Most of us figure we know what we need to get by in life, right? How to shop for groceries; how to do our laundry; how to yank ourselves out of bed and go to work – we might not pretend to be experts on stuff like this, but we probably think we have a handle on the basics, that we know the bare minimum important things.
I think that’s how the majority of us approach most of life. Name the topic – whatever it is, we probably skimmed the surface, picking up the least amount of information necessary to make us feel comfortable that we have a general handle on it. We’re busy and, frankly, a lot of stuff just doesn’t hold our interest, so we pay attention only enough to learn whatever we think we have to and then typically don’t think much more about it.
I think that’s even true for most of us when it comes to the really deep and important things in life, like politics or religion. We are shaped by whatever we have experienced in our lives, and we let that, alone, more often than not, form our opinions and the kind of information we look for to justify our opinions.
It’s incredibly rare that we attempt to understand people who see things differently than us; to empathize; or to actively learn from sources of information that don’t support the opinions we already hold. There’s comfort in the familiar, and we don’t want to risk the consequences that we may have been wrong about some really important things, so we stick our heads in the sand.
It’s struck me as we have come up once more on another Christmas season that Jesus isn’t any different. As I see decorations hung on light poles in small towns and hear Christmas songs playing in malls and outlets proclaiming the birth of a savior, it really hits home that this is basically background noise for most people, just part of the experience of living in America. We don’t really and truly understand the depths of the reality.
That applies to a lot of us who would even call ourselves Christians, who are regular churchgoers and might even identify ourselves as devout. I think it even applies to most who routinely read the Bible and have spent years worshipping Jesus – we only know who he is through the limits of what we’ve allowed ourselves to believe, what we’ve wanted to think of him.
As George Costanza said when converting to Latvian Orthodox, we “know the basic plot” of who Jesus is and what we think we’re supposed to do with him, and that’s that. No further thought required, no reason to stretch the limits of my comfort zone. Jesus fits nicely within the box I’ve made for him, within my image of who he was and is.
The deep irony here is how radically controversial Jesus was in First Century Palestine, because no one understood who he was or what he was doing. If we read the gospels in their entirety and not just by a tiny snippet or quote here or there, we see people consistently struggling to figure out who Jesus is and understand what he’s teaching, and that even includes his own disciples.
I was just humbled during my first semester back at seminary in a course on the Gospel of Mark. I’d always kind of assumed the gospels were written pretty straightforward: start at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and then flow chronologically, just plopping stories about him along the way.
That’s not, however, how ancient biographies work. Yes, the main points flow chronologically (he’s born; his ministry starts; he teaches things and performs miracles; he’s arrested and executed and then is resurrected), but the structure of the “little” stories in-between the high points were far more open to artistic license than they are in modern biographies. Meaning, how they are placed within a gospel serves more to support the themes and purposes of the author than they are to serve strictly chronological fidelity.
Why that matters for the Gospel of Mark, which is most likely the earliest of the four gospels, is, knowing this, we see that a central theme for Mark is, indeed, explaining to the readers or listeners of his gospel exactly who Jesus is and what that means. Mark even goes so far as to show that using the correct title for Jesus – the Messiah – isn’t enough to really understand him.
And if that is true of Jesus’ contemporaries, it’s equally true for us: as James clearly states in his epistle, merely believing the reality of God (and by correlation, properly labeling Jesus by title) doesn’t come anywhere close to being sufficient – even the demons call things as they are (James 3:19).
Briefly, at the center of Mark’s gospel (almost quite literally, within chapter 8 of the 16-chapter book) we are told of Jesus healing a blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-26). This healing is done gradually (and strangely) – Jesus spits in the man’s eyes, and asks him if he sees anything. The man replies that he does see people, but not with clarity. So Jesus puts his hands on him again, and this time, the man sees clearly.
Immediately after this, Jesus is depicted with the disciples moving among the villages around Caesarea Philippi, and he bluntly asks them, “Who do people say I am?” (Mark 8:27). They respond that some say he’s John the Baptist, others that he’s Elijah, and others that he’s a prophet (again, clearly showing, no one gets who the heck this guy is or what he’s doing). But Jesus drives to the point – OK, but who do *you* say I am?
That’s when Peter chimes in with the correct answer: the Christ, the Messiah, the promised savior of Israel. There’s a ton of history there, of course, to fully appreciate the depth of meaning within the broader context, but the shortest way to explain it is Hebrew scripture, in the prophets, was understood by many Jews to foretell that a person anointed by God (which is what “Christ” and “Messiah” mean – “anointed one”) would “restore” Israel: Jews had different interpretations on just what, exactly, this Messiah would look like (or even if he would be real) and what the restoration of Israel would look like, but most believed that, at least, it would be in part the reestablishment of the Kingdom of Israel (the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah had both fallen hundreds of years previously, and the Jewish people had – for the most part – lived under the rule of foreign empires ever since).
So when Peter calls Jesus the Christ, that’s the image most Jews would have in mind: the person to bring back the Kingdom, to save the people from the oppression of the Roman Empire. Instead, Jesus immediately begins to explain that he will suffer, be rejected by many, and that he’d be killed and rise again three days later. Huh? Peter, understandably given the expectations of the Christ, rebukes Jesus, which leads to Jesus’ famous retort to Peter of “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Mark 8:33).
Jesus then called the rest of the disciples to him and said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
Talk about adventures in busting through people’s conventions. Mark clearly goes on to demonstrate that, as is true of us, the disciples still don’t understand what Jesus means. They still don’t get it, because Jesus isn’t fitting into their predetermined categories and definitions – and, not only is he not fitting in, he’s so radically different that they aren’t even capable of getting it. They, like us, lack the ability to understand. Like the blind man at Bethsaida, Jesus is having to very slowly get them to where they are able to see.
As the narrative continues, the disciples are back home in Capernaum when Jesus walks in on them arguing with each other. He asks them what’s going on, and though they’re ashamed, it’s revealed they’d been arguing over which one of them is the greatest (and, implied, to receive the best position when Jesus brings back the Kingdom). Jesus again turns things upside down and says “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
Then as the group makes their way slowly to Jerusalem, Jesus once again predicts his coming betrayal and death (Mark 10:33-34). The implication is the disciples must have written this off as just another of Jesus’ parables, because instead of probing him further, James and John immediately ask him if they can sit on Jesus’ right and left when he comes to power. Again, the paradigm at play in the disciples’ minds is of the Messiah as they understood him, not as Jesus has been attempting to explain it.
Then we are lastly told a story once more of a blind man being healed by Jesus just before the group enters Jerusalem (in which Jesus will soon be arrested, tried, and executed). This time, though, the blind man recognizes Jesus as the “Son of David” (the rightful heir to the throne of Israel, of the House of David), and instead of gradually, Jesus heals the man immediately.
What’s the broader lesson Mark is trying to teach in this section? I think it’s in part that Jesus is the one who defines his identity, not us. And to understand who Jesus really is, we have to go beyond just titles – to know him is to dig deeper than simply identifying him by the label of “Messiah,” or “son of God,” or “divine.”
And he’s the one who has to reveal himself to us – we have to want to actually listen to him and allow him to give us sight, at first gradually but eventually, when it hits, with a burst of understanding. We have to be open to all of our paradigms, all the ways we’ve thought we understood who we are and who God is, to be shattered, revolutionized, reconfigured. We have to be willing to be wrong.
Because Jesus’ primary call at the outset of his ministry, in Mark 1:15, is to repent. That means to “turn away,” to reverse course, to be willing to see things differently – and that applies to every single one of us, whether we’re new to the Christian faith, have been a Christian for 50 years, or aren’t a Christian at all. Be humble, be willing to have your biases broken and shown how you’ve been wrong.
Christians who have been “deconstructing” have gotten a lot of bad press from several Christian circles, but that’s exactly what each of us absolutely has to be willing to do – to be open to seeing where we’ve believed things for the wrong reasons, where we’ve been blind to sins and led astray. That *is* repentance. I’ve been going through this deconstructing thing years before people started calling it that, trying to allow Jesus to show me where I’ve been blind to reality, even (and especially) when I’ve understood him to be someone or something he actually is not.
All our sacred cows have to bow at who Jesus truly is, all the ideas we have of who he is that are actually wrong. We need to dig into scripture, into the teachings of 2,000 years of Church history, and to listen to voices and opinions contrary to the same echo chambers we have lived in.
For me, my paradigm began to crack years ago as I truly began to appreciate the aspects of scripture that are screaming at us that I conveniently set to the side because they didn’t fit within my personal philosophy of America and being an evangelical Christian. Care for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the outcast, the refugees is *everywhere* in scripture, and is even central to Jesus’ thesis statement regarding his ministry as he quotes from Isaiah in Luke 4:18-19 – “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The New Testament is devastatingly critical of human government and empire, directly opposed to the ways in which we exert power, even in the midst of the portion of Mark we looked at above: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles [the Romans] lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (10:42-44). The very phrase “Jesus is Lord” was a biting political critique in opposition to the Roman’s call that “Caesar is Lord” – radically political and directly stating that true authority does not belong to the government but alone to Jesus.
There is much more that can be said about how all of us, whether we lean to the left or right politically, have fashioned a Jesus that supports the things we want him to support instead of the things he in reality stands behind, but beyond the specific details stands the principle that we all need to be open to deconstruction, to repentance, to being shown that we’ve been wrong. It’s the humility and honesty required of a disciple of Jesus Christ, lest we find that we’ve been following the wrong Jesus all along, one that we’ve created who looks and thinks a lot like us.
So as we celebrate the birth of Christ this year and head into the Christmas season and Epiphany, let’s prepare our hearts to receive whatever epiphanies God has in store for us to call us to be better servants for him and for each other.