Sunday, March 31, 2013
I remember going to mass on a Sunday and listening to the priest preaching about the gospel story of the Caananite woman. In this passage, Jesus doesn’t seem willing to heal the woman’s daughter. She’s a Gentile, and Jesus tells her that he has come “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman keeps begging him, and at the sight of her faith Jesus changes his mind. While explaining this gospel story, the priest used exactly these words: Jesus changed his mind. Then he added:
“He grew in the understanding of his mission.”
Jesus was fully human. He changed, he grew, and these are human prerogatives. Theology teaches that he’s God incarnated, yet this doesn’t mean that he always possessed the infinite wisdom of God. His vocation developed step by step, until it reached its climax.
Romano Guardini, and C.S. Lewis after him, wrote that if Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, then he was a lunatic, for only lunatics call themselves Messiah. Some contemporary atheists love to take advantage of this paradox to state that Jesus was, in fact, mentally ill. Luckily, no modern thinker who deserves this qualification holds this opinion. Wisdom is not a prerogative of a mad man.
So what kind of man was Jesus? He called himself Son of Man, and only at his trial he admitted his role of Messiah, knowing that this would have led to his execution. Jesus’ actions were spiritually subversive but also, indirectly, socially subversive. He healed the disabled and then sent them to the temple to reclaim their place in Jewish society. He shared meals with the outcasts. He had women disciples. He extended his benevolence to the Samaritans, to the Gentiles, he even healed the son of a Roman soldier. Why? Because he believed that Israel’s God was the one true God, the God of all people.
Jesus challenged the social structure of Judaism, therefore he was bound to incur hostility and he knew it. He cast suspicion on religious wisdom, he subverted the usual way of looking at the world. When he died, the early Christians behaved in an unprecedented manner, which can be explained only with the metaphysical event that raised this crucified Jew to the role of Son of God. They did not adhere to the Mosaic code, did not circumcise male children or observe the Sabbath, did not defend their territory or themselves. Jesus changed their culture and their religious beliefs. In time, the same happened to the Romans, and in their case it meant the end of the cruel games in the Coliseum and of the prostitution of children. This is the most beautiful interpretation of Jesus’ death: He chose to die to show the world the power of goodness and peace. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King have won seemingly lost wars following his principle of non-violence.
I believe that Jesus was struck by his call to surrender to God. He was scared, but he faced his destiny because he knew he had to fight evil with self-sacrifice. He was an eschatological prophet, not a meek moral teacher or a political revolutionary. He fully took up his role when he found himself capable of healing those who had faith in him, as we can read in his words:
“If I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.”
The same message is revealed to John the Baptist’s disciples when they ask him if he was the one who was awaited:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised…”.
Jesus preached perfection, the kind of perfection that men can’t achieve. Yet it’s only aiming at it that we can hope to raise above our weaknesses. He preached the morality of another world, and for this reason his teachings are difficult to follow today as they were two thousand years ago. He did not come to change the rules of first century Palestine, he came to change the rules everywhere and forever. His wisdom was wide and eternal. Each and everyone of the one-sided interpretations of Jesus are inadequate. The gospels offer ground for both revelation and misinterpretation and there is nothing wrong with this, since Jesus challenged scriptural authority. A part of me yearns for words written by Jesus’ own hands, but I know that, being who he was, he couldn’t have left any literature behind. That’s a human business.
The gospels can be read in the wrong way, and there are at least two wrong ways to read them, opposite to one another. Disregard the miraculous aspects of Jesus’ life and you will find nothing but a prophet, although a very successful one, since Christianity is still the largest religion in the world. Put too much emphasis on the supernatural and you will be faced with a fantastic story about a heavenly being who came on earth in some mysterious way only to offer himself as a sacrificial lamb to a cruel God and then flew back to heaven. But there is one more way to read the gospels, as naïve as it may sound: Let them speak to your heart. Little by little, Jesus will become a real presence that will change you, embrace you, guide you. When that happens, you won’t ask yourself who he was anymore, because you will know.
at 3:45 PM