Friday, December 7, 2012

If Jesus Lived Today!

How would Jesus live his life if he lived among us today? What would he say? What would he do? Would he proclaim the same good news? I am making an attempt to answer these questions here.
One might wonder what is the relevance of asking these questions and trying to answer them? Jesus Christ walked on the earth about 2000 years ago, and his life and teachings attracted a large number of disciples who organized themselves into a community. This community called itself the body of Christ, which means the visible representation of Jesus Christ. This community pledged to do what Christ would do. What Jesus Christ would do if he lived among us today is what the Christian church is supposed to do today. Hence this is a call to have a fresh look at the life and mission of the Christian church in today's world. I gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios (1922--1996) for the inspiration and the basic idea behind this study.
Jesus' View of Life
Imagine two identical buildings standing side by side. There comes a hurricane, which blows hard on the buildings. Once the hurricane passes, you see only one building. The other one has been swept away by the hurricane. One building has withstood the hurricane; it has quality and strength. The one that has been swept away was obviously of poor quality.
This story may sound familiar to us because it was a parable Jesus used to teach an important point. The two buildings are the two kinds of life we may live. We may have a life of good quality or one of poor quality. But how do we know if our life has quality or not? We will know if our life has quality when we face hurricanes in our life. We will withstand hurricanes in our life if it has quality and strength.
How do we build a life of quality and strength? Being conscious beings, we ask basic questions about our life, such as what we are, where we are, why we live, and how we are related to other beings. We put together our answers to form our view of life. Our life is to our view of life as a building is to its foundation. It is the presence of a strong foundation that determines the strength of a building. Similarly it is the presence of a strong view of life that makes our life strong.
After presenting his view of life in the well-known sermon on the mount, Jesus Christ used this parable of buildings with strong and weak foundation. He said that those who accept and apply his view of life are like a wise man who builds a building with a strong foundation. Those who accept the shallow views of life that were popular in his time were like the foolish man who builds a building on a weak foundation. He probably had in mind the views of life propagated by Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. 
Did Jesus have any personal experience in making buildings? We don't know. According to the tradition, Jesus' father was a carpenter, and Jesus might have had some experience in construction. Later when Jesus moved on to the construction of a civilization, his experience in constructing buildings in his younger days might have provided him with some guidance.
Jesus was talking in the parable of the buildings primarily about the life of his community-- the Jewish nation. It was a time when this community faced fierce hurricanes. Its very existence was at stake. It was already under the Roman occupation with heavy taxation and without any freedom to practice their traditional way of life. Growing up in that community, Jesus found out that it lacked such a strong foundation. Its view of life as propagated by Pharisees and other leaders was too weak to equip his community to face the hurricanes.
Matthew wrote his gospel immediately after the catastrophic event of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Roman army. This event was like a hurricane that swept away the Jewish temple and the way of life it represented. The building that collapsed in Jesus' parable was probably the Jerusalem temple and the religion it represented.
Jesus inaugurated a new community life on a strong foundation, which he called the kingdom of God. It was like a strong building with a strong foundation. But why did Jesus call it the kingdom of God? This term belonged to the mythical background of the popular culture, which Jesus used creatively to communicate with the people of his time and place. It was believed that all the evil in the world was due to the rule of Satan, an angel of God who chose to disobey God. Satan was originally appointed by God to take care of the administration of the earth. However, he rebelled against God, and began to rule the earth following his own will rather than the will of God. People were earnestly waiting for God to remove him and install someone else in his place-- the Messiah. Jesus, after accepting baptism from John, had a vision in which he saw the heaven open, and he was appointed as the Messiah by God. Assuming the role of the Messiah, Jesus went straight to the desert to have a face-to-face meeting with Satan. Satan tried his best to shake Jesus' conviction that he was the Messiah (the son of God). Coming out victorious, Jesus began to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. Converting his life into a struggle with Satan, he began to liberate people from the bondage of Satan by casting out demons and by healing the sick. Jesus asked his disciples to pray to deliver them from the evil one (Satan), and let God's Kingdom come. Satan made an apparent victory over Jesus by managing to get him crucified. But by surrendering his will fully and completely to God, Jesus transformed it into a victory over Satan. The victory was further affirmed by his rising from the dead.

How did Jesus' view of life differ from the popular views? 
Let us consider this line of argument:
  1.  God is good.
  2.  God loves good.
  3.  God loves good people.
  4.  God rewards good people with health, wealth, and happiness.
  5.  If someone becomes rich, obviously it is a blessing from God for being good.
This line of argument sounds logical and sensible, doesn't it? This was the popular understanding at the time of Jesus. Pharisees and other leaders promoted this view. But Jesus sensed something terribly wrong with this argument.
The religious leaders of Jesus' time believed that God was on the side of the righteous people, and was against the unrighteous ones. Thus health, wealth, and happiness were seen as God's blessings to the righteous people, whereas illness, poverty, misery, and slavery were seen as God's punishments for being unrighteous. The rich people were the blessed, and the poor people were the cursed ones. The rich were already in heaven, and the poor were already in hell. If someone becomes rich, it is a clear sign that he has found favor in God's sight for being righteous. Similarly if someone becomes poor or ill, it is a clear sign that he has found displeasure in God's sight for being unrighteous.
Jesus couldn't swallow this senseless view. Jesus agreed that God is righteous, and God wants righteousness. But he couldn't agree that wealth and comfort were the marks of righteousness. Jesus' story of a poor man in heaven and a rich man in hell must have been shocking to his listeners. In Jesus' story of the final judgment, the criterion for judgment is this: whoever that cares for his fellow beings are on the right and whoever that doesn't  are on the left. According to the popular view, all the wealthy would be on the right and all the poor and the sick would be on the left. Jesus declared: Blessed are the poor, and blessed are the mourning. He always looked for the poor, the sick, and the mourning. While his community excommunicated such people, Jesus held them close to his heart.
Thus he was known as a friend of the sinners and the poor.
Jesus told his disciples that they needed to surpass the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees in order to be in the kingdom of God. By the righteousness of Pharisees, Jesus  probably meant what is right in the Pharisees' view. The Jewish community was built on Pharisees' righteousness. In the place of the Pharisees' righteousness, Jesus asked his disciples to seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. By God's righteousness Jesus probably meant what is right in God's view. Thus Jesus asked his disciples to build God's kingdom based on God's righteousness.
The term God's righteousness has another meaning as well. It is God's righteousness as opposed to self-righteousness. God's righteousness is the claim that God alone is right; Self-righteousness is the claim, "I am right". The story of Pharisee and tax collector praying illustrates this meaning. The tax-collector implies in his prayer that God alone is right, but the Pharisee claims that he is right.
Jesus developed his view of the ideal world, which he called the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom in which God is the king. All people in the kingdom submit themselves to God's will. None of them will be self-righteous; but they will admit that God alone is right. They will always seek for what is right in God's view rather than in their own view. They will be fully honest, and there will not be any pretension at all.
God alone is perfect, and God's kingdom alone is the perfect world. Jesus challenged his disciples to become as perfect as God, and he challenged his nation to become God's kingdom. Although human beings are far from the perfection of God, each individual and community has the potential to grow to the perfection of God. Similarly our world has the potential to grow to the perfection of the kingdom of God.
Jesus proclaimed this good news to his world: The kingdom of God is at hand. What does "at hand" mean? Usually it means a chronological nearness. But Jesus probably meant like this: The kingdom of God is at a hand's length to any human being. It is up to each human individual to stretch his/her arm to accept it and enter it. It is open to anyone willing to enter. All it takes is to "repent", which is a change of attitude and a turn of mind. Similarly, if a community as a whole is willing to open up itself with a repentant attitude, it will grow to become the kingdom of God.
Jesus' view of life, of how God, humanity, and world are related to each other, may be summarized as follows: God cares for the world and takes care of it. God raises his Sun and pours his rain on all people regardless of whether they return God's love or not. God takes care of the birds in the sky and lilies in the field. God wants to keep the whole world healthy and beautiful. Although God is a king to the world, God is a father to humanity. Mankind needs to respond to God's unconditional love by loving God wholeheartedly.  Also people need to follow God's example and love each other unconditionally. God is the real owner of all wealth. Whatever we have is entrusted to us as stewards. Once we realize this, we won't exploit one another. All relationships need to be fully open and transparent without the slightest pretension. Prayer has to be real communication with God. Giving arms must be an expression of real care for fellow beings. In short, in Jesus' view, the world is like a family. God is a father to all people, caring for all. People need to be like siblings to each other caring for each other.
Jesus had to face very strong opposition from the keepers of the current views. They tried to excommunicate him accusing him of rejecting their religious rules and scriptures. But Jesus made it crystal clear that he was fully in support of the scriptures and the laws of God they represented. His objective was to strengthen the foundation upon which his community existed. He was not breaking away from their tradition, but he was repairing the age-old view of life upon which their community was founded. 
Later when Christian church evolved as a world religion, the primary affirmation about God that became its corner stone was that God is holy. This will be clear to anyone participating in the worship of the traditional eastern Christian church. That God is holy is repeated over and over in any liturgical prayer. This affirmation is further clarified in the liturgy of the Eucharist that God alone is holy. It further affirms that no other being except God is holy. If none is holy except God, people cannot be classified into righteous and unrighteous. All people are unholy, unrighteous, sinners. If all are unrighteous, no one deserves the blessing of God. 
St. Paul made this idea clear in his epistle to the Romans. He affirmed that God alone is righteous, and so all people are unrighteous or sinners before God, and therefore, no one deserves the love of God. If we come before God claiming God's love and blessings, we will have to leave disappointed and unreconciled like the Pharisee. But if we come before God admitting our unrighteousness, we will be reconciled to God like the tax-collector. 
Jesus' View of Life Today
If Jesus lived in our world as our contemporary, would he say and do the same things he did in his time and place? Our life today is also like a building built on a view of life. Whichever form of existence we consider, whether it is an individual or a community, or the humanity as a whole, its healthy existence depends on a healthy view of life. Closely examining the life of a community, Jesus would diagnose its illness, and would trace its root causes to its very foundation-- its defective views of life. He would struggle against the popular views of life that cause ill health, and propose a healthy view of life. The content of his proposal may not be the same for all communities of all time. It will vary from situation to situation just like a doctor's diagnosis and prescription varies from patient to patient.
Having said this, let us ask if Jesus' diagnosis of the illness of his community and Jesus' prescription can be applied to our community today? It seems that the illness Jesus diagnosed in his community is universal. If so, the prescription of Jesus can also be applied universally. Let us examine our own view of life today. If we classify people into good and bad, and if we believe that good people are blessed and bad people are cursed, we are not Christians yet! We need to listen to what Jesus wants to tell us today. Jesus would tell us that all people on the face of the earth belong to the same category. God alone is righteous, and all people are unrighteous. In spite of us being unrighteous, God loves all people alike unconditionally. Such a view will help us to see all people in the world alike without any discrimination. It will also help us to approach our existential problems such as poverty and ill-health realistically. 
Thus the issues in human existence in Jesus' world were regarding God-man relationship and man-man relationship. A defective understanding of God-man relationship that God loves and blesses only the good people led to a defective understanding of man-man relationship that the poor and the sick were inferior to the others. These issues continue to exist in our world today. In addition to these issues, we have a few more fundamental issues in our world. The first two issues were man's enmity toward God and fellow beings. The next two issues we are going to see are regarding man's enmity toward the world. If Jesus lived in our world today, he would definitely address these issues as well.
It is generally held by most of the religious believers that there is an invisible world in addition to our visible world. The invisible world is considered to be permanent and eternal compared to our world, which is temporary and transient. We, Human beings, really belong to the permanent invisible world, and we are here only as visitors. Thus the invisible world is far more important to us than the visible world. This understanding makes us ignore and neglect this world and focus all our attention on the other world. The health and well-being of this world is not our concern because we don't belong here, and this world itself is transient. This approach is usually called other-worldliness. This is an issue in man-world relationship.  
Revolting against other-worldliness, a lot of people have quit their religious beliefs altogether, and they claim that the visible world is all that exists. Nothing exists beyond what we see. There is no invisible world. Let us call this approach this-worldliness. We exist, and the world exists for us to use and to live upon. Although this view successfully revolted against other-worldliness, it failed to provide an alternative worldview that can satisfactorily answer some of our basic questions of existence such as why we live.
If Jesus lived among us today, he would correct these defective views. Jesus would probably tell us that nothing remains invisible to God though a part of the world remains invisible to us. It means that there is only one world. We cannot care for the invisible part of the world while ignoring the visible part, for they both belong to the same world. Let us call this view one-worldliness. This view can correct both other-worldliness and this-worldliness.
Now comes the gravest challenge of our time to human existence-- the denial of God. Some of the people who denied an invisible world went to the extreme of denying God. Without a God above, man has assumed the place of God, which has led to an irresponsible management of the world, and we are suffering its consequences. This is an issue that involves God-man relationship, man-world relationship, and God-world relationship. Let us have a closer look at this issue. 
Regarding God-world relationship, there exists three defective views:
  • God in world
  • God and world
  • God is world
In God-in-World view, the world is larger than God, and God is a part of the world. In God-and-World view, God and world exist side by side independent of each other. God-is-World view does not differentiate between God and world; they are one and the same. The defects of these views will be corrected by a fourth view: World-in-God view. According to this view, God is bigger than the world, and the world exists within God.
God-in-World view is the most popular view among religious believers. If the world is a kingdom, God is like its king. Although this is the most favorite view and an easy-to-conceptualize one, it is contradictory to our sense of logic. How can God, the creator of the world, be a part of the world? Moreover, if God is a part of the world, God must be perceivable to our senses, and must be a subject of study under Science. However, God is not a subject of study under any branch of science. Thus this view always brings religion into confrontation with science.
In God-and-World view, God and world exist side by side, independent of each other. God might have created the world at the beginning, but now it exists by itself without depending on God. A literal interpretation of the metaphor of creator-creation is what lies behind this view. It sees the world as a machine that works by itself once its creator set it to work. Thus this view makes God unnecessary for the world to exist. Moreover, God cannot be infinite according to this view, for God ends where the world begins. This view also comes into confrontation with science as it does not agree with our rationality.
The God-is-World view equates God with the world. This view probably evolved in revolt against the naivety of the two previous views. Pantheism and Atheism are variations of this view with a difference in emphasis. Pantheism raises the world to God, and the world merges with God, becoming one. Atheism brings God down to the world, and God merges with the world, becoming one. Pantheism, in effect, denies the world, and Atheism, in effect, denies God. Atheism is the dominant view in the modern world today. What we call secular societies function with such a worldview. It has successfully overthrown the first two views from all the significant places in our life such as politics, science, and education. However, organized religions, which are still dominated by those views, are still around, and are powerful. God-in-World view and God-and-world view are clashing with God-is-World view for dominance all around the globe.
The World-in-God view corrects the fallacy of the first three views. Though it affirms God’s existence as in the first two views, it does not share their naivety. Because it is fully rational and logical, it does not clash with science. The world, which exists in the limits of time and space, must derive its existence from something that exists beyond these limits. God has to be beyond the limits of time and space, and hence, God cannot be in the world as a part of the world. Existing beyond the limits of time and space, God is infinite, and the world must be within God. As God is beyond the limits of time and space, God is beyond our thought patterns as well, which makes God entirely incomprehensible to us. As this view does not claim any knowledge of God, it does not come into any confrontation with science. Thus science and religion make a united front with the World-in-God view. This view further claims that the world appears to exist within God as we view from our perspective, but viewed from God’s perspective, nothing exists apart from God.
If Jesus lived among us today, he might compare our civilization to a building built on sand. He would point out why its foundation is as weak as sand. It does not have the strength to withstand a global catastrophe. However, instead of warning against the views of scribes and Pharisees, he would warn against the views of secularists and religious fundamentalists. He would also point out how a new civilization can be built up with a strong foundation of rock. However, it is doubtful if he would call it the Kingdom of God, for kings and kingdoms have almost disappeared from our world. He might call it the world of God or the family of God or some other similar name which we can easily relate to.
There is a group of people living in our world who claim to be the visible representation of Jesus Christ. They claim that they speak and act on behalf of Jesus Christ, saying and doing the same kind of things Jesus Christ would do. This group is none other than the Christian church, which forms about one third of the world's population. This study is a humble call from a little-known corner of the world for a fresh look at the life and mission of the Christian church. May the Christian community in the world be a true representation of Jesus Christ!


Joseph E. Thomas, Ph.D. said...

My own understanding of God and Christianity agree with that of the writer's views and perspective. The author has presented his ideas is a very lucid style that any average reader can understand it.
I recommend this article to anyone who wants to understand the basic facts about Christianity. Congratulations to the author.
Dr. Joseph E. Thomas.(Chicago, USA)

Mathew Samuel said...

Nicely written. The Christian Church's view point must be the World-in-God view where the World is encompassed by God, but also is the God-in-World view by the Mystery of Incarnation, where God is born into the world history, is involved with the world affairs and saves the world.

One thing that came to mind is - the tax collectors were also quite rich, like Zacheus, but were still considered sinners.

John Kunnathu said...

Dear Mathew Samuel,
Thank you very much for the feedback. Yes, incarnation may be seen as God-in-world. Actually we conceive God-in-world for all the practical purposes.
Yes, the tax collectors were rich, but were seen sinners. How God blesses the sinners with wealth must have been a puzzle in that society.

Joseph Cherian said...

Dear Mr. John,
The title if self is out of contest to our belief. Jesus is living with us Yesterday, Today and all the Days to come. He is always talking to us, but our ears are dump to listen Him. In my opinion it is better to speak out things directly against the ungodly practices rather drawing attention by casting doubt on the believers.

John Kunnathu said...

Dear Joseph,
Thank you very much for pointing out how the title can be misunderstood. Honestly such a possibility didn't occur to me when I put the title. Moreover, many of the readers may not be so charitable as you to communicate with me directly and openly with a positive attitude.

That Jesus Christ lives forever is not just a belief but it is a conviction for me. The title "If Jesus lived today" is not meant to deny this conviction.

I understand that the word "live" has two different meanings in these two uses. In the title it means live like us with flesh and blood on the earth as Jesus Christ lived in Palestine. In the expression "Jesus lives forever" it is a different kind of living.

Let me cite another example of such use of words. We say God is holy, and affirm that God alone is holy. But we also say holy father, holy Bible, holy church etc. Obviously the holy of God must be different from the holy of other words.

John Kunnathu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
George Joseph said...

I read all the three parts, and it is quite interesting. I found the idea of the Kingdom of God "at hand" very much interesting and I think we must seriously think about this meaning.

Dr. Jacob Mathew said...

I would like permission to use your article, "If Jesus Lived Today" in Malankara World. ( )

Malankara World is a spiritual publication aimed at the Malankara Families. There is no commercial interest.

Please let me know.


Dr. Jacob Mathew
Managing Editor and Founder, MalankaraWorld