Let Jesus Be Jesus?
In today’s Boston Globe, columnist Alex Beam has a short piece on his frustrations with people’s need to mold Jesus into their own image, in particular focusing on another recent book (in a slew of many) claiming that Jesus was married. He writes: “The purpose, animated by the all-powerful secularism of our time, is to bring him down to our level.”
But you know what the real scandal is? It’s precisely what Beam says it is: It’s the 2000 year-old Christian proclamation that God actually does come down to our level of fragility, messiness, and humanity. It’s scandalous, and remains so scandalous, that we attempt to mitigate it however we can, from the left, from the right, and everywhere in between.
What Beam misses, and misses badly, is that this “coming down to our level” is one of the most beautiful and challenging parts of the Gospel, what is called the “scandal of particularity.” The idea that God actually comes to us as a middle-eastern Jewish peasant in the backwaters of first-century Galilee, and that this single man brings to us the salvation of the cosmos and all that is within it. It’s easy to come up with ideas and philosophies for God, it’s another when God actually shows up in space and time, as Christians (and Jews and Muslims in different ways) proclaim.
As Boston University’s Stephen Prothero has pointed out in many places, we have a crisis of spiritual literacy in our age and place. Beam shows this illiteracy well, writing that he believes that Jesus’ claims are quite moderate. Which is funny, because the Jewish and Roman leaders of the time certainly didn’t think so. And killed Jesus because of it.
He didn’t merely challenge Jewish orthodoxy, but actually managed to take it a step further around such issues of lust and anger, saying that even to have those thoughts is to commit adultery and murder. In his challenge of the religious and political leaders of the time, he exposed them as just as corrupt and human as anyone else.
He did not preach a “message of universal love,” but instead one of challenge and particularity that led to his death. Jesus does not say: “God loves everyone! Eat, drink, and be merry!” What Jesus actually says about God’s love in the Gospels is that it is costly and difficult; that to find one’s life, one must “deny themselves, and pick up their cross.”
And most of all, despite what Beam says, Jesus did in fact ask people to believe and to follow, saying in the Gospel of John: “"Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me.” Jesus message is not one of spiritual health, but one of revolutionary grace and practice, that has led billions, from Dorothy Day to Marilynne Robinson, to discover the radical presence and work of God in the world.
And in the end, that’s precisely the problem, which is that Beam wants people to let Jesus be Jesus and go about our business. But we can’t. When Jesus is left to be Jesus, everything must change. We have to pay attention to the poor and the widow, we have to look to the a symbol of death to find life, and trust that God actually came to us in first-century Palestine, through this strange, parable-telling Rabbi who was crucified for his message and work.
And that is way more interesting than whether Jesus was married. And oh yeah, it’s also the Christmas story.