I’ve been thinking about Jesus a lot lately.
Last week a friend said to me, “You know, I like Jesus.” Since my friend is an Episcopal priest, we chuckled a bit, and I thought, “Well, I hope you do!” But I wondered, “Do I like Jesus?” To like someone is different from following or worshipping them. Great spiritual leaders aren’t necessarily likeable, no matter how powerful their message is.
There’s so much I don’t know about Jesus. I don’t know what kind of a kid he was or what foods he liked. When he was a carpenter, did he love the feel of wood and rejoice in creating furniture and tools? Did he like music – and did he ever dance? The Gospel accounts omit these details, but the stories that are included are alive and rich. In spite of having different authors and many translations, the Gospel stories tell me enough. I know that I do like Jesus.
I like how Jesus really noticed people. He paid attention when his overly protective adult followers tried to send children away. “Let the children come to me.” When Jesus was walking down the street, he saw the man lying by the side of the road, and even noted that he’d been lying there a long time. “Do you want to get well?” While walking with a group of friends, Jesus was the one who saw Zacchaeus the tax collector in a tree above their heads. Jesus sensed what Zacchaeus really wanted. “Zacchaeus, come down. I’m coming to your house.”
As Jesus traveled the country and crowds followed him, the Gospels tell that he felt compassion for the people. Jesus’ compassion is central to who he was, and I really admire it. Matthew recounts that “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” A few chapters later, I read that Jesus was stirred to compassion because the crowd had run out of food and because some were sick. For Jesus, compassion led to action. The people were fed, and the sick were healed.
I am particularly fond of Jesus the storyteller. What wonderful stories he told! Ordinary daily objects and events were illuminated with larger meaning. Who hadn’t sown seeds on rocky ground as well as on good soil? Who hadn’t experienced “deaf ears” when they tried to explain something? Shepherding was as familiar as farming. I can see heads nodding when Jesus told how a good shepherd cared for all his sheep and searched through the night for the lost one.
Another reason I like Jesus is because I like the message of his stories. Jesus’ world was as divided as ours, and what to do about the Roman conquerers undoubtedly led to endless heated arguments. Collaborate? (Zacchaeus’ model) Prepare to rebel? (Zealots’ model) Jesus offered a third way: When ordered to carry a Roman soldier’s burden, don’t carry it the required one mile. Carry it two miles! I wonder if anyone tried that experiment, and what happened during the second mile. Perhaps they talked together, the soldier telling how he missed his family back home in Italy, and the burden-bearer talking about his family, too.
Jesus’ stories are about drawing people together. He wanted us to see each other as neighbors and fellow travelers. “A man,” Jesus said, “was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho -“ You know the story. It was the outsider, the Samaritan, who saw the wounded man by the side of the road and stopped to give aid. If you truly see others as neighbors, it may change your plans for the day – and your plans for your life, too.
Jesus was all about love, and I like that. “Love your enemies. . .do good for those who hate you.” For Jesus, loving was active but not necessarily safe or easy. You couldn’t sit back and say to yourself, “This afternoon I will practice feeling love for the soldiers, for the Roman governor Pilate, and for the tax collector although I’m sure he is lining his own pockets.” Jesus’ love was about carrying burdens, binding wounds, and, yes, being friends with the tax collector. Look into the faces of strangers and see neighbors. Extend loving care to your enemies. This kind of love can turn the world upside down – not a bad idea in his day or in ours.
Today, amid the darkness of winter and still another Covid variant, we’ve just celebrated Jesus’ birthday. And I’ve just re-discovered that I like Jesus. Liking, however, is not enough. I invite us to begin 2022 with a renewed commitment to love in the Jesus way, to begin to turn the world upside down.