Now, the possibility remains that Jesus might have been a madman, a deluded fanatic. After all, mental health facilities are filled with people who think they are God. And this is precisely what some of Jesus's contemporaries thought: "For this reason the Jews tried all the more to kill him; because he called God his own father, making himself equal to God" (Jn 5:18). What is ruled out—and C. S. Lewis saw this with particular clarity—is the bland middle position taken by many theologians and religious seekers today, namely that Jesus wasn't divine but was indeed an inspiring ethical teacher, a great religious philosopher. Yet a close reading of the Gospel witness does not bear such an interpretation. Given that he repeatedly spoke and acted in the person of God, either he was who he said he was and purported to be, or he was a bad man. And this is precisely why Jesus compels a choice the way no other religious founder does. As he himself said, "Whoever is not with me is against me" (Lk 11:23), and "Whoever does not gather with me scatters" (Lk 11:23). I realize how dramatically this runs counter to our sensibilities, but Christian evangelization consists in the forcing of that choice.

There is a strange passage in the tenth chapter of Mark's Gospel that is rarely commented upon but that is, in its peculiarity, very telling. Jesus is in the company of his disciples, and they are making their way from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south. Mark reports: "They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid" (Mk 10:32). They were simply walking along the road with Jesus, and they found him overwhelming and frightening. Why they should have had such a response remains inexplicable until we remember that awe and fear are, in the Old Testament tradition, two standard reactions to God. The twentieth-century philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto famously characterized the transcendent God as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery that fascinates us even as it causes us to tremble with fear—in whose presence we are amazed and afraid. In his sly, understated way, Mark is telling us that this Jesus is also the God of Israel.

Once we grasp that Jesus was no ordinary teacher and healer but Yahweh moving among his people, we can begin to understand his words and actions more clearly. If we survey the texts of the Old Testament—and the first Christians relentlessly read Jesus in light of these writings—we see that Yahweh was expected to do four great things. He would gather the scattered tribes of Israel; he would cleanse the Temple of Jerusalem; he would definitively deal with the enemies of the nation; and, finally, he would reign as Lord of heaven and earth. The eschatological hope expressed especially in the prophets and the Psalms was that through these actions, Yahweh would purify Israel and through the purified Israel bring salvation to all. What startled the first followers of Jesus was that he accomplished these four tasks but in the most unexpected way.

When Jesus first emerged, preaching in the villages surrounding the Sea of Galilee, he had a simple message: "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mk 1:15). Oceans of ink have been spilled over the centuries in an attempt to explain the meaning of "Kingdom of God," but it might be useful to inquire what Jesus's first audience understood by that term. N. T. Wright argues that they would have heard, "the tribes are being gathered." According to the basic narrative of the Old Testament, God's answer to human dysfunction was the formation of a people after his own heart. Yahweh chose Abraham and his descendants to be "peculiarly his own," and he shaped them by the divine law to be a priestly nation. God's intention was that a unified and spiritually vibrant Israel would function as a magnet for the rest of humanity, drawing everyone to God by the sheer attractive quality of their way of being. The prophet Isaiah expressed this hope when he imagined Mount Zion, raised high above all of the mountains of the world, as the gathering point for "all the tribes of the earth." But the tragedy was that more often than not Israel was unfaithful to its calling and became therefore a scattered nation. One of the typical biblical names for the devil is ho diabalos, derived from the term diabalein (to throw apart). If God is a great gathering force, then sin is a scattering power. This dividing of Israel came to fullest expression in the eighth century BC, when many of the northern tribes were carried off by the invading Assyrians, and even more so in the devastating exile of the sixth century BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of the southern tribes away. A scattered, divided Israel could never live up to its vocation, but the prophets continued to dream and hope. Ezekiel spoke of Israel as sheep wandering aimlessly on the hillside, but then he prophesied that one day Yahweh himself would come and gather in his people.

Now we can begin to understand the behavior of the one who called himself "the good shepherd" (Jn 10:11). As so many contemporary scholars have emphasized, Jesus practiced open table fellowship, serving as host for many who would normally be excluded from polite society: the public sinner, the prostitute, the handicapped, the tax collector. At the very place where, in his time as well as ours, the stratifications and divisions of society were often on clearest display, he was making possible a new kind of social space, one marked by compassion and forgiveness. It is important to note that he was not simply exemplifying the generic virtue of "inclusivity" so valued today; he was acting in the very person of Yahweh gathering in his scattered children. This helps to explain why he healed so many. In the society of Jesus's time, physical illness was typically construed as a curse, and in many cases sickness or deformity prevented one from participating fully in the life of the community, especially in common worship. Curing the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the leprous, Jesus was Yahweh binding up the wounds of his people and restoring them to communion.

Excerpted from Catholicism by Robert Barron. Copyright 2011 by Father Robert Barron. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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