Recently I’ve been studying quite a bit on that Jesus dude. A prophet, Jesus was. Yet, interestingly, he didn’t use the typical ‘Thus says the Lord,’ or ‘Hear the word of the Lord’ rhetoric that characterizes many prophets in the Jewish tradition. Jesus didn’t appeal to his hearers on the basis of having a direct line to God. He didn’t say, “Yo. Listen to what God told me.” His prophetic approach was to overturn tables or to speak directly to the powerful.

Jesus was a renowned and engaging teacher. And here’s another interesting fact for you: Jesus didn’t use Scriptures for his teachings. He taught in parables and aphorisms, teasing his hearers into thinking differently. He told stories. Our records of these stories are likely shortened versions of parables that Jesus would tell in a setting where the audience would interact directly with Jesus, in dialog.

The picture of Jesus that begins to emerge is of a man interested in engaging the heart and mind of people in a direct experience of a deeper understanding and a more meaningful and passionate life. As useful as Scriptures may be, Scriptures alone cannot take one into a more profound experience of the sacred or a deeper engagement with reality. As thunderous as it may sound to proclaim ‘Thus saith the Lord!’, there is something about a lesson from your daily agrarian work life that sticks with you. That manner in which Jesus taught from basic experience and the absence of authoritative appeals suggests that he was a man substantially changed in his inner being, a man who realized that the truths of the world need to be experienced first-hand. This is a realization that seems to hold for many great wisdom teachers, from the simple queries of Socrates to the Buddha’s emphasis on sitting in mindful meditation of reality as it is simply experienced. “Seek and you will find.”

7 thoughts on “On taking the direct approach of Jesus

  1. Jonathon, I love reading your posts… just wondered how you deal with the whole, the only way to the father is through the son thingie? It still upsets me, and makes me feel like hiding from the very fundamentalist Christians, here in the South, as it is so exclusionary, and I’ve always held dear a God that is loving and all inclusive…as, a mother, if my son/daughter were to deny me or even hate me, I’d still love them and they’d still be my kids…so, why not God?

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    1. Yeah. I get that, Molly. I feel the same way. I think a lot of people have that same, understandable inner cringing when they read the exclusive passages in the Bible. We each have our own journey, but here’s my approach.

      First, I read the Bible as a collection of texts written by different people. There are diverse perspectives and theological outlooks.

      The Bible has strong themes of exclusivism, as you point out. It also has equally strong (and radical) teachings on inclusivism: like Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son.

      In regards to Jesus specifically, it can be helpful to make a distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the Christian religion. For example, the passage you quoted is from the Gospel of John, the latest written Gospel, 50+ years or so after the death of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark, by contrast, was written somewhere within a few decades of the death of Jesus.

      Jesus almost certainly did not say “I am the way the truth and the life.” When we read the other three Gospels (the “synoptics” as they are called), we are hard pressed to find Jesus making these kinds of claims, having any sense of being God, or even being the Messiah. Going back to the historical Jesus, we find a spiritual teacher and social activist (prophet) who taught and provoked people to live “the way” but didn’t teach that he himself was “The Way.” In this sense, he was a bit more like Socrates or the Buddha.

      Maybe making that distinction helps? There is the Jesus of the way, there is the path he taught, then there is who Jesus becomes when he becomes the God of our religion and worship.

      As a Christian, I don’t mind embracing the Jesus of the Christian religion. But I am certainly more inspired by the historical Jesus who taught a way of spiritual and social transformation. I like the religious element (the community, the history, the liturgy), but like many people, I also cringe at the exclusivism of many Christians. Ugh. I think, actually that Christian communities can be spiritual and religious and inclusive.

      Does that make sense?

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  2. Jesus didn’t have to say, “Thus saith the Lord” He WAS the Word. He was God and as such, His words carried the same authority as any other words of God. He did reference Scripture a lot though and, as you said, He directed people to think of it in a different way than the traditions that had been taught to them. But I hope you don’t mean that He rejected the other Scriptures because He was actually the fulfillment of a lot of prophecy. The whole sacrificial set up of Old Testament times was designed by God to point towards the time when Jesus – the perfect Lamb of God – would sacrifice His life for us. Now His blood sacrifice covers our sin and forgiveness is there for anyone who is humble enough to receive His gift.

    My heart goes out to Molly about feeling condemnation. Jesus is not condemning in His attitude towards anyone. But your comment is in error when you say that Jesus did not say “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. It’s right there in John 14:6 in a conversation he was having with His disciples. In several places He claimed to be God and that’s why He angered the religious leaders of His time. That’s why they wanted to see Him crucified. But what kept Him from just disappearing and not going to the cross was the love that He felt for us. He knew that His sacrifice was the only way- the best way to provide forgiveness for us and assure us of having eternal peace. Nothing but faith is required of us and that’s a big relief to those of us who are smart enough to know how awesome that gift is. It’s a big kick in the head for someone who’s trying so hard to rack up religious brownie points in an effort to impress God and everybody else of their eternal importance. They could actually end up missing the whole point.

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    1. Yes, it is true that John 14:6 puts the words in the mouth of Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father but by me.” But most mainstream biblical scholars do not actually believe that Jesus said these words. For one thing, there’s virtually no mention of the deity of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The author of the Gospel of John puts these words in the mouth of Jesus in order to put forward a theological and spiritual truth that is important to him: the exclusive deity of Jesus. But it is doubtful that Jesus himself really actually made this claim. I’m talking about the historical person of Jesus, the flesh and blood guy that walked the earth. I’m making a distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the Christian religion. Does that make sense?

      It doesn’t mean that the Gospel of John is less important. I think that one of the reasons why the deity of Jesus might have been emphasized is in response to the deity of the oppressive domination of the Roman Emperor. In contrast to the Lordship of empire is Jesus’ Kingdom of God, a kingdom not of exploitation, domination, and violence, but a kingdom of “blessed are the poor.” Not an empire where the powerful compete to destroy each other and advance their own wealth and position but rather a kingdom where all work together in society for the good of each other, where “the first will be last.” So, to advance the deity of Jesus, in that context, was to assert the Lordship of Jesus as a God of the broken and Lord of a new idea for a new social order of equality and solidarity.

      Also, this is not to say that the historical Jesus is better than the Jesus of the Christian religion, but it is a distinction that I think is helpful, at least for me. Otherwise, it can be difficult dealing with the extreme diversity of the Gospels. Like, why do the early Gospel sources not claim that Jesus was God and only the later Gospel of John makes that claim? It helps me personally to realize that the Gospel records are not modern historical documents, in the way that we are accustomed to thinking of them. (For example, not everything reported as the words of Jesus were actually spoken by Jesus.) The Gospels do have history, but their purpose is also (primarily) spiritual, theological, and ecclesiological (meaning, for the edification of the church community).

      Also, I don’t think Molly’s point was about judgmentalism per se. I understood her to be talking about the difficulty of the perspective of exclusivism, the aggressive way in which many Christians assert that their God is the only God, that their theology is the only true theology, that the Christian religion is the only genuine religion, that all nonbelievers are going to hell, etc. This aggression also finds its way into politics: my country, right or wrong; American exceptionalism; and waging war against non-Christian nations…..That’s my take anyway, on what I think Molly was saying.

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  3. Aha! For so long I’ve been like, “why are Jon’s posts so short? and why does no one comment?” But then JUST NOW I realized that you have to push the “read more” button.

    Technology is trying to trick me but I am seeing through those tricks!

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