Taking Jesus Seriously
Drawing upon my study of the historical Jesus, of the Pre-Easter Jesus, it seems to me that a life that takes Jesus seriously would have two primary focal points, and that is what I want to talk about today.
The first of these focal points of the Christian life is a life deeply centered in God, deeply centered in the Spirit. God or the Spirit was at the very center of Jesus' own life.
In my historical work, I speak of Jesus as a Jewish mystic, and I see this as foundational to everything else that he was. Now, what I mean by the word "mystic" is actually quite simple. Mystics are people, and they are known in every culture that we know anything about; mystics are people who have vivid and typically frequent experiences of God or the sacred or the Spirit--terms, which I use synonymously and interchangeably.
The Jewish tradition before Jesus is full of such people. According to the stories told about them, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the prophets of Ancient Israel, all of these were people for whom God or the sacred was an experiential reality. These people did not simply believe strongly in God, they knew God. And once one takes seriously that there really are people like this, then it seems clear to me that whatever else we say about Jesus, we need to say that he was one of these—one who knew God in his own experience.
If we take Jesus seriously as a Jewish mystic, it also affects how we think about God or the sacred. It means that we need to think about God not as a person-like being out there separate from the universe, a long ways away, not here. But, it means we need to think of God or the sacred as the encompassing Spirit that is all around us, and that is separated from us only by the membranes of our own consciousness. A mystic like Jesus is one in whom those membranes of consciousness become very thin, and one experiences God or the sacred. Jesus invited his followers to a relationship to the same Spirit, the same God that he knew in his own experience.
How do we become centered in the Spirit of God? How do we actually experience what Jesus experienced? Well, the Gospels of the New Testament have many ways of talking about that, about The Way or The Path. One of the central images for The Way or The Path is what the journey of Lent itself is about.
The journey of Lent is about journeying with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem—which is the place of endings as well as beginnings, the place of death and resurrection. It is the place where, to use an old word play, the tomb becomes a womb.
That journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem is at the very center of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We see it, perhaps, with greatest clarity in the great central section of Mark's Gospel. Three times in that great central section, which runs from Mark 8:27 through the end of Chapter 10, Jesus speaks of his own impending death and resurrection in Jerusalem. He says, "The Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things. The authorities will seize him and mock him and scourge him and put him to death, and on the third day he will rise again." After each of those three predictions of the Passion, as they are called, Jesus speaks of following after him, of following him on that path of death and resurrection.
Lent is about precisely that journey. Lent is about mortality and transformation. We begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday with the sign of the cross smeared on our foreheads with ashes as the words are spoken over us, "Dust thou art, and to dust thou wilt return."
We begin this season of Lent not only reminded of our death, but also marked for death. The Lenten journey, with its climax in Holy Week and Good Friday and Easter, is about participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Put somewhat abstractly, this means dying to an old identity—the identity conferred by culture, by tradition, by parents, perhaps—and being born into a new identity—an identity centered in the Spirit of God. It means dying to an old way of being, and being born into a new way of being, a way of being centered once again in God.
Put slightly more concretely, this path of death and resurrection, of radical centering in God, may mean for some of us that we need to die to specific things in our lives—perhaps to a behavior or a pattern of behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional; perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad; perhaps to an unresolved grief that needs to be let go of; perhaps to a career or job that has either been taken from us or that no longer nourishes us; or perhaps even we need to die to a deadness in our lives.
You can even die to deadness, and this dying is also oftentimes a daily rhythm in our lives—that daily occurrence that happens to some of us as we remind ourselves of the reality of God in our relationship to God; that reminder that can take us out of ourselves, lift us out of our confinement, take away our feeling of being burdened and weighed down.
So, that's the first focal point of a life that takes Jesus seriously: that radical centering in the Spirit of God that is at the very center of the Christian life. Now, this radical centering in God does not leave us unchanged. It transforms us, and this leads us to the second focal point of what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to take Jesus seriously.
In a single sentence, it means compassion in the world of the every day. Slightly more fully, it means a life of compassion and a passion for justice. I need both of these words, compassion and justice, for compassion without justice easily gets individualized or sentimentalized, and justice without compassion easily sounds like politics.
Compassion is utterly central to the teaching of Jesus. As those of you who have read one or more of my books on Jesus know, I see it as the core value, the ethical paradigm of the life of faithfulness to God, as we see it in Jesus. Jesus sums up theology and ethics in a very short saying (six words in English). It is found in Luke 6:36 with a parallel in Matthew 5:48. "Therefore [very early Q material for those of you who like to know things like that], be compassionate as God is compassionate." The word for compassionate in both Hebrew and Aramaic is related to the word for womb. Thus, to be compassionate is to be womb-like, to be like a womb. God is womb-like, Jesus says, therefore, you be womb-like.
What does it mean to be womb-like? Well, it means to be life-giving, nourishing. It means to feel what a mother feels for the children of her womb: tenderness, willing their well-being, finding her children precious and beautiful. It can also mean a fierceness, for a mother can be fierce when she sees the children of her womb being threatened or treated destructively. Compassion is not just a soft, woozy virtue. It can have passion and fierceness to it as well.
To speak of compassion as the core value of the Christian life may seem like old hat to us, like ho-hum. But, contrasted for a moment to what some Christians have thought the Christian life is most centrally about, that it is really about righteousness—keeping your moral shirt-tails clean, avoiding being stained by the world--in that sense, the Christian life is profoundly different from compassion. In many ways, compassion is virtually the opposite of righteousness in that sense. Jesus, as a person, was filled with compassion, and he calls us to compassion.
Jesus was also filled with a passion for justice. This is probably the least understood part of the teaching of Jesus in the modern American church, and maybe throughout most of the church's history. It's because we often misunderstand what the word justice means or we understand it poorly. We sometimes think that justice has to do with punishment, with people getting what is coming to them for what they have done wrong. When we think that way, then we think that the opposite of justice is mercy. But in the Bible, the opposite of justice is not mercy; the opposite of justice is injustice.
Justice and injustice have to do with the way societies are structured, with the way political and economic systems are put together. Like the Hebrew social prophets before him, Jesus' passion for justice set him against the domination system of his world and his time. It set him against a politically oppressive and economically exploitative system that had been designed by wealthy and powerful elites, legitimated by religion, and designed by them in their own narrow self-interests. And the domination system of his time, like the domination systems of all time, had devastating effects on the lives of peasants.
Also, like the Hebrew social prophets, Jesus was a God-intoxicated voice of peasant-religious-social protests, not just protests against the domination system, but an advocate of God's justice. God's justice is about social justice. God's justice is about the equitable distribution of God's earth, and a passion for God's justice sets you against all of those systems designed by people in their own narrow self-interests to benefit the few at the expense of the many.
Indeed, it was Jesus' passion for justice that got him killed. That is why the authorities, the powers that be, executed him. The journey of Lent reminds us of that, too: that Jesus was killed; he didn't simply die.
In the 13th chapter of Luke, some Pharisees come to Jesus to warn him that Herod is planning to kill him. Jesus replies, "Go and tell that fox Herod [fox in the world of the Jewish homeland in the first century did not mean a sly, cunning, wily creature; it had more the connotation of skunk, go and tell that skunk Herod], that it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem." Then he speaks of Jerusalem. "Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to you."
It is Jerusalem, of course, not as the center of Judaism, but Jerusalem as the center of the native domination system, of that economically exploitative and politically oppressive system that radically impoverished peasants and drove them to an existence of destitution and even desperation. Jesus is killed because of his passionate criticism of that system and his advocacy of the Kingdom of God. Which is what life would be like on Earth if God were King and the domination systems of this world were not. This is the political meaning of Good Friday.
To connect this back to compassion, justice is the social form of compassion. Justice and compassion are not opposites or different things, but justice is the social and political form of caring for the least of these. If we take Jesus seriously, we are called to both compassion and justice.
To move to my conclusion, following Jesus—the journey of Lent—means a radical centering in God in which our own well-being resides, re-connecting to a center of meaning and purpose and energy in our lives. It means a passion for compassion and justice in the world of the every day. The Gospel of Jesus is ultimately very simple. There is nothing complicated about this at all. It's taking seriously your relationship to God and taking seriously caring what God cares about in the world.
The Gospel invites us to stand up for Jesus, to take Jesus seriously, even to jump up and down for Jesus. If we are not there yet, if the moving of the Spirit in our hearts is but yet a faint stirring, then we are invited to sing along in silence. Even the songs that we sing in silence shape our lives.
Copyright ©2001 Dr. Marcus J. Borg
Originally delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis TN as part of the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series.