Since tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the things he stood for during his life. I no longer consider myself a christian, but it’s not for lack of trying. I went to church at least 3 times a week growing up, attended a christian high school and college, and finally got my master’s degree at a seminary. So sometimes I feel like I’ve heard just about everything there is to say about Jesus.
But a theology professor of mine at the seminary used to talk regularly about how christians today focus on Jesus’ birth and death – but don’t talk much about his life in between the two. That’s why Christmas is probably the biggest holiday of the year and its also why they LOVED the movie “The Passion of the Christ.”
The life of Jesus is where he presented challenges to all of us in showing us how we can live in a way that truly does transform the world. In our power-driven consumer society – those messages go right to the heart of what’s wrong with our culture and ask us to live another way.
I also had a professor in college who took his bible and cut out all the verses (old and new testament) that were instructions for us to care for the poor, the widowed and the children. He would hold up that bible in class and show us that there was not much left after all that was taken out in order to make the point that today, we tend to miss the central message.
Most of us have heard the beatitudes. They are perhaps the most powerful summary of what Jesus was trying to teach us:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall possess the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And most of us have heard the story of the good samaritan:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
I often think of the following passage at christmas and wonder what gift we could give to Jesus on his birthday.
Then the king will say to those good people on his right, ‘Come. My Father has given you great blessings. Come and get the kingdom God promised you. That kingdom has been prepared for you since the world was made. You can have this kingdom, because I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was alone and away from home, and you invited me into your home. I was without clothes, and you gave me something to wear. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me.’ “Then the good people will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food? When did we see you thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you alone and away from home and invite you into our home? When did we see you without clothes and give you something to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and care for you?’ “Then the king will answer, ‘I tell you the truth. Anything you did for one of the least of these my brethren, you also did for me.’
All of these passages call for something deep in our relationships with each other – and that’s what makes them so difficult to live out. The christians I grew up around are much more content with rules and dogma that are imposed from the outside as a way to live than they are with these deep truths about humanity.
There’s one last story about Jesus that I’d like to share because it addresses this reliance on dogma and Jesus takes a direct hit at that kind of thinking. I have to say that in all the years that I heard thousands of sermons I NEVER heard one on this passage:
And it came to pass that he went through the grain fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of grain.
And the Pharisees said unto him, “Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?”
And he said unto them, “Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry, he, and they that were with him; how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar, the high priest, and did eat the showbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them who were with him?”
And he said unto them, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.”
What I hear in this story is Jesus saying that the “rules” are negotiable. What’s not negotiable is the dignity of every human being, and that, ultimately, trumps all the rules.
At this time of year, I usually go back and read an amazing diary written by the wonderful soul Kid Oakland about three years ago titled a christmas message. Here’s a taste:
Let me tell you something about the Jesus that I know.
He was a real man. Born in a poor region to working poor parents. He loved learning, he loved his mother and his father.
But he left them and spent his life with the poor, the outcast, the rejected, the defiled, the sick, the sinners, the bedraggled, the bereft, the self-hating, the lonely, the banished, the foul, the miserable, the desperate and finally, those sick with their own power.
He did this, not because of his ideology or his creed. He did this not because of his doctrine. He did this, quite simply, because he loved them. He preferred them.
Their company, their stories, their lives, their environs, their plight and their faith.
And they loved him. Because he touched them. He looked them in the eye and believed in them. Because, at the end of the day, when they looked to him they saw that his commitment to them was a commitment unsullied by qualifier or clause. It was a commitment to love them, even upon pain of death. And they saw in him, a love that promised to love them as they were, who they were…fully, without judgement or flinching glance, or hypocritical accomodation.
As I said before, I don’t consider myself a christian, and don’t share these passages in an attempt to convert anyone… just to share these stories from a great teacher on his birthday.