Religious historians, theologians and ministers have been unusually busy in the past couple of years. Religious books, magazine articles, television interviews, and sermons have investigated Jesus in terms of what historians have recently learned about the time of Jesus. New insights have been gained about the cultural conflict between the Romans and the Israelites, the class system that was in place in Israel at the time of Jesus – in other words, what was society like during the time of the ministry of Jesus and what role did he play as a man living in this society?
Religious writers also have focused on the failure of modern Christians to adhere to the mission Jesus commands of us. The targets of these writers are the selective policies of the religious right and Christian believers generally; there is heightened interest in this cultural phenomenon because American culture has an increasingly harsh class system just as Jesus experienced during his ministry. Further, while not a military occupation, the nation is run by the wealthy rather than the citizens – again, something that confronted Jesus during his life and ministry. Finally, there is an apocalyptic undertone in the United States and other countries as social, political, religious and global experiences approach a point of chaos.
It is the growing similarity between the times of Jesus and our times today that provides energy for this new wave of religious introspection. Jesus and his message have been revisited many times in history. The power of Jesus’ life and faith must be reinterpreted to relate to the changes that occur in society. Otherwise, his divine insights lose their meaning.
A good example among writers examining the role of Jesus historically is ‘Zealot,’ by Reza Aslan, a respected religious writer. This book, just published, has received good reviews. In his book, Aslan highlights the aspect of Jesus as an activist who fought the abuses of the Romans and the rigid, self-righteous class system that existed among the Jews themselves. Large numbers of the population were despised, oppressed, and powerless. Jesus behaved as a zealot, fighting the injustices openly and without regard for his own safety.
Aslan’s book clarifies the context of the role Jesus played in a time of chaos. Knowing that Jesus was zealous and defending the discarded people of Israel speaks to us today with more substance and a better understanding of the Gospel message. For example, in those passages of the Gospels where the Pharisees visit Jesus, these are not intellectual discussions. They are confrontations by Judean authorities who did not approve of his work and his belief in love as the primary force among human beings. This belief in love disregarded the religious, political and military rule that controlled Israel at that time. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” evokes more pathos for Jesus and the literal, human meaning of his words when we understand his visible and outspoken rebellion against an unfair society. As Jesus grew more popular, his life was increasingly at risk.
We can relate to this role in modern times. To mention a few: Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela. What these names have in common with Jesus (though there is no intent to consider them equal to Jesus) is that they were zealots fighting against injustice for the displaced and oppressed people of their times.
The added disregard for the Jewish view of history, God, and the Old Testament rule fueled the flames of the authorities even more. Jesus brought to Earth a loving God, who did not judge, who did not control social history, and who bestowed divine importance equally on every human being – the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
The next post will discuss the focus on the forgotten message of the Gospels by today’s political and social environment.