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How Jesus's Message Was Hijacked

By the Rev. Howard Bess
December 6, 2010

Editor’s Note: A core contradiction of the Christian faith is how a religion, based on the teachings of a martyred advocate for peace and the poor, could be transformed into an institution that justifies war and rationalizes extraordinary wealth.

In the United States, some politicians who brandish their Christianity as something of a campaign weapon would have you believe that Jesus favored invading other countries and wanted tax cuts for the super-rich. However, in this guest essay, the Rev. Howard Bess traces this contradiction to an ancient dispute:

The great religious divide in the world today is not a divide between Christianity and other religions, but rather within Christendom. 

The arguments are about very basic questions: What is the nature of God? Is God loving? Or is He vengeful? Are neighbors to be loved or killed? Both sides of the arguments can be found in the writings that are commonly called the Holy Bible.

In discussions about the differing opinions in the Bible, one side is commonly called the “great tradition” and the other side is called the “small or lesser tradition.” The two sides are divided by the power interests that the arguments have represented.

The so-called great tradition was developed and enforced by the ruling classes. In Biblical times, their religious interpretations were found almost exclusively in larger cities where rulers, the rulers’ retainers, priests and religious leaders lived. 

Under the great tradition, there was an emphasis on rules, especially for worship practices. Making proper sacrifices, observing holy days, keeping purity rituals, and bringing proper gifts were mandatory for a person to be right with God.
The small tradition was found in rural areas away from the seats of power. In the Old Testament writings, the prophets were typically a part of the small tradition. 

Over and over again, the prophets critiqued the religious practices of kings and priests. The champions of the small tradition called for justice and often scathingly criticized the great tradition and its powerful enforcers.

The advocates of the small tradition never sought power themselves, instead they expressed concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. 

Jesus can best be understood as a practitioner of the small tradition. His faith practice was expressed simply: Love God. Love your neighbor. Do justice. His idea of greatness had nothing to do with wealth or power. 

According to Jesus, true greatness is achieved by being a servant of a loving God. Serving God is expressed by being a servant of all.

Jesus’s Roots

Jesus was raised in a very small village in northern Palestine, a seed-bed for the small tradition. Apparently Jesus participated in the synagogue gatherings in Nazareth at which Torah (the law or message of God) was vigorously debated. 

He emerged from village life in Nazareth as a rabbi without formal training but empowered by his reputation as a skilled teacher and debater of the truth of his faith. The base of his followers also was recruited in the small towns of northern Palestine. 

There were two large cities within a few miles of Nazareth, Sepphoris and Tiberius. They were centers of wealth and power, dominated by the era’s great tradition. They would have been very dangerous places for Jesus to speak and he apparently never visited them.

Most scholars believe Jesus visited Jerusalem (70 miles to the south) only once – and when he spoke out, he was killed.

The corrupting of Jesus’s message began soon after his death. His greatness became tied to King David, the most powerful king in the history of Israel. This conquering king became the image of the ideal Jesus, making Jesus a ruler of all rather than servant of all.

It is startling to realize how fast Jesus, the practitioner of the small tradition, was transformed into Jesus, head of the great tradition. Over the ensuing centuries, the vast majority of Christian church leaders has unwittingly embraced this switch, buying into the great tradition and selling out the small tradition.
I suspect the appeal of power is very attractive to most everyone. Many lose their souls in pursuit of wealth and status. Apparently there was a struggle even among the disciples of Jesus for positions of power. Jesus steered his followers in a different direction, but the selfish impulses never left.

I confess I do not have a clear vision of the Christian church of the future. What is called “the emerging church” holds great promise because of its focus on Jesus and his actual teachings, rather than the trappings of religious ceremony and political influence that have come to surround and obscure his message.

The ultimate shape of the emerging church is still unknown. Emergents are apparently found in most every congregation – and they are restless.

If they stay rather than leave, they may become the salt, leaven and light that brings a new day for the small tradition. If they listen carefully to Jesus, they will become servants rather than rulers.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is             

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