A recent book has gained quite a bit of publicity as a result of an uncomfortable interview on the Fox network. Reza Aslan’s book “Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” would not enjoy the popularity it does today if Fox’s Lauren Green had not been so unthinkingly biased in her interview with its author. Who would have guessed that her politics would conflict with his?
The premise of the book is that Jesus was one among many religio-political zealots vying for power during the inter-testamental period. There is ample Scriptural evidence to support this thesis. Today’s Gospel reading is a good example. Jesus said to his disciples, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12:49)
These words of Jesus are very often re-invented by pious believers who cannot reconcile themselves to the thought of Jesus condoning violence or even using violent metaphors. However, the many interpreters who talk about Jesus ‘setting a fire of love alight in the hearts of believers’ are deluded. These words of Jesus mean exactly what they say. Jesus’ inflammatory language (pun intended), spoke to commonly held expectations of the time. It was generally accepted that the messianic age would be preceded by violence and destruction.
The Scripture scholar Joachim Jeremias described this expectation when he said, “Social disruption has always been associated in the oriental mind with the reign of terror which will precede the age of salvation, and it is not surprising that it figures in Jewish apocalyptic as one of the signs of the end.” Jesus would have been aware of these common expectations, and would have used them for his own purposes just as he used other common values and images as means to speak about God’s Kingdom.
While Aslan’s book appears to be based on fact, there are two major weaknesses in his theory. The first is that the idea is not original to him. The re-interpretation of Jesus as a political revolutionary dates to a German philosopher named Hermann Reimarus, who lived in the eighteenth century. He claimed to have uncovered the historical truth about the person Jesus of Nazareth. The truth, according to Reimarus, was that Jesus was a revolutionary who formed a faction to expel the occupying Roman Imperial forces from Judea. When he failed, and was executed as a seditionist, his followers spiritualized his political message in order to avoid sharing his fate.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that both Reimarus and Aslan came from cultures that were attracted by the idea of political revolution. Reimarus lived at a time when Europeans felt burdened by monarchical government; he died just a few years before the colonial revolution in America. Aslan lives at a time when middle easterners are pursuing political change for similar reasons. Reimarus’ and Aslan’s interpretation of Jesus as a religio-political zealot probably has more to do with their own lives and thought than those of Jesus.
The second weakness in Aslan’s theory is that it does not take into account the totality of what the Gospels say about Jesus. Those who are attached to the notion of Jesus as sweet, lovely and kind to everyone cannot reconcile themselves with the violence and contentiousness that was very much a part of Jesus’ ministry and personality. In the same manner, to caricature Jesus as a revolutionary is to ignore his apolitical side and his frequent attention to otherworldly themes. (cf Matt 22:21)
It is an all too common error on the part of believers and non-believers alike to re-interpret Jesus as a foil for their own politics and preferences. When we make ourselves the standard against which the Gospels are judged Jesus becomes a political revolutionary or a magician or an other-worldly visitor or a wise philosopher or a sentimentalist or a suicide or an eccentric rabble rouser. The result of this kind of narrow-mindedness is not only that we fail to see the real Jesus, but in the process, we put ourselves in the place that belongs to the Lord. When Jesus becomes validation for our personal opinions, we have made ourselves into gods.
There is a grave danger in focusing too narrowly on a single aspect of anyone’s personality. Ozzie Guillen, the former manager of the Miami Marlins, invited the scorn of most of Miami’s population when he said he loved Fidel Castro because of his ability to stay in power for so long. If you’re willing to ignore the fact that Castro was a brutal dictator who took away Cuba’s freedoms, tourist trade, industry, farming, economic success and contact with the outside world, he might well look like a successful leader. However, if one takes into account solely the fact that most of the population of Cuba would leave if given the opportunity, Castro appears much less successful.
It’s always a mistake to focus on a single aspect of a person or personality. To focus on a single aspect of the person of Jesus of Nazareth is to lose sight immediately of the real Jesus. The realm of politics changes, sometimes moment to moment. Our personal history, preferences and experiences have a value that is limited to our own lives. The resurrected Jesus, on the other hand, is absolute Savior and universal Lord. Our personal values, desires and opinions are poor measures of the truthfulness of the Gospel message, and often, poorer reflections of that truth.
The only path to salvation is for us to set aside our personal issues, and seek to know the real Jesus, the complicated man who was compassionate to some, insulting to others, a mystery to many, but who knew himself to be God’s Chosen One. We come to know the real Jesus by subjecting our personal views to the teachings of the Scriptures. This requires daily prayer with the Scriptures; most importantly, it requires the willingness to let the Scriptures change our attitudes, judgments, values, politics, opinions, in a word, our lives.
This Sunday’s Gospel portrays the lamentable situation in which some hear the Truth and others reject it; this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:51) Some come to know the real Jesus, and in doing so, enter into God’s Kingdom. Others reject the Truth about salvation, and put themselves outside the reach of redemption. On which side of the divide will you find yourself? The answer to that question is not the result of opinion, desires or claims; rather, salvation is the result of having one’s life changed by God’s Word.