In the narrative of one of the earliest Christian training manuals, the gospel of Luke, Jesus introduces himself publicly for the first time in a local synagogue of Nazareth as the suffering servant of deutero-Isaiah. Using the words of the prophet, he announced that he was “sent to embolden the poor, to heal the broken in spirit, to free the slaves, to open the prisons, to comfort the grieving.” It later becomes clear that he also identified with the suffering people he was sent to serve because that announcement is repeated at key junctures throughout his career with an ever sharper focus on his own torture and death as a required feature of his mission.
It is my contention, that this man had a unique perspective on religion gleaned from his own personal interpretation of the significance of the poetry of Isaiah and other post exilic Jewish writers. Those powerful passages on redemptive suffering stood in striking contrast to mainstream Jewish theories about the cause and meaning of their national abasement which by Jesus’ time had gone on for centuries.
The author of “Luke,” following the narrative sequence laid out by “Mark,” says that Jesus had a foundational vision of his own vocation that occurred as he emerged from the waters of John’s baptism. “Sonship” was the dominating sentiment at that moment and it was taken to imply a commission from his “father.” Not unlike Isaiah himself who had a pronounced sense of being chosen and sent, Jesus was driven by his “father’s will.” Thereafter, allusions to his “mission” are unmistakably associated with a personal mandate: that his message included his death. Jesus saw it as a “command” from his father that as son he was bound to “obey.” Later in a letter to the Philippians Paul would claim that it was that very “obedience unto death” that earned Jesus a “name that was above every name.”
Who structured this interpretation of Jesus’ life? In the misty realms of gospel authorship, we cannot determine whether the focus on Isaiah’s poetry is Luke’s or Paul’s who was traditionally believed to be the inspiration for Luke. But there is also nothing to prevent it from actually being Jesus’ himself, presented by Luke as the origin of a series of predictions of his own death built on the jarring counter-cultural assertions of Isaiah, and never comprehended by his followers. The narratives reported that it was Jesus who appropriated Isaiah’s “servant” poetry as his own personal destiny. We are not under any obligation to deny these reports. That was the poetry that Jesus’ followers heard him proclaim — a poetry which he immortalized by giving his life for it — and which they never understood.
So here we have the beginnings of a radically new perspective on religion. Never before had humankind suspected that the traditional notion of “sacrifice” to placate the gods was anything more than a gripping symbol of a quid pro quo relationship with the invisible forces that protected or punished them. Never before had they thought to identify the elements of the human condition itself — suffering culminating in death — as the force that bound them umbilically to their Source and Sustainer.
I believe that the man Jesus had an extraordinary perception of the central place of brokenness and impoverishment in human life, traceable to the insights of Job and the post exilic Hebrew poets as well as his own experience of life under the systemic exploitation of the subjugated Jews by the Roman Empire. That insight was the source of his remarkable compassion for the poor, the sick, the crippled, the lepers, the possessed, the accused, all of whom were considered outcasts by the standards of mainstream Judaism. The ease with which he sided with social rejects suggests that he had seen through the self-deceptions of self-righteousness promoted, perhaps unwillingly but by all calculations inevitably, by the quid pro quo mainstream interpretation of the place of Jewish law and ritual in the contract with Yahweh. Jesus seems never to have been fooled by the official “holiness” of the Jewish authorities and the practices they fostered much less by the officialist interpretation of the perennial Jewish national humiliation as punishment for breaking the contract.
I may be forgiven if I find this extraordinary to an extreme degree. In a world where theocracy ruled undisputed, no one doubted for an instant that “divine providence” was behind the ascendancy of conquering empires and the degradation of the conquered. Rome was universally considered “diva” — divine — by all nations because “God” had clearly ordained its conquests and its universal rule. Jesus seems not to have believed that. What, then, did that imply about his belief in traditional “providence”? Political power as a sign of divine approval and sanction to rule was a universal belief with which Jesus’ own Judaism was in complete agreement. Probably today a majority of people around the world still believe the same thing. How did he get past that?
The same convictions held true for individual health and strength, success and good fortune, status and position. In Jesus’ world “God” was behind it all, rewarding those who were faithful to the contract, and punishing in this life those who were not. Failure, poverty, destitution, loss, chronic illness, disability, isolation, demonic possession, death — it was all a sign of “God’s” displeasure and punishment. Job himself could never get beyond all that; how did Jesus do it? That Jesus was able to see his father in a way that his contemporaries did not, besides the influence of Job and the Jewish poets, remains a mystery; for we do not know what youthful experiences may have contributed to it. What we do know, however, because it is not possible to deny it, is that he had to have a “doctrine of God” that was contrary to the accepted wisdom of his age and his own ancestral tradition. He had to know that his father was not the “God” who rewarded and punished behavior, littering the streets with lepers and blindmen, paralytics and cripples, the tormented and the insane. He had to know it was not his father who sent the legions of Rome to pollute the Jewish temple with abomination, to plunder and enslave the world, to destroy languages and peoples, creating desolation and calling it peace. Jesus’ father was not “God.” He knew it from the moment he emerged from the Jordan. He knew the “God” who ruled the Sabbath was not his father, because his father had given the Sabbath to man. His father was the Source of his humanity, and so he called himself the Son of Man. Jesus knew who he was.
But even in his lifetime some tried to call him the “son of ‘God.’ ” He would not stand for it. He wouldn’t even let them call him “good,” for he said that word was reserved for “God” alone. He knew who he was, and he was not “God.”
Others got the same impression. The Marcionites, a successful but later suppressed Christian community that flourished a century later in the polytheist Greek-speaking world, were convinced that there were indeed two separate and distinct “Gods” opposed to one another: the Promulgator of the Law, and the Father of Jesus Christ.
It appears Jesus had created an insuperable dilemma for his followers. How were they to understand this new doctrine of “God” that contradicted everything they had learned about the way things were? They believed he was the Messiah and they thought that meant that soon the legions of “God” would engage the legions of Caesar and “save,” “redeem,” and restore Israel to its inheritance. They didn’t count on him being the Son of Man who embraced death — the very human condition that they had been taught to believe was a punishment for sin.
They thought long and hard but they never understood him. In the long run they could not get past the reality of it all. No one could embrace the human condition. No one could embrace death. If death is not overcome in this life then it must be that we finally get beyond it in the next. What were they to do with Jesus’ macabre dance that made him turn toward death every time he had the chance to avoid it. Some were sure he was a madman. His raving even brought his mother and brothers calling out to him at the edge of the crowds to come home and stop all this nonsense. One of his followers, determined not to follow him to the death he so clearly seemed to desire, sold him out to the religious authorities who represented “God,” the Law, the Romans, and the way things were. What they were saying was right. It wasn’t just one man’s morbid fascination with the underclass, Jesus’ mania for liberation would cause the whole nation to perish at the hands of the Roman overlords, sent by divine providence itself to control a lawless world. Everyone knew what side “God” was on; Judas was not about to be fooled by Jesus’ trust in some “father” no one had ever met. There was only one “God” and Judas knew what he was like … everyone knew what he was like.
Jesus, it must be acknowledged, was not entirely free of that misperception, either. When, at the end, he cried out in despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” it wasn’t only a culminating literary allusion to the suffering servant in the “prophecies” of Psalm 23. It was because he too had come to believe that his insight into the redemptive power of suffering should have made his death an event of unalloyed triumph for him and for all of Israel. It was not. At the end, I believe, Jesus saw what we all see. His despair was real, and full of disillusionment because he saw that Isaiah’s “prophecy” was not literal fact but poetry. It was the final hurdle. At the end, like all of us, he had nowhere to turn but to his father.
His followers were thrown into a panic. The dreamy poetry about trusting LIFE and Isaiah’s version of redemptive death had turned into hard reality. Death was no longer a metaphor. It had happened. They had been so mesmerized by him that they were no longer able to turn back and go the way of Judas. What had following him gotten them? Nothing. He had left them with nothing but death — his humanity shorn of any delusion of a grandiose triumphant messiahship.
They couldn’t handle it. They convinced themselves that the wisps of stories they were hearing were true: he had to have come back from the grave like the way Job was rewarded for his long-suffering. I contend that his followers’ belief in the resurrection was the sublimation of death, the transferal of Jesus’ embrace of the human condition into a symbolic triumph over death that never occurred. They had no framework in which to insert the raw fact of death and the diminishments that are its equivalent. Jesus’ unqualified embrace of the human condition and the Source from which it came could not be seen as the profound spiritual victory it was without some scaffolding that would illuminate its significance. Resurrection as a symbol would have done that. But it was not taken as a symbol. It was offered as literal reality, eternal life, designed to overcome literal reality, organismic death. It was like the imagined restoration of Job: it offered an answer where there was no answer.
I believe the entire later development of Christian Doctrine including especially the unconscionable homoousion of Nicaea, promoted over the open protests of the Council Fathers by the emperor of Rome, was the further elaboration of that scaffolding. It surrounded Jesus’ humanity with blankets of protective gauze effectively insulating him from the human condition that was the centerpiece of his vision. Making him to be the very “God” that his experience at the Jordan had revealed as bogus was the ultimate in demonic irony. That this claim to be “God,” this betrayal of the Judaic tradition, which Jesus himself explicitly denied in the only written records we have, should now be considered the litmus test of authentic Christianity is beyond my ability to fathom.
I contend the millennial development that we call “traditional Christianity” is based on a “God” that never existed. It is the direct antithesis of the man Jesus’ vision of his relationship to his father and the embrace of the human condition that was its moral and spiritual face. Jesus’ “father” is our father: the Source and Sustainer of entropic LIFE as we know it in this material universe. Like Jesus, we have nowhere else to turn.