Father James Martin is the editor-at-large for the Jesuit magazine America and author of several books, including Jesus: A Pilgrimage, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, and Between Heaven and Mirth. He is also, in the words of Stephen Colbert, “the chaplain of ‘The Colbert Report.'” We asked Fr. Martin what he wishes everyone knew about Jesus.
Everyone knows that Jesus explicitly, specifically and repeatedly called for his disciples to care for the poor, whom he called the “least” among us. In fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, this is his litmus test for entrance into heaven.
But some may not know that Jesus himself was poor, or at least came from the “lower classes” of his time. Before his public ministry, he lived and worked in Nazareth, a tiny, backwater town of 200 to 400 people. The Gospels refer to Jesus’s occupation as a tekton,a Greek word usually translated as “carpenter.” But it can also mean “woodworker,” “craftsman” or even “day laborer.” It’s important to note that in the social and economic scheme of things, carpenters ranked below the peasantry, because they did not have the benefit of a plot of land. Jesus knew what it meant to eke out a living in a poor town.
An hour-and-a-half walk from Nazareth was Sepphoris, a booming town of 30,000 people, then being rebuilt by King Herod. The town boasted an amphitheater that seated 3,000 people, a fortress, courts, a royal bank, and lavish houses decorated with frescoes and mosaics. It’s almost certain that a carpenter trying to earn a living would at least once or twice walk the four miles to the wealthy town under construction in order to seek work. While in Sepphoris, Jesus would have seen how the “other half” lives.
When we hear Jesus express anger over gross income disparities, particularly in the Parable of Lazarus and Dives in Luke’s Gospel (in which a rich man refuses to care for a poor one), we often think of his words as divinely inspired. And they were: Jesus was fully divine. But they also were informed by his human experience, and that experience included seeing great disparities of wealth in his own life.
We tend to think of Jesus as interacting with his apostles, disciples, and followers. But he also had friends. The Gospels describe, for example, Jesus’s relaxing at the house of his good friends Mary and Martha, who lived in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. The Gospel of John says, quite plainly, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister.” And when their brother Lazarus is found to be sick and dying (this is the man whom Jesus will raise from the dead), the news is relayed to Jesus with a telling phrase. The message from the sisters does not say, “Our brother Lazarus is ill,” or “Your friend Lazarus is ill,” or even “Lazarus of Bethany is ill.” Rather, in the Greek, Jesus is told that hon phileis is ill: “he whom you love.”
It’s a window into the deep relationships and intimate friendships that Jesus enjoyed. He was not simply Messiah; he was a good friend.
For some reason, this is often difficult for people to accept. Whenever I mention Jesus’s injunction not to judge — “Judge not, lest you be judged” — some people bristle. Something in us feels not only inclined to, but obliged to, judge. “Well, but that means anything goes, doesn’t it?” is a common response. “Of course we have to judge other people,” say others. No, Jesus says, we do not.
We are called to live moral lives, and invite others to lead moral lives, but we do so primarily through our own example and by gentle persuasion — not by judging and condemning them. Judgment is left, as Jesus reminds us, to God.
In all his many utterances about many social situations and human conditions, Jesus never said one word about homosexual persons. Admittedly, St. Paul speaks about that topic, but many contemporary scholars believe that Paul was probably speaking not about homosexuality per se (the word itself is of relatively recent vintage) but about the evils of male prostitution.
In any event, Jesus himself spoke a great deal about helping the poor, forgiving one’s enemies, and even divorce (which he condemned), but nothing about, and certainly nothing against, gay and lesbian men and women.
If a Gospel narrative introduces a marginalized person, it is a sure bet that Jesus will reach out to him or her. The examples are too numerous to mention. He meets a Roman centurion, and rather than forcing him to convert to Judaism, he heals the man’s servant. He meets a Samaritan woman (someone viewed as a foreigner or even an enemy for Jews of Judea and Galilee), and rather than condemning her, engages in a friendly conversation. He meets Zacchaeus, the “chief tax collector” in Jericho and therefore the “chief sinner” of the area, and even before Zacchaeus offers to repent, Jesus offers to dine with him, a sign of acceptance.
Jesus is continually reaching out to people on the margins, and he asked his disciples to do the same.
It’s common for people of every theological stripe to pick and choose which of Jesus’s words to follow and which of his deeds to believe. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to construct his own “Gospel” by (literally) scissoring out the miracles and other traces of his divinity. Like many of us, Jefferson felt uncomfortable with parts of Jesus’s story. He wanted a Jesus who didn’t threaten, a Jesus he could tame.
But Jesus cannot be tamed. The people of his time could not do this, and neither can we. Scissor out the uncomfortable parts and it’s not Jesus were talking about — it is our own creation.
Incidentally, New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders once read Jefferson’s “Gospel” and concluded that Jefferson’s Jesus was a learned man, a sage. In essence, Thomas Jefferson’s Jesus was . . . Thomas Jefferson.
Many people are uncomfortable with Jesus’s supernatural power and other signs of his divinity. But an immense part of the Gospels is taken up with what are called “works of power” and “signs” — that is, miracles. In fact, some of the sayings that people take for granted and quote approvingly — even by those who do not accept Jesus’s divinity — occur within the context of the miracle stories. Remove the miracles and there is no context for many of Jesus’ most familiar sayings.
Jesus’ ability to perform miracles was never in doubt in the Gospels. Even his detractorstake note of his miracles, as when they critique him for healing on the Sabbath. The question posed by people of his time is not whether Jesus can do miracles, but rather the source of his power. The statement that Jesus was seen as a miracle worker in his time has as much reliability as almost any other statement we can make about him.
Jesus was fully divine. But he was also fully human. That’s a basic Christian belief. It’s also a mystery, that is, something not to be fully understood, but pondered. And one of the most telling windows into his humanity comes in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he is confronted with his impending crucifixion. Jesus asks God the Father to “remove this cup.” He is saying, in essence: “If it’s possible, I don’t want to die.”
Eventually, Jesus accepts that his coming death is his Father’s will — but not before struggle and prayer. Later, when hanging on the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This is not a person who does not struggle: Christians do not relate to a person who cannot understand our own human struggles.
Not everyone believes this about Jesus, because to believe this is to be a Christian, and not everyone reading this is Christian. But let me offer a kind of “proof,” if you will — even though the only proof was what the disciples saw on Easter Sunday.
The Gospels were written for the early church, and the Gospel writers would certainly not go out of their way to make the apostles — the leaders of the early church, after all — look bad. Nonetheless, notice that the Gospels portray the apostles as abject cowards during the crucifixion: most of them abandon Jesus; one of them, Peter, denies knowing him; and after his death they are depicted as cowering behind closed doors. That’s hardly something that the Gospel writers would make up.
But after the Resurrection, they are utterly transformed. The disciples move from being terrified victims to men and women ready to die for what they believe. Only something dramatic, something visible, something tangible, something real, could affect this kind of change.
Jesus really and truly rose to the dead. For me, that’s the most important thing to know about Jesus.