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Jesus Versus Jesus 

I believe that in many if not in most cases the stories and sayings of Jesus in the gospels are really based on the prototypes of wandering Christian apostles and prophets in the early church. Their deeds and words have been attributed to the Lord Jesus in whose name they acted and spoke. And eventually the line between them and the Son of Man whom they claimed to represent has become completely blurred.

So as likely as not a saying attributed to Jesus was originally the utterance of someone else "channeling" the Risen Christ. A prophecy, in other words. When the gospel text says, "Jesus said..." I view it as equivalent to when the Old Testament text has Jeremiah or Isaiah begin an oracle, "Thus says the Lord..."

The first of the sayings occurs in Mark 9:40, "John said to him, 'Master, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he was not following us.' But Jesus said, 'Do not forbid him; for no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:38-40).

But over in Luke 11:23, Jesus is rebutting charges that he casts out demons only as a show, that in fact he is a magician in league with the devil. "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters," says Jesus.

Which way is it? Are you counted as being on Jesus' side if you do not actively oppose and reject him? That seems to be the implication of Mark. Or is it as Luke has it? That if you do not "stand up, stand up for Jesus," you are implicitly and unwittingly leaguing yourself against him? We must see what sense we can make of these warring sayings.

On one level, the solution is simple: the two sayings stem from two rival Jesus-prophets who differed as much as Jeremiah and his opposite number Hananiah had in the sixth century BC. Both posed as spokesmen for Jehovah, but their messages were diametrically opposed.

What are the theological implications of this difference of inspired opinion? We have dueling Jesuses, and we must decide which, if either, we will serve.

Once I heard Hans Kung give a lecture in which he effectively proof-texted Jesus as being firmly in his corner, painting him as pretty much a situational ethicist and a humanist. His Jesus was much like Dostoeyevski's Jesus in The Grand Inquisitor. As he spoke, I thought that, though Kung didn't have to twist any texts to get the result he wanted, he had ignored or been blind to a very different raft of texts where the gospels depict Jesus in a very different light.

Did Jesus tell us that human need takes precedence over the Sabbath rules? Yes, but then there is that text in which he crushes women beneath the mailed fist of the divorce prohibition.

Does he welcome despised Gentiles? In Luke and John, yes. But in Matthew he tells his missionaries not to set foot in Samaria. Was he a precursor of feminism? Then why no women among the Twelve?

You get the picture. We must decide which Jesus we are going to follow, because they are Legion. Hans Kung had decided which Jesus he was going to follow.

Listen to the utterances of the two Jesuses. Each seems to say that there is no neutrality. Only the one Jesus excludes all who are not explicitly committed to him, his name, his cause. "Whoever is not with me is against me." Do you see what has happened here? Why is it not enough simply to agree with the moral agenda or the religious principles of Jesus? Most Pharisees probably did!

Why do the Pharisees come in for such a pasting in the gospels? Because they committed the one unforgivable sin in the eyes of this Jesus and those who created him: they did not believe in Jesus himself as being more important than his principles, his teachings.

For Christians it no longer mattered what Jesus said so much as that it was he, the Son of God, the Christ, the Superstar, who had said it. As Judas says in Jesus Christ Superstar, "You've begun to matter more than the things you say."

Suppose you heard Jesus denounce hypocrisy and uphold unconditional love, the Fatherhood of God and the infinite value of the human soul, and this you accepted whole-heartedly. But then someone asked you whether you thought Jesus of Nazareth were the promised Messiah. That's a rather different matter, isn't it?  How could you form an opinion? Why should you have to? And if you did, what would it add to what you had learned from Jesus?

What is attributed to Jesus here in Luke is a kind of summons to discipleship.  Like that earlier Jesus, the Joshua of the Old Testament, this one is throwing down the gauntlet: Choose! Not to decide is to decide! Not to decide for me is to decide against me!

I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. Have you ever heard the joke "I wouldn't want to join any club that would have someone like me as a member"? Well, sorry, Jesus Number One: I wouldn't want to join a group that would only attract me if I were a religious bigot. If the price of joining the club is to condemn all non-members to hell, I don't think that's the kind of club I want to join.

So, ironically, it is the very summons to join up that repels me from the group! Now what about Jesus Number Two? The Jesus of Mark 9 makes no summons for anyone to join. Instead he acts the shepherd to go retrieve the lone lamb that John had driven forth from the flock! This is interesting to me: John tells Jesus that the unknown exorcist had not been following Jesus and the disciples. So to John he seemed to be poaching, violating the disciples' copyright on the name of Jesus. It is obvious that John considered the man a non-member. But it is equally apparent that the exorcist himself did not think himself a member either.

He seems to have accepted John's right to forbid him. For him the name Jesus simply seemed a powerful incantation for use in his profession. He was exactly like the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19 who have appropriated the divine name of Jesus because Paul seems to get results with it. Like a comedian who steals a good joke from a colleague.

Have you ever wondered why John did not rather invite the exorcist to join the group of followers of Jesus? He doesn't even say he asked the man and that the man refused. We might put this down to the motif of the thick-headedness of the disciples, but that will not do. For Jesus does not suggest that the man should have joined up either!

And that is the great point: as far as Jesus is concerned, the man does not need to join! Since he is doing the work that Jesus does, he is already a member! As the Epistle of James says, "I will show you my faith by my works." Jesus has drawn a circle that counts him in. Here is the liberal Jesus, Kung's Jesus, Karl Rahner's Jesus, in whose eyes one may be as Christian as one needs to be even if one's faith is anonymous or wears another name altogether. If he is not against us, he is for us.

From this Jesus we hear no invitation to join up, no summons to decide. No, what we hear is that such an explicit joining is superfluous, altogether unnecessary. What an irony! This non-summons, this non-invitation, is far more attractive, much more winsome than the Olympian ultimatum of Jesus Number One! Though he has not required you to join him, this very openness makes you think that maybe it would not be a bad thing to follow this Jesus! If this is a possible version of Christianity, maybe I can be (or remain) a Christian after all!

And there is a third Jesus to be heard from. We hear his voice in the Book of Revelation. He says, "I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16). Here is an amazing thing! A Jesus who goes even farther, who rejects only the complacent Christian! It is the lukewarm disciple he cannot stomach.

It is no surprise that he would rather have the lukewarm become hot, fervent in their commitment. But how can it be that he prefers the cold? Is it perhaps possible that he yields the rejector of Christianity a certain measure of grudging respect? Could it be that he recognizes in the Christ-rejector a seeker after truth? Don't tell me Jerry Falwell is more acceptable to Jesus than Betrand Russell! If he is, then I will tell you I prefer Bertrand Russell to Jesus!

Suppose one is, suppose you are, a seeker after truth who pointedly does ­not­ follow Jesus and his church? Christians may, like John, forbid you because they think Christians have the exclusive copyright on the name of Truth. But no, even if you do not follow with the church, even if relative to Christianity you are cold, perhaps Jesus prefers you, considers you one of his flock. How? Because you invoke the name of Truth, and he answers to that name as well.





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