What can Jesus tells us through his life and recorded teachings, not through the elaboration of various Christian denominations?
Today, there is renewed interest in the “historical Jesus” by biblical scholars seeking to separate what Jesus said and what he did during his lifetime from what was written in the Gospels to promote a developing Christian community. Using rigorous historical-critical criteria, scholars have concluded that only a few of the statements of Jesus from the Synoptic Gospel tradition are unquestionably authentic. Many liberal Christians hope to shake Christianity free from its creedal constraints in what may be a 21st century reformation as they evaluate and interpret the Jesus tradition.
Who is the historical Jesus, and what role does this first century man named Jesus have to do with our lives today? What did Jesus actually say? What did Jesus actually do? What can Jesus say to us today?
In 1841, Unitarian minister and transcendentalist Theodore Parker said that there is important and useful truth for our lives in the words and deeds of Jesus if you can be bold enough to free the radical and ethical teacher from the theological and political propaganda.
I cannot claim to be a biblical scholar. I can only look with interest and apply my own perception and perspective, but the work of scholars does free me to explore what it might have been like to be a peasant living a subsistence life in the first century from crops grown off the land, often inadequate to feed hungry families, but a portion taken, nevertheless, to pay taxes of support for aristocrats and the elite.
Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan in his search for the historical Jesus looks at the words of the standard translation of the sermon familiarly called “The Sermon on the Mount” and places the language in a more contemporary understanding. Crossan’s translation of Jesus’ ministry to the poor, the hungry, and the hated (or persecuted) reads in part, “Only the destitute are innocent …. Only those who have no bread have no fault …. Only the wretched are guiltless …. Only the despised are blameless.”
This, says Crossan, is the heart of Jesus’ vision of egalitarian justice. This is a focus on the here and now and not on the hereafter.
The words of Jesus as they are recorded are not just straight forward facts. They are parables, allegories, metaphors, succinct statements meant to convey an oral memory of the message spoken in a time of historic conflict and oppression.
They are intended to be open to interpretation. The words and deeds of Jesus are intended to convey an ecstatic vision of a way of life, a challenge to heal those who have needs, and a radical vision of God’s law of love: The law Jesus learned from his Jewish faith says not to murder. Jesus says if you really love your neighbor, you will not get angry with your neighbor. The law says to make the punishment of someone in proportion to the offense (“an eye for and eye”), but Jesus says you will not demand punishment if you really love your neighbor (“turn the other cheek”).
When I read the words attributed to Jesus during his lifetime, I cannot help but cringe in self denial at my participation in the systems I see around me. What do these words of Jesus say to us today? I hear Jesus asking, “How do we support systems that keep people homeless?
How do we support systems that keep people who are working two and three jobs and still cannot make a living wage?
How do we support systems that ask for more and more hours of work and fewer and fewer hours spent with children who need adults in their lives?
How do we support systems that keep our children from learning and from being and becoming to their fullest potential?
How do we support systems that prevent all people from having access to affordable health care?
How do we support systems that encourage the hatred of those who practice Islam?
How do we support systems that are designed to make us feel safe, but take away the basic human rights of prisoners of war, the basic human rights of practitioners of Islam, the basic civil liberties of the disenfranchised, the poor, the ‘not us’?”
What does the Jesus of history tell us? What do you hear him saying?
NANCY HALEY is minister at Unitarian Universalist Society in Iowa City.
This essay originally appeared in the Iowa Press-Citizen.