A world minus Jesus…

Posted by on Sep 8, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

Ever imagined a world minus Jesus? There would be some obvious differences. The date for example. I’m writing in 2015 – 2015 since what? And though we might not have got the year of Jesus’ birth completely right, there is no doubt that our calendar has been structured to convey the conviction that the date of his arrival marked the turning point of all history. That’s to be more than a little famous.

So what earned Jesus such accolades. The most striking is the claim that he conquered death and that his resurrection indicates to us something of what we can hope to find on the other side of death. But that is the topic for the next post.

Today I would like to focus on the difference his teaching has made to the world. Regardless of what you think of Jesus, you have to acknowledge that his message challenged the conventional wisdom of his day. At the very least you have to recognise that there was a brilliant mind behind his pronouncements, one that saw way beyond the tragedy of his own day, and was able to convey insights into human nature and reality that continue to startle by their depth and power.

Take for example Jesus’ teaching on the need to forgive, and his conviction that God is a God of grace. Here is a little of what I say about this in my book The Big Picture.

When things go wrong and someone is clearly to blame, a common response is to ask what should happen to the person at fault. The Bible explores a few options.

Option one is the instinctive one. If someone does something wrong, punish them so severely that anyone tempted to follow their example will immediately eliminate the possibility from their mind. There is a troubling account found in Genesis 4:23-24. A man by the name of Lamech is injured by a younger man. While the detail provided is scant, we are told that in retaliation for this injury Lamech kills the younger man, thereafter boasting to his two wives, Adah and Zillah, of his feat. The implication of his victory song is clear. Do the slightest thing against me and I will obliterate you. It is a sure way to escalate conflict and to guarantee that any relational breakdown remains irreparable. With this model, the enemy remains enemy forever.

To soften this instinctive response, when the law was given to Moses a system was put in place to limit retaliation to the extent of the offence. Put simply, the eye for eye (or tooth for tooth) principle was championed. Amongst other places you find it in Exodus 20:23-25. It was a helpful advance. Rather than escalate violence, the eye for eye principle restricted it. It was a neat and tidy system. If someone broke your arm, you could break theirs. You could not, however, break their neck. That would be far more serious than the offence they committed against you and would violate this tit for tat system.

While ‘eye for eye’ was better than Lamech’s endless revenge, it had its limitations. Most notable was that it was powerless to reconcile warring parties. If someone broke your toe, and you carefully retaliated by breaking theirs, you might feel avenged for the wrong done against you, but it was unlikely that afterwards you would both hug and suggest drinks at the local pub! More likely you would continue to glare at the offendor and growl, ‘so don’t ever do that again’ before you both hobbled off, trying to mask the pain from your broken bones.

It took the brilliance of Jesus to suggest an alternate model. Now there is no doubting that at a certain level Jesus’ instruction sounds remarkably naive. Perhaps you remember the drift of the argument in the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than retaliating, Jesus suggests that we don’t attempt to resist those who do evil against us. Jesus earths his teaching with a challenging example. If someone has just struck us on the right cheek, we should turn the left cheek to them. He goes on to suggest that instead of limiting love to our neighbour, we should extend it to our enemy as well.

At a certain level this sounds like madness. You can imagine what Lamech’s response would have been – ‘never in a thousand years’ is the mild version! Yet two thousand years before Ghandi, Jesus recognized the power of non-retaliation. More than that, he recognized the transforming power of forgiveness. If we refuse to hold something against another, especially if we are perfectly entitled to be offended, we open the door through which the enemy can walk and become a friend. They do not have to fight the layers of our angry resentment before they can reach us. We are open to friendship with them, even while they are raging against us.

This little subsection from the Sermon on the Mount is just one example of the message of Jesus. When followed, its impact has been profound – even world changing. Not that we have always grasped the implications of what Jesus taught, let alone obeyed them. Our justice system, for example, for centuries stuck to a ‘justice as retaliation’ model rather than reaching towards the model of restorative justice now sometimes embraced, and which is implicit in the teaching of Jesus.

It would be easy to multiply examples. I haven’t yet mentioned the parables, nor the penetrating conversations Jesus had with people from all walks of life, nor his teaching on God and the purpose of life. All are staggering – and have literally changed the lives of multitudes in every generation since his birth. Where did his teaching come from? Where did he gain his insights? How did this carpenter from Nazareth gain such wisdom? No, on its own it doesn’t prove anything other than that he was brilliant, but when added to other things he taught, it forces us to query more deeply his identity.

Take for example the fact that he claimed to be the Son of God, consistently calling God his Father. If you live in world that assumes that God cannot exist, at this point you probably think, ‘yes, rather sad, wasn’t it. A man of great humanity and wisdom, but pretty deluded at other levels. Perhaps the stress of being in the public eye was just too much for him.’

Or maybe you are more cynical in nature. You might more robustly claim that he taught some humane things to win a following, and suggest that his motives were essentially devious and flawed. Frankly, that’s a little hard to believe. What did he gain through this? His finances were at best parlous, and in the end his teaching resulted in his crucifixion.

It really comes down to the famous trilemma posed by C.S.Lewis – is Jesus mad, bad or God, or as it is also often put, liar, lunatic or Lord? Here is what Lewis wrote about trying to say Jesus was essentially a brilliant and humane teacher, but not God as he claimed to be:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (C S Lewis, Mere Christianity)

Strong stuff indeed! Although convincing, Lewis’s claim is often disputed. Are these really the only three options – Jesus as mad, bad or God?

Some suggest that his followers falsely ascribed divinity to him. Those who hold this view argue that he was a popular but ultimately crucified teacher, and unwilling to let his memory die, his followers slowly raise the bar on his status until they eventually view him as Messiah and Son of God. This he did not claim for himself, so he was neither a liar nor lunatic, but he certainly wasn’t who his followers said he was – God. It was simply a case of claims which were progressively exaggerated over time.

Hmmm – perhaps… but what a price those exaggerators paid. All but one of his disciples were executed for it – yet in the face of impending death they never sobered up enough to make any retractions. And were the miracles all fabrications? And if not, how did they take place? And if they did not take place, how did Jesus’ ministry have such impact… Still lots of unanswered questions if you take this line.

Or was it that Jesus was essentially sane, but in some areas deluded? After all, Lewis sounds a little dated when he insists on labelling someone with some mental health issues a lunatic. Isn’t it possible that Jesus was one of those rare geniuses who shuffle back and forth on the fine line of sanity, sometimes seeing things with startling clarity, at other times, lapsing into delusion. Was his claim, ‘I and my Father are one’ (John 10:30), one of those moments?

Whatever we think, he convinced his disciples to the point that they were willing to die for him. His teaching remains as a legacy of unsurpassed insight. His life has changed all of human history. Indeed, a world minus Jesus would be infinitely inferior.

So who do you think Jesus was? It is one of those questions that will not go away. Does great moral teacher capture it? Or do you have to go a little further, and ask if perhaps he is God?

Nice chatting…

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