Jesus in Mark
When I first read the Christian Scriptures, I was struck by the Gospel of Mark. Carefully-crafted and well-plotted, the story moves quickly toward its climax of death and resurrection. The book describes the ministry of a man both human and holy, who risked his life to spread his message of love and nonviolent resistance.
The gospel is clearly political. Its first sentence, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” is a veiled challenge to the Roman Emperor who called himself the “Son of God” and whose birth was proclaimed as the “good news.” For me, Mark’s story seemed more like an allegorical call to revolution than the chronicles of a man who actually lived. Had Mark invented Jesus?
It turns out, most scholars agree that he did not. After studying Paul’s letters, I had to acknowledge that someone named Jesus did indeed walk this Earth in Jerusalem. Two Greek authors, Pliny the Younger and Tacitus, mention him. So there it is. Jesus was as real as Siddhartha or Napoleon. Like them, he was born, lived, and died.Such
Jesus in Matthew and Luke
That doesn’t mean, however, that everything we read in the Christian Scriptures is literally true. Take the story of Jesus’s birth, for instance. The two versions of it, one in Matthew and one in Luke, differ significantly. Matthew is eager to prove that Jesus’s birth fulfills the ancient prophecies, while Luke focuses on Jesus’ status as savior. In Matthew, kings visit Jesus; in Luke, it is shepherds.
Such differences might lead modern audiences to think the tales lack truth, but they were never written as factual narratives. They focus, instead, on meaning. The birth stories differ because the authors have different goals in writing them.
Writing mainly for the middle class and wealthy residents of the city, Matthew sought to reveal Jesus as “the righteous one who called others to righteousness through his teachings.”  Less concerned with righteousness, Luke attempted to convince his audience that Jesus is “the Savior for all humanity, especially for the lowly and the outcast” .
Luke’s birth narrative reflects this. First he contrasts John the Baptist with Jesus. For John’s story, Luke uses a formula common in the Hebrew Scriptures, one in which an childless, elderly couple is visited by an angelic messenger who tells them a special child will be born to them. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s miracle baby will be John the Baptist, who will prepare the way for Jesus, a being more special even than he.
The Birth of Jesus
To highlight this specialness, Mary the mother of Jesus is impregnated not by a man, but by the Holy Spirit. When she visits Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit informs the women that the baby Mary carries will be the Savior of the world. The women sing songs; a sense of triumph fills the narrative.
One might think that God’s son would deserve a regal birth. But no, Luke reverses our expectations by placing the newly-born baby Jesus in a manger. Can a true Messiah arrive so quietly, with such simplicity? Yes, he can, Luke proclaims, for Jesus has come not for the rich or powerful, but for the outcasts, the shepherds, the marginalized, the poor.
On Christmas, we tell Luke’s story, not Matthew’s. Our hearts are warmed by the love and acceptance we imagine Jesus and Mary showed to the simplest and poorest who came to welcome this babe. Must story be historically accurate for us to appreciate it? No. Stories have meaning not because they are factual, but because their truth touches our soul.
Jesus and Resistance
Of course, many people believe the story literally. Some individuals, for instance, have told me that when they first read the Bible, they were filled with a conviction that this was real, that Jesus was God. Suddenly, they believed. I don’t know how much of what they said was true, how much was memory rewoven, and how much was what they thought I’d want to hear. Regardless, I discovered that they – and many like them – experience the Bible stories as the awe-inspiring chronicle of a deity they dearly love.
Over the years, I’ve come to respect that kind of passion and belief. Even so, I don’t share it. For me, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are story and myth, an attempt to piece together a religion. Unitarian Universalists tend not to claim authoritative texts. We find meaning, wisdom, and revelation everywhere.
Just because I don’t have one text I consider sacred, however, and just because the Christian scriptures read to me more like myth and metaphor than facts, doesn’t mean I don’t believe in Jesus. I believe in his message of love and acceptance to the marginalized people of his day. I believe in his challenge to the Roman leaders and the Pharisees. He called on them to follow God, give up false righteousness, love even their enemies, protect the poor and vulnerable, speak out against atrocities, and give up their possessions.
No wonder so many of them rejected him. Though I might believe in Jesus’s teachings, when I think of following them, I resist. Give up my possessions? Give up laws that protect me, even if at the expense of the natural world, the poor, the weak? Risk my security by relinquishing all I spent so many years amassing? How do I do that?
On Letting Go
I have been listening to Richard Rohr’s book, The Art of Letting Go, which is about the life of St. Francis. In the book, Rohr explains that St. Francis, raised in a wealthy home, gave up all he owned and went off to live the life of a mendicant, wandering among the poor and marginalized, and spreading love and healing wherever he went.
I don’t think we must all give up everything and live on the streets. After all, St. Francis depended on small jobs and begging to earn enough money to buy food, so someone had to have resources to support him. If we humans could go back to hunting and gathering for all our needs, perhaps each of us could live close to the land, owning nothing, sharing everything. These days, however, such an Eden is impossible.
Of course, I don’t think the world would fall apart if I myself chose to let go of my possessions, my family, my income, my pets. No disaster would result. Besides, doing so would fit my values as a believer in Jesus and his teachings. Still, I resist. Mightily. Why?
Not only do I fear the insecurity of owning nothing, but I am attached to my family and to my identity as a chaplain and minister. Who am I if I have no home, no relatives, no job? What am I if I wear just one set of clothes, eat only what I can scrounge, sleep here and there and nowhere? I would be cold and lonely. My back would hurt, I’d develop sores, I’d get sick.
The Reality of Life
For some, this is the reality of life: pain, illness, loneliness, torture, despair. Does solidarity require that we share their fate? Mark’s gospel calls on us to resist the oppressive powers. Over the centuries, many have resisted, some with violence. Regimes have risen and fallen. Is it now our turn, here in the United States? The election of Trump to the presidency of our country has shaken many of us, yet really, oppression is not new, even here. Our country was founded on genocide. Perhaps this turn in history will upset those of us who live comfortable lives enough that we will finally say, “No more.”
Yet if we speak such words, should we not follow them with action? Should we join crusades, write letters, protest? That would be a start.
Yet what if our livelihood is threatened? What will we do then? Will we risk going to jail, having our homes taken away, or our loved ones murdered? Every day, in this country, someone is unjustly imprisoned, someone is evicted without cause, someone’s child is shot and killed. This isn’t new, but it feels new because Trump’s election has emboldened those who prey on the vulnerable and who lust for power.
I fear for my country, but also fear myself. Can I possibly give up all I have, like Schindler did when he repeatedly paid off the Nazis so he could save the life of his Jewish factory workers? Can I stand up to a repressive government the way Oscar Romero did in San Salvador? For what will I give my life? When it comes time for me to be tested, will I be a hero or a coward?
Called to Resist
Daily, in big and little ways, we are called to resist. Mark challenged the Roman Empire. These days, liberals fear Trump’s presidency. Already, white supremacists proclaim victory, and people of color are taunted and beaten in our new president’s name. How do we respond? During a holiday season that includes Christmas and Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, what can we learn about resistance?
Jesus preached a gospel of love. He preached inclusion, compassion, righteousness, and care for the oppressed and rejected. His resistance was nonviolent. He won by releasing absolutely everything, including his life. In this way he gave the world a gift of hope and healing that continues even now to strengthen us. This message of love, compassion, righteousness, and care for the poor can be found in most religions of the world. When we believe wholeheartedly, when prophets arouse our passions, we can do horrible things to others. We can also do loving, holy, transformative things.
In What Do We Believe?
Doubt is important. Ask questions; reconsider what you’re told. Yet also believe. Actually, we can’t help but believe in something. Do we believe in power, money, possessions, security, status, white supremacy? Or do we believe in compassion, freedom, and justice?
There are many ways to stand up to atrocities, to speak truth to power. We can march, write letters, us pray, seek out the wounded and offer hope and healing. Whatever we do, may we remember to act with thoughtfulness, love, and generosity. May we remember that sometimes we need to celebrate. This is a holiday season, after all. Let us find people to hug, let us tend to our families, let us tell stories of hope, like the tale of a vulnerable baby born in the midst of squalor, worshiped by the poor, the lonely, the homeless. Jesus moved mountains and cleared the Temple and upset the aristocracy. His death wasn’t a failure. Rather, it was a testament to the power of love that can, time and again, save the world.
In faith and fondness,
- Reddich, Mitchell G., An Introduction to the Gospels, Nashville: Abingdon, 1997, 149.
- Ibid, 149.
Photo by Chris Sowder from Unsplash.