Note: I first wrote and published this a few years ago. I occasionally revise and republish it.
Two thousand years ago, a carpenter lived a conventional life for 30 years in a tiny village in the Middle East. Then he somehow became as they might say today, “radicalized.”
Historians agree that Jesus did exist. There are reliable ancient records of him. But most of what we know are opaque and contradictory accounts written decades after his death in what we now call the Gospel of the New Testament.
In one sense, those Gospel accounts are profoundly simple. They say Jesus was the Messiah prophesized in the Hebrew Bible. As such, he performed miracles to save those needing saving. He came back from the dead. That’s the word.
But in a personal sense, the Gospels present a more complicated man than the one presented in Sunday School or even adult church services.
Read the Gospels yourself. In his three years of preaching, Jesus railed against the religious establishment that charged tolls on the road to heaven, as religions often do. And he had no use for the occupying Roman pagans. But he regarded neither as the real enemy.
With compassion he cured the sinners and detritus who were shunned by his ancient society including prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, the crippled and the blind. But he often suggested that their condition was not medical or circumstantial. Rather, it was spiritual — a lack of faith.
He judged people even as he admonished them not to judge others. He came to serve, not to be served, but he instructed those he served to serve his father. He forgave those he judged and took no payment, but demanded something harder than payment: “Sin no more.”
His patience was superhuman, except with his rag-tag band of friends who often exasperated him. He all but muttered, “Geez, I’m surrounded by idiots!”
But he trusted those friends to be the rock upon which he and they might found a world-changing faith. Most of them did not disappoint.
He had a wry sense of humor and was occasionally sarcastic. He taught kindness and forgiveness but had a temper. Enraged that merchants at the temple traded on God, he trashed the place.
He and his friends drank a lot of wine. When they ran out, he made more.
He was tempted and occasionally afraid. He was coy about who and what he was. A reader of the Gospels is left wondering whether he himself wasn’t sure till the end. He seldom called himself the son of God, but often called himself the son of man.
He preached that this world doesn’t matter as much as the kingdom to come. For that, some thought he might be insane.
But he was strong. He went to Jerusalem for his trial and death. There the people betrayed him, as he knew they would, mocked him and scourged him to the bone. He dragged through the streets the crossed timbers of his impending torture and execution as a rebel and blasphemer.
That was his plan all along. In his final hours, he endured agonizing pain inflicted by those he came to save. With his last breath he cried out, “Lord, why have you forsaken me?”
He was fully a man, and more. I’d give anything to have a beer with him.
Humanity’s view of Christ changed in the two millennia after the Gospels. This most masculine of men became feminized. The medieval church seeking to domesticate the masses portrayed him as a pacifist and a weakling — a soother and a smoother — perhaps because that’s what they wanted from their customers.
While plump priests and popes bedecked themselves in jeweled crowns and silk robes, Christ was portrayed as a doleful, skinny, humorless, hippie vegan with long hair parted in the middle, sometimes holding a lamb.
But men in the time of Christ did not have long woman’s hair and did not carry around lambs. Carpenters then and now are not skinny, but sturdy. They don’t cuddle cute pets, their muscular arms wield hammers. They’re not victims, they’re builders.
Christ came to build, and he succeeded like no one before or after.
Christ’s unpredictability and contradictions confuse me, and the church’s creepy stylization of him is even more perplexing. It’s well worth trying to understand him but I still don’t fully and probably never will, at least not in this world. I have a hunch he wants it that way.
But I do know this. He’s not my mom. He’s not there to dry my tears or tell me I’m special or ward off things that go bump in the night. The Lion of Judah fights a fiercer foe.