Monday, March 26, 2007

Compass Point #7 Being Like Jesus

Something about Jesus

by Barbara Brown Taylor
Most Christians are stubbornly fixed on being like Jesus. He is the gold standard for what it means to be fully human, in full union with the Divine. They tell me what it costs to love unconditionally, to forgive 70-times-seven, to show compassion for the poor—all essential hallmarks of Jesus' ministry. What I hear less about is what it costs to oppose the traditions of the elders, to upset pious expectations of what a child of God should say or do, to subvert religious certainty, and to make people responsible for their own lives. Yet all of these are present in his example too.

Jesus is an agitator, and Barbara Brown Taylor captures that agitation quite powerfully in the above comment. She goes on to say in this article, found in the current issue of Christian Century Magazine, that Christian discipleship might be less about being like Jesus and more along the lines of seeing ourselves in the human efforts of disciples like Peter, Mary, and John in following Jesus. If we're going to follow Jesus, then we have to follow behind him.
Like those first disciples we have a tendency to wander off by ourselves, until we hear the voice of Jesus calling us back.

Garry Wills in his wonderful recent book, What Jesus Meant, would seem to find common cause with Barbara Brown Taylor's reminder that we're not really much like Jesus. Wills does some tough agitating himself. As he observes, in certain religious circles the letters WWJD serve as a kind of pithy summary of what Christian discipleship is supposed to look like. "What Would Jesus Do?" assures us that doing the same thing is the goal of real Christians.

But here's the rub according to Wills. "Can we really aspire to do what Jesus did?" As Wills remarks, it would never have occurred to the first disciples to wear a WWJD bracelet. "Jesus ghosted in and out of people's lives, blessing and cursing, curing and condemning....The last thing he can be considered is a 'gentle Jesus meek and mild."

I recommend Garry Wills book What Jesus Meant highly as a corrective to the smooth assumption that we know what it means to be "like Jesus". Jesus the agitator and boundary breaker doesn't allow neat assumptions about "doing things like him". Here's just a short summary of Wills close reading of the gospels about Jesus:

"His very presence was subversive".

  • Jesus was called an agent of the devil, or the devil himself (Mk 3:32, Jn 7:20)
  • He was unclean (Lk. 11:38), a consorter with Samartians (Lk 17:16) and with loose women (Lk &:39)
  • He was a promoter of immorality (Mk 2:16), a glutton and a drunkard (Lk 7:34)
  • A mocker of the Jewish law (Mt. 12: 10; Jn 5:16(
  • A schismatic (Jn 8:48)

"He was never respectable"

  • Jesus, in fact, seemed to prefer the company of the less-than-respectable (Lk 6:35)
  • He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners Lk 15

Jesus challenged conventional thinking in many ways.

  • If your relatives came asking about why you weren't sufficiently committed to family values, would you answer like Jesus, that you have no relatives but those who do God's will? (Mk 3: 33-35)
  • If we could cast out devils, would we send them into a herd of pigs, destroying two thousand animals (Mk 5:13)? Christians who place a very high value on property rights might have a problem with that.

And so when I think about what it means to follow Jesus, I'm drawn to the conclusion that following him seems to be guaranteed to lead to some element of trouble. Usually, that's the last place we expect him to lead us.

What do you think?


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