There are four versions of the story of Jesus in the book that we call the Bible. Each story is a little different from the others and the details that are shared in each of the stories reveal a little bit of the bias and agenda of each author. Even with this kind of bias, the story of Jesus is powerful enough that, over two thousand years, millions of people have spoken about the great power it has to transform their lives. Regardless of what you believe about Jesus, there is value in paying attention to the story. Jesus was at least a character who wanted to legitimize and encourage those people at the margins of society. He came to give life and to give it more abundantly.
Still, after two thousand or so years, the story of Jesus is … different. It is impossible for us a human beings to read any story without reading our own experiences into it. Any time that we sit and read, there are two thousand years of history that impact how we understand the story; we lean one direction or another. If we were able to strip that away, I wonder how different this Jesus character might look on the other side. I believe that the Jesus from the first century would say and do things way differently than the Jesus that hangs on the walls of our churches and lives in our hearts.
If we’re serious about understanding who Jesus was, it might help to start at the end. Spoiler alert: Jesus dies. He taught and healed and performed miracles for three years. He made their lives better for those that had met him. So, it might seem strange that his authorities from his own religious community got ticked off with him to the point of handing him over to the Roman empire who crucified him. Crucifixion was a horribly violent torture that the Romans used to assert their dominance and reinforce their stats as the world’s true political superpower. The hero of our story dies with common criminals in what seems to be a tragic and humiliating ending.
But we’re not quite ready to roll the credits.
The story of Jesus goes on to say that he rose from the dead three days later, spent some time appearing to people, setting up the big finale. The final scene in at least two of the four versions of the story have Jesus giving one last address before promptly ascending into the sky to be with God in heaven. With such an epic closing scene, you know there has to be a real zinger that Jesus leaves the people with. There are slightly different versions of these closing remarks depending on which book you’re reading so here are the two versions:
Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world. (Matthew 28:19–20, CEV)
Go and preach the good news to everyone in the world. (Mark 16:15)
This good news line has always been curious to me. Christians often use this phrase interchangeably with the concept of gospel as a way to quickly reference the essence of what Jesus was trying to accomplish. It’s Jesus’ thesis statement. It’s the message that he came to share. If we’re completely honest, it’s our interpretation of what Jesus came to do. We have four short books that capture some of the ideas of Jesus but even these were likely written many years after his death. It’s really complicated to understand the full impact of the Jesus’ story because we are not first century, middle-eastern Jews living under the double oppression of a foreign empire and a religious system that privileged those in power. What Christians call gospel is also wrapped up in two thousand or so years or interpretation, bias, corruption, redemption, experimentation, power, and merging with other philosophies.
Here’s what most Christians would say this good news largely looks like today. God wants to be close and connected to God’s people but because we have sin – and God hates sin –, God cannot be around us. God sent Jesus to Earth to be a sacrifice, thereby giving us all the opportunity to take advantage of the free offer to be freed from this evil and to be eligible to get into heaven when we die. Many Christians believe that if you believe in this and you ask for forgiveness, then you’re covered and an eternal fire insurance plan kicks in. When people say, “Do you know Jesus?” or “Are you saved?” this is what they’re asking about.
Some people say that Jesus is their personal savior.
You might wonder why Christians would ask questions like these? Likely, it goes back to Jesus’ parting words: “Go to people of all nations and make them my disciples.” Christians, especially evangelicals, believe they are obligated to share the story of Jesus as they understand it with anyone who does not believe or hasn’t yet heard about Jesus. They are the heavenly fire insurance sales force. Some evangelicals joke that there will be jewels in their crown depending on how many people they bring into the fold. They take this very seriously. Some of them use bull horns. Most, though, are just normal everyday folks who believe in a certain story.
I should also say that I know a lot of evangelicals. They don’t do this because they’re hateful people. Most of them are not. Because of what they believe will happen at the end of time – sinners will burn forever in hell – one of the most loving things that they can do is to convince you of your need for Jesus. If I believed that raindrops falling from the sky could kill you, one of the most loving things I could do would be to give umbrellas to everyone that I met. I might also advocate for building entire bubbles around communities or proposing legislation that required all people to stay inside on cloudy days. It might be misguided or based on bad information, but it’s hard to call it hateful.
We have this story of Jesus that implies that his death makes it possible for you to get to heaven with all of the other believers when you die. There will be no pain, or tears – only happiness and celebration. Now, imagine that you feel lonely, or depressed, or sick, or ashamed of something that you’ve done. Imagine that you don’t feel like you measure up. There is a community of people that you love and that love you that tell you about Jesus and how he can “deliver” you and give you joy and a “peace that passes understanding.” If this is your scenario, then this is fantastic news. This might be the best news. All I have to do is pray and believe and Jesus will help me feel better? If those same people remind you that if there is sin in your life then you’ll spend an infinite amount of time burning in hell then buying hell insurance makes sense. You love them and you trust them. Entering into this kind of relationship with Jesus makes a lot of sense from this perspective.
This interpretation of the story brings meaning to millions of people each and every day.
Something Gets Lost
I enjoy music. When I play music myself or when I’m listening to it at home, I really want to hear it at the best quality it can possibly be. I want to hear the richness of each instrument and the timbre of each voice. Whether it’s orchestral music or a three piece jam band, every player adds their own contribution and brings individual flair and uniqueness to each song. It’s hard for me to listen to music if it’s coming straight out of my iPhone speaker. If you’re playing a song that sounds like it’s coming from an AM radio, I’m out.
I remember when I got my first MP3 player. The year was 2 BI (before iPod). Instead of 10,000 songs in my pocket, I could get about 20. Instead of carrying something that had to be large enough to play a CD and shoot a laser beam at a plastic disc, I could get 20 songs on something that was slightly thinner than a deck of playing cards. The future had arrived and I was in it. I also learned that I could fit even more songs on my MP3 player if I stored them in a format that used a lot of compression.
As more people started getting these magical devices, I remember being amazed at how many of my friends were fine with listening to really low-quality music. These were the days of Napster and people seemed content to listen to MP3s that sounded absolutely horrible. It would hurt my ears but they were really impressed that they could fit a hundred songs where I could only fit twenty.
Compression works exactly how it sounds. You take something big – in this case, an audio file – and try to fit into a smaller container. It’s no easy accomplishment and usually that means you have to throw something out in order to make it work. When you’re talking about digital music, you can make those files really small but the smaller you want the file the lower quality it will be. You might go from listening to a great concerto to something that sounds like it’s coming out the speaker at a fast food drive thru.
Information gets lost in compression.
I think we’ve compressed the story of Jesus.
Jesus. Born to a virgin on Christmas Day. Did miracles. Died on a cross to forgive sins. Rose from the dead. Went back to heaven when he was done.
Maybe they’re all essential parts of the story but there is so much that gets lost. There’s nuance in the details that we discard to get to this point. You don’t hear the high soaring accent of the piccolo or the low subtle push of the double bass. But churches seem happy with this highly compressed rendering of the story of the guy they built their whole enterprise around. The commonly held position is that these are the essentials and that’s good enough. As long as you have this, you have everything you need.
It sure doesn’t feel like this is everything though. Implied in this story is the idea that if you can persevere through the challenges you face in this life, you’ll be rewarded in the next. God will deliver you – when you die, you get to go somewhere nice. You’ll still suffer while you’re here. Some people won’t have enough to eat. There’s still a chance that your child will be harassed by authorities based on the color of their skin. You might not be able to afford health care for your family. This story says that you soul is the most important thing and if you’re suffering now, don’t worry, just trust in God. Soon you’ll die.
Just like with music, when you compress something as rich as the story of Jesus, you lose so much of the meaning that it becomes a weak and anemic version of its former self. For a lot of people, this story might work. It’s short, pithy, to the point. But it’s a pretty crappy version of the live performance. It feels simple. It’s small and uninspiring.
I should say that I believe Jesus was a real person. I believe the things he said and did were rebellious and compassionate and can be a model for living life more compassionately and connected to all of the other humans on the planet. When we reduce the story of Jesus to one of eventual escape if the right conditions are met, it just doesn’t do it for me. Maybe that’s still how it all ends, but I need more about how to make an impact on earth. Right now. Where people need it most.
I need something with a little more fidelity.
The Systems of Oppression
Jesus was essentially a Jewish Rabbi. I was in my mid-twenties when I first started to understand this. I suppose I had heard the idea a few times but it was never expressed to me with any kind of clarity and I filed it away as a simple fact – interesting, but non-essential. But what I was about to learn at that time in my life was that this was key to understanding some of the richness and value of the entire story.
During Jesus’ life, the region that he lived in was under the control of a occupying force. The Roman Empire had claimed this area for their own. The Jewish people weren’t Romans and so were often exploited for the empire’s gain. Rome levied taxes but built roads and infrastructure. They punished criminals but kept a relative sense of order. As long as the citizens did what they were told and didn’t make trouble, everything would be alright. The good the empire brought seemed, on the surface, to justify the dehumanization of the Jewish people.
There was another layer of order, too. The religious community had its own leaders and these people largely seemed to be interested in enforcing rules and promoting piety. Unfortunately, this probably ended up being another layer of exploitation on the everyday Jewish people. These leaders were the Pharisees. They’re the ones that Jesus called vipers and hypocrites at one point. They didn’t exactly get his shining endorsement.
In practical terms, if you or I found ourselves as the peasant class during this time, we would be subject not only to the coercive rule of the Romans but we would also be expected to align ourselves with the hundreds of religious rules and traditions that were in place. It was difficult. It was oppressive. We were caught in systems of abuse and power that seemed completely impossible to change. Rome had all of the guns and the Pharisees had the market cornered on God. Governors came and went. Religious leaders died and were replaced. But the trajectory of the common person seemed locked into permanent oppression.
Rabbis were more than great teachers. In this religiously dominated society, Rabbis were the rock stars. Rabbis held the most admired positions. Some were celebrities. If you’ve read parts of the Bible that talk about how crowds would come from miles away to hear Jesus speak, it might be helpful to know that this was not unique to one teacher. Other well known Rabbis could draw a crowd too. We just don’t have books written about them. Someone about Jesus seemed to stand the test of time.
The Jewish culture was oriented around their faith. An entire educational system had emerged and was aimed at helping each child develop a solid understanding of their religious tradition. The most advanced, most promising students were invited to continue and become Rabbis themselves to continue the tradition. Everyone else – those that couldn’t handle the academic and intellectual rigor – returned to their families and began apprenticing under their fathers and uncles to learn what their family had done for many generations. Some were Fishermen. Some we carpenters.
Upward mobility was about performing well enough to be noticed by a Rabbi and to join his team of disciples. For most commoners, this was an absolute fantasy. It would be like Mick Jagger calling me up to play bass with the Rolling Stones for a show at Wembley.
So, pretty unlikely.
Students who did have a chance to study with a Rabbi were not just getting an education. They were learning a craft – a way of life. They wanted to steep themselves in the way of their Rabbi and replicate him. These disciples would do everything all the way down to mimicking his mannerisms. They wanted to be like the people they followed. They wanted to provide an avenue for this Rabbis teachings to continue long after he was gone.
“Hey Son, There’s a ‘Mick’ on the Phone for you?”
Jesus was a Rabbi. What’s different about his group of disciples, though, were that they were chosen from the peasant class. The stories that we have that talk about Jesus finding his disciples when he started his teaching tour say that they dropped what they were doing, left their fathers and their trade, and started following this new Rabbi. Regardless of how it happened, the author really wants us to know that this was a big deal.
Let’s be really clear: if Mick did call, you’d better believe I’d be on the next plane to Heathrow. For these first followers, that was their story. Jesus invited them to be roadies. They jumped at the chance because they kind of won the lottery. They didn’t go through Rabbi school. They lived their lives among the everyday people who did practical things to earn a living and support their families. They were the blue collar workers. They weren’t privileged. They knew what it was to live in systems of oppression.
But what was it that these hand-picked followers of Jesus would be learning? How would Jesus leverage their circumstances to share his message?
When I read through these four books in the Bible, what stands out are a couple of recurrent themes. First, it seems to me that Jesus was about helping people find wholeness and meaning. In some cases, he healed people who were blind or sick. Other times, he told stories like the one about how one of two brothers blew part of his father’s fortune on prostitutes and liquor. When this rebellious son returned, broken and ashamed, the second brother was ticked that the first brother was welcomed back by his father. Instead of punishment, the father threw a lavish party. Why was the second brother so angry that the family was made whole? Why didn’t the father want his child to come groveling back or beg for his forgiveness?
In story after story, we see this idea of wholeness – of countering the dominant culture and helping people see that they do have meaning and purpose. The stories we have about Jesus radically counter the dehumanizing systems that had been established. Not only was he teaching a new way but he told those listening that they would be like a seasoning or a light for the rest of the people. This wasn’t conversion to a way of believing. This light was about inviting people into a way of living in a time and place – in response to the culture that damaged their sense of humanity. Salvation is about making those people whole right there where they were.
Lesson one, then, is that people have value. People are important and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. People shouldn’t be exploited. Disturbing the systems that perpetuated these ideas was at the center of what Jesus was said to have done.
A second lesson from these stories of Jesus is revealed by seeing who his anger was reserved for. He didn’t explode at the Romans who were oppressing his people. His most vehement anger was reserved for the religious leaders. When Jesus let loose, he really let it fly. He called the Pharisees vipers and hypocrites; he was pretty ticked. In one tirade, he talks about how they are careful to observe even the tiniest law about tithing but that they ignore the things that are more important. He says those things are justice, mercy, and faith. Apparently, it was time to interrupt these systems too.
The issue here was never about people going to hell. It was about the religious leaders of an entire people colluding with empire to bring oppression. When Jesus started to call out the way that the Pharisees retreated to the safety of following their own rules rather than standing up for the people that they were meant to be serving, their response was to have him killed. These Pharisees found comfort in their long-standing systems. Even though their own people all around them were getting mistreated just because of their nationality or the way that they looked or the choices they made, the Pharisees choose to retreat into the temple, to observe the sabbath, and to enjoy the relative peace that all of this brought them.
Jesus was most disruptive to this system of oppression. He was most disruptive to the church. When the Pharisees encountered this disruption, they felt like they needed to eliminate the threat. His message had the potential to completely revolutionize the way that people understood religion – who was in, who was out, and what it meant to be a person of faith. In order to justify what they were about to do, they had to criminalize Jesus. They had to reduce his story, ignoring the good that he was doing, and focusing instead on the rules that he was breaking. They prioritized piety over people.
Compression isn’t a new idea.
For Jesus, the idea of getting to heaven when someone died seemed to be of a lower priority than making an impact on people’s lives in that time and space. The Jewish idea of an afterlife didn’t really resemble what Christians think about today as heaven and hell. Instead, Jesus taught that people should no longer be marginalized. Jesus taught that light, and love, and compassion were the signs of faith. He taught that all were welcome in the kingdom of heaven. He taught that a child should always be welcomed back home. No questions asked.
Understanding the circumstances that the story of Jesus emerged from is difficult. We are two thousand years removed. The stories we read are translated from languages that we don’t speak and that we don’t understand. There are meanings and nuances that get lost and biases that get introduced every time we substitute an English word for a Greek one. Civilization has gone through several significant philosophical shifts since then too. We have experienced the enlightenment and the reformation and invented the iPhone. The development of science and rational though are relative newcomers on the intellectual scene. In the West, we prioritize the individual over the collective.
We unconsciously filter all of these stories through these lenses. It makes sense that when we compress the story of Jesus down to its smallest form factor our lenses reveal a self-serving story of escaping eternity in hell for an eternal party in heaven. It makes sense that we see the world as us who are in and them who are out. In this version of the story, Jesus and his death gets reduced to a cog in the heavenly Rube Goldberg machine designed at prepping people for eternity. It’s a machine that is programmed to save people’s souls and transform sinners into saints.
Like the disciples, what Christians understand about Jesus is what they will become. The story of Jesus is about way more than simply changing what people believe. Overwhelmingly, Jesus peacefully resisted those that would marginalize others. Overwhelmingly, Jesus would call out the crap of those who said they believed but made life difficult for those they were supposed to be serving. It’s not what Jesus believed that got him killed after all. It’s what he did. His actions towards disrupting these oppressive systems were too much. Disruption often means danger. Systems collapse and reorganize after disruption. The only way to protect their privilege was for religious leaders to get rid of the threat.
They could do that because they reduced him to a blasphemer – a religious criminal.
I wonder what happens when we compress the good news to being about our individual escape plans?
Maybe it’s time to expand what we know about Jesus. Maybe being concerned with where I end up at the end of time is missing the point altogether. Maybe what the story of Jesus is meant to do is to inspire us. There are plenty of systems today that maintain oppression and marginalization. If the story of Jesus was set in 2017, how different would it be? Do we honestly think he would be standing on a street corner with a bull horn telling people that they’re going to hell?
But maybe there’s more work to be done. One of the thousands of messages that get lost is the idea that Jesus told his followers that if they had faith, they would do the same things that Jesus was doing. In fact, he said they they would do even greater things after Jesus was gone. When you look at the whole story that could mean a lot of things. It could mean that we look for ways to scandalously reinvent what it means to live with faith. It could mean that we continue to stand up for and affirm the humanity of the oppressed whether they are minorities or immigrants or LGBTQ. Maybe we push our churches and communities to live with a greater sense of justice and mercy and see the whole story.
Maybe we change the world.