More snippets from The Jesus I Never Knew by Yancey – #6

“You can know a person by the company he keeps,” the proverb goes. Imagine the consternation of people in first-century Palestine who tried to apply that principle to Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels mention eight occasions when Jesus accepted an invitation to dinner. Three of these (the wedding at Cana, hospitality by Mary and Martha, and the interrupted meal in Emmaus after his resurrection) were normal social occasions among friends. The other five, however, defy all rules of social propriety.

According to biblical scholar Walter Wink, Jesus violated the mores of his time in every single encounter with women recorded in the four Gospels.

It startles me to open the New Testament and see in what mixed soil the early church took root. The middle-class church many of us know today bears little resemblance to the diverse group of social rejects described in the Gospels and the book of Acts.

Jesus was often “moved by compassion,” and in New Testament times that very word was used maternally to express what a mother feels for her child in her womb. Jesus went out of his way to embrace the unloved and unworthy, the folks who matter not at all to the rest of society— they embarrass us, we wish they’d go away— to prove that even “nobodies” matter infinitely to God. One unclean woman, too shy and full of shame to approach Jesus face-to-face, grabbed his robe, hoping he would not notice. He did notice. She learned, like so many other “nobodies,” that you cannot easily escape Jesus’ gaze.

The last great “sign” in John appears in the exact center of his book, chapter 11, and forms a narrative hinge for all that precedes and follows. John points to the miracle involving Lazarus as the event that turned the religious establishment fatally against Jesus. His account also offers a neat summary of what miracles did, and did not, accomplish in Jesus’ time on earth.

The resurrection of one man, Lazarus, would not solve the dilemma of planet earth. For that, it would take one man’s death. John adds the startling, ironic detail that the miracle of Lazarus sealed Jesus’ fate. “So from that day on they plotted to take his life.” And from that day on, significantly, Jesus’ signs and wonders ceased.

The Gospels, though, devote nearly a third of their length to the climactic last week of Jesus’ life. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John saw death as the central mystery of Jesus.

Only two of the Gospels mention the events of his birth, and all four offer only a few pages on his resurrection, but each chronicler gives a detailed account of the events leading to Jesus’ death. Nothing remotely like it had happened before. Celestial beings had slipped in and out of our dimension prior to the Incarnation (remember Jacob’s wrestler and Abraham’s visitors), and a few humans had even waked from the dead. But when the Son of God died on planet earth— how could it be that a Messiah should face defeat, a God get crucified?

Nature itself convulsed at the deed: the ground shook, rocks cracked open, the sky went black.

For several years, as Holy Week approaches, I have read all the gospel accounts together, sometimes back-to-back, sometimes interwoven in a “harmony of the Gospels” format. Each time I feel swept away by the sheer drama. The simple, unadorned rendering has a grinding power, and I can almost hear a bass drum beating dolefully in the background. No miracles break in, no supernatural rescue attempts. This is tragedy beyond Sophocles or Shakespeare.

As I read John’s account, I keep coming back to a peculiar incident that interrupts the progress of the meal. “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power,” John begins with a flourish and then adds this incongruous completion: “so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” In the garb of a slave, he then bent over and washed the grime of Jerusalem from the disciples’ feet.

What a strange way for the guest of honor to act during a final meal with his friends. What incomprehensible behavior from a ruler who would momentarily announce, “I confer on you a kingdom.” In those days, foot washing was considered so degrading that a master could not require it of a Jewish slave. Peter blanched at the provocation.

The scene of the foot washing stands out to author M. Scott Peck as one of the most significant events of Jesus’ life. “Until that moment the whole point of things had been for someone to get on top, and once he had gotten on top to stay on top or else attempt to get farther up. But here this man already on top— who was rabbi, teacher, master— suddenly got down on the bottom and began to wash the feet of his followers. In that one act Jesus symbolically overturned the whole social order. Hardly comprehending what was happening, even his own disciples were almost horrified by his behavior.”

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