Monday, May 9, 2011

Who is the Real Jesus?

How would you describe Jesus? What sort of messiah was he? What were the most important aspects of his ministry? For me, titles like “miracle worker” and “redeemer” and “sacrifice for sins” come to mind. Today’s gospel reading (Luke 4:14-30) gives us an example of what Jesus thought about himself. In his hometown synagogue, he stands up and reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Two-thousand years later, we read the gospel and get our own sense of who Jesus was…or at least we think we do. Those two millennia have shaped how we read the story of Jesus, and I think they may have shaped that story so fully that the Jesus we know today is quite different from the savior Jesus understood himself to be. There aren’t many examples in the gospel of Jesus stating his mission—of him defining his messiahship. And I think we forget how central this passage is.

In Sunday school classes when we’re discussing soteriology (how Jesus “saves” us), I am often asked about Judaism’s understanding of messiah. And the question usually sounds something like this, “Aren’t the Jews still waiting for a messiah and just didn’t recognize Jesus?” I think the Old Testament shows several quite different understandings of messiahship. Some passages envision a “prophet like Moses.” Others expect the arrival of a high priest who will purify worship. Some look for a descendant of David to reclaim the throne of his ancestors. And then there’s the passage that Jesus quotes from in today’s gospel lesson.

What is messiah? Literally, it means God’s “anointed one.” For what purpose was Jesus anointed by God? It’s easy for us two-thousand years on this side of the resurrection to say that Jesus was anointed by God to live a sinless life, die a horrible death, and rise again to save us and bring us to heaven. But if you ask Jesus, what would he say (WWJS)? He would reply, “I have been sent by God to honor the poor and outcast, to help people see who God is, and to set free those who are oppressed.” Is that a different understanding than we have? Perhaps. I think that the cross and empty tomb are part of “setting free the oppressed,” but I also think that I too often forget to use Jesus’ articulated self-understanding to help me interpret the actions of his ministry rather than use the actions to mis-define who he is.

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