In my adolescence I enjoyed attending my father’s Bible study groups. Elsewhere, I have mentioned that one of its members was a former minister and pilot of an ocean-going vessel. He was literal in his reading of the Bible. His interpretation of the Old Testament book of Daniel was most interesting to me. That was during the height of Russia’s power, our fear its nuclear bombs aimed at us and even ours aimed at them. Like a modern fascination concerning the writings and prophecies of a Nostradamus, he found great significance in that ancient, Old Testament book of Daniel for the circumstances that faced America in that today. He said that from the first letters of various words in a certain passage he was able to divine a prophecy for that time. I was amazed at his skills of discovery and interpretation in the light of the challenges, indeed threats, of that day.
In the first year at Salem College, Salem, West Virginia, I had two religion classes with Dr. Nida. There, I learned that the Bible did not just drop from the sky, out of the mouth of God, in the form of the King James Bible. It, preferred by fundamentalists, and the “liberal” Revised Standard version were preceded by a number of other versions in other languages, proceeding from the ancient language in which its various books first appeared to our modern English versions.
As I have previously mentioned, I came to question what I perceived to be my inherited assumptions and beliefs in search of truth. In that process, I found doubt to be not only acceptable, but necessary.
When, in 1990, I lost my position as county judge amid circumstances that seemed to me to be punishment for my commitment to my oath to uphold the law and its principles of justice. In attempting to understand how I could have gotten myself in that situation and having to rebuild my life, I became more aware of the lives, actions, and consequences for those actions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. That caused me to reexamine the life of Jesus. I found it more meaningful than the traditional interpretations of the meaning of the man, Jesus, as interpreted by a religion based upon Jewish sacraficial law and pagan rites, such as that of Dyonisis almost 2,00 years ago.
As I perceived some of my challenging circumstances in the light of civil disobedience, I learned more of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and I came to see Jesus in the light of their experience and of mine.
Christian dogma asserts both Jesus’ full humanity and his full divinity. That is a logical problem. According to the synoptic accounts, however, Jesus did not claim to be one with God. To the contrary, when a certain ruler came to Jesus and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Luke 18:18, 19. And when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them, “Our father, . . . ” It was to that same Father of all that Jesus prayed in his own hour of despair, “Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will, but Thine be done.” Luke 22:42.
If we see Jesus’ full humanity, then Jesus’ call to follow him must be taken seriously. By loving others, we love God. The Kingdom of God is at hand; it is here and now.
Both Matthew and Luke introduce Jesus’ public ministry with the Beatitudes. This sermon summarizes his message: the least of us is loved by God and called to the Kingdom. It is a message of a relational world:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me.
Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew 5:3-12. That expresses the core of civil disobedience. Indeed, Luke’s account of the Beatitudes is preceded by Jesus’ disobedience of pharisaic law in that he permitted his disciples to harvest grain to eat on the Sabbath and he healed on the Sabbath
In Matthew 12:10-13 the Pharisees ask Jesus in the presence of a man with a withered hand, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus answered not the specific question, but he responded with the principle which commanded the answer,
What man shall be among you who shall have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it, and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.
In Mark and Luke, Jesus merely asks the man, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
In each of these accounts Jesus focuses on doing good. Right personal relationships produces good results. Jesus did good, even when it violated the law.
Jesus also had a reputation for associating with social outcasts. Luke 5:30 reports that the Pharisees and the scribes complained to the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax gatherers and sinners?” Later, Luke reports in Chapter 15 the same question by the Pharisees, to which Jesus’ responds with three parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. Those are messages of inclusion.
Jesus’ first sermon speaks of blessed suffering. His last sermon speaks of its rewards.
But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before him; and he will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and he will put the sheep on his right and the goats on the left.
Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.”
Matthew 25:31-46. The truly righteous are genuinely surprised at their reward:
Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty, and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothed you? And when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?”
And the King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”
Then he will also say to those on his left, “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me.
In turn, the self-righteous are surprised.
Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Jesus’ civil disobedience threatened the religious order of his time. Matthew reports that the chief priests and elders plotted to kill Jesus. Just as the Rulo murderers punished errancy from the faith, and just as the Inquisition sought to protect the faith by torture, the Pharisees justified their plot to kill Jesus. The Pharisees claimed Jesus gave false testimony. Mark 14: 55-56. And then they goaded Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answered, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Mark 14:61-62. The high priest then charged Jesus with blasphemy, punishable by death under Jewish law.
The Pharisees still needed civil authority to kill Jesus, so they took Jesus to Pilate. Luke 23:1; Matt. 27:2. Pilate responded: “I find no guilt in this man.” Luke 23:4. But the Pharisees and the “crowd” persisted. Luke 23:14; 23:22. Pilate finally succumbed. He “washed his hands” of the matter and turned Jesus over “to their will.” Jesus thereby paid the price for disobedience. He did not run from its consequences. Neither did he desire it, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Mark, recognized to be our oldest source material of the life of Jesus, and probably the most historically reliable with fewer post-Jesus Christological statements, reported at 15:34 Jesus’ last words to be, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46 reports the same. Neither account gives more. These words, Schilebeekx believed, are shown to be authentic words because of the embarrassment that such words would have had for the early Christians. Luke omits those embarrassing words altogether, and ends his account of the crucifixion with the words, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”
I have not included the report of the Gospel of John, because I see that book as a metaphorical faith statement in response to the historical Jesus, more so than the Synoptics, and not primarily an historical account. It has overtones of Gnosticism, which elevated spirit over body, thus making historical statements unnecessary. The purpose of this particular discussion is to address the factual ground of the Jesus experience, as much as it reasonably can be gathered from the accounts. When we cut through the dogma which has built up about the core Jesus event, we are left with a man, Son of Man, in whom the eye of faith sees the breath of God. Jesus led faithfully along a path that often was disobedient to civil authority, accepting the consequences imposed by that authority, even to death. And the world has never since been the same.