This Jesus guy is tough to figure out.
His teaching is full of “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” He’s demanding! “Do not be like this…do this instead!” Trying to get healed? You’re going to have to do something first, I bet. You certainly won’t get to talk about it after, he’s very clear on that point. Or how about when the boat he’s in is about to sink? He gets irritated with the disciples first, and only after that does he calm the storm down. Moral of the story: let Jesus get his rest, lest he become cranky.
Jesus is way too harsh: you have to love him more than your own parents! Judgemental, even to his hometown congregation. And when he fields questions from the skeptics and critics, these often get a scathing response. Not at all messiah-like, I’m afraid.
Blessed is anyone who doesn’t get offended by Jesus, indeed!
Yet there’s another side. He encourages an old, chronically-bleeding woman, who probably hasn’t been to Temple in ages; and he does this healing in the middle of rushing to another person’s death bed. He sees people harassed and has compassion on them; hungry, and he provides food. First he insults a Gentile woman, then praises her obnoxious persistence to the point of calling it faith! He seems genuinely surprised when the centurion insists Jesus not come to his home to heal his servant, but just command it: “in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” It’s strange to think of anyone measuring up to his “be perfect like my Father” standards, but he certainly doesn’t hold back when he does encounter it.
And perhaps that’s the strange thing about this life: Jesus thinks we can do it.
Turning the other cheek, honest in our prayers, humility, poverty of spirit, living out radically anti-imperial values, healing and casting out demons: in teaching and in action, Jesus simply conveys the message that it is possible. Not a path without danger or risk, of course; but one which ordinary people can be healed and indeed become perfect.
Of course, we obfuscate this message in our faith communities. We would do well to revisit Matthew as a handbook for doing church, as embodying the Christ in our cities & countrysides. Of special interest to us should be Jesus’ instructions to the 12 as he sends them out on their ministry internships. But far too many of us pastors and church people think such a mission is too hard. I doubt Jesus sees it that way, though: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Image of the Beatitudes text by Thomas Ingmire, from the Library of Congress’ “Online Exhibition: Illuminating the Word, the Saint John’s Bible.”