What was Jesus Like?
What was Jesus Like?
What was Jesus like? It’s a common question that can be both easy and difficult to answer. Easy because we can look at scripture and discover a wide range of encounters with Jesus. Each of these provides us with a sense of what Jesus believed. Difficult because despite the depth of instances in scripture there are some elements about Jesus which are simply not explained.
Scripture: Luke 14: 1, 7-14
A common question about the Christian faith is, what was Jesus like? I can recall in my Introduction to New Testament course one student was very interested in knowing more about the historical Jesus. That is, what information might exist about Jesus which is not found in scripture. Archeological and anthropological evidence that might exist to demonstrate that Jesus did live and perhaps provide a sense of who he was beyond the gospel narratives.
It is an interesting question, not one that I am an expert in by any matter. In fact, my fear is that questions like this might only seek to disappoint us in our quest for discovery. However, over time Christians have sought to identify what Jesus was like. Often in process the phenomenon of cultural appropriation happens. Which means the culture or group that is seeking to identify with Jesus characterizes Jesus like themselves.
Perhaps the most well-known version of this in North Atlantic society is what I like to call ‘Blond hair, blue-eyed Jesus’. You’ve probably seen this picture in different church parlours that you’ve visited. Growing up my church had one such picture and as a child I believed that this is what Jesus looked like. After all, it was hanging in a church which is supposed to know all about Jesus.
While on a cultural exchange in Cuba I visited a variety of different churches. What struck me were the depictions of the holy family, the skin was very dark, almost black. It was jarring because this is not the image I was used to seeing. I was used to blonde hair blue-eyed Jesus.
The reality of what Jesus looked like is probably somewhere between these two. Jesus was born in the Middle East and so if we look to a native of Palestine or Israel today we might get a sense of the skin and hair colour, along with facial features that Jesus may have had.
As for what Jesus was like, I believe we need to stay with scripture to get the best answer. Scripture provides us with examples of what Jesus did and said. His actions and words are compiled in the gospel to provide a witness and example for us. Though we often have to grapple with context and issues of interpretation we have gained a sense of who Jesus was, beyond being the Son of God.
The reason I bring up this question of what was Jesus like, is because I want to know why he kept getting invited to parties. In our passage from Luke this morning Jesus is invited to a dinner party hosted by a prominent Pharisee.
Jesus was an itinerant preacher, he has up to this point in this ministry career travelled the countryside teaching. What we know about him and his ministry is that he relies on the hospitality of others for food and lodging. We know that Jesus and the disciples had a shared purse for expenses which was managed by Judas. So why did Jesus keep getting invited to all these dinner parties?
There are some scholars who think that Jesus may have been a Pharisee (reference) and that is why he was invited to so many of these social gatherings, because he was part of that social circle. Jesus just held a different opinion than many who we see represented in scripture. Often, we see the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees as two opposing sides, but Jesus may simply have held a minority point of view amongst the Pharisees. His interpretation of the law was clearly different than the current understanding. We see this playing out in scripture all the time.
Scott Hoezee, from the Center for Excellence in Preaching suggests that Jesus was invited so that the Pharisee’s could keep an eye on him. The old adage ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’. This would allow them to catch Jesus when he messed up or to simply keep track of all of his infringements in the law. Certainly, our passage today indicates that many eyes were watching Jesus. It’s a bit of a darker theme that is suggested here and, in his reference, Hoezee links this to a scene from the movie the Godfather. Not inaccurate when you think about the eventual death of Jesus.
Hoezee also draws a reference from Philip Yancey and his book “The Jesus I Never Knew.” Yancey asserts something that I am certain must have been true. Yancey noted that in too many of the movies that have been made about Jesus, the actor who portrays the carpenter’s son from Nazareth often comes across very flat. Most of his words are delivered in a kind of monotone and his demeanor is placid to the point of being dull. But based on the gospels, Yancey says that Jesus must have been a whole lot happier-looking and more outwardly joyful than that. People really liked being around Jesus. He was such a popular dinner guest that when his enemies wanted to say something bad about him, they accused him of being a glutton and a wine-bibber.
People were attracted to Jesus because he exuded joy. However, as Luke 14 reveals, Jesus was not above being the kind of dinner guest you hope you never get! Have you ever been at a dinner party where something happens that makes you want to crawl under the table (if not simply flee into the night)? Maybe there was a political discussion around the dinner table that got just a little too heated. Maybe one of the guests inadvertently prattled on and on in highly critical tones about what a wretched person Mary Jones is, only to find out too late that Mary Jones is the host’s sister-in-law. Whatever the cause, sometimes it happens that a good meal is spoiled when some of the guests get angry, blush in deep purple embarrassment, or well up with tears at some hurtful remark.
At the dinner party in Luke 14, Jesus made any number of remarks that may have made at least a few guests want to crawl under the table! Jesus wasn’t being rude, however, just poignant. (Scott Hoezee, CEP)
The question of privilege also needs to be addressed within this passage. Was Jesus aware of his privilege? Professor Mitzi Smith notes, “Obviously, Jesus is not viewed in the same light as the poor and marginalized people he mentions; he is one of the guests. This is likely because despite Jesus’ material poverty, his authoritative teaching and powerful healing resulted in notoriety among the crowds and a number of dinner invitations; he had authority and privilege others lacked. I like to think that Jesus was conscious of his own privilege (not just the privilege of the Pharisaic leader and his other guests).”
The primary teaching that Jesus leaves us with in this passage is about hospitality. The message is aimed at wealthy people who enjoy immense privilege due to their wealth and social status. Smith continues, “Wealth and position are a blessing when shared and used for the betterment of all people. We often confuse privileges with blessings. Many people born in developed countries are born into privilege relative to others born in developing regions ravaged by (neo)colonization, famine, and war. When we name privilege as God’s blessing, we tend to spiritualize God’s blessing for the less privileged/fortunate; for the privileged it is material, but for the underprivileged it is spiritual. Wealth, birthplace, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, access, health, and so on can be mistaken for Divine blessings when they are the result of privilege. God calls us to turn our privilege into blessings.” (Working Preacher)
What was Jesus like? I would like to agree with Yancey, that Jesus was a joy to be around. Being in his presence brought a sense of peace, life was lived, laughter was experience. But it could also be pointed, because that peace, life and laughter needed to include all people. Not just those who thought that they should be afforded the most prominent seat at the table.
What we do know is that this is the last dinner that Jesus attends at the invitation of Pharisee’s. Luke may not tell us how the dinner party ends, but I think we can gather an inference. The next time Jesus attends a dinner party it is as the guest of tax collectors and sinners and that should tell us something too. Even a simple dinner party teaches us a great deal about the priorities of God’s kingdom. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.