Who was Jesus? That question has intrigued countless men and women over the centuries and inspired among scholars a quest for the historical Jesus. Albert Schweitzer concluded earlier this century that Jesus thought the end of the world would come with his death. Yet, we can see now, by means of contemporary analysis of the biblical texts and other first century writings, that Jesus did not share for long the apocalyptic message of John the Baptist. Instead, his teachings and his ministry focus on how we are to live now — on the presence of God in this moment and on our response.
The gospel reading this morning from Mark 6:1-6 introduces us to the historical Jesus. He returns to Nazareth, teaches in the synagogue, heals a few persons, and leaves to visit other villages. The villagers of Nazareth identify Jesus as a carpenter, the brother of James, Joses, Judas, Simon and his sisters, the son of Mary and Joseph. The villagers question his "wisdom" and his miraculous powers, because Jesus is unable to do "mighty works" in Nazareth. Mark explains that a prophet is not honored by his own people, but reports that Jesus was surprised by their lack of faith.
Perhaps we come closest to the historical teachings of Jesus in the collection of sayings and parables contained in both Matthew and Luke. It seems apparent that whoever wrote these two narrative gospels had the story of Mark's gospel and a collection of teachings that was being circulated among followers of Jesus sometime after his death. Therefore, scholars refer to this "sayings gospel" as the Q (for the German word, Quelle, which means source).
These teachings attributed to Jesus tell us that the kingdom of God is like a weed. The mustard seed after it takes root grows into a persistent bush that seeds itself in the garden and threatens to take over. The kingdom of God is like that — a tenacious and subversive activity in society. The parable of the wheat and the weeds also makes this clear, because the landowner's decision to allow the weeds to grow among the wheat until harvest reflects his ignorance. Peasants (and Jesus and his followers were peasants) know that weeds must be rooted out early or they will take over. The parable is a way of poking fun at the numerous absentee landlords of Galilee who do not realize that a radical, non-subservient, peasant movement is springing up among them like a weed.
The teachings of Jesus as reported in the New Testament challenge the values of his society. It is the poor who are fortunate, he says, not the rich. Those who love their enemies will be rewarded, not those who judge them. Those who glorify themselves will be humiliated, and those who humble themselves will be praised. Those who hate their children or their parents will be able to learn from Jesus. Those who try to protect their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives on account of Jesus will preserve them.
These teachings suggest a radical critique of the status and wealth relationships of first century Mediterranean society. Jesus did not organize a political revolution against the oppressors of his time, but he did initiate a social revolution by teaching people to ignore the accepted values as a way of resisting them — and entering the kingdom of God. His followers are not distinguished by their poverty and lack of power for this is the condition of all peasants in the first century agrarian society of the Mediterranean world. Hiis followers are distinguished by their disregard for social status based on class, wealth, familial and gender roles, and by their lack of anxiety about starvation, social ostracism and political persecution.
The healing ministry of Jesus also presses this challenge. Jesus heals physical illness and casts out demons, but also forgives sins. This means that his healing ministry challenges the power of the priestly class. In first century Jewish culture illness was understood as the result of sin and as a form of punishment and judgment. Only priests could mediate the divine forgiveness of sins through rituals and appropriate fees, a system that made peasants dependent on religious officials. A healer who forgave sins committed the unforgivable "sin" of making the religious establishment irrelevant.
Jesus could have established his own healing practice in Nazareth and done very well for himself and his family. He refused to settle down, however, moving from village to village. Moreover, he trained others to be itinerant healers and to do as he was doing. Jesus offered the peasants of first century Galilee an unmediated way of dealing with illness and sins. He called them into a radical new way of living together as a community of faith.
Jesus was a prophet not only because of his words, but because of his deeds. He lived a kind of freedom unacceptable to those who benefited from the status quo. His opponents included not only those with wealth or religious and political power, but also those within the hierarchy of patronage relationships in an agrarian society who were unwilling to risk their "perks" (no matter how minimal) and their position above someone else who was poorer and more dependent. Jesus was opposed by Jewish landlords, priests, and other collaborators with Roman rule as well as Romans. In a time when peasants (as 95% of the population) were harshly oppressed by the ruling class, the teachings and healing of Jesus were subversive and, not surprisingly, led to his death.
The prophetic vision of Jesus was perhaps most powerfully expressed in his table fellowship. He ate with people of different status, with women as well as men, with those who were considered unclean and impure, with tax-collectors and sinners, and possibly even with Gentiles as well as Jews. And when he ate with these persons, he acted not only as their host but also as their servant. He took the bread and blessed it as a host would, but like a servant he also broke the bread and gave it to them to eat. As host, he assumed the man's role. As servant, he took the woman's role. Thus, he ignored the most fundamental social distinctions of his time as a way of creating a new egalitarian community — in which the presence of God was made available to each person, as she or he was able to receive this gift in faith and trust.
Two by two, perhaps a woman with every man, Jesus sent his followers out with no money, bag, sandals, or staff. Jesus differed from the Cynics of his time who were a counter-culture movement in the Greek cities of the Roman empire (one of which was but a short walk from Nazareth). Jesus sent his peasant followers out to demonstrate their interdependence with the poor not their independence from the established patronage systems. His followers brought teachings and healing wherever they were welcomed, and in return they received food and a place to sleep. In village homes they discovered and created the kingdom of God, as they planted its seeds.
The church that came later related its origins through the gospels. The church told stories about Jesus that put men in charge, returned women to servant roles, had Jesus creating new mediators (the apostles) for God's presence, and made Jesus into a divine mediator (a savior) for all of humanity's sins. The stories of the church changed the egalitarian table fellowship of Jesus into a ritual expressing his sacrifice (as redeemer) and reinforcing the power of new mediators (the priests of the church).
Yet, the gospels and the letters of the early church in the New Testament allow us to see the historical Jesus, if only in Paul's words "through a glass darkly." Moreover, other materials from the first and second centuries and contemporary methods of studying literary texts enable us to reconstruct the life of Jesus as a Jewish peasant prophet. His words and deeds are the origin of the movement that grew like a weed within the garden of the Roman Empire until it took over.
If we would recover the spirit of the teachings and ministry of Jesus for the life of the church today, we must see through the mythology of the New Testament that seeks to contain the radical vision of Jesus. For Jesus calls us to find God in one another and in the freedom that comes with resisting the oppressive social distinctions of every time. He invites us to enter the kingdom of God by loving our enemies, by rejecting all discrimination based on social, economic and political power, and by affirming that character is more important than creed. He challenges us to renounce our role as caretakers of religious institutions so we may become teachers, healers and prophets of the living God.