Surely, it’s the most extraordinary story ever told. Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, came to earth and sacrificed himself so that we mortals might have eternal life. Yes, an extraordinary story, but is it fact? or fiction? One compelling bit of evidence strongly suggests it is indeed a fact. Even so, you will never hear it mentioned in a church!
Say you were examining an old manuscript and wanted to determine whether the story was fact or fiction, what should you look for? Scholars let the peace of god rule in your heart focus on the hero. If he (or she) is cast in the most favorable light in all circumstances, then the work is probably a fiction. For that is the sort of thing legends do for their heroes.
Real stories about real people, on the other hand, tend to be more ambiguous. Their heroes are not so neat, clean, and tidy. In fact, they often present knotty little problems. With that in mind, let’s take a good look at how the Gospels actually portray Jesus.
Family and Friends’ Lack of Faith in Jesus
Those closest to Jesus seem to have the least faith in him. Thomas wasn’t the only doubter among Jesus’ hand picked apostles. They all expressed skepticism. They didn’t believe Jesus when he said he would come back from the grave. And they didn’t believe others when they said he had risen.
Jesus’ own family showed no faith in him either. The Gospel according to John says, “Even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (John 7:5) And on one occasion, Jesus’ family went to Capernaum to take charge of Jesus saying: “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21) Why would the writers include such negative statements in their narratives abut Jesus? Surely, they reported these events, simply because that’s what happened.
Racial or Ethnic Slur
Did Jesus really call the Canaanite woman a dog? Matthew relates the following story: A Canaanite woman asked Jesus to drive a demon out of her daughter. He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman knelt and begged, “Lord, help me!”
Jesus countered, “It is not right to take children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
She replied, “Even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus granted her request, and her daughter was healed. (Matthew 15:21-28)
Anyway you look at it, Jesus appears to be comparing Canaanites to dogs. It’s a racial or ethnic slur. To get the full impact of the statement, think of Pat Robertson making a similar remark about Blacks, Native Americans, or Hispanics. In this highly charged, politically correct environment, his name would be “Mud” by the time the six o’clock news rolled around.
Inclusive or Exclusive Mission?
There is something else here too. Is Jesus’ mission to the Jews only, or is it to everyone? According to his first answer, Jesus makes it clear, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” By the same token, when Jesus sent the twelve apostles out on their first trial run, he told them to go to the lost sheep of Israel. And specifically, he said, “Do not go among gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans.” (Matthew 10:5-6)
Consistent with that policy, Jesus himself traveled almost exclusively in Jewish settlements. But we see the other side as well. Remember Simeon from Jerusalem? He held up the infant Jesus and said here is, “a light for revelation to the gentiles.” (Luke 2:32)
Along that line, we find Jesus healing the Roman Centurion’s servant without any reference to race. (Matthew 8:5-13) He also talked to the Samaritan women at the well and ended up teaching Samaritans from a nearby town for two days. (John 4:7-41) And of course, after the Canaanite woman begged, Jesus did go ahead and heal her daughter too. Finally, we see the resurrected Jesus telling his disciples to: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mark 16:15) “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)
We are left wondering, did Jesus understand his mission to be inclusive: Jews, Samaritans, and gentiles – or exclusive: Jews only? Why the ambivalence? Possibly the mission changed at some point. The gospels don’t say.
Puzzling Statements and Parable
Some of Jesus’ statements are difficult to understand. For example, “Among those born of woman there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater that he.” (Matthew 11:11) What does Jesus mean by that? We are not told.
Here is another passage: “The law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached and everyone is forcing his way into it.” (Luke 16:16) What did Jesus mean by, “everyone is forcing his way into it”? Again, he doesn’t explain.
Then there is that odd statement to Peter. Peter had just made the great confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replies, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; whatever is bound on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” It sounds like Peter has been made dictator of heaven and earth. But surely that is not what Jesus meant.
In addition to some inscrutable sayings, Jesus also offers an inscrutable parable – The Parable of the Shrewd Manager. Read the story for yourself. (Luke 16:1-9)