his body was missing and it was presumed by most people that his disciples had stolen the body for their own reasons.

Shocking isn’t it?  And if you made it this far in reading today’s column you are probably pretty upset or angry with me, but the Biblical texts, historical facts, and cultural circumstances speak for themselves. However, the point I am trying to make may be found in your own state of mind at the moment.

You see, the Jesus whom we call and comprehend as the Christ, the anointed one of God, the Son, was unknown as such during his lifetime. Even his own disciples did not understand (John 12:16). In those days he was known as a mamzer rebel prophet who taught that love, tolerance, kindness, justice, and mercy were what Yahweh/God wanted from his people rather than mere mindless worship.

He condemned materialism, all forms of idolatry, and every kind of exclusivity. He did not have a worship center, or even a home of his own (Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58). He was a homeless, wandering, teacher, preacher, and healer who had to rely on the generosity of others merely to survive (Matthew 27:55; Mark 15:41). Were he to show up in some places of worship today he might be forced to leave because no one would recognize him, and many might even fear him.

And that is the point of this column. Here in the middle of Lent we need to take a hard look at Jesus and ask ourselves if the Jesus Christ whom we call Lord and Savior is the Christ who proclaimed the genuine Good News, or is he a fantasy character that we worship in our own image and to our own standards?

If the 1st century Jesus walked into our churches would he even recognize his own face, let alone what is purported to be his own message, and would we know him?

It’s worth a good bit of Lenten reflection.