People often describe him as a good man, regardless of belief in his divinity or the resurrection. There is something compelling about him, people were drawn to him 2000 years ago and talk of what he said and did has continued for centuries. His existence as a good moral teacher is widely recognised, in fact in the last week or so, I’ve had two people say he had a good moral code or words to that effect. But did he? Were his stories, actions and behaviour morally acceptable?! Or is there a case for an immoral Jesus!?
It’s probably important at this point to define the word “moral”, so a quick Google exploration reveals the definition as:
standards of behaviour; principles of right and wrong
So Jesus had good standards of behaviour? He held to high principles of proper conduct? Did he? I’m not convinced!
Jesus spoke to women, talked to them as if they were interesting, as if they had value. The thing was that in first century Palestine women were not valued outside of the home, they had their place, at home! Zhava Glaser, an expert in Jewish history writes:
By publicly including women in his ministry, Jesus shattered the prejudicial customs of his day. Why was it unusual for Jesus to speak with women? Nothing in the Mosaic Law prevented men and women from conversing with one another! Yet the society of Jesus’ day, with custom dictated by rabbinic Judaism, differed strikingly from the Old Testament social order…women were not allowed to testify in court. In effect, this categorized them with Gentiles, minors, deaf-mutes and “undesirables” such as gamblers, the insane, usurers, and pigeon-racers, who were also denied that privilege.”
It wasn’t just women that Jesus’ engagement with was questionable; one of his disciples, one of the people closest to him, was a tax collector. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman Empire, the oppressive regime occupying the Jewish land. Tax collectors collaborated with this evil force, they took money from fellow Jews and gave it to the Romans, actions seen as somewhat traitorous. Tax collectors kept money for themselves so were also known to be liars and cheats, untrustworthy individuals, not people to befriend. So to hang out with tax collectors was also questionable behaviour.
I’m reading a fascinating book* about Jewish culture in the time of Jesus, the author describes Jesus’ interactions with tax collectors:
“Imagine, for instance, how it would of felt to follow Jesus through the door of Matthews house, eating with tax collectors, sinners who were considered the stooges of Rome…for the disciples to eat with such despicable men would of been scandalous.”
That’s who Jesus ate with, laughed with…maybe his morals should be in question! It wasn’t just who he ate with, it was also the stories he told about who shared meals; like the father who prepared a feast for the son who’d wished him dead, or the story about the great feast which some guests refused an invitation to which ‘the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame on the street’ were instead invited, people you wouldn’t eat with, people who wouldn’t eat together! Eating together was significant.
“Jeramias notes that in the east, even today, to invite someone to a meal was to extend an honour, an offering of peace, trust, forgiveness. Jesus meals with sinners weren’t merely social revenues or just signs of his empathy for the lowly, though he was compassionate. “*
Did Jesus take compassion too far? He allowed a prostitute to pour oil over his feet, and wipe them with her hair…imagine it, a prostitute? Really?
His compassion also extended to Samaritans both in person and in parable. He talked with a Samaritan woman at the well and he told the now very famous story of the ‘Good Samaritan’, as Rob Bell identifies, the phrase good Samaritan was an “impossibility”!**
The Samaritans were hated by the Jews, considered unclean as half Jew/ half Gentile(non Jewish) people with their own understanding of Jewish law and their own expression of worship, the division went back hundreds of years. So this story of the good Samaritan was ‘brilliant, clever, subversive’!**
Jesus taunted, almost mocked the Pharisees, the keepers of the law. He provoked them with his radical teaching and he worked on the Sabbath. He was accused of blasphemy, his seemingly immoral behaviour and constant challenge to the religious system and those who ran it, along with his refusal to conform to the empire which occupied the land all led to his death! Just a good bloke? I’m not so sure!
These are not the actions of just another good moral teacher, they are more the actions of a subversive rebel. Jesus would probably be more at home on ‘Have I got news for you?’ than ‘Songs of praise’! What if so many of us miss the revolutionary, radical, controversial teaching of this first century Rabbi! What if far too easily Jesus gets written off as a long haired, Swedish looking hippie with some good ideas rather than the religious and political threat he actually was? What if that’s why they killed him?
So where does that leave us? Do we keep Jesus locked in a box with the Tooth Fairy, Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny (that would make a fab film!?) Do we write him off as a historical figure of some note but now not so relevant? Do we place him on a golden cross at a safe distance and respectfully bow the knee? Or do we find a way to re-read what he taught, seeing it for the life giving, energizing, hope filled news that it was and actually still is? Do we allow what he said, how he lived, who he was to shape who we are and how we live today? Could his questionable moral actions 2000 years ago have significantly shaped morality of society today? Do we acknowledge that within all the Jesus talk, there is mystery and wonder and awe? Do we acknowledge that within us, all those things exist too because that’s part of what it means to be human? What if there there really is something to the whole Jesus thing?
*Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg.
**What is the Bible? Rob Bell.