In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Hearing this passage, I was reminded of Ross Douthat’s argument that how people answer this question is the root of one of American’s greatest heresies. In his book, Bad Religion, he claims modern Americans too often fail to accept the Jesus found in the Gospels; rather, they superimpose their beliefs and vision on Jesus.
People are in the bad habit of only citing their favorite biblical passages and pigeonholing Jesus into a segment of modern society. Some maintain that Jesus was a conservative, who if alive today would vote Republican. Others counter that he was a liberal, and would be a Democrat. He has been fashioned as peacemaker, but also used to justify war. He also has been called a feminist, and conversely, an upholder of traditional gender roles. Not surprisingly, conservatives see him as a conservative, and liberals see him as a liberal. Thus, commentaries on Jesus are more autobiographical than an honest assessment of Jesus.
Douthat argues that most people selectively embrace the Gospels. They only focus on what they agree with and disregard the rest. Their Jesus is not the person who lived 2,000 years ago. Their Jesus is a made-up reflection of themselves, affirming their political, social, and cultural positions.
Famously, Thomas Jefferson cut out sections of the Bible that he found disagreeable. While most people today are not so brash, they are effectively doing the same thing, throwing out the sections of the Bible which they do not like.
Reflecting on Douthat’s commentary, Christians need a new way to read the Gospels. Rather than going through the text, finding the areas we are fond of, and contemplating those passages. We should study the sections that are difficult for us to understand, focusing on grasping those areas.
Everyone loves how Jesus articulated the Golden Rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But, do we embrace his teachings on wealth: “Sell whatsoever you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me,” or do we accept the gravity he gives to sin: “It is impossible but that offenses will come: but woe to him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones”? Even the disciples commented, “This saying is hard, and who can hear it?” when Jesus said, “Eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood.”
We need to take these “hard” teachings, read them, understand them with guidance from the church, and embrace them. We are not asked to accept 10 percent of the Gospels or even 90 percent. We have to accept all of it.
The message of the Gospels should challenge us, not affirm or make us comfortable. Every time we read the Gospels, we should change, conforming our lives to what we have read. For too long, people have been molding Jesus into their image. They are forcing Jesus to change to fit them. Instead, we need to change. We should fashion ourselves into the image of Christ as laid out in the Gospels.