The other day I sat down with a profoundly faithful Christian friend who hates Jesus. Why? He’s got this nasty habit of coming across as a complete asshole. Towards everyone. Especially towards his friends.
I get that Peter messed up, my friend shares, but couldn’t Jesus be a bit more gracious than “Get behind me Satan”? Total asshole territory, right?
There are good reasons I too continue to struggle with the one who is far more complex than the god I grew up believing in. The more I struggle, the more I learn about God. Not the god I grew up believing in, but the God who had, for so long, been eclipsed by that earlier, tamer, god who was so easily tricked by personal pietistic performance.
As long as I show up on Sunday with a smile and everything’s great with JC attitude, I’m in.
As long as I witness to my friends at school, I’ll be bumped up the list for all those crowns I’ve been promised.
As long as I do my daily devotions, and stay on the straight and narrow, keeping my arms, hands and legs inside the car at all times, I wouldn’t have to worry about where I’d end up if I died tonight.
But that was before I entered the ring with one who is at once Profound Unknowable Mystery and Incarnate Revelation. After that happened, the very ground beneath me started to shift. Which is both awe-inspiring and awe-ful.
God, make it stop.
Back to the question at hand: Is Jesus an asshole? I guess for me, at this point in my journey, the jury’s still out. Whether he is or not, I’ve become more than convinced he’s not the anemic waif we heap with theologically abominable praises each and every Christmas:
Christian children all should be,
Mild, obedient, good as He.
– Once in Royal David’s City
It turns out you don’t actually have to read the scriptures to be a hymn writer. You can just make shit up, make sure the tune shimmers a bit, and people will ache to sing them songs. Ache. Pine. Yearn. This vision of Jesus is bankrupt. Or in other words, Jesus is probably closer to being an asshole than our churchy songs would allow the faithful to believe.
I love the stories of Jesus in the gospels. They’re fresh and they’re raw, and they’re challenging.
That is to say, they would be fresh and raw and challenging if only we’d courageously peel back the veneer we’ve pasted over top. There’s real wood under there, but it’s a bit knotty. It’s rugged, beat up. It’s been slightly distressed, and not in the home makeover show kind of way. There’s some real wear-and-tear under there.
And so when I find myself digging into the scriptures, and especially the gospels, I find myself confronted by the raucous narratives of a Jesus who questions the status quo, who upends tradition, who calls into question everything the religious and political establishment sold as the truth. And yes, I too stumble on the passage where Jesus tells his best bud Peter to get the hell out of the way.
And the more I read the story, the more I think I know why. Jesus is on this journey, this mission inspired by the Israelite prophets of old. In fact, it seems to me Jesus is taking all kinds of cues from Moses and Elijah, from Jeremiah and Isaiah, and Micah and Malachi, weaving them into his prophetic costume.
It’s not a performance per se, but his ministry does – like the prophets of old – take on an element of performance art. He wants us to know that while the word of God has been rare in the land of late, that is no longer the case. The word of the Lord will be made known again through the one who quite literally looks the part.
In Mark’s gospel, his first recorded word is a call to “Repent!”
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus proclaims “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
That’ll take some unpacking.
Luke emphasizes something similar, but voices them differently. The good doctor’s story really starts to take off when Jesus is asked to read in the synagogue.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Not only does he look the part of a prophet, but now, quoting directly from Isaiah, he has the audacity to say that these words he’s just spoken are being fulfilled in their presence. They’re being incarnated, and lived out amongst them. By him. Is this guy a narcissist? Do we dare return to that whole asshole thing again?
Yet I find it interesting that he skips the very next line of the prophecy.
and the day of vengeance of our God;
That’s the bit Jesus leaves out. The prophecy of restoration and reconciliation is fulfilled in Jesus. He’s the one who breaks down the walls that divide us. He’s the one who removes enmity from the vocabulary of salvation. You’ve scored a few points here, Jesus. You’ve scored a few points, but you’re still behind in the polls.
Fast forward a bit in the story to that action-packed sequence in Mark’s gospel.
Jesus feeds thousands. He gets in a boat. The religious elite sniff him out, demanding a sign. He gets in another boat, leaving them behind. The disciples don’t have enough food (again) and Jesus, rather annoyingly demands that they count the leftover baskets of the two previous feeding programmes. 5000 fed, 12 baskets left over. 4000 fed, 7 leftover.
But think back a bit. Remember who you are. Remember where you’ve come from. 12 Disciples. 12 Tribes. 12 Baskets left over. Okay. So there’s enough for Israel. We’re slowly catching on. Think back. After the exodus, what was the next big thing to happen? Israel enters the promised land and they massacre the seven tribes they find there (the Amorites, Hittites, Perrizites, Canaanites, Girgashites, Hevites, and the Jebusites).
You’ve got to be kidding.
Five thousand fed. Twelve baskets left over.
Four thousand fed. Seven baskets left over.
God, through Jesus provides more than enough for the Israelites. But wait. There’s also more than enough for the seven tribes who’d been wiped out in the post-exodus genocide. Don’t hold onto that thought for too long, or it’ll change the way you think.
Jesus asks, “do you not still understand?” Continuing along the journey, they meet a blind man who can’t see the forest for the trees. This is my son’s favourite bible passage, mostly because of what happens next. Jesus spits “pttuhh!” makes mud, puts it on his eyes, and now he’s able to see.
Which is when the lightbulb goes on for Peter. He gets it, at last (well, sort of)! Peter prepares a report for Jesus on what the crowds think of him. John the Baptist, Elijah, One of the Prophets. So far, so good. People are picking up what he’s putting down. Hair and makeup are convincing. He’s styled himself in the way of the prophets, and people are getting it. And now the big test, for his closest friend.
“Who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks Peter. Firmly and resolutely, Peter responds. “You are the Messiah.”
That’s when Jesus tells him to shut up, and tell nobody.
But why? Why does it always seem like you’ve got to be such an asshole?