What would Jesus do? Any of us who grew up in the church or in youth groups have heard this phrase. I remember seeing the letters WWJD? printed on bracelets and lanyards, plastered all over books and tshirts. And it was something which felt relatively straightforward, because we assume we know what Jesus is all about – peace and love and mercy. And that’s true. Please don’t misunderstand me – Jesus wasabout peace and love and mercy. But that’s kind of only half the story, right? Because this passage in Luke spells out a different Jesus for us.
As Christians, what we’re often inclined to do is break in and raid Jesus’ house and just take what is useful to us. However, that’s not really how it works. We can’t just cherry-pick Jesus’ ethics and leave behind everything else. We either need to accept all of Jesus or none of him. And that’s a tricky line to walk, because there’s a fine line between accepting the whole Jesus and accepting his whole worldview. And, we definitely don’t need to accept his whole worldview. Let me unpack that a little: yes, Jesus’ worldview incorporates his ideas about love and justice and mercy and social ethics, etc. But it also incorporates his ideas about cosmology, about supernaturalism and metaphysics, all that stuff. So, we need to accept all of Jesus, but we don’t need to buy into everything he bought into.
Let me say it this way: Christianity is kind of like a marriage. When you marry someone, you don’t only marry the things about them you like. You also marry their problems and their debt and their mess. When I married my wife, I married her wonderfully gentle and encouraging spirit, but I also married the fact that she makes kale soup. You all see where I’m going, right? You have to accept all the things they do right, but also the things they don’t. So, if we want to be Christians, and Christians worthy of the modern age, then we have to accept not only all the things Jesus got right, but we also have to accept the things Jesus got wrong. Yes, I’m saying Jesus got stuff wrong, and you all are just going to have to go home this week and deal with this.
But, Jesus was a product of his time. Everything he did, everything he said was cultural. Now, he may have made cultural claims which speak to an enduring moral and ethical reality we believe exists in the world, but what he had to say was cultural nonetheless. I heard a pastor one time preach on 2 Timothy, where Paul told wives to submit to their husbands and be quiet in church, and he said “this isn’t cultural. If this is cultural, the cross is cultural.” To which I respond “the cross iscultural! It may have enduring meaning for us here and now, but it’s cultural nonetheless. It’s a type of punishment specific to political agitators in first century Palestine.” Now, some of the baggage which comes along with the context of first-century Judaism, in which Jesus and his contemporaries lived, are the realities we often don’t like to talk about in the church, or at least would rather sweep under the rug.
First of all, we’re often inclined to sweep under the rug all of Jesus’ references to the apocalypse. There are scholars out there today who are doing all the mental gymnastics they can to make the historical Jesus look like a sage and wise teacher who didn’t believe the world was about to end. They like to say that Jesus was just being metaphorical or symbolic, or that these parts of the gospels were written in by later editors and redactors. In my opinion, that’s wrong. The Jesus I find in the bible is the Jesus who was under the assumption that the world was on the verge of the end times and that it would be here any day. And that’s where passages like this come from. I think this is probably pretty close to something the historical Jesus would have actually said. He’s anticipating the eminent day-of-the-LORD when the sheep and the goats will be separated.
Now, if we want to affirm that Jesus is actually referring to the end of the world, then we’re put in a position where we have to make a painful admission, and that’s the admission that Jesus got it wrong. It’s the admission that we’re not going to let Jesus off easy this time; that we’re not going to bend-over-backwards to justify his error. It’s the admission that Jesus was human enough to be a failed apocalyptic prophet whose vision never came to pass.
This is the Jesus that no one likes to talk about. This is the Jesus which is swept under the rug when we go around asking “what would Jesus do?” There’s nothing wrong with that question. It’s a good question to ask. But the more fundamental, underlying question is “which Jesus?” The hippie-dippy lover Jesus, or the apocalyptic prophet? The political agitator or the wise philosopher? Or, in some strange, paradoxical way, maybe Jesus all of these things at once? If that’s true, which I think it is, then when we ask the question “what would Jesus do?”, we have to consider all of these facets of his personality, including the part of him which didn’t come to bring peace, but division.
If we’re to be Christians, then we can’t be afraid of division. We can’t be afraid of confrontation. So much of the time, we feel like we have to just “keep the peace.” And there’s something to be said for keeping the peace sometimes. But we can’t please everybody all the time. At most, we can please some of the people some of the time. As a pastor, I know this well. But we can never make everyone happy. There are going to be people out there who don’t agree with the things we do. I guarantee there are people who don’t like the fact that we’re openly affirming of LGBT people. I guarantee there are people who probably got bent out of shape by our presence at the Keep Families Together rally a couple months ago. It’s all well and good if you want to be impartial and neutral but Jesus chooses sides. And sometimes choosing sides causes division.
What would Jesus do? Well, Jesus would affirm LGBT people. Jesus would fight for children getting separated from their parents. Jesus would, and did, fight universal healthcare and income equality. There’s a beautiful book by Shūsaku Endō, called Silence, which is now also a film by Martin Scorsese, which speaks to this well. It’s about some 17thcentury Portuguese missionaries who go to Japan, where Christianity is illegal at the time, to spread the gospel. And when Christians are found, they’re tortured until they apostatize. And if they find a priest, they will torture other Christians until the priest apostatizes. Now, there’s one priest there who has already apostatized to alleviate the suffering of others, Father Ferreira, and he’s trying to convince another priest, Father Rodrigues, to apostatize for the same reason. And Ferreira tells Rodrigues, “A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here…certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.”
Here’s the thing, though: We’ll never be able to perfectly get back to the historical Jesus. And even if we did, it wouldn’t necessarily mean anything. The historical Judas knew the historical Jesus better than we ever will, and look at where it got him. All we have is the text in front of us, and that shows us several different Jesuses, so if we want to ask “what would Jesus do?” then we have to ask for an answer from each one of them. And I’d be willing to be you’ll get something with equal parts love and justice. See, we usually miss that second part. We usually only say love, and love can stand on its own, but justice is a necessary component of love. Love without justice is nothing more than sentimentality, which is what so often characterizes our pictures of Jesus.
So, here’s your homework. When you go home today, I want you to pick out one thing – just one thing – in your life which causes you frustration, anger, pain, whatever. Maybe it’s a relationship in your life, maybe it’s a problem in our society, maybe it’s something at work. Whatever it is, I want you to pose this question to it: what would Jesus do? But don’t ask the Jesus you know you’ll agree with or will give you an easy answer. Ask the wholeJesus, and see where it takes you. Like I said last week: Jesus’ dream is the only one worth dreaming. And it’s our job to dream his dream too.