If you’re reading this out of your own volition, I assume there’s something in you that finds Jesus compelling, or at least intriguing.
Christianity is the only major world religion that says God is seen primarily through a person, which is both deeply compelling and, as it turns out, results in some pretty strong disagreements. Jesus may be the most compelling, controversial and fought over person in human history. Wars have started in his name, and peace movements have been spawned by those imitating him. People have killed each other over disagreements about who he was, and others have been killed for following him. You can find any version of Jesus you want - rich, poor, handsome, ugly, hippie, prude, party-animal. You name it, there’s a Jesus to match.
This is pretty understandable. We disagree about the significance of people who are a live, much less a person who lived 2000 years ago before journalism, history books and media. So then, in the sea of Jesuses, how do we choose? What do we make of him?
Fortunately, Marcus Borg is here to help us. If you’ve been following along for the past few weeks, you’ve journeyed with Borg, via Pete, through some of the most fundamental aspects of Christian faith. And now, we arrive at the central figure of the whole Christian story: Jesus.
Let me start with a confession: exactly what I believe about Jesus changes, almost weekly. So I’m not going to try to defend any particular understanding of Jesus. But I think that’s ok. To me, what we believe about Jesus isn’t as important as where Jesus leads us: to God.
As Borg has pointed out, we have a tendency to focus our faith on literalism. Literalism has boiled Jesus down to a set affirmations: Son of God, born of a virgin, physically resurrected, etc. But is the revelation of God just about agreeing to a set of facts? How boring is that? No one person can be boiled down to a set of facts, much less one of the most compelling figures in history. As Richard Rohr says, the literal meaning is always the least interesting.
When we get past our inclination to boil Jesus down to a set of literal facts, we just might end up somewhere more interesting: the heart of God. As Borg say, “Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life…He shows us the heart of God.”
Pre-Easter vs Post-Easter
Before getting too far into the weeds, Borg wants to make a really important distinction about the voices in the Gospels that give shape to Jesus. Namely, our Pre-Easter understanding of Jesus and our Post-Easter understanding of him. Here’s what he means.
The Pre-Easter Jesus isn’t where most disagreements are found. The Pre-Easter Jesus was a first century Jewish man. He taught throughout Israel with a moderate following, and was executed by the Roman empire. This Jesus is gone, which sounds controversial ,but isn’t really. Jesus does not currently exist in flesh and blood, like he did in the first century. Even the most conservative and liberal Christians seem to agree on this. Most people don’t think Jesus is roaming around in a human body somewhere, stuck on an island with Elvis and Tupac.
The Post-Easter Jesus is a bit more wide-ranging. It revolves around what Jesus became after his death. Particularly, how he was experienced by his early followers, and how we experience him today. These experiences are broad, and have branched off throughout history in many directions.
The difference between pre and post Easter understandings of Jesus may seem small, but it is important, especially when we read the stories about Jesus’ life. Namely, it means we let Jesus be a human being. We don’t assume that because he was entwined with God that he never worried or felt pain. We let him grow, learn and suffer. As it turns out, this is a way more interesting way to read the Jesus stories, and otherwise, we miss the point of a lot of those stories.
Let me give you an example. In both Matthew and Mark, there’s a story that goes something like this:
From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” But he didn’t respond to her at all.
His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”
Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”
But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”
He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed. (Matthew 15:21-28)
People bend over backwards to try to justify how Jesus acts here, because it doesn’t seem very loving and God-like. But, if we actually let Jesus be a human being here, the story gets really compelling. It shows Jesus learning and growing.
What we find in the beginning of the story is Jesus reflecting the prejudices of his day. He treats this foreign woman like most ancient men would - as less than, as a dog. Then something crazy happens. She doesn’t take it. She shames Jesus by saying “Ok, but you’re treating me even worse than a dog. What does that make you?” Then something even crazier happens. Jesus agrees! He learns. This foreign woman puts him in his place, points out his prejudice and he changes his mind.
So if we want to experience the heart of God, perhaps we need to learn to face our prejudices and learn from those we think are less than. But we’d miss all of that if we don’t let Jesus be human.
The Nature of the Gospels
To really see where Jesus leads us, Borg suggests we need to understand the nature of the Gospels - the texts that narrate Jesus’ life. First, he points out that they’re a product of a developing tradition about Jesus. They were a collection of oral stories that where eventually written down about 40-60 years after Jesus’ death. Those early Christian communities where wrestling with who Jesus was, and trying to make meaning of the stories they had heard.
This is important because it means we’re not reading a literal history of Jesus. We’re reading the reflections of Jesus’ followers as they look for the significance of his life.
This realization can be jarring for some of us, especially if we’ve been taught to read the texts like a history textbook. But, when we look closer, we realize that trying to make these stories into literal historical accounts does a disservice to the texts. We’re holding them to a standard that didn’t exist at the time and keeps us from seeing what the texts are saying.
Our version of history didn’t exist at that point in time. No one was trying to, or thought they could, record events exactly as they happened. How could you without pen, paper, wide spread literacy, photos or videos?
Look at what Plutarch, an ancient writer says as he records events,
“For it is not Histories that I am writing, but Lives…Accordingly, just as painters get the likenesses in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men…”
When ancient writers wrote about the lives of others, they were more interested in expressing their “soul” or the essence of who they were. Of course, many of these stories were based on actual events, but they felt the liberty to fill in the gaps and paint with different colors. The writers of the Gospels were no different.
So then what are the ancient stories of Jesus? Borg thinks they’re a mix of memory and metaphor. They’re profoundly true, but not always literal. They combine the limited memories go Jesus’ followers with deeply true insights they learned from him, often expressed in symbolic stories.
He gives the example of Jesus’ first miracle: turning water into wine. At face value, it seems like a pretty cool trick. And it kept the party going, so that’s great. But is the point just for Jesus to amaze people who were probably really drunk? Perhaps the writers were using familiar images to evoke something in the reader.
For instance, when a reader heard a story about a wedding, they’d know that was a familiar metaphor for God’s relationship with humanity. When the story referenced the third day, they almost certainly would have thought of resurrection. The writer isn’t just recording history. They’re stirring up the reader’s imagination, and asking them to see the deeper meaning beneath the story.
For instance, weddings weren’t hour long celebrations. They were huge parties, that lasted days. These celebrations sharply contrasted with their normal peasant lifestyle. Instead of working constantly, they were celebrating with friends and family. Instead of eating meager helpings of affordable food, they were feasting and enjoying things like meat and wine.
And all of this is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As Borg says, it’s as if the writers are trying to show where Jesus is trying to lead us: a wedding banquet. Not just a wedding banquet, but one where the wine never runs out. Not just a wedding banquet where the wine never runs out but also where the best is saved for last. We’re being invited to see the world as a divine celebration, and even when it seems like the celebration has ended, God is in the business of saving the best for last.
Son of God: Statement or Image?
For some strange reason, we tend to think that the Bible is mostly making claims about Jesus. But if we look closely, the Bible speaks of Jesus in metaphors, which is quite a bit different than a declarative statement. We acknowledge this with some metaphors: bread, door, shepherd, vine, hen, and many more. But Borg thinks there’s one big metaphor we miss understand: Son of God.
While it sounds like a declarative statement about Jesus, it’s actually an image as much as those others. It conjured up certain things in the reader’s mind. In the Hebrew scriptures, Israel and some of its kings were called Son of God. Around Jesus’ time, some mystics called Son of God. Culturally in that time, a son could speak for their father in all matters.
Politically, it made a statement about Caesar and power. Caesar was though to be a son of the gods, so the image challenged Roman imperial power.
When we boil it down to a doctrinal statement, we miss what’s going on. The texts are trying to show us what it means to be full of God, in a way Israel had been longing for and that a political empire could never provide. As Borg puts it, “Jesus is, for us as Christians, the decisive revelation of what a life full of God looks like.”
Here, and throughout the chapter, Borg chases an important rabbit trail. Namely, does Jesus being a decisive revelation of God mean the market is cornered on the divine? What about other religions? In short, no. Borg thinks that God is defined by, but not confined to Jesus. While is a really humble statement. We can claim that our path has led us to a life full of God without saying or knowing that others don’t.
I heard a helpful metaphor recently. Imagine that you’re staring at a wall full of holes. On the other side of those holes is light - divine light. If you want to see the source and shape of that light, you have to get up close and look through one particular hole.
Or, as the Buddha said, if you want to strike water, don’t dig five shallow wells. Dig one deep one.
The Death of Jesus
Jesus was killed. Executed by Rome to be exact. This was a fate left only for political troublemakers. These few facts are pretty well documented event in Roman, Jewish and Christian writings. So, while these ancient writings aren’t modern history textbooks, it’s a fairly safe bet to think they happened.
But there’s a deeper question. What does Jesus’ death mean? Was it part of a divine master plan, or a natural consequence of living an authentic life connected to God? Christians have argued about the meaning of Jesus’ death for centuries, and scripture doesn’t give a clean cut answer. Borg sees five main understandings of Jesus’ death described in scripture, which are:
- Rejection and Vindication. This sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as a political statement. The governing authorities rejected Jesus, but God vindicates him, proving that his way has power.
- Defeat of the Powers. This one starts with the same explanation as the previous theory, but goes a layer deeper. It assumes there’s something behind the authorities, namely “the powers”. While this sounds odd, it’s essentially the idea that evil can take on a life of its own, in the form of oppressive systems, wars, destructive ways of thinking and more. So Jesus’ death is about defeating any force that seeks to dominate, control and oppress.
- The Way. This idea sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as the path to spiritual and psychological transformation. The world is full of smaller deaths. Jesus shows us how to be transformed and experience resurrection.
- Revelation. In this theory, Jesus’ death reveals how much God loves us. We see the depths of God’s compassion in how God’s willingness to experience our suffering.
- Sacrificial. Jesus died for our sins. (More below…)
This last one needs some unpacking. It is likely the most common understanding today, at least in American Evangelicalism. But many of us have found it weird, troubling and not particularly compelling. Specifically, it seems to have some weird implications for God. It assumes God is angry and needs a sacrifice. God needs death to forgive.
Borg is incredibly helpful here. He suggests that we’ve lost first century meaning of the metaphor of sacrifice. In Jesus’ time, God’s presence was confined to the temple. If you wanted to connect with God, you went to the temple. But, if you did something that made you unclean or broke part of the Mosaic law, you couldn’t go into the temple. Some of these “sins” required sacrifice before you could worship and enter in to the presence of God.
This is why Jesus was so angry when the temple was turned into a marketplace that exploited people. If you were poor, you literally couldn’t afford to experience God. God’s presence had gatekeepers.
So Jesus as a sacrifice isn’t making a statement about an angry, violent God. It’s making a statement about who can access God - everyone. It’s showing us what was always true.
Here’s the ironic thing: we’ve put up another gate. We make mental ascent to certain statements about Jesus the new gatekeeper to God, when the whole thing was about knocking down gates.
Metaphor and Sacrament
So if Jesus connects us to God, how does that happen? Borg sees Jesus leading us to God in two ways: as a metaphor and a sacrament. As a metaphor, we see God through Jesus. For Christians, Jesus is THE metaphor for God. Just as a metaphor reveals something to us, Jesus reveals to us who God is.
As a sacrament, we experience God through Jesus. Sacraments are those things things that lead us to experience God. There are formal ones: communion and baptism. And there are informal ones: good conversation, music, art, family. For Christians, Jesus is the primary sacrament. Like a straw that leads you to a much needed drink, Jesus leads us into the depths of God.
So, I’m pretty sure what I believe about Jesus will continue to change, but I’m equally confident about where he’ll lead me: into the heart of God.