What Can We Say about Jesus Aims

If the above methodological considerations are to the point, then, of course, the crucial question becomes What picture of Jesus emerges from this enquiry? What did the remembered Jesus look like? From the relatively clear outlines of the impact made by Jesus during his mission, as still sufficiently evident in the Jesus tradition, what can we say about the one who made the impact?

We started with Jesus the Jew — Jesus brought up to practise the religion of his forefathers and living out his mission within and as part of the diversity of Second Temple Judaism. Nothing that has emerged from the above study of the Jesus tradition requires us to make substantial or serious modification of that starting assumption. On the contrary, Jesus' engagement with the traditional priorities and concerns of Israel's prophets, the repeated indications of influence from Israel's Scriptures, and the frequent disputations regarding some of the issues which we know to have featured in the Jewish factionalism of the period all attest a mission Jewish in character through and through. Alternative suggestions of the principal resonating contexts for his mission, including that of a generalized Mediterranean peasant or a wandering Cynic philosopher, wholly fail to match in depth and extent the number and particularity of the distinctive resonances with and within first-century Palestinian Judaism. Given the range of first-century Judaism (s), and not yet looking to the subsequent partings of the ways between Christianity and Judaism, it is by no means clear that a description like 'marginal Jew' is appropriate for Jesus during his mission.

Circumstances of Jesus' birth and particularities of his upbringing are beyond historical reach. But it is clear that Jesus emerged from the circle of John the Baptist about the year 27. That Jesus was baptized by John is hard to dispute, and from early on that encounter with John was remembered by Jesus' disciples as marking out the point at which he was anointed by God for his mission. Whether Jesus is properly to be described as a disciple of the Baptist and how long he worked alongside (in partnership or competition with) John also remain obscure. So far as Jesus' own disciples were concerned, Jesus' distinctive mission began after John had been removed from the scene.

Again it is clear enough that the bulk of the Synoptic tradition is recalled as set within Galilee. This evidently involved a lot of travelling round Galilee's many villages, though to describe Jesus as permanently on the way with his (immediate) disciples (charismatic vagrancy) is much too exaggerated. Such geographical specificities as the Synoptic tradition retains are mainly grouped round the northern part of the lake and readily encompassable in one- or two-day journeys from a (principal) base in Capernaum. To what extent the much more extensive Jerusalem mission indicated in the Fourth Gospel is rooted in memory of periodic visits to Jerusalem (for pilgrim feasts) or of events during his final week there, or is elaborated from traditions not specific as to location is a question which likewise remains well short of a firm answer.

In trying to reach back through the memories of Jesus' mission to ascertain his aim, what motivated him, it remains true that we cannot avoid giving prime attention to his message of the of God. He certainly seems to have hoped for a and a soon coming, of that royal rule. In the context of Jewish expectation, that must have been heard in terms of God visibly mani festing his authority in fuller and final fashion. The imminence of that coming constituted a crisis for Jesus' hearers. For God's rule would be characterized by eschatological reversal. the haughty humbled and the poor uplifted. the little ones made great. and the last given first place. And the kingdom's coming would be attended by great suffering. and followed by judgment. but also by rich reward (symbolized in the festive feast) for the penitent faithful.

To be more specific in deductions regarding the remembered Jesus at this point has proven impossible. The crisis of which Jesus spoke is not reducible to a social or political crisis. But the vision in his parables had clear so cial and political ramifications and consequences — this can hardly be denied. Nor is it any clearer whether Jesus envisaged a whole new order of human society (the end of time. resurrection. new creation) or used such language to express hope for a reconstituted society on earth. That it was hope in God. and for the future as God's — that is clear. But the 'what' of that hope remains in metaphorically allusive language, which still works to stir vision afresh and to evoke renewed hope but which can never be translated fully or adequately into descriptive prose without debilitating loss of content and power.

That the hope and evocative intention of Jesus' kingdom message were directed particularly to Israel is also clear. If Jesus' choice of twelve is any indication. then the hope and intention were in some sense for a restored Israel. for the scattered sheep to be gathered again under their true shepherd. or possibly for Israel to be reconstituted afresh as the assembly of Yahweh with a new focal point (Temple) for worship. But was it a hope for Israel to be liberated from an oppressive (Roman?) regime (to echo the language of Luke 24.21). or for the kingdom to be restored to Israel (to echo the question of Acts 1.6)? Was it a hope for the scattered of Israel (the two-thirds of Israel dispersed beyond Israel's borders) to be restored to the land (the end of exile). the meek to inherit (afresh) the land? Or was the call primarily a repetition of the call of prophets before him for the faithless of Israel to turn back to their God. to honour his name. and to live in accord with his priorities. all made possible. perhaps. by a (re)new(ed) covenant? The frustration at being unable to press finally for any one positive answer or to exclude finally any other positive answer is intense. But once again we should hesitate long and hard before insisting on either-or exegesis or that Jesus' kingdom message can be heard in only one way or as working on only one dimension.

The clearest fleshing out of Jesus' hope. the clearest indications of his aim at this point. is probably provided by the signals he is recalled as giving in regard to his own priorities: his mission to bring good news for the poor and to call sinners. Here the reconstituted Israel reaffirms what had always been Israel's constitutional priorities. From a kingdom perspective. a society in which the poor are uncared for is unacceptable to God: the self-indulgent rich and powerful stand in eternal peril of trusting in their riches. wheras the poor trust ing in God have a far more secure future. So too, a religious community overscrupulous in defining what is acceptable and unacceptable to God is more than likely by doing so to put itself, rather that those it condemns as sinners, beyond the reach of God's grace. Such an emphasis is not to be merely politicized into a vision for a reconstituted peasant or village society. It is rather a vision of society under God, where God's sovereign rule is at work, where his will is done; the political ramifications are inescapable but secondary. Nor can it be easily affirmed that Jesus' vision answered neatly to later concerns (mission to the Gentiles) or to modern concerns (liberation and feminist theology), though the tradition carries clear indications that Jesus valued women disciples highly and reacted sympathetically towards those Gentiles he encountered in the course of his mission. What can be said is that Jesus was recalled as encouraging and enacting a society which works to eliminate any unnecessary and hurtful boundaries between its members.

When attention is turned more directly to the other emphasis in Jesus' kingdom preaching, that God's (final) rule is already in evidence, the picture becomes still clearer. For Jesus is remembered as frequently pronouncing the realisation of many long-term prophetic hopes: the time fulfilled, the blessings of the age to come already being experienced. The Baptist's onesided emphasis on imminent and purgative judgment Jesus supplemented (not entirely replaced) with the complementary emphasis, drawn largely from the same prophet (Isaiah), of divine grace to the physically, socially, and religiously disabled. In the liberation he saw his exorcistic ministry bringing to demoniacs and in the healing (and forgiveness) he saw his ministry bringing (through the trust exercised) to those who were ill, he saw clear signs that God was exercising his rule already in the here and now. It was presumably such repeated experiences which confirmed for Jesus that his hope for the fuller (final) coming of God's kingdom could not be long delayed. God's royal rule had drawn near.

That Jesus' vision of the kingdom was not dependent on a specific time scale is strongly suggested by the fact he himself seems to have lived out his mission in the light of the coming kingdom and to have encouraged his disciples to do so. Kingdom priorities were not merely for the future, when in the fulness of God's purpose, no doubt, they would be fully realized. They were for the here and now; they provided the parameters for daily living: life to be lived as subject of a kingdom, loyalty to which superseded all other loyalties. Life lived as a child dependent on the goodness of God as Father, as a learner of Jesus, modelling his priorities, not least in service as the only true sign of success and of greatness. Life lived in service of what is right, by the spirit of the lawgiver rather than by the letter of the law, ever ready to read through the particular rule to discern the will of God where that rule was in danger of being too simplistically applied. Life lived out of love of God as the first priority, love of neighbour as second, and no further rule of thumb necessary where these two are lived out — even to the extent of recognizing that the neighbour in a particular instance may include the enemy. Life lived out of forgiveness — of error and failure humbly conceded, of forgiveness and acceptance readily offered and gladly received, a society bonded by acknowledgment of mutual need for forgiveness and experience of being forgiven, a society energised and empowered by the grace of forgiveness and gratitude for being forgiven. Such a community Jesus evidently saw as able to serve also as a new family, particularly for those disowned by their natural families. But the more dominant image Jesus used was that of the open table, not least as typifying the breaking down of boundaries between the religious and the nonreli-gious and as both imaging and to some extent already realising the hope of the great banquet of the coming kingdom.

Living out such a life-style marked out Jesus' circle of disciples from other groups of the time, differences which were bound to cause adverse comment. The contrast was greatest with the Qumran Essenes; but there are only a few hints that Jesus criticized purity-conscious community. The closer par allel, but also the greatest antipathy, is remembered in regard to criti cism of Jesus' pattern of discipleship — particularly in regard to Jesus' failure to maintain separation from sinners and to observe the current halakhoth on Sabbath and purity. The antipathy may have spilled over into outright hostility on some occasions, but Luke also recalls friendly Pharisees, and Pharisaic involvement in Jesus' arrest and handing over to the secular power is not clearly attested.

However, someone who spoke frequently about the kingdom of God in ways critical of present social practices was bound to excite suspicion on the part of those who controlled and benefited from the status quo. We noted some hints that Jesus was alert to possible preemptive strikes by Herod Antipas during his Galilean mission. But those made most uneasy by Jesus' kingdom preaching and life-style seem to have been the high priestly party in their power base in Jerusalem. This becomes apparent only in the account of Jesus' last week in the Judean capital, but it is not hard to imagine that Jesus' casualness in regard to the prerogatives of the cult and the purity system focused on the Temple would have marked out Jesus as a troublemaker. Whether Jesus avoided Jerusalem prior to his final visit or visited it more frequently (as the Fourth Gospel indicates), the opposition to Jesus did not become deadly until that final week. In that final denouement it was evidently the perception that Jesus posed some sort of threat to the Temple, the cult, and/or those whose power base it was which proved the decisive reason or excuse for arresting Jesus and handing him over to Pilate for summary execution.

How did Jesus see his own role in all this? He was often hailed as teacher and responded positively to and in that role. His parables and aphorisms contained a critique of the current system of religious and social values and obvi-

made an enduring impression which still endures in the tradition. But in themselves they would probably not have been sufficient to trigger off Herodian or high priestly action against Jesus. Prophet was a category which Jesus seems to have fitted well, and found congenial to characterize much of his mission. He is clearly remembered as fully alive to the traditional fate of the prophet to be rejected, and his enemies were no doubt equally aware of that tradition! He was a famous exorcist and healer in his day, and many experienced miraculous happenings in his company. But he evidently resisted any temptation to take on the role of itinerant wonder-worker, and to call him 'magician' is as dismissive and denigratory now as it was then. It is also doubtful whether an accusation of sorcery played any part in the indictment eventually brought against him.

Of the more weighty terms used in relation to Jesus, it can hardly be doubted that he was executed as a claimant to the throne of David ('king of the Jews'). It is equally clear that the question whether he was the expected royal Messiah had become a crucial issue some time before his execution, not least among his disciples. Somewhat troublesomely for later Christian belief in Messiah/Christ Jesus, however, Jesus seems to have found no role model in the prevalent hope for a Davidic prince who would liberate the nation from Roman rule. He is remembered as forbidding talk of his role in such terms and as being unwilling to describe himself as such when the question was put to him formally at the end. His sense of what he was about, his own aim, was evidently not well served by the dominant imagery of the king of Israel, king of the Jews. If the title 'Messiah' subsequently proved indispensable in earliest Christian evaluation of Jesus, it is because his mission drew in other parts of Jewish expectation and gave the title new content, not because he fitted the hopes and expectations of the time.

The theme of sonship takes us much closer to the heart of Jesus' mission, though not, noticeably, in any conjunction, during his mission, with thought of the royal Messiah as God's son. Jesus' emphasis on God as a caring Father in his teaching is complemented by fairly clear indications of his own sense of intimate sonship. As he encouraged his disciples to live in trustful obedience before God as Father, so he encouraged them to echo his own habit of praying to God as abba. This does not us so much about Jesus' aim, but it certainly suggests the source of the inner strength by which he sustained that aim.

With one of his most characteristic and distinctive phrases, 'the son of we also hear resonances of and possible implications for Jesus' understanding of what would be the outcome of his mission. For on the one hand, the idiomatic phrase bespeaks one not wishing to draw particular attention to himself ('someone', 'a man like me'), though conscious of his bound-up-ness with the frailty of the human condition. But on the other hand, if indeed Jesus also drew upon the particular use of the phrase in the vision of Daniel 7, then the very allusion suggests both the expectation of suffering. as Israel of old had suffered from its persecutors. and the anticipation of vindication following that suffering. The Jesus tradition certainly recalls Jesus as expressing such expectation and hope. and though open to the suspicion that precisely such a tradition reflects Christian interpretation of what they believed to have happened in the event. the tradition on this point is much more substantive than is often appreciated. That Jesus anticipated the likelihood of his being done away with. whether by underhand means or by formal execution. is highly probable. And that his message of God's kingly rule gave him equally firm hope that in that eventuality God would vindicate him. whether immediately or in the (imminent) final resurrection. is no less probable.

So. did Jesus see his calling as more than simply proclaiming the kingdom's coming and inculcating the kingdom life? Did he also intend somehow to 'bring in' the kingdom? Did he go to Jerusalem for what was his last (or first!) visit to challenge the leaders of Israel. a last do-or-die attempt to turn Israel back to its God? Did he see himself as lead-player in the final crisis which would result in God coming in his royal power to dispense judgment and blessing? Did he intend that his anticipated suffering and death would somehow serve to ensure that the penitent faithful would come through their final tribulation securely into the kingdom? To none of these questions can we give a firm Yes. But neither can we give a firm No. And it remains more likely than not that talk of rejection (the prophetic tradition). of the son of man suffering. and of a cup to be drunk and a baptism to be endured began in greater or less part with Jesus himself reflecting on his own destiny.

Of the hints still clearly recalled in the Jesus tradition. there are two which have captured most attention. both traditionally and in most recent discussion: the talk of the Temple's destruction and its rebuilding (in another form?) and the last supper's talk both of a (re)new(ed) covenant and of wine to be drunk new in the kingdom. Beyond that. firm data more or less cease. and we are left to speculate on the basis of such further reflection as the Evangelists provide. What we can say is that the open-endedness or ambiguity of the hopes or aims expressed in these utterances reached closure and achieved clarity in the earliest self-understanding of the first Christians and in the way they rooted what they went on to experience. understand. and practise in these utterances.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Study Aid

Study Aid

This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To Getting A Scholarship And Financial Support For Your Studies.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment