What Jesus Meant

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9780670034963: What Jesus Meant

As the religious rhetoric of the culture wars escalates, New York Times bestselling author and eminent scholar Garry Wills explores the meaning of Jesus’s teachings

In what are billed as "culture wars," people on the political right and the political left cite Jesus as endorsing their views. Garry Wills argues that Jesus subscribed to no political program. He was far more radical than that. In a fresh reading of the gospels, Wills explores the meaning of the "reign of heaven" Jesus not only promised for the future but brought with him into this life. It is only by dodges and evasions that people misrepresent what Jesus plainly had to say against power, the wealthy, and religion itself. Jesus came from the lower class, the working class, and he spoke to and for that class. This is a book that will challenge the assumptions of almost everyone who brings religion into politics—"Christian socialists" as well as biblical theocrats.

But Wills is just as critical of those who would make Jesus a mere ethical teacher, ignoring or playing down his divinity. Jesus without the Resurrection is simply not the Jesus of the gospels. Wills calls his book a profession of faith in the risen Lord, the Son of the Father, who leads us to the Father. He argues that this does not make people embrace an otherworldliness that ignores the poor or the problems of our time.

What Jesus Meant will no doubt spark debate about our understanding of Jesus and the Scriptures, especially as we head into midterm elections that will certainly prompt many heated discussions on the role of religion in our society.

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About the Author:

Garry Wills is one of the most respected writers on religion today. He is the author of Saint Augustine’s Childhood, Saint Augustine’s Memory, and Saint Augustine’s Sin, the first three volumes in this series, as well as the Penguin Lives biography Saint Augustine. His other books include “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Foreword: Christ Not a Christian

IN CERTAIN RELIGIOUS CIRCLES, the letters WWJD serve as a password or shibboleth. Web sites sell bracelets and T-shirts with the cryptic motto. Some politicians tell us this watchword guides them in making decisions. The letters stand for "What Would Jesus Do?" We are assured that doing the same thing is the goal of real Christians.

But can we really aspire to do what Jesus did? Would we praise a twelve-year-old who slips away from his parents in a big city and lets them leave town without telling them he is staying behind? The reaction of any parent would be that of Jesus' parents: "How could you treat us this way?" (Lk 2.48). Or if relatives seek access to a Christian, should he say that he has no relatives but his followers (Mk 3.33–35)? We might try to change water into wine; but if we did, would we take six huge water vats, used for purification purposes, and fill them with over a hundred gallons of wine, more than any party could drink (Jn 2.6)? If we could cast out devils, would we send them into a herd of pigs, destroying two thousand animals (Mk 5.13)? Some Christians place a very high value on the rights of property, yet this was a massive invasion of some person's property and livelihood.

Other Christians lay great emphasis on family values—should they, like Jesus, forbid a man from attending his own father's funeral (Mt 8.22) or tell others to hate their parents (Mt 8.22, Lk 14.26)? Or should they go into a rich new church in some American suburb, a place taking pride in its success, and whip the persons holding out collection plates, crying, "Make not my Father's house a traders' mart" (Jn 2.16) or "a thieves' lair" (Mk 11.17)? Would it be wise of them to call national religious leaders "whitewashed tombs, pleasant enough to outer appearance, but inside full of dead bones and every rottenness" (Mt 23.27)? Are they justified in telling others, "I come not imposing peace, I impose not peace but the sword" (Mt 10.34)? Or "I am come to throw fire on the earth" (Lk 12.49)? Should they imitate Jesus when he says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but never will my words pass away" (Mk 21.333)? Or when he says, "I am the resurrection" (Jn 11.25) or "I am the truth" (Jn 14.6), or "I have the authority to lay down my life and I have the authority to take it up again" (Jn 10.18)? None of those who want to imitate Jesus should proclaim that "I am the light of the world" (Jn 8.12) or that "I am the path" to the Father (Jn 14.6).

These are just a few samples of the way Jesus acts in the gospel. They were acts meant to show that he is not just like us, that he has higher rights and powers, that he has an authority as arbitrary as God's in the Book of Job. He is a divine mystery walking among men. The only way we can directly imitate him is to act as if we were gods ourselves' yet that is the very thing he forbids. He tells us to act as the last, not the first, as the least, not the greatest. And this accords with the common sense of mankind. Christians cannot really be "Christlike." As Chesterton said, "A great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it." The thing we have to realize is that Christ, whoever or whatever he was, was certainly not a Christian. Romano Guardini put it this way in The Humanity of Christ:If Jesus is a mere man, then he must be measured by the message which he brought to men. He must himself do what he expects of others; he must himself think according to the way he demanded that men think. He must himself be a Christian. Very well, then; the more he is like that, the less he will speak, act, or think as he did; and the more he will be appalled by the blasphemy of the way he did behave. If Jesus is mere man as we are, even though a very profound one, very devout, very pure—no, let us put it another way: the measure of his depth, devotion, purity, reverence, will be the measure in which it will be impossible for him to say what he says....The following clear-cut alternative emerges: either he is—not just evil, for that would not adequately describe the case—either he is deranged, as Nietzsche became in Turin in 1888, or he is quite different, deeply and essentially different, from what we are.To read the gospels in the spirit with which they were written, it is not enough to ask what Jesus did or said. We must ask what Jesus meant by his strange deeds and words. He intended to reveal the Father to us, and to show that he is the only-begotten Son of that Father. What he signified is always more challenging than we expect, more outrageous, more egregious. That is why the Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac calls him "of all the great characters history places before us, the least logical." Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor knew this when he reproached Christ for puzzling men by being "exceptional, vague, and enigmatic."

It is true that Saint Paul tells us to "put [our] mind in Christ's when dealing with one another" (Phil 2.5). But looking to the mind of Christ is a way of learning what he meant, on many levels. We can learn what he valued in the human drama as he moved among his fellows. According to the gospels, he preferred the company of the lowly and despised that of the rich and powerful. He crossed lines of ritual purity to deal with the unclean—with lepers, the possessed, the insane, with prostitutes and adulterers and collaborators with Rome. (Was he subtly mocking ritual purification when he filled the water vessels with wine?) He was called a bastard (Jn 8.41) and was rejected by his own brothers (Jn 7.3-5) and the rest of his family (Mk 3.21). He was an outcast among outcasts, sharing the lot of the destitute, the defiled, the despised. "He was counted among the outlaws" (Lk 22.37).

He had a lower-class upbringing, as a cabinetmaker's son. That was a trade usually marginal and itinerant in his time. He chose his followers from the lower class, from fisher-men, dependent on the season's catch, or from a despised trade (tax collection for the Romans). There were no Scribes or scholars of the Law in his following. Jesus not only favored the homeless. He was himself homeless, born homeless and living homeless during his public life: "Foxes have lairs, and birds have nests in air, but the Son of Man has nowhere to put down his head" (Mt 8.20). He depended on others to shelter him. He especially depended on women, who were "second-class citizens" in his culture. He was not a philosopher. He wrote nothing for his followers in a later age. He depended on his uneducated followers to express what he meant. He knew that the Spirit moving them had no need of men with Ph.D.s or with grants from learned foundations (1 Cor 1.20).

His very presence was subversive. He was born on the run, fleeing Herod. As the Anglican bishop N. T. Wright puts it, he "came into the world with a death sentence already hanging over him, as the paranoid old tyrant up the road got wind of a young royal pretender." Jesus would later move through teams of men setting traps for him, trying to assassinate him, to crush his following, to give him the same treatment given the beheaded John the Baptist. He had to "go into hiding" (Jn 12.36). He was in constant danger-of being kidnapped (Jn 7.30, 7.44), of being arrested (Mt 21.46, Jn 7.32), of being assassinated (Mt 12.14, Lk 13.31, Jn 7.1, 11.53), of being stoned for his irreligion (Jn 8.59, 10.3133), of being thrown off a cliff (Lk 4.29). Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist openly, plotted to kill Jesus secretly (Lk 13.31).

Jesus was called an agent of the devil, or the devil himself (Mk 3.22, Jn 7.20, 8.48, 10.20). He was unclean (Lk 11.38), a consorter with Samaritans (Lk 17.16) and with loose women (Lk 7.39). He was a promoter of immorality (Mk 2.16), a glutton and a drunkard (Lk 7.34), a mocker of the Jewish Law (Mt 12.10, Jn 5.16, 9.16), a schismatic (Jn 8.48). He was never respectable. In fact, he shocked the elders and priests of the Temple when he said, "In truth I tell you, tax collectors and whores are entering God's reign before you" (Mt 21.31). Even when a Pharisee was well disposed to Jesus, he was afraid to be seen with the radical by daylight (Jn 3.1). Jesus seemed to prefer the company of the less-than-respectable, since he said that his Father "favors ingrates and scoundrels" (Lk 6.35). I am reminded of the journalist Murray Kempton, who relished the company of rogues. A political leader once said that Murray would have liked him if only he had a criminal record-though I am sure Murray liked him anyway, from the way he used to tell me good-bye by saying "God bless you," as if we would never meet again.

For two years, Jesus slipped through all the traps set for him. He moved like a fish in the sea of his lower-class fellows. He kept on the move, in the countryside. If I think of a music to be heard in the background of his restless mission, it is the scurrying agitato that opens Khachaturian's violin concerto. He went into cities as into alien territory. He was a man of the margins, never quite fitting in, always "out of context." He sought the wilderness, the mountaintop. He gave the slip even to his followers (Mk 7.24). The puzzled disciples trotted behind, trying to make sense of what seemed to them inexplicable, squabbling among themselves about what he was up to. It would never have occurred to them to wear a WWJD bracelet.

Jesus ghosted in and out of people's lives, blessing and cursing, curing and condemning. If he was not God, he was a standing blasphemy against God. The last thing he can be considered is a "gentle Jesus meek and mild." To quote Chesterton again:We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters....There is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite.... [The gospel story] is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hardly know what they signify; of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather chart of their own. The Peter whom popular Church teaching presents is very rightly the Peter to whom Christ said in forgiveness, "Feed my lambs." He is not the Peter upon whom Christ turned as if he were the devil, crying in that obscure wrath, "Get thee behind me, Satan." Christ lamented with nothing but love and pity over Jerusalem which was to murder him. We do not know what strange spiritual atmosphere or spiritual insight led him to sink Bethsaida lower in the pit than Sodom.The Jesus of the gospels is scandalous, and one of those scandalized was Thomas Jefferson. He was so offended by the miracles and the curses, by the devils assailing and defeated, that he created his own more acceptable Jesus, excising all those parts of the gospels that he considered unworthy of a wise man's story. The result, cleansed of all the supernatural hocus-pocus, is the tale of a good man, a very good man, perhaps the best of good men-therefore a man who would not pretend to work miracles, to wrestle with demons, or to have unique access to God the Father. Jefferson's revised New Testament is not only much shorter than the real one but much duller. Nothing unexpected occurs in it. There is, for instance, no Resurrection. Jefferson's Jesus is shorn of his paradoxes and left with platitudes. He is a man of his time, or even ahead of his time, but not outside time, whereas the Jesus of the gospels is both temporal and above time. As Chesterton concludes:There is more of the wisdom that is one with surprise in any simple person, full of the sensitiveness of simplicity, who should expect the grass to wither and the birds to drop dead out of the air, when a strolling carpenter's apprentice said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: "Before Abraham was, I am."Needless to say, that verse (Jn 8.58) is excised by Jefferson. His mild humanitarian moralizer is not allowed to say anything shocking, challenging, or obscure. Devils and miracles are not the only things to go. So are passages like this:"Think not I come imposing peace to earth. I come bringing not peace but a sword. I bring conflict between a man and his father, a daughter and her mother, a wife and her mother-in-law—a man's foes will be found in his own home. One who loves father or mother before me does not deserve me. One who loves son or daughter before me does not deserve me. And anyone who does not take up a cross and tread in my footsteps does not deserve me. The man protective of his life will lose it, but the one casting life away on my account will preserve it." (Mt 10.34-39)Jefferson's extraction of the "real" gospel from the traditional one—a task he called as easy as "finding diamonds in dunghills"—has been taken up in recent years by a team that finds the task more difficult, but productive of much the same result. This team of scholars calls itself the Jesus Seminar, and it prints a Bible that sets apart by different colors the "authentic" sayings or deeds of Jesus and the sayings invented by the evangelists or their sources. Though these experts use linguistic and historical tests for qualifying the diamonds in their dunghill, they work from a Jeffersonian assumption that anything odd or dangerous or supernatural is prima facie suspect. That disqualifies the Resurrection from the outset. The Seminar's founder, Robert Funk, agreed with Jefferson that Jesus was "a secular sage," and the team trims the gospels even more thoroughly than Jefferson did. One whole gospel, John, has no authentic saying (Jefferson liked quite a lot of John). Most of Mark (usually counted the most authentic gospel, since it is the earliest) also falls by the wayside, along with the last three and a half chapters of Matthew. Luke, as the most "humanist gospel," comes off best, but overall the Seminar retains fewer than a fifth of th...

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