An Urgent Reassessment of Jesus

Many Christian churches opt for comforting their parishioners – with reassuring ceremonies, banal sermons and even appeals to popular nationalistic sentiments – rather than challenging them with the tough calls from Jesus for social justice, a grave failure, says Rev. Howard Bess.

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By the Rev. Howard Bess

Our knowledge of the Jesus of history is growing rapidly with many good scholars looking at the context in which Jesus grew up, lived and taught. Context is the key word.

Over the past 30 to 40 years, scholars have begun placing the words of Jesus into the context into which he spoke them with the meaning of Jesus’s teaching becoming clearer. We now know that Jesus delivered his teachings to a huge poverty-stricken peasant population. Further, Jesus’s teachings were spoken in the primary seedbed of the Zealots, a radical movement that advocated violent rebellion against the wealthy and the powerful.

Authors of the Greek narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote decades later. They used original Jesus materials – passed down through oral tradition from the Aramaic that Jesus spoke – but put them into a completely different context. In the process, they gave meanings to Jesus’s teachings that he never intended or would have accepted.

The insistence of recent scholarship is that the teachings of Jesus from Nazareth be carefully removed from the context created by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul and reinserted into the context in which Jesus lived and taught, an advanced agrarian society in which poverty overwhelmed the population, violence was commonplace, and injustice reigned.

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Thus, the key to understanding the Jesus of my Faith is not found in the Greek of the New Testament but in Jesus himself, a native of the town of Nazareth where he grew up. It was the Galilean area where he carried out his career as a popular teacher and story-teller. To understand the teachings of Jesus, the material must be placed in the context in which he lived and taught.

Jesus’s teachings have survived in two primary forms, his parables (stories) and his aphorisms (short sayings). Most scholars now agree that these two literary forms used by Jesus survived a transition from the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, into the Aramaic oral traditions of Jesus’s listeners and finally to written Greek over a 40 to 60 year period. These stories and sayings survived because they are easily remembered – and this process of survival of Jesus teaching material is not seriously disputed.

In preparation for ordained ministry, I studied a lot of Greek, Greek being the original language of what we now call The New Testament. But I look at current New Testament scholarship and conclude that reading Greek was not as important as I thought.

Today’s Churches

These implications of recent scholarship beg to be recognized by Twenty-first Century Christian churches – and these churches ignore this very good scholarship at their own peril. After all, the basic message from Jesus is blunt and real: his spirituality was a direct result of his involvement in the political, social and economic issues of his own day. Justice was at the heart of his spirituality.

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Yet, today, ordained clergy are at the heart of the churches’ dilemma. Many have been trained in seminaries and have been taught what I have described in reference to the stories and sayings of Jesus. Thus, they know the social and economic implications of the Jesus material, but most seminary-trained clergy choose to side-step the justice messages of Jesus.

Clergy become adept at conducting baptisms, communion services, funerals and weddings – and preaching innocuous sermons. They bless public gatherings with polite and meaningless prayers of invocation and benedictions. However, they will not speak from pulpits or public platforms about income disparities, paying employees a living wage, universal health care, or the welcoming of immigrants.

Another huge shortcoming of Christian churches is that they have lost their ability to discuss and argue the hard social and political issues that emerge from the Christian gospel. The parables that Jesus told were not told to make audiences agree with the story-teller or one another. They were told as discussion starters intended to produce understanding of the social-political conditions of the day and elicit a commitment for a just society. The lack of vigorous discussions in Christian churches about social justices is nothing less than scandalous.

The earthly ministry of Jesus was not about the saving of souls for an eternal heaven. A serious study of his parables and aphorisms produce a very different perspective. The messages of Jesus were about people who needed to be restored to communities of justice, caring and love.

Christian churches have lost their way seeking social acceptability and comfort for the elite. In the process they have claimed the presence of their Christ in a cup of juice and a bite of bread. The distortion is disastrous. The need for Christians to take a new look at Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings is urgent.

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The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptists minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].  

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