The Most Misunderstood Thing About Jesus

Jesus’ first miracle was one that would have made alot of religious folk angry.

He was at a party, a 1st century Jewish wedding to be exact, an event where people party – for many days.  The wine had run out and Jesus’ mother pressed him to “do his thing” and fix this most heinous faux pas.  There are a million ways He could have done it, but He chose to make about 180 gallons of wine in 6 large containers used for a sacred Jewish cleansing ritual.

A modern day version of this would be to walk into a Baptist church, fill the baptistry (a small swimming pool where folks are baptised) with wine and say, “Party on dudes.”

Jesus’ first miracle was to keep a party going.  Why is He almost always portrayed as such as buzz kill?

You don’t have to go far to find someone who’ll tell you that Jesus wants nothing more than for you to control yourself, avoid sinning, and get your sh!t together.  I’ve been a pastor for many moons now and can tell you that most American Evangelicals live under this very misguided piece of theology.

When I first got into this whole Jesus thing I had recently witnessed the shooting death of a good friend (long long story, I’ll post it here in the near future).  I was torn up with PTSD, etc and didn’t see a way forward.  My uber religious, very frisky girlfriend, who had just dumped me, had previously dragged me to church enough for me to think that maybe there was something behind the Jesus door.  I had tried everything else, what the hell.  I had a very powerful experience and began attending church on a regular basis.  It was weird growing up Catholic then finding myself in the midst of this Evangelical wonderland.  My early experiences were especially interesting.

A girl took me to church one time, a very large Dallas church.  As we passed by the bookstore I asked if Jesus would be by to turn over the tables?  She didn’t laugh.  After the crackers and the tiny plastic cups of grape-juice were passed out, the offering plate came my way.  “What’s this, the bill for lunch?”  “Get it?  The bill for lunch?”  I thought it was hilarious, but obviously had a few things to learn about the culture.

At this new place, and within this new culture, the message was clear – we are all charged with spending our lives trying to get our sh!t together.  The Bible studies, the sermons, the small groups, all were focused primarily on rule following. So, I spent the majority of my adult years believing that God wanted obedience first and foremost.  He’s only happy when we’re doing what we’re supposed to.  When we’re not, he’s shinin’ up the lightening bolts.

A few years later I was accepted to grad school where I would spend the next 4 years working on my Master’s degree (it was a 120+ hour program – not bragging, just didn’t want anyone thinking I’m a slacker.  There’s other evidence for that).  A big chunk of my curriculum was focused on ancient Greek and Hebrew so that I could study the scriptures more in-depth.  Our professors encouraged us, over and again, to not let our biases, our emotions, or our culture do the translating/interpreting.  We were to try our best to let the texts speak for themselves.  I was once instructed that if I didn’t agree with widely held beliefs that was ok.  If I didn’t defend them well however, I’d get an F.  Not bad for a conservative Christian Seminary that many would consider to be the mecca of all close-mindedness.

A couple of years after I graduated I read a passage in the New Testament that I had read a thousand times.  This time it hit me differently.  In our Greek manuscripts it reads:

ἐγὼ ἦλθον ἵνα ζωὴν ἔχωσιν καὶ περισσὸν ἔχωσιν
I came so that they might have life, and have (it) overflowing.

Note that He didn’t say

  • I came so that they would all get their sh!t together
  • I came so that they would think right things about me
  • I came so that they might learn to defend themselves from the evils of this world
  • I came so that they might find some people to harass, belittle, and marginalize
  • vote a certain way
  • hate the gays
  • avoid alcohol

By “life,” He wasn’t referring to the next life.  There are plenty of scriptures where Jesus clearly refers to Heaven.  This particular statement gives no evidence that he’s referring to anything other than life in the here and now.  This is something that He wants for you and I – today.  Right now.

For me, in this moment, I decided to let this passage govern my thinking about God, Jesus, the Bible, and my life till the day I die.  Whenever I run into confusion, fear, apathy, or general stupidity, this passage gets me back on track.

What’s even more interesting is the fact that everyone on the planet is desperately looking for life.  Some of us are killing ourselves (and sometimes others) because we want LIFE.  What Jesus claimed to be devoted to giving to us, we’re all trying like hell to get.  More intimacy, more significance, more fun, more laughter, more pleasure, more more more more more.  The entire world – dead, alive, and yet-to-be-born will always have at the core of it’s life the quest for life.

And here’s this not-so-attractive, unassuming, friend-to-whores-and-sinners, so-called Rabbi, claiming that the purpose for His very existence is the very thing we’re all clamoring for.  He’s not going to give us a jet, or a mansion, or a hot wife.  It’s not that these things are bad, they’re simply not what we’re looking for – they’re merely symptoms of deeper wants.

It’s a hell of alot easier to be a rule-follower than it is to trust that Jesus has my best interest at heart, that He actually wants what I want (not the corrupted, selfish version of what I want, the good stuff that hangs out underneath all that).  Sadly, for most religious folk, everything revolves around the rules, which drives so much “death.”  It’s a truly miserable way to view God, yourself, other people, and the world you live in.

I dare you, place at the center of your understanding of God the fact that He wants you to suck the marrow out of your life (His way, not your way by the way) and read one of the Gospels (the book of John is my favorite).  It’ll change your life.

God is for losers

Jesus told the following parable to a group of people who had lost their way.  It was more of an indictment than anything else.  Following is a paraphrase of the story, taken directly from a collection of Koine Greek manuscripts commonly used in the creation of our modern Bibles.

Once there was a very rich man who had two sons.  One a winner, the other a loser.  The good son always did what he was told, worked hard on the family farm, and was a big contributor to the success of his father’s operation.  The other son was a somewhat lazy ne’er-do-well who couldn’t seem to get his act together.

The loser son one day went to his father, announced that he would be leaving, and asked for his inheritance.  Back then, this was tantamount to wishing your father dead – a very shameful act in the minds of Jesus’ audience.  The father willingly complied and the son went and sold the bounty all throughout the town, further spreading his father’s shame.

The son went to a “far off place.”  In 1st century Jewish parlance he went to live with pagans, losers, trash.  He blew the money in some very unsavory activities, got hungry, resorted to eating garbage, and came to his senses.  “Jeeze, I’m living in hell.  I can go home and at least be treated like a slave.  My father’s servants are living better than I am.”

So he crafted a speech that he would deliver to his father.  In the Greek it’s apparent that he’s making up an apology but not sorry or “repentant” for his stupidity.  There is no mention of sorrow, humility, or wisdom.

The picture being painted is of someone who’s committed the most grievous infractions a person from that culture could think of – dishonoring parents, sinful living, rubbing elbows with pagans, and manipulation.  “Kill him” is what most of Jesus’ audience, including his disciples, would be thinking.

His dad, who’s been waiting for him to come home, sees him on the horizon, runs to him and does something akin to tackling him.  The son attempts to give the speech, word for word as he’s rehearsed it, but the father cuts him off.  He places a ring on his finger and immediately restores his status, privileges, and rights to inheritance. Dad then throws an enormous party and kills the calf that’s only reserved for uber-special occasions.

The good son, understandably, is pissed and standing outside the party, refusing to go in.  The father begs him to join the party.  “But my son has returned,” the father begs, “Aren’t you happy too?”  But the winner son sees people as most of us do.  Winners should be celebrated – exalted.  You should never throw a party for losers.  Dad returns to the party alone leaving the winner son to stand outside and pout.  The end.

Jesus tells this story in part to illustrate the fact that God’s view of people is upside-down to ours.  The losers are winners and vice versa.  If He’s right it suggests that our view of most things is upside-down.  Maybe that’s why he so often calls for humility. Getting down on your knees is the highest you can get in an upside-down world.

This parable is one of three (read the whole thing here) that Jesus tells to an audience of “Good People” who are grumbling about the horde of losers that are following Him.  The first parable talks about someone who loses their property then gets real happy when they find it.  The second talks about a poor person who loses their money then gets real happy when they find it.  The third is a story of a man who loses a son then gets real happy when he finds him.  Everyone in Jesus’ audience can track with the first two, few can deal with the third.

Funny that the only loser in this story is the one that didn’t want to go to the party.