The Christmas season celebrates the regal myth of Jesus – his supposedly miraculous birth and royal lineage as a king of kings – but that loses sight of the historical Jesus and his revolutionary message of justice for the poor and powerless, as Rev. Howard Bess reflects.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
The emergence of Jesus as a Jewish prophet of note was something that no contemporary would have predicted. After all, he lived in a world where leaders were determined by the prominence of their birth or by their effective use of violence.
Jesus possessed neither. He came from humble origins and taught nonviolence. Jesus gained a following among the poor as a reputational rabbi, meaning that he lacked a formal education and religious training. He also lived in the small town of Nazareth, nearly 100 miles north of Jerusalem, the area’s primary seat of religious and political power.
The earliest written record of the life of Jesus was the gospel written by an unknown author called Mark, who says nothing about a miraculous birth or about royal lineage. (The fiction of his miraculous birth to a woman with royal ties was fabricated decades later.)
Instead, Jesus represented a very small tradition within Judaism that arose occasionally from the ranks of the poor to critique and challenge the dominant religious, political, social and economic powers which dominated the society and offered little to the people.
Jesus gained his reputational status as a rabbi by telling stories and presenting aphorisms that stirred the minds of his audiences and incited their understanding. Completely committed to living the Israelite Torah (law and will of God) on earth, Jesus was devout in his faith and radical in his application of Torah to everyday life.
According to Mark’s account, Jesus began his public ministry with a great announcement: “The time has come. The reign of God has arrived.” For Jesus to make this pronouncement in remote Galilee added to the seeming absurdity of what he was setting out to do.
Not only did Jesus live and teach in a rural area far from the centers of power, there is no record in any of the four gospels that he ever entered the two major cities in his vicinity, Tiberius and Sepphoris. His heart, mind and soul were with the rural poor trapped in cycles of ignorance and desperate need.
Despite his lack of formal education and his distance from urban sophistication, Jesus was an astute observer of the religious, economic, political and social hierarchies that raped the land and terrorized the common people of his area. A careful reading of his stories and his aphorisms reveal how radical he was.
At the time, few alternatives were available to people seeking change. Roman rulers and their retainers held all the power and wiped out protesters without hesitancy. Yet, collaboration with the political and economic elites was viewed as treason amid the misery of the common people in Galilee. Any cooperation with the oppressors could set brother against brother and kinsman against kinsman.
As a rabbi of the poor, Jesus made people aware of the injustice inflicted by the rich and powerful, but he also sought to teach them a new way to set the wrong right. He taught them that the reign of God was more than a hope for the future but a way to achieve justice in the here-and-now through actions taken by faithful believers.
Mark’s gospel lays out Jesus’s path for establishing the reign of God on earth (and Matthew and Luke repeat the message). Fundamentally, Jesus redefined the meaning of what it was to be great, declaring that greatness did not belong to the rich and powerful.
“If anyone wants to be great, let him be the servant of all,” Jesus said. It was a restatement of the great command to love your neighbor.
When Jesus first laid out his simple plan to establish the reign of God on earth, he spoke to poor, disenfranchised, frustrated, angry and powerless rural peasants. He challenged them to bring Israelite society into line with the noblest ideals of Torah by creating a society based on service to others.
Yet, even two millennia later, the greatest disagreement among followers of Jesus remains his vision of this path to greatness through service to others. Today’s worldly – like the royalty and rich of Jesus’s time – still assert that greatness comes from wealth and power. But the servant message still echoes through the halls of history.
I am hopeful for the future because many people grasp Jesus’s message, that the reign of God can be a reality on earth. In recent years, there has been a rise in “emergent” Christian churches, marked by an interest in the historical Jesus and the practice of what he taught.
I am hopeful also because a kindred spirit has appeared at the Vatican with the election of Pope Francis, who has invoked the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, who has criticized income inequality, and who has made establishing the service model a priority.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.