Re-reading Jesus

I mentioned the other day in this post that a few years ago I started thinking more about the feeling side of Jesus. We can only get at it by inference, but the more I have read and reread the Gospel accounts, the more I see subtextual clues that there was a lot more going on than the static, flat-affect Jesus of most movie portrayals. And in looking at these clues I’ve been finding some pretty cool and helpful insights.

The reason I’ve looked at this so much is that having decided to live as close as I can to the way Jesus lived, I find it extremely helpful to try to get inside his head as much as possible. What did he think about? What was his motivation in each situation?

John’s account in particular is fascinating, because it has all the elements of story, including an arc with reversals and a protagonist with a single desire. John points out that he has chosen a tiny fraction of events in constructing his plot. It isn‘t the perfect movie script, but close, just needing a few visual tweaks. For example, my movie of John would add a brief cut back to Nicodemus, sitting dumbfounded and speechless, to close out the scene.

A key question then that I wonder about is Jesus’ identity and self-awareness. Just how much did he understood about himself, not only as he grew and developed but as he started out in his ministry? Only Luke, who claims to have done his research, refers to Jesus’ childhood at all. But all Luke says is that the kid grew strong and wise, “and the grace of God was on him.” Luke also writes the funny story of Jesus’ parents losing him for three days, then finding him at the temple talking theology with the big guys, only to have Jesus act surprised at Mom and Dad freaking out. The Son of God unsurprisingly had a high IQ, but he was also a normal kid.

But just when did it start to dawn on Jesus that he was in fact the very Son of God? Certainly Mary, by Luke’s account a brilliantly deep thinker, would have told Jesus every detail of his birth story–including her own insights and emotions. And like any normal kid, Jesus would have been fascinated. ”Mommy, tell me again about….” Or, “What was it like when…?” But when did it all come together? Who knows.

And then there’s the whole dying part. We know from John 2 that Jesus had an idea early on: when challenged about going berserk at the temple, he cryptically says, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” But John talks as if the disciples didn’t actually figure out the meaning of that statement until after Jesus’ resurrection. Did perhaps Jesus himself not fully comprehend it either at the time, since John doesn’t note him providing any explanation? Hard to say.

Here is one that struck me just the other day: Jesus never explained why he preferred to call himself “the Son of Man”. Traditional thinking is that it is a reference to a messianic vision in Daniel 7, where Daniel sees “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.” It is a reasonable explanation especially since Jesus appears to reference that text in his trial before the Sanhedrin. But living cross-culturally makes me wonder if there is something much simpler going on.

I can’t fully become Thai. There is a lengthy path to citizenship, but it would take way more effort than the few hours we have to spend each year renewing our visas. But even if we were to do that, we know we could never be fully Thai. We think differently. But at the same time we like to claim a Thai identity. When people ask me where I’m from, I answer “Bangkok”, with a smile. I know they will ask where are you really from, but I always want people to know that this is home. We don’t “go home” to the U.S.–we “visit”. When I talk to Thai people about the problems we are concerned about here, particularly the exploitation of the vulnerable, I ask permission to speak as a Thai person. And I deeply appreciate that it is always granted.

What hit me recently is that perhaps that Jesus wanted the same thing. He knew he was different, but his humanity was something he was proud of. Becoming human was not his job, but his honor. “I‘m Son of Man. I’m on the team.”

The implication for what we do is obvious. Not only are we more effective when we love people out of honor rather than condescension, but it is way more fun and joyful. We lose our conditions, those prerequisites to our love that we might tell ourselves we don’t have but in fact we do. We grow more patient and appreciative of cultural differences that previously annoyed us. In working with people in need, we think less about their slowness to change and more about their beauty as God’s children.

In any case, whether I am right or not on this point, I don’t want to mislead folks into detailed speculative argument. I just find thoughts and ideas like this helpful, so I write mainly in hope that it might stir you to read or reread the story of Jesus this season with fresh eyes. It’s great stuff. Fascinating guy.