How is it that those who proclaim the loudest that context influenced scripture and the subsequent interpretation of Jesus by Christians seem the least able to step out of their own current culture and see how context influences them? Fundamentalists and literalists might have some excuse for insisting that the Bible has one, generally understandable interpretation (usually an Anabaptist, 17th- 19th C salvation message), which does not change. Their timescale of church history tends to stop at Patmos and pick up again at Luther. Yes, I am being a bit unfair.
Yet it’s the others that concern me at present. In our Advent liturgy we had the following passage from Revelation 19, and it brought me up short:
11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.”[a] He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS 17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.” 19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. 20 But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. 21 The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
When this vision first came into the hands of the church, there was debate off and on for the next three centuries whether it was scripture. But what doesn’t seem to have been debated was whether this is a possible Jesus. I know, I know, it’s apocalyptic literature, it concerns the Second Coming, it’s all very symbolic and hard to understand, and everyone seems to get a lot of final chances before this Jesus goes into action. Yet I still would claim that most people today, not only outside the church but in it, would not regard this as a possible Jesus. And I would most emphatically include clergy in that. Whatever they might say by way of rationalization that they do too include that Jesus, there isn’t any evidence of that in all their other references to him when they are commenting on social or political Jesus. I believe that people eventually say what they really mean, and their Jesus has a lot of 60’s liberal in him.
I had church professionals putting "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men" up on FB in the entirely secular "Gee, Jesus really hates war, don't you get it?" context this year. Jesus came so that Jews, Greeks, Samaritans and Romans could all have access to the Kingdom of God. Whether the Jews and Romans who didn't follow him got along politically doesn't seem to have mattered to Him all that much.*
Tangent on conservative Christians: They may do a bit worse on this, as their tendency is to reference defending Christian culture, not mentioning any favorite Jesus quite so much in this context. However much they mention Christ in other discussions, it’s Christians in the political ones. End tangent.
*You can derive a "peace among the nations" doctrine at some distance from an understanding that secular events aren't that important in the overall scheme, plus the worry that there might be Christians on the other side of a war. But it's derivative. It's not in the NT, certainly not in the gospels.
Jaroslav Pelikan, highly esteemed professor of theology at Yale, wrote Jesus Through The Centuries (among many other works). I fought my way through some of it, but I found his style difficult. Nonetheless, the overarching ideas are important: Christians in different eras have seen different things in Jesus and have emphasized different interpretations. They are not necessarily contradictory, nor are they beyond each other’s understanding. The culture influences how people see Jesus, which in turn influences the culture. One of Pelikan’s chapters is “The Rabbi.” I have certainly read and heard people expound on this idea. “The Turning Point of History,” is another way the church once looked at Jesus, and I have heard that too. “The Teacher of Common Sense” is more 18thC rationalist. It is no longer so much taught, but it has several descendants in the present era. Golden Rule Christians, for example. Health and Wealth gospel is looked at as magical, but its social interaction equivalent is looked on as just Common Sense. If we spread peace and treat others with kindness, it will win them to Christ, and in foreign policy, we won’t have wars. Yes, I am being a bit unfair. But it goes back at least as far as JB Phillip’s Your God Is Too Small, and its “Jesus Meek and Mild.” This Jesus seems to have taken over whole sectors of the church. Perhaps to counter other Jesuses.
My friends who have read Pelikan, or who have even heard of him other than from me, should thus be most alert to the possibility that the cultural and political events from their 16th to 20th birthdays, and the views and values of their secular peer group, may have an inordinate influence on their view of Jesus. Because they know that such things happen. Because they know that this is human nature, and where our theology will naturally fall unless we take active steps to counteract that.
Jesus speaking to the woman at the well (and there’s a 60’s folk song about that!) is a trifecta of marginalization: Samaritan, woman, and sexual sin, so it is of course prominent, because Jesus was especially focused on the marginalized is a modern doctrine. Favorite Jesus. The parable of the sheep and the goats is big, because people are quite sure it includes advocating for government programs. There are a few other faves. And they are true, certainly. We can’t have a gospel that leaves them out. But they fit so nicely with what people want to be true for other reasons that they should be suspicious. When we come to secretly believe that Jesus came so that Greeks, Romans, and Jews could get along we should be more than suspicious.
We could make a counter-list of Jesus driving out the moneylenders, or giving permission to carry a sword, and telling stories of people in torment and leaving the dead to bury the dead. But that would just be the same problem in a mirror, seeking justifications for some other favorite Jesus.