Modern biblical scholarship has enabled critically thinking Christians to understand what the historical Jesus actually said and what was tacked on later to serve the interests of Rome and early church leaders, but those original messages remain politically inconvenient today, writes Rev. Howard Bess.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
We now have the best biblical scholars ever, academics who have developed research tools that amaze me and offer a very good handle on what Jesus said and what he did not say as well as the cultural, historical, religious and social context in which he lived and taught.
With what I now know, I find it impossible ever again to see Jesus with a sword in his hand or in possession of a protective shield. The Jesus that I meet in the Gospels is a man of peace, who gently nudges me toward non-violence. Love and kindness are the ways of Jesus.
Jesus taught his disciples (and us) to pray that the kingdom of God might come to earth. Yet, people of Christian faith can pray without ceasing but until we collectively abandon the ways of violence and war, peace on earth and the reign of God will never fully come.
The first great challenge to Christian faith in the future is the abandonment of the ways of violence and war. Love, peace and kindness must become synonymous with Christian faith.
The second challenge involves the ownership of property. This is a key to understanding the teachings of Jesus, who lived in a time and place of economic disparity. Jesus advocated a new celebration of the Year of Jubilee, which, according to the Bible, is the time when property and possessions were to be returned to the Temple priests for redistribution among the tribes of Israel. This massive redistribution was to take place every 50 years (though it never actually did).
Yet, there is no way we can avoid the clear Bible standard of limitation of private ownership — of land in particular and wealth in general. That was also the view of Jesus.
By Bible standards, today’s wealth gap between the rich and the poor is so enormous that it is a complete affront to the professed beliefs of those who are wealthy and claim to be followers of Jesus. The standard is clear: We are to be stewards of wealth, not owners.
Jesus advised one wealthy man to sell all that he had and give his wealth to the poor, then to follow him. Jesus ridiculed the man who kept building bigger and bigger barns to hold his wealth. These two examples are not incidental to the teachings of Jesus, but are at the very core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Some people who call themselves Christians will cry out against these clear tenets from the Bible and Jesus’s teachings as the imposition of socialism. But the issue with Jesus and Bible standards is not socialism but stewardship. Christians are called upon to practice radical stewardship and to encourage others to do likewise.
The challenge of stewardship has a modern application to world environment as well. Stewardship cannot be understood only on the level of individuals. Stewardship is a major part of Christ’s challenge to churches, nations and the whole world.
The greatest challenges to Christians of the future are two in number: peace and stewardship. All other concerns pale in their presence.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.