The Jesus of Scripture is not the safe Jesus we may seek.
I was in the library the other day and stumbled across a book titled What Would Jesus Drive? My imagination was immediately captivated by the idea of Jesus and his disciples road tripping down the dusty back roads of Galilee. I was also curious how in the world the author could get an entire book from such a narrow topic, so I opened it up.
It turns out each chapter placed Jesus in a different, contemporary ethical situation. “What would Jesus eat?” “What would Jesus wear?” “What would Jesus watch?” “How would Jesus protest?”
I confess I have mixed feelings about a book like this. On the one hand, it is absolutely critical for followers of Jesus not to live their lives as functional atheists with Jesus as a mere afterthought. The reality is our discipleship should affect what we watch on TV, where we spend our money, how we dress, and maybe even what we choose to drive.
In other words, none of us follows Jesus in the abstract. We follow Jesus in the practical and often very complex decisions we make every day. This, I think, is what James was getting at in his short letter when he exhorted us to accompany our faith with deeds.
But on the other hand, our tendency in answering questions like these is to recast Jesus in our own image. The truth is, Jesus never had to choose what to drive or what he would watch at the movie theater. He never voted in a presidential election. He never weighed the moral implications of eating at McDonald’s. On hundreds of other issues like these, Scripture and Jesus have no explicit teaching.
Now, that does not mean we shouldn’t reflect on these issues from a biblically shaped worldview. We absolutely must. But there is also a danger. In the absence of direct teaching, we can tend to go to Jesus for affirmation rather than instruction, for permission and not rebuke.
I got the sense from reading the first chapter of the book that the author had consulted his own garage before writing it. (I can’t prove this, but it would be remarkable if the author concluded Jesus wouldn’t have driven a “gas-guzzling SUV” while one was parked in his own garage.)
I don’t want to pick on the author, though. We all like to imagine that if Jesus were around today, he probably would look, act, and talk a lot like the person in the mirror. Jesus probably would vote like me, eat like me, dress like me, and parent like me.
You get the idea. Jesus doesn’t speak for himself. He speaks with our own voice. We turn our Lord into a helicopter parent—approving of our behavior while offering us safety from any consequences or judgment.
This Jesus is safe, but not really scriptural. The living Jesus of Scripture was not in the business of making people feel comfortable. In reality, the best word to summarize the ethics of Jesus’ kingdom is surprise! Jesus rarely told people exactly what they were expecting to hear.
For example, to the sinner he said, “Go and sin no more.” To the righteous he said, “You are like white-washed tombs.” To those who would follow him he said, “You must hate your own father and mother.” He told the rich to sell everything and follow him, but he also said to those who are weary and burdened, “Come to me and I will give you rest.”
Jesus meets our needs by breaking our expectations. There’s no better example than the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). The distinct note of surprise resonates throughout the entire sermon.
Jesus begins with a series of blessings. The poor in spirit will receive the kingdom of Heaven. The meek will inherit the earth. Those who mourn, those who show mercy, those who are persecuted and insulted, the peacemakers and pure in heart—all blessed!
Many of us have become so familiar with this list of blessings (5:3-11) that their countercultural impact has been lost on us. Are the meek, the mourners, the poor, and the persecuted really blessed? That is not the way the world as we know it seems to work. But this is exactly how the kingdom of Heaven works.
A few verses later, Jesus surprises yet again. He moves from blessing to warning when he says that only those whose righteousness surpasses that of the religious leaders will enter the kingdom of Heaven (5:20). This isn’t the modern Jesus who winks and shrugs at the appearance of sin. This is a Jesus who takes righteousness seriously; much more seriously, it would seem, than those who were concerned only about keeping up proper appearances.
In fact, it is typical of Jesus’ surprising ethic to go beyond mere behavior to address the deeper motivations of the heart. This is seen throughout the Sermon on the Mount.
You shouldn’t expect to be sainted for managing to live your entire life without murdering anyone. The deeper issue is whether you harbor anger and hatred toward others in your heart. Do you allow that anger to spill over into violent and demeaning words (Matthew 5:21, 22)?
In the same way, he says it’s not enough simply to avoid adultery if you are indulging in unchecked lust in your heart. Better to gouge out your eye or cut off your hand if they are causing you to stumble rather than to have your whole body sent to Hell (5:27-30).
At this point, we get a little defensive. Rest assured, Jesus was just being figurative here . . . a little hyperbole. No one really needs to gouge out his own eyes! Jesus wasn’t really serious. Right?
But hold on. We often use figurative speech because it’s the only way to accurately communicate exactly how serious we are. When I’m tucking my daughter into bed I’ll occasionally whisper in her ear that I love her all the way to the moon and back. This causes her to break out in a big smile. She is smart enough to know this isn’t literally true, but she also knows how serious I am. She knows her dad’s love for her is ridiculous.
Don’t soften the blow of Jesus’ words because he uses figurative language. Instead, we should allow this teaching to make us squirm. We should marvel at the seriousness of our hidden sin. We should be mindful and even fearful of the consequences of ignoring it. In other words, what if we actually took Jesus seriously?
What if we took Jesus seriously when he said that, instead of resisting an evil person and exchanging “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” we should “turn to them the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39)? These are among the most famous words from the Sermon on the Mount and also among the most countercultural. A “turn the other cheek” ethic is certainly surprising in a culture where a movie called The Avengers raked in $1.5 billion.
Jesus was commenting on Deuteronomy 19. In that passage, Israel is told to purge the evil from its midst. The Israelites are told to “show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (v. 21). Sin is a serious business that demands a serious response.
But notice Jesus’ unique interpretation of that Old Testament passage. In regards to our own sin—whether anger or lust—he says we are to show ourselves no pity in dramatically removing that sin. Remove an eye. Cut off a hand. But in regard, to others we are to show an uncommon grace.
He takes it further in Matthew 5:43-48: Don’t just love those who love you. Don’t just love those who make it convenient to love. Extend your love to those who are unlovable—your enemies and your persecutors. Jesus even tells us to pray for them because he knows it is impossible to keep those for whom we have committed to pray as enemies for long.
By the time Jesus’ sermon was over, the crowds were amazed (Matthew 7:28, 29). They were shocked. They were beside themselves at what they had heard. When was the last time you heard Jesus in this way? When was the last time we were genuinely surprised by Jesus to the point of conviction and repentance?
Simple, Not Comfortable
Here’s the point. Jesus does a lot for his follower, but making them comfortable is not one of them. He will often tell us what we need to hear even if it isn’t necessarily what we want to hear. Jesus does not conform to our image. We are conformed to his. We must be humble enough to really listen to Jesus—to be surprised and amazed at what we hear. And those who are surprised by Jesus will also be able to surprise the world.
Maybe we’ve been guilty of distraction. We live in distracting and confusing times. It seems there is always some new issue that demands we take a stand and make an argument. In this world, Christians are sometimes known more for arguing than discipleship. But maybe the surprising ethic of Jesus is actually very simple.
Nearly every morning, as I drop my kids off at school, I ask them the same two questions: first, “What is the number one, most important thing?”
My kids kind of roll their eyes because they have heard it so many times. “Love God with all that we are.”
“And what is the second most important thing?”
“Love all people as yourself.”
Jesus may not tell you what kind of car to drive, but he has already told you what is best and most important. We are the ones who have muddled it up. My prayer for my kids is that, more than anything they learn at school that day, they would be living examples of Jesus’ radical and surprising love. I have that same prayer for myself.
In a world full of animosity, callousness, and selfish ambition, it is this type of love that is truly surprising.
Chad Ragsdale serves as assistant academic dean at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.