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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Does Christmas Obscure Jesus?

Does Christmas Obscure Jesus?

By Rev. Howard Bess
December 12, 2013

The emergence of Jesus as a Jewish prophet of note was
something that no contemporary would have predicted.

After all, he lived in a world where leaders were determined
by the prominence of their birth or by their effective use of

Jesus possessed neither. He came from humble origins and
taught nonviolence.

Jesus gained a following among the poor as a reputational rabbi,
meaning that he lacked a formal education and religious training.

He also lived in the small town of Nazareth, nearly 100 miles
north of Jerusalem, the area’s primary seat of religious and
political power.

The earliest written record of the life of Jesus was the gospel
written by an unknown author called Mark, who says nothing
about a miraculous birth or about royal lineage.

The fiction of his miraculous birth to a woman with royal ties
was fabricated decades later.

Instead, Jesus represented a very small tradition within Judaism
that arose occasionally from the ranks of the poor to critique
and challenge the dominant religious, political, social and
economic powers which dominated the society and offered little
to the people.

Jesus gained his reputational status as a rabbi by telling stories
and presenting aphorisms that stirred the minds of his audiences
and incited their understanding.

Completely committed to living the Israelite Torah (law and will
of God) on earth, Jesus was devout in his faith and radical in his
application of Torah to everyday life.

According to Mark’s account, Jesus began his public ministry
with a great announcement:

“The time has come. The reign of God has arrived.”

For Jesus to make this pronouncement in remote Galilee added
to the seeming absurdity of what he was setting out to do.

Not only did Jesus live and teach in a rural area far from the
centers of power, there is no record in any of the four
gospels that he ever entered the two major cities in his
vicinity, Tiberius and Sepphoris.

His heart, mind and soul were with the rural poor trapped in
cycles of ignorance and desperate need.

Despite his lack of formal education and his distance from urban
sophistication, Jesus was an astute observer of the religious,
economic, political and social hierarchies that raped the land and
terrorized the common people of his area.

A careful reading of his stories and his aphorisms reveal how
radical he was.

At the time, few alternatives were available to people seeking

Roman rulers and their retainers held all the power and wiped
out protesters without hesitancy.

Yet, collaboration with the political and economic elites was
viewed as treason amid the misery of the common people in

Any cooperation with the oppressors could set brother against
brother and kinsman against kinsman.

As a rabbi of the poor, Jesus made people aware of the injustice
inflicted by the rich and powerful, but he also sought to teach
them a new way to set the wrong right.

He taught them that the reign of God was more than a hope
for the future but a way to achieve justice in the here-and-
now through actions taken by faithful believers.

Mark’s gospel lays out Jesus’s path for establishing the reign
of God on earth (and Matthew and Luke repeat the message).

Fundamentally, Jesus redefined the meaning of what it was to
be great, declaring that greatness did not belong to the rich and

“If anyone wants to be great, let him be the servant of all,”
Jesus said.

It was a restatement of the great command to love your neighbor.

When Jesus first laid out his simple plan to establish the reign of
God on earth, he spoke to poor, disenfranchised, frustrated, angry
and powerless rural peasants.

He challenged them to bring Israelite society into line with the
noblest ideals of Torah by creating a society based on service
to others.

Yet, even two millennia later, the greatest disagreement among
followers of Jesus remains his vision of this path to greatness
through service to others.

Today’s worldly, like the royalty and rich of Jesus’s time, still
assert that greatness comes from wealth and power.

But the servant message still echoes through the halls of history.

I am hopeful for the future because many people grasp Jesus’s
message, that the reign of God can be a reality on earth.

In recent years, there has been a rise in “emergent” Christian
churches, marked by an interest in the historical Jesus and the
practice of what he taught.

I am hopeful also because a kindred spirit has appeared at the
Vatican with the election of Pope Francis, who has invoked the
spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, who has criticized income
inequality, and who has made establishing the service model a

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who
lives in Palmer, Alaska.

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