If Jesus Came to Us Today
What if Jesus came to us today? How would we recognize him? Presuming for a moment that the Christian story were true, how were the crowds who came to hear Jesus preach supposed to know he was a prophet, the Messiah, or the Son of God?
Think how radical the Christian message must have seemed to those who heard it. The Jews were and are monotheists. The idea of a God the Father having a God the Son who took the form of a man was blasphemy to them. Nothing in their religion prepared them for it. (If you have heard otherwise, see Rabbi Skobac debunk this notion.) Who expected the God of the universe to take a lowly human form and be born in a manger? Who would have accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah (which means King) when he never did anything remotely king-like (unless you count a ride into Jerusalem on a donkey). Who could have anticipated that this poor man’s execution was anything but the sad end of the story?
Today I know there are good reasons to believe that none of the Jesus story ever happened. Not only did Jesus speak in parables, he may himself have BEEN a parable—-a complete, or almost complete, fiction deliberately contrived by a gospel writer to teach a “greater” spiritual truth. (Check out: “Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All” by David Fitzgerald.) But for the sake of our thought experiment, let’s just put ourselves in New Testament Galilee at the time Jesus was carrying out his ministry. We are standing in the crowd that came out to hear the Sermon on the Mount––“Blessed are the meek . . . Blessed are the merciful . . . Blessed are the peacemakers”––and we are so wowed we become disciples of THIS prophet. We listen to that inner voice that tells us right from wrong. We are humble and honest with ourselves; we refuse to squelch our moral intuition because of worries about what family, friends, and Pharisees might think if we decide THIS is a truth worth risking everything for.
But it is almost certainly too late for 21st century Westerners to be shocked by the thought of a god being born to poor Jewish girl. (Though the detail that Mary would have been about 12 at the time of the Immaculate Conception does give one pause.) So Christians often challenge themselves by transposing the story of the Incarnation into modern times. What if Jesus returned in our times embodied in the form we least expected––say a homeless person, a foreigner who didn’t speak our language, or a sexually active single woman––would we listen to the message of this person and judge the message on its merits, or would we dismiss this preacher out of hand because of our preconceptions?
As a Christian, one of the parables that impressed me most was the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is answering a question about the “Love your neighbor as yourself” passage from Leviticus. An “expert in the law” asks “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus responds with the now-familiar parable: A man is attacked as he is traveling along a dangerous road and is left for dead. After a priest and a Levite pass by, it is the Samaritan who takes pity on the naked, dying man and gets him to safety.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asks.
The legalist is forced to reply, “The one who had mercy on him.”
It was explained to me that Samaritans were despised by the Jews because they had a very similar, but slightly different religion. (Transposing it into a modern context, the Samaritans “were going to Hell” over some theological difference.) And yet Jesus doesn’t seem very concerned with the Samaritan’s incorrect theology when he makes the merciful Samaritan the hero of the story.
The prophet Jesus warns us that we might be overlooking an obvious truth––we are all neighbors––if we focus too much on ethnicities and religions. Even today, I hear this story and want to applaud.
At some point, I committed myself to try be the sort of person who WOULD have recognized Jesus by the truth of his teachings. I would not squelch my moral intuition, I would judge alternative viewpoints on their merits. I would be fair and not presuppose “my people” had a corner on the truth.
This is the recipe for recognizing God if he reappears today, even if he unexpectedly appears as, say, a crippled Chinese woman. (She will be saying something interesting, enlightening, and morally uplifting.)
Putting this method into practice, I soon had a “problem”: In my new cosmopolitan surroundings (I was working in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand), I was hearing compelling and morally uplifting messages from all over. And the most compelling were not coming from Christians, and they did not involve God.
One Thai woman, when asked why she was there to help the Hmong, replied simply, “Because they are my brothers and sisters.” I remember this clearly because I knew immediately that her answer beat out the standard Christian response––something about reaching out [across a huge cultural chasm] to the “lost.” And this made me uneasy.
But on second thought, in what universe is too many morally uplifting examples a problem? It should be something to rejoice in if the people I meet turn out to be fairer and kinder than I had expected, and more effective than myself at making a difference in the world. It shows me a way to improve. If my religion prepares me to be disappointed when I find goodness, or even “way-betterness,” all around me, there is something seriously wrong with my religion. If my religion builds obstacles to understanding my would-be brothers and sisters around the world, there is something seriously wrong with my religion.
Which, in the end, was the conclusion I came to.
Speaking to the Christians, I encourage you to live in such a way that you would not miss the truth if it comes to you in a way you never expected. Be as brave as those crowds in the story who recognized Jesus because of his compelling message even if they were expecting an earthly King.
Paraphrasing Richard Dawkins, speaking recently (April 7) in Columbus Ohio: “I hope you each have the opportunity at some point, like I did, to be proved utterly and completely wrong about something you truly believed. Because it is a wonderful liberating experience and it leads to something greater.”