A good question: What was Jesus’s message?
One question, four answers
‘Your kingdom come’
Jesus’s message in 400 words. Hmm… Quite a challenge. I thought about being clever and saying: ‘It depends which Gospel you’re talking about.’ That does matter, though the introduction to any good commentary will supply that angle: Matthew’s Gospel teaches us what the church should be like more than the other evangelists; John’s Gospel gives us an explicit message of ‘I am the good shepherd,’ rather than ‘It’s like this: a man had 100 sheep…’; Luke shows more of Jesus’s message to the poorest; Mark gives us the baldest picture of discipleship – no frills, it’s tough going, but we are called to follow after.
I thought about the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ in Luke 4, and pointing to the message of justice for the most outcast. That is important, of course. I thought about the Kingdom of God is like… and reflecting on the openness and welcome, the forgiveness and the acceptance; and that’s vital. I love the way this links Jesus’s teaching to the calls for justice in the prophets. I love the way Jesus offers a model for opening Scripture, saying: ‘Today, in our context, this is how God speaks.’ And I love the relevance of the stories, the rootedness in the daily lives of his hearers. What would Jesus tell parables about today? It wouldn’t be the same, would it? He might talk of single-use plastic and solar panels, of foodbanks and Covid lockdown, because his message is real today.
Rosalind Selby is Principal of Northern College, a United Reformed Church Resource Centre for Learning
‘Jesus is the message’
Jesus is the medium through which God’s message is communicated in the only form accessible to humankind – as a bodily person who experienced all the love, grief and joy, vulnerability, finitude and suffering which constitute the human condition. Through that medium, which is also the message, God deconstructs the idea of God. In place of the violent, oedipal gods of ancient myths who, Freud tells us, still haunt our modern psyches, in place of the abstract impersonal One which dominates the minds of ancient philosophers and modern theists, Jesus is the incarnate message and medium of the love of God made flesh.
What does love look like? It looks like Christ. How does love behave? It behaves like Christ. How do I know that I am loved? I think of a hymn we sang as little children: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’
Yet as we grow to maturity, the childlike message of that hymn gets bent out of shape by the challenges and questions of life. In our narcissistic, ego-driven culture, authentic self-love is the most difficult act of faith. Thomas Aquinas writes that we owe to ourselves the same love that we owe to our neighbour, because we too are among the things of God that should be loved. When Freud peered into the darkness of the modern soul, he saw a self-destructive drive which led him to believe that the call to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ was deadly, for it risks projecting onto my neighbour all the loathing and violence I feel towards myself…
Tina Beattie is Professor Emerita at the University of Roehampton
‘Jesus taught like a Jew’
In the past 50 years, there has been a dramatic change in Jewish attitudes towards Jesus, which increasingly recognise the Jewish context of his life and ministry. This is a significant shift from Jewish tradition looking for defects in the New Testament or for parallels in rabbinic writings. ‘What was true could not be new and what was new could not be true’ summarised many Jewish views of the teachings of Jesus. Jews today take a much more balanced approach.
When asked the question: ‘What commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered as any Jew would, then or now, with the Shema, a Jewish declaration of faith, which is recited at every Jewish service, day and night (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), followed by the famous command of Leviticus about love of neighbour (19:18), which is also a fundamental precept of Judaism.
Even the claim that Jesus is the Messiah is not uncommon in Judaism. Several Jews have claimed to be the Messiah, and Messianic expectation is a sign of religious vitality. Simon Bar Kochba in 132 CE and Shabbetai Zvi in 1665 CE are two examples. More recently, some followers of Menachem Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe and who died in 1994, considered him the Messiah…
Ed Kessler is Founder Director of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge
‘They asked, “What were you trying to say?”’
And Jesus spoke to them, or if he didn’t he might have done, saying, ‘There was once a teacher who had many followers. And his followers said to him, “Master, we have a great many questions. Is predestination real? Who should we vote for? What do you think about smoking? What should ministers wear? How do we get more people in church?”
‘And the teacher sang a song to his followers. And when he had finished singing, his followers said, “Truly that was a beautiful song. Did it not fill our hearts with hope?”
‘But another said, “More with peace, I would have said.”
‘Still another said, “It made me think that I need to be braver.”
‘While another said, “It made me think about my mother.”
‘So they questioned the teacher, saying, “Which one of us is right, master? What were you trying to say through the song? How does it answer our questions? And, nice as it was, what was the point of it?”
‘And the teacher said, “Does the sun tell the truth when it shines from the sky? Is the tree right when it bears fruit?”..
Stephen Tomkins is Editor of Reform
These are extracts from an article published in the April 2021 edition of Reform