For most of my life, I assumed that Jesus was a white, middle-class, Republican. I remember hearing former Texas Governor Ann Richards say, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Texas.” during a statewide debate about English as the official language. I laughed at the thought of a Jew living 2,000 years ago speaking a language that didn’t yet exist. At the same time, I wondered what myths about Jesus I might be under the influence of.
Like many Christians on a mission to rediscover the “real” Jesus, I dove into the red letters of the Gospels. What I found was a Jewish Rabbi who spent most of His time with those on the margins of His culture. His stories challenged the preconceived notions of His culture. He seemed to delight in making religious leaders the villains in His stories and went so far as to make a Samaritan the hero of a story that He told to people who despised Samaritans.
Unlike most Christians I knew, Jesus never told anyone to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. He never shamed anyone for being poor, sick, or in need. People of His day would point fingers at those who were suffering and wonder out loud what they had done to deserve their pain, but Jesus wouldn’t have it. He specifically rejected the notion that material and physical blessings were tied to religious devotion or faithfulness.
Jesus the Radical
The thing that surprised me the most about Jesus was His inclusiveness. He built relationships with the economically challenged, women, the infirm, and minorities. Jesus even welcomed people of other faiths. When people wanted to argue scripture with Him, He generally left them frustrated with more questions than answers. To people who were hungry for vengeance, Jesus taught forgiveness. To people who wanted vindication, He taught humility. He challenged those who thought they were God’s chosen people by redefining the term to include everyone their culture rejected.
Perhaps most radical of all was the way Jesus specifically chose tax collectors, zealots, and even an occasional Pharisee as His disciples. He seemed intent on drawing the image of God out of the most unlikely suspects.
Jesus the Theologian
As a Rabbi, Jesus was obviously a student of the Jewish scriptures. He had an incredible ability to cut through the many voices in the old testament and focus in on the singular voice of His Father. He demonstrated this skill brilliantly when He taught His disciples that while the law demanded an eye for eye, He wanted His followers to choose the path of non-violence that leads to peace.
Jesus’ primary focus was on the coming Kingdom of God and how it was unfolding in and through His life. He saw the announcement of the Kingdom as the climax of history. Simply put, nothing would ever be the same after His life, death, and resurrection. Everyone was included in the work of redemption without exception. The important people who were too busy to accept Jesus’ invitation to the kingdom banquet would not prevent those they perceived as misfits from taking their seat at the table.
Due to my upbringing as a “Conservative Christian”, I’ve been hesitant to embrace the progressive label. I have to admit, however, that the more I get to know Jesus the more comfortable I become embracing a progressive theology and spiritual practice. All of my spiritual heroes–Julian of Norwich, John Lewis, Mother Teresa, Brennan Manning, Mike Yaconelli, Rachel Held Evans, and more recently, Sara Miles and Richard Rohr–pushed the theological boundaries of their day. They seemed to be at their best when they were making comfortable Christians very uncomfortable.
Embracing the radical ministry of the life and message of Jesus is liberating. He wasn’t building a brand or a business. Jesus’ passion was reflecting the extravagant love of God to those who were desperate to receive it. May the same be said of all of us who call ourselves by His name.