Jesus – A Portrait
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
THE WORD OF THE LORD.
One difficulty famous people face is how their image is represented or misrepresented by the information out for public view. A movie star said about an article in a tabloid magazine: “I don’t recognize myself in the things said about me!”(1)
If misrepresentation can occur with persons today, imagine the distortions that can occur with persons who lived 2,000 years ago, like Jesus. Think of all the sermons preached about him, and all the books written about him. As one theologian said: “If the possibility of error is in direct proportion to the volume of transmission, then Jesus is surely the most misrepresented person who ever lived!”
This morning, however, I am going to give a portrait of who Jesus was, what he was like, and what we know of him today. By giving this portrait of Jesus, perhaps we can better understand why, as seen in our Scripture text this morning, people wanted to kill him. What was it about him that made him dangerous to others?
If we do not portray Jesus correctly, then we misrepresent Jesus to ourselves and to others. So today, I want to portray as accurately as I know who Jesus was.
Before we describe Jesus, it is important that we know Jesus existed. People sometimes question whether he ever lived. However, independent sources from persons who wrote in Jesus’ time wrote about Jesus. They were independent sources, such as Josephus an historian.
What was Jesus like, this one we talk about week after week, this one we follow? For this, we rely on the Gospels, those in and outside our Bible. Each Gospel presents Jesus a little different from the other Gospels.
What do they say about Jesus? What was Jesus like?
First, his physical stature. Physically - he was tough. Today, we think of Jesus as a carpenter. However, the Greek word used is mistranslated. It does not mean carpenter; it means stonemason. Jesus worked with stones and rocks. Trees were not abundant in Nazareth. It was not the Daniel Boone Forest. The business of lifting, carving, and laying stone was hard. He dug foundations out of rocky soil. He lifted boulders out of the ground with his hands. He built houses, walls, or wells. When Jesus spoke about the man who built his house upon a rock, he knew about it first-hand. His hands were callused, and his arms strong from lifting. His complexion was dark - both from his genetic background and from his exposure to the sun.
His legs were strong, and the soles of his feet were tough. He walked everywhere he went, public transportation being what it was back then. When twelve years old, he with his parents and others traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem and back again. He walked the whole way - a distance of 80 miles one way. He could go long days on little food as he did in the wilderness. He was lean, perhaps gaunt.
Mentally, Jesus was sharp, quick witted, and literate. He could read from the Torah on the Sabbath. He could look at the world around him, then use what he saw as parables or analogies for deeper truths to teach. He put difficult concepts into practical terms everyone could understand.
What was his personality like? He could be compassionate and charming in one situation, but confrontational in others. He saw the problems in life, but also the goodness in life. He seemed fearless. He never shrank from what he considered important. He spoke his mind. He could handle himself with any person. He could be tender and tough. He told the woman in adultery - “Neither do I condemn you” and he told his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” To the religious and political elite who sought to trap him, he called them: “Blind fools,” or “Hypocrites.”
He loved people, parties, and intelligent conversation. While John the Baptist was a recluse, Jesus was gregarious.
He could be sad. He cried over Jerusalem and wept over the death of Lazarus. He had a temper. He told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan; and he overturned money tables and spoke in a rage against people in the temple area who were exploiting the poor. Cleansing the Temple probably got him killed.
He had great compassion on all people. He healed the sick. He tried to alleviate the troubles of the ordinary person, including the poor and social outcasts.
He talked straight. You knew what he meant. To the rich young man he said, “Go, sell, what you have and give to the poor.”
When it came to following God, and speaking out against the powerful who were rich and were comfortable and making money in the status quo, he was revolutionary. He saw that the poor and the sick exploited, he wanted something done, and preached that God was going to do it.
His ministry probably did not last the three years we have traditionally thought, but less than a year. The Gospel of Mark seems to bear that out. He had no fear; and he expected others to have none either. He was a man with a mission, and he turned neither to the right or left, but went straight to his goal; and that goal was the proclamation of good news and the Kingdom of God. He saw that God was the meaning and the purpose of everyone’s life. He said, “You are either with me or against me.” “Whoever follows me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Strong words! Judas probably betrayed him because Jesus would not use violence to overcome the powers oppressing. He would not join any political, social, or particular religious group. He saw beyond them. Judas was trying to be reasonable with an unreasonable man. No wonder the powerful – the Temple leaders and the Romans – crucified him. The Kingdom of God does not fit with the Roman superpower of the day.
No wonder people have tried to water down Jesus through the centuries. It is like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov.” Jesus comes back, and threatens to undo what the church has done. The Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that asking people to follow him is not what they need. His message will not sell today; the church and the people were just fine as they are. Therefore, the Grand Inquisitor banishes Jesus from the city before Jesus can upset anything.
Jesus fits into no groups today. He preached for the reconciliation of people - all people and God.
So, what does this portrait of Jesus mean for you and for me?
Jesus forces us to deal with God, and with God’s message that this Kingdom of God is different from how the world acts today. We see the message that all people matter to God, and your status in this life does not matter. What counts is how we help God show the first fruits of the Kingdom of God by our actions. Jesus forces us, as he did the Romans and the religious elite, to deal with him and to either say “Yes” or “No.”
Finally this, we need to remember that when we see Jesus, we see something of God. God is Christ like. If we are to understand God, we have to take Jesus as he was. We cannot water him down. We cannot domesticate him. We cannot make him in our image. We cannot make him one of us. We cannot make him bless our agendas if we are to be his disciples.
As we move inevitably each week towards the cross, we need recall the decision that each one of us needs to make that - If you cannot take Jesus as he truly is, then there is no point in taking him at all. Amen!
(For further reading, see: Gregory J. Riley - “One Jesus, Many Christs” / Stephen Neill - “Jesus Through Many Eyes” / Jaroslav Pelikan - “Jesus Through the Centuries,” Marcus Borg’s “Jesus the Revolutionary” and other books by him and Dominic Crossan.)
(Copyright by Jack Hughes Robinson – 2018. Use by permission only.)