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An article donated by Dipak Dholakia

"My Own Jesus"

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My own Jesus, based on the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John

Christianity was born among the vanquished and then adopted by the victor. This is an unusual phenomenon since cultures of the victor, as the history records, have been known to prevail over the cultures of the subject people but the Christianity sprang a surprise on the history as well as the Romans who were rulers of Israel. Jesus, therefore, has a special place in human history.

Israel was an agrarian economy in Jesus' times. Rain and vegetation played a very important role in people's lives. The Feasts of an agrarian lifestyle marked their sacred days too. There was a vast difference between the economy of the city and that of the country. Livestock was more expensive in the city than in the country. Fruits were 3 to 6 times more expensive in Jerusalem than in the country. Along side the prosperity, beggars were never lacking in Jerusalem, in particular at the outer gates of the Temple. The common professions of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were bakers, butchers, shoemakers, moneychangers, farmers, perfumers and artisans who sold souvenirs to pilgrims.

Certain professions were looked down upon with contempt: the donkey driver, the camel driver, the sailor, the fisherman, the coachman, the shepherd, the shopkeeper, the doctor and the butcher and the tax collector. No father wanted to teach these trades to his son. The inclusion of doctors on this list might catch one by surprise. The doctors found a place in this 'hated' list because they gave preferential treatment to the rich and neglected the poor.

The high priests, the aristocrats and the administrators were, very rich, but there were also people who were very poor. The obvious economic tension in Jesus' preaching may reflect his experience either in Jerusalem or in Galilee.

In the prevailing social structure in his time, Jesus picks up his followers from lower classes. Joseph, his father was a carpenter, making their family a part of the middle class. Perhaps he knew that he had to launch a struggle that upholds the rights of the poor, but he also knew:

"Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand" (Matthew 12.25).

History records that the Jewish society in the times of Jesus was badly divided. The antagonists in New Testament are Sadducees and Pharisees.

Sadducees represent the aristocratic clan of the high priests of the Hasmonean period. They were wealthy and powerful. Some 600 years before Christ, Babylonian rulers from Syria overpowered Israel. The high priests of Babylonian times had allowed the Syrian Emperor to desecrate the Temple of Jerusalem. Sacrifices were offered to idols and monotheistic Jews were being killed.

In 537 BC the Persians conquered Babylon and under Cyrus the Great began the Persian period of Jewish history. Though, he allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple, he did not, however, allow the restoration of the monarchy, which left the priests as the dominant authority and the Temple became all-powerful in social life. Around this time, the Sadducees emerged as the party of priests and allied elites.

The Pharisees were a social movement among Jews that flourished during the Persian period, since they could not digest the idea that their temple was constructed under the auspices of Persian power. The Pharisees comprised of scribes and sages - a new group that was emerging fast on the horizon of power. They were opposed to the Sadducees whose permissive behaviour was their target. The word 'Pharisee' means 'separated', i.e. one who is separated for a life of purity. They were different from the pre-eminent group of the society. However, they had framed numerous laws to maintain the purity of day-to-day life and lower classes looked down upon them with disdain thanks to their obsession with purity and ritualism. Their zeal for laws was in sharp contrast with Jesus' emphasis on love. Jesus did not accept their ritualism and abhorred their strict laws. He advises:

So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' ... But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6.31, 33-34).

Around 332 BC Greeks ousted Persians when Alexander the Great conquered Persia. Upon his death in 323 BC his generals divided his kingdom and established their own rule. Sadducees now favored the Greek.

History now takes a turn and the Romans take over the reins of Israel. The Pharisees, who stoutly opposed the Persian as well as Greek regimes, supported Roman General Pompey who had defiled the Temple. They regarded this act as a divine punishment for Sadducee misrule. The Pharisees were now dominating the scene; however, the Sadducees too remained equally strong.

From the very beginning, the Roman State had abandoned the practice of collecting the taxes itself. Instead, it auctioned the rights to contractors who came to be known as tax collectors. The highest bidder received the authorization to extort the sum from the province in question. Such a system afforded many opportunities for exploitation of the poor on the part of the company and its officials, and the abuses were often intolerable. The tax collectors, therefore, became the symbol of the exploitative power of the Roman Empire = the 'sinners' .

Jesus, however, did not consider them sinners. He freely mixed with them.
Even a cursory reading of Bible leaves no doubt about the real personality of Jesus. Known as an apostle of peace, Jesus himself says something else:

"Do not suppose that I have come
to bring peace to the earth.
I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to turn A man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law -
a man's enemies will be
the members of his own household." (Matthew 10.34.36).

Why he says so is a matter of conjecture as the Bible does not paraphrase his statement. A religious preacher talking about setting the kinsfolk against each other is unheard of. If this were his mission, it, certainly, cannot be termed as praiseworthy one. While setting the strictest standards for accepting anyone as his disciple he gives an indication of future too:

"Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14.26).
"In the same way none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up everything he has." (Luke 14.33).

Why did Jesus anticipate such a violent death? What was his ministry? Did Jesus know what to expect as an outcome of his actions?

One thing, death by crucifixion was a more common punishment in Israel in Jesus' time. The important thing, however, is, he expected such a punishment. What for? This places him in a category of people who are not exactly the preachers. The way Jesus goes about his mission clearly establishes his bias for a change. The society in his time, divided from within, was under hegemony of Romans; rulers such as Herod, the king of Galilee, were essentially subservient to the Romans.

John the Baptist, the forerunner and the contemporary of Jesus, was among those who acutely felt the need of something out of the ordinary since in his view the prevailing situation demanded stronger response. Fearless and outspoken, he openly talked about a more vigorous struggle. He said:

"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3.11-12).

Was John the Baptist making a prediction like a religious preacher or beating the inspirational drum of war? Anyway, it reflects his anger and desire to see someone more powerful who can burn the 'chaff' .

Relations between John the Baptist and Jesus can be understood from the following statement taken from the New Testament:

"When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum" (Matthew 4.12-13).

This clearly establishes the connection between the views or activities of John the Baptist and Jesus. At least, Jesus himself understood that he too could be the target of Herod's anger. Nazareth, his birthplace, was a village, which he left to settle in a much bigger town, Capernaum. It would provide him more opportunities for meeting people. Perhaps he felt called upon to carry on what was left unfinished by John the Baptist. New Testament, of course, does not throw light on such a possibility.

However, it is certain that Jesus very well knew and understood John the Baptist who too, in turn, was eager to establish links with the former. According to the New Testament:

"When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?' Jesus replied, 'Go back and report to John what you hear and see'..." (Matthew 11.2-4).

This is not an attempt by Jesus to impress the followers of John the Baptist. Gospel of Matthew reflects the eloquence of Jesus who highly valued John the Baptist:

"As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet...I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it." (Matthew 11. 7-9, 11-12).

His lament is also remarkable:

"To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.'

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners." 'But wisdom is proved right by her actions." (Matthew 11. 16-19).

We can see not only their common goals but also the difference in their ways of approaching those goals. While, John followed a conventional method of fasting and abstention from drinking, Jesus, known to be a friend of tax collectors and 'sinners', did not care for such Puritanism. Despite this, both regarded each other with the highest esteem.

The gruesome death of John the Baptist tells the full story of Herod and his permissive and arrogant attitude. As the Bible says:

"On Herod's birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist." The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother" (Matthew 14.6.11).

It may be recalled that Herod had married his brother Philip's wife, Herodias and John the Baptist had criticized him for the act in no uncertain terms. Herodias did not like his comments and ensured that John was punished for, in her view, his intransigence. In 63 B.C., Judea had fallen into the hands of Romans who were the last in the series of conquerors - Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and the Jews themselves. Herod, who hailed from the neighboring province of Idumea (which included part of today's West Bank), won and maintained his position as the Roman empire's proxy King of the Jews by aligning successively with Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Emperor Augustus. Herod had killed thousands of Jerusalemites in the streets while taking power.

After the killing of John the Baptist, something unusual happens According to Matthew:

"John's disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick." (Matthew 14.12-14).

Interestingly, the Gospel according to Mark (6.30-31) is somewhat closer to Matthew but Luke does not link these two events (9.7-11). There is no mention of John the Baptist's assassination in the Gospel by John.

If we stick to Matthew, it is clear that the news of John the Baptist's assassination had demonstrably jolted Jesus. It is also noteworthy that the crowds followed him to the solitary place. Here, all the stories - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - converge and turn everything into a mere miracle performed by Jesus. We learn that Jesus took pity on the crowd of 5000 odd people and fed them, though, he had only five loaves of bread and two fish! Obviously, there is nothing in common between Jesus' reaction and his miracle. Crowds, for sure, could not have followed Jesus immediately after such a grave incident just to have meals! People who knew, must have been greatly perturbed at the news of the death of one whom they considered a prophet and they must have gone to Jesus to seek solace - And Jesus 'healed their sick'. He may have consoled them and spoken some words to boost their morale, not recorded in the Gospel. After all, John the Baptist was an acclaimed prophet and even Herod had found it difficult to order his killing. In the circumstances, you cannot help but feeling that something is missing from the text.

Did Jesus come to spread his religion out of nothing? Alternatively, is religion not a product of its time? Let us have a look at the New Testament to find out how Jesus chose his disciples:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James
son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4.18-22).

Now he picks up Matthew (Levi) as his disciple. The New Testament says:

"As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. 'Follow me,' he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him'.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"
On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: "'I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. "(Matthew 9.9-13).

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Though we do not know how he gathered all the twelve disciples, the New Testament introduces them to us:

"First, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him." (Matthew 10.2-4)

Significantly, they are fishermen or tax collectors, the lowly class in the Israeli society. The noteworthy thing is, they left their jobs on hand without wasting time and followed Jesus. That he favoured the poor is beyond doubt. It was, however, not easy to follow him. In fact, Jesus imposes stringent conditions for those who want to follow him as evident from what Matthew says:

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go."

Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."
Another disciple said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
But Jesus told him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." (Matthew 18-22).

"I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did." (Matthew 21.32-33)

His sympathies were clearly with the poor and those looked down upon by the highbrows of the society. Here is a sample from the New Testament that shows the debating skill of Jesus:

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures:
" The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone*
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes
[*Capstone = Cornerstone]

"Therefore, I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed."

"When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet." (Matthew 21. 42-46)

His faith in the strength of the poor ('the stone' in the parable) and the power of the dispossessed would rival that of any modern socialist thinker. However, his wit and wisdom, his diplomatic skill in handling the awkward situations - the traps - shows that he was not willing to risk the conflict at what he thought as an inopportune time. Here is an example:

"Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. 'Teacher,' they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?'
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, 'You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.' They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, 'Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?'

'Caesar's,' they replied.

Then he said to them, 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.'
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away." (Matthew.21. 15-22)

Jesus was not yet ready to pick up fight with the Romans! His main target, however, were the Jewish supporters of the Romans. Of course, he knew that he had to challenge the might of the Romans - the exploiter empire. He knew that the people of Israel suffered the subjugation for over five centuries. They earnestly desired a change; and yearned for a savior. The last of the prophet, John the Baptist did not claim to be the one, instead, he thought that somebody more radical than he, had to take over and Jesus, confidently, accepted the role.

His concept of 'Kingdom of God' is actually an anti-thesis of the conditions prevailing then - the political, social and economic. Sermon on the mount, in the light of this situation, is significant:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5.3-5, 9-10).

This song of hope must have been taken as a clarion call by his audience mostly comprising of lower classes to rise against the existing order. He had to come as a prophet or a religious preacher because the religion was an all-powerful instrument of exploitation in his time. His emphasis on the uplift of the poor is significant at a time when the sociological concepts were still in the womb of the future. The optimism he assuredly presents before them is in the garb of so- called miracles he performed. Reading between the lines, the miracles too show his determination and firm belief that one can achieve anything if one has faith in his cause. Let us take an example:

"One day Jesus said to his disciples, 'Let's go over to the other side of the lake.' So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.

The disciples went and woke him, saying, 'Master, Master, we're going to drown!'

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 'Where is your faith?' he asked his disciples.

In fear and amazement they asked one another, 'Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him'." (Luke 8.22-25)

The question "where is your faith?" is very important. He believed in nothing but the self-confidence.

He has a talisman to offer:

" 'Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.'

'Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets'." (Matthew 7.7-12).

The talisman of hope not only emboldens the poor but also contains a challenge to the Pharisee Puritanism when he sets up his message as "the Law and Prophets". Co-operative behavior, and nothing else, was his mantra.

Pharisee Puritanism had made the religion difficult for common people. The ritualism and 'Dos and Don'ts' practiced by Pharisees were too intricate for the common folk to follow. This also gave the Chief Priest, and Pharisees supporting him, a special status in the eyes of the rulers. How to eat, wear and walk - everything was decided by a specific set of rules, impossible for the lower classes to abide by. This made them sinners and the outcastes. Jesus courageously broke these rules and brought the lower classes on the forefront challenging the religious authority. His 'Love thy neighbour' message too brings the Religion into the societal fold and out of narrow confines of rituals. You cannot claim to be religious if you cannot love your neighbour i.e. a fellow human being. Jesus had the Religion descend from the high pedestal and serve the masses.

Jesus is willing to take cudgels on behalf of the lower classes:

"When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised.

Then the Lord said to him, 'Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.'

'Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it.'

One of the experts in the law answered him, 'Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.'

Jesus replied, 'And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. '

'Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering'." (Luke 11. 37-46, 52).

Jesus, however, knew what was going to happen to him. At the end of the short period of just three years or so:

"While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived.

With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people.

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: 'The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.'

Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, 'Greetings, Rabbi!' and kissed him.

Jesus replied, 'Friend, do what you came for.'

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.

With that, one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

'Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him, 'for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." (Matthew 26.47-52)
Unperturbed, or perhaps awaiting the inevitable, Jesus is at his non-violent best in the foregone part of the New Testament. His willingness to embrace death, unwillingness to bend before the mighty earned him the martyrdom. His dream of 'Kingdom of Heaven' was spiritual as well as mundane too. He wanted a different kind of governance that cared for the poor. Roman imperialists were obviously did not fit into that role.

The Roman Empire too faced economic hardship. Emperors came from the army and did not know anything about economics. Taxation was so heavy that people used to hoard money. Money at home was thought to be more preferable to money in market. Emperors devalued their currency in order to pay soldiers who had become a big burden now that the empire was not expanding and had to fight wars only in self- defence, which did not bring any reciprocal benefit to the Empire.

Prices skyrocketed. The middle class went bankrupt. More people had become beggars. In the countryside desperate peasants did revolt, but their uprisings were not coordinated and not widespread enough to challenge the empire militarily. In various parts of the empire, bands of desperate people wandered the countryside, surviving by theft. Disorders sometimes cut off trade routes. By 250, Rome's trade with China and India had ended. Agricultural lands in the empire were going unused. With the declining economy, people moved from cities and towns to rural areas in search of food.

People had lost faith in the governments, and turned to religion that promised them well-being. In such acritical period, the simple message of hope that Christianity delivered was virtually grabbed by the people living at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Christianity benefited from worship of someone with a human face. They could see their own suffering in the suffering of Jesus. Some people were attracted by Jesus' belief in justice and his love for all people, and they were attracted by the promise of a new world. All were welcome to join the Christians, and Christianity appealed to some among the upper classes too, especially, the upper class women.

The early converts to Christianity faced many difficulties. The first converts were usually the poor and slaves as they had a great deal to gain from the Christians being successful. If they were caught, they faced death for failing to worship the emperor. It was common for emperors to turn the people against the Christians when Rome was faced with difficulties. In AD 64, part of Rome was burned down. The Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and the people turned on them. Arrests and executions followed. The dangers faced by the Christians in Rome meant that they had to meet in secret. They usually used underground tombs as these were literally out of sight. This continued for some four centuries but Rome had a large number of poor people within its population and Christianity continued to grow. At last, it was realized that fighting Christianity amounted to fighting against their own people. In AD 313, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal and for the first time, they were allowed to openly worship. Churches were quickly built not just in Rome but throughout the empire. In AD 391, the worship of other gods was made illegal and the new religion prevailed.

At last, the vanquished had won but the acceptance by the higher classes of Romans did affect Christianity in its own way. Its language changed. The religion of poor was now the religion of the rich but that is a different story. It does not diminish the importance of what Jesus did for humanity.

He was perhaps the first known rebel who assumed the historical role that was waiting for him ever since the stories of the Old Testament were taking shape. His people craved for a deliverer; he came and said he was! His self-confidence inspired generations that followed him and 'defeated' Rome, the Imperialists of his time.

The Kingdom of Heaven has not yet descended. Imperialism is still kicking. Poverty is still with us. The world's religions have become subservient of wealth. And, yet, the message of Jesus remains alive for us.

Did Jesus fail in his mission? Or, shall we ask, is there any great leader of men, in the pages of history, except perhaps the Prophet of Islam, who succeeded in his mission?

Let me stand up to the exploitation. Let me speak out against injustice. Let me stand by the poor. Let me have my own Jesus.

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Original posting: 2008-AUG-30
Latest update: 2008-AUG-30
Author:  Dipak Dholakia

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