Anyone who has given Jesus more than a moment’s thought has a personal version of Jesus in her or his mind.
To some, he’s a literal king, to some an ideology (socialist, Marxist, fascist, you name it), to some an avenger who came as a lamb the first time but will return as an angry lion the next. He may be a friend, and some tame him to “my buddy,” the offspring of “the man upstairs.” At the other extreme, he is in his glorified state beyond description, beyond language—one before whom a person can only be filled with awe and silence (a safer extreme). In my early faith, he was a supernatural counter-culture rebel who would both give meaning to my life and remove meaning from the establishment, including the versions of him that churches had fixed beneath their stained glass and steeples.
The sneakiest version is the one assumed by the fundamentalist to be perfectly accurate and adequate. By fundamentalist, I refer to a person who equates literalism with truth and thinks he or she has an unmediated, direct knowledge of the real Jesus, a version infallible and unquestionable. Once one is sure one is right, there’s no need to look further. It’s hard to discuss matters with this person. For years I had a hard time discussing matters with myself.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with constructing a version of Jesus in our minds. It is unavoidable, being the way the human mind works. We are always and only constructing a knowledge of others from a mixture of facts, fallacies, reasoning, feelings, experiences, and imagery. Because the process is both universal and fallible, most good novels depict a main character as being disabused of assumptions about one’s world and its population. If it is hard to admit we are wrong about others, it’s often harder to admit we are wrong about ourselves. As a friend of mine quotes Lord Jim: “it is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge.”
Misconstructions of others and ourselves can be comical, irritating, inconvenient, or fatal (think of Othello). Misconstruction of Jesus, or, rather, stubborn adherence to our misconstruction, may be disastrous.
How disastrous? The Sermon on the Mount provides an extreme example. It is extreme because the image of Jesus is held by someone who seems to know better, someone whose experience comes replete with signs and wonders:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
We are not told how the evildoers perceived Jesus. They certainly had whatever it takes to prophesy, drive out demons, and perform miracles. On on hand, these are the will of Jesus’ Father, clearly. So something else went awry.
Perhaps the evildoers were living double lives, doing the right thing by day and then indulging in pride or carnality by night. In that case, they saw Jesus as someone impressed by the supernatural without consideration of character. Perhaps they simply followed supernatural fireworks and were devoid of love (as in St. Paul’s, if I have not love, I am nothing). In that case, they saw Jesus as a divine stuntman, not understanding in the least his Father’s motivation—and his cooperation—behind his coming to earth.
If my life has meant anything down these lines, it has meant year after year of having assumptions and presumptions pressed out of me, reducing me to the person I’ve always been: partial, clumsy, pretentious, and needy. In turn, more than ever, I see Jesus has more capable, wise, enigmatic, and deserving of my attention than ever. Let me add trustworthy, quite in contrast to myself.
He is the head of body (the real church), the first-born from the dead, the visible image of the invisible God, the source of all mercy, truth, and grace, the one who is no person’s fool and yet seems always willing to lower himself to those who find themselves lowly.