Jesus of Nazareth

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A vision – possibly offering some explanations

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051008-021014

 

Early on Easter Sunday of this year, 2008, I had a most unusual, dreamlike vision.  In my mind, I found myself standing near a village in rural Galilee just as the sun had risen and saw Jesus and a group of his followers approach. I was vividly impressed by the great purity and radiance of Jesus—and also by his fragility. As the vision continued in my thoughts over the next few days, I participated in some of the critical phases of Jesus’ wandering during his short life. I felt some of the joy, some of the anxiety, and some of the abysmal fear that pervaded his group of followers over the course of their journey. Let me describe what I saw and felt in observing Jesus and his disciples in the pursuit of their mission and in observing the plot of the adversaries as it closred around Jesus’ existence on Earth.

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First Picture: A Sermon on a Mount

It was after Jesus’ baptism by John, and only shortly after his return from the retreat in the desert which had given him spiritual clarity about his mission. In spite of his recent asceticism, which left him very slender, Jesus appeared strong and dynamic as he walked with his followers. But what impressed me most was the purity of Jesus’ expression. Only once, somewhere in a small Russian church, had I seen such purity, clarity, and goodness in the face of an adult.

Jesus had already chosen his disciples, and they were almost magnetically, truly spiritually, attracted to him. Being naïve, however, they understood little of what he had on his mind. After all, they were drawn from among the fishermen and small-town people of Galilee, who were open to simple commitments, to goodness and compassion, living far from urban Jerusalem. They were not chosen from among the city intellectuals, who were too complex in their thoughts and often already set in their mental tracks, skillfully defending their own perspectives. The group was casually dressed in the Near Eastern fashion of those years and moved with ease through the rural area in the freshness of spring of that year.

This group of young men—soon augmented by more followers, including women—developed a vibrant group spirit, like a team of travelers setting out to hike through distant mountains.

Jesus’ leadership was unquestioned, not because of his words, but because of his personality and his spirit. Every day was filled with new experiences, excitement, and expectation. Their coming brought light and joy to the hearts of the people, and Jesus’ healing power brought hope to the suffering and their families.

During this early period, the group moved almost every day, walking from village to village. As curious villagers crowded around them in dusty village centers between low houses, Jesus would speak. After he spoke, he occasionally healed the villagers who were most afflicted. For both of these reasons—the speeches and the healing—the number of followers grew significantly. Soon it became impractical to stop in the center of the small villages. They now stopped outside the villages, preferably where Jesus could stand on a small rise.

Late one afternoon, some time before the group reached another village, a low-ranking priest—we would now consider him a local rabbi—walked with Jesus and challenged him to present his teachings more clearly. Because the crowd was especially large that day and a suitable elevation for giving a speech appeared, Jesus walked up to that small mound and asked for silence. Many people sat down. Some pushed forward with the sick they wanted to present for healing. The disciples stood at the side of the mound, the priest in their midst.

Jesus began to speak with a clarity like never before, as from an internal fire. Every word, every sentence rang loud and clear. In a few simple parables, Jesus pronounced that it was not enough to follow the letter of the laws. Fulfilling the spirit of the laws was demanded, with full intent of the heart, thereby fulfilling their moral demand. Attaining rank and wealth in this world would not count. Only those individuals who had clean hearts, who were peacemakers, who were merciful, counted before God. The meek would find reward—those with simple thoughts, the mourners, and those suffering from injustice. To love God and to love, forgive, and help each other should be the foremost laws for all people.

Then Jesus prayed with the people, asking God for help in life’s basic struggle. He also asked for forgiveness and pronounced God as the “father in heaven.” This sermon and prayer presented moral clarity in basic terms, comfort for the suffering in the struggle of their often harsh lives, and a new image of God as a loving father.

These were the “good news,” the “Euaγγέlion,” which Jesus had for the simple people of Galilee who listened and were ready to follow him.

The crowd was captivated by what it heard.

Jesus’ voice can still be heard today from the Sermon on the Mount.

It still reverberates in our souls.

The priest walked away in amazement.

Jesus disciples, when asked by Jesus how the people in the villages described him, answered with the title which the Jewish people had given their kings. They had learned during their time in Egypt, where a pharaoh’s name was “Ramses”, meaning “god’s son”, to give their own kings the title “Son of God”.  Now they answered Jesus, that the village people called him “our Son of God”.

 

Second Picture: The Appearance of Authority

The priest traveled to Jerusalem during the following week. At a meeting with the High Priest of the Jerusalem temple, he described the powerful impression Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount had given him. He also talked about the ever-larger group of followers around Jesus.

    The high priest asked, “Was his teaching correct?” This question presented a problem. Jesus’ preaching seemed not to emphasize the strictness in observing each detail of the Mosaic Law. At times, it even appeared to criticize the unlimited authority of the priestly hierarchy in interpreting the law only their way, and their possibly arrogant demonstration of elite rank.

After further discussion, the High Priest decided to send another priest to distant Galilee—this time a priest from the Jerusalem temple, a man he trusted—to observe and report. The priest from Jerusalem felt honored by his assignment and took some of his students along.

Faithful servants of authority can be dangerous. They are sometimes more unbending and anxious to find error than the men of real authority who send them out. They have to prove their importance to the world by following the rules. These “organization men,” as we might call them today, act as they perceive the organization to expect them to act—rather than being guided by their own judgment—or by understanding, compromise, and compassion. However, their critical report, even when it concerns trivia, force the authorities to take action.

The priest and his students arrived at a small town near Nazareth on the evening before Sabbath, planning to rest there as prescribed by Mosaic Law. The following Sabbath morning, they were surprised to see Jesus and his followers approach their town. Walking through the fields, the group could be seen reaching for some ears of wheat to feed themselves.

The priest looked at his students as if asking a test question. They shook their heads in disapproval. Harvesting, a form of work, was not allowed on Sabbath.

Jesus and his followers entered the town. After the usual sermon, Jesus, in spontaneous compassion, healed a suffering man, thereby actually rendering a service, also not allowed on a Sabbath.

The priest, observing this double breach of the Sabbath rule—first the reaping of wheat, and now the healing—became so irritated that he challenged Jesus in a loud voice. Jesus deflected the challenge calmly. “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

The priest walked to the synagogue in town and, shortly thereafter, departed for Jerusalem, his students in tow.

When Jesus came to the synagogue some time later, he found the doors closed. He was told that there were some renovations going on inside. One of Jesus’ followers commented that the visiting priest from Jerusalem surely had something to do with locking Jesus out.

 

Third Picture: The Noose Is Tightening, and Winter Is Coming

Only two weeks later, two new groups of delegates from Jerusalem’s authorities appeared to observe Jesus. One group had been sent by the High Priest; the other by the leaders of the Pharisees. They could easily be recognized by their hats and manner of dress and by their Jerusalem accent.

From that point on, Jesus could seldom preach a sermon without some observers being present. When one of Jesus’ disciples saw them approach, he notified the others, and warned Jesus to be on guard.

It soon became a war of nerves. These “observers” stood silently, sometimes taking notes. However, when Jesus seemed to have the most success with his audience, they asked loud, disturbing questions.

Initially, Jesus deflected the questions posed by these gadflies. But as the questions turned more critical, he became impatient with them. After that, he preached about the fallibility of priests, Pharisees, and scribes.

Jesus’ followers were well aware of the growing controversy. As time went on, there was hardly a town or village where Jesus was allowed to enter the synagogue. Sometimes, he was asked to remain outside the settlements.

Jesus’ followers stood ever closer around their master. Their faces became somber. At one point, Jesus asked them whether they still believed in him. Their responses were clear expressions of their commitment, but, still, their hearts were heavy.

Finally, winter came upon them, with its endless cold rain and sometimes snow on the mountaintops. It became difficult, sometimes impossible for Jesus’ large group—twelve disciples, some women, and some other followers—to find accommodation and food in the villages and small towns. They were wet, hungry, and freezing.

Life became harsh.

At one point, Jesus divided the group, instructing his disciples to go out by themselves, two in each group, and continue their mission, preaching and healing wherever they went. Some returned to their villages, families, and friends for the winter.

 

Fourth Picture: The Vision on the Mountain

Winter finally came to an end. But even before Jesus could call his dispersed disciples back together, the first critical observers from Jerusalem reappeared.

At this point, Jesus went up to a high mountain to seek spiritual counsel.

Beginning with the time of that spiritual encounter on the mountain, Jesus knew that he could not continue in Galilee alone, that he would have to go directly to Jerusalem to confront face to face the powers arrayed against him. The approaching spring celebration of Passover in Jerusalem would be the time to implement this decision.

 

Fifth Picture: Spring and the Last Days in Jerusalem

From this time on, Jesus’ sermons acquired new force, clarity, and determination. Not glory in this life, but later reward in Heaven should be expected by all good people. At the same time, Jesus began to warn Jerusalem of impending danger should it continue on its present path.

Jesus’ disciples had all returned to be around him again, even the one who appeared to have had a rather good time during winter. There are always some weak or unscrupulous subordinates following great leaders, and great leaders seem to tolerate them. Some of these followers are more dangerous than others, and some are less trustworthy than others.

One in particular, Judas, had relatives and friends among the priests and Pharisees. They had entertained him during the winter in order to learn more about his master’s teachings. He had tried to present a compromise approach while doing some fundraising for Jesus’ group, something he was quite good at.

 

Then came the time for Jesus and his group to begin their hundred-kilometer pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover festivities. There was heavy traffic on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem as the high holidays approached. Many travelers to the Passover celebrations knew Jesus and welcomed him as their great preacher and healer and one of their people from the North. Jesus’ reputation, possibly amplified by the Galileans, preceded him to Jerusalem.

When Jesus arrived in the shining city of Jerusalem, with its great temple, the urbane crowds were ready for him. Clothing was spread in his way in the hope that contact with Jesus would bring blessings to the owners. People who could not spare clothing spread branches of trees, palm fronds, on the road. The jubilation of the multitude fed on itself in this glorious moment of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Some called him their king, or again, the “Son of God” among the Jews.

Jesus remained somber, however. He knew that his decisive battle was approaching and that the end could require his sacrifice. There would be no return, no compromise; but he did not fear it.

 

On this his last day, Jesus was not withdrawn. But when he went up to the temple, his soul deeply filled with holy devotion, and when instead he found the noisy merchants and money changers in a court of the great temple precinct conducting their business, he became angry as never before. He did not even tell the priests about his concerns about the purity of the House of God. He simply became the focus of the merchants and money changers being expelled from the outer temple court, thereby being seen as the leader of his people.

This incident may actually not have been preplanned by Jesus. The incident may have resulted simply from the provocation by a money changer, then an accidental reaction by Jesus resulting in an overturned table of that money changer, and exaggerated defensive actions by the others to quickly save the money from their tables, which the crowd began to reach for. In the subsequent avalanche of crowd reactions, culminating in a stampede, on this very busy day at the crowded temple just before Passover, most of them blamed the Galilean group’s leader and preacher from Nazareth, called the “Son of God” by his followers, for having caused it.

That outer court of the temple was the main source of income for the temple and high priests. The money changers and the merchants of sacrificial items or animals had become the practical foundation of priestly power. Now, they demanded the priest’s protection and restoration of their business, on a peak business day before Passover! All the pilgrims in town also wanted to go orderly about their Passover rituals.

The priests would have to act!

 

Just as the Sermon on the Mount was the zenith of Jesus’ spiritual impact on the world, so this day and the following dinner meal with his disciples in Jerusalem marked the culmination of his mission.

As the day came to an end, Jesus knew what would follow. The priests had to act or their privileged world would crumble. What would they, their families, their subordinates, and their temple be without the income from the money changing and trading court—and, mainly, without they themselves being recognized as the foundation of law and order in town? They should not be pushed aside by a migrating preacher from Galilee!

 

Jesus must have been stunned by the day’s development. After his glorious entry into Jerusalem, he must have expected a theological dispute with the priests of the temple and the Pharisees. But then, within hours, he was first blamed as having personally caused severe civil unrest and then heard from Judas that he had been reported by the priests to the Romans as having planned a revolt against the Roman Empire, punishable by crucifixion. Destiny began to take its course.  

At the following dinner, Jesus spoke clearly about his coming sacrifice. He symbolized his sacrifice with the partaking of wine and bread, appealing to his disciples to always remember his mission. Then he turned to Judas.

Judas may have been a double agent from the winter months on, continuing to contact his friends among the priests while remaining a disciple of Jesus. He may have been the first of Jesus’ followers to know, that day in Jerusalem, that Jesus’ fate had been sealed. He may even have wanted to save Jesus by warning him just before that Passover dinner. This might have alerted Jesus that Judas could not be trusted, as some of his other disciples may have already indicated to him earlier.

Jesus suddenly addressed Judas as a traitor and dismissed him.

Judas felt expelled. While Judas rushed out in anger, now toward full cooperation with the priests, Jesus departed for his last night with his closest followers and for his final prayer to his God and master in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The harshness of the end of his mission that had begun so radiantly and the approach of his painful death in mental loneliness lay before him.

 

The council of the priestly authorities and the leaders of the Pharisees had to reach a conclusion, in view of the crowds’ jubilation at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and, mainly, in view of Jesus having been blamed for the clearing of the temple court, the seat and pillar of their exclusive power.

The council was divided, as most councils are. One member suggested that if Jesus was of God, nothing could be done against him; but if he was not of God, time would take care of him, as it had done with other false prophets before.

The council of the priests was controlled by an archconservative. The vote was to kill Jesus immediately, creating “facts on the ground,” before the always unpredictable masses of people congregated to begin the Passover celebrations and before the crowd of Galilean followers of Jesus had a chance to regroup.

Their conclusion was a shrewd one. The High Priests themselves would not do any harm to Jesus. They would simply denounce him as a revolutionary would-be “king” to the Roman occupation force under Pontius Pilate—knowing quite well that then this Roman official would be forced to take drastic action in such a case of “revolt”—usually condemnation to death of the accused revolutionary—by crucifixion.

 

With the arrival of Judas leading the police into the Garden of Gethsemane, the establishment began to exterminate its perceived subverter, step by step, through interrogation, false witnesses, torture, condemnation, and quick execution.

How horrible these last hours of his life must have been for Jesus.

Nobody came out in support of Jesus in those last hours, none of the crowd that had welcomed him jubilantly only two days before.

What must have been on Jesus’ mind when none of those spoke up to whose aid he had come and for whose sake he had brought his message of mercy and peace, his vision of respecting the meek and the peacemakers, and his demand that they help those who suffered from injustice?

His own disciples had fled, and one had even denied him.

 

For whom was Jesus going to sacrifice himself?

 

The reports about Jesus’ last moments differ. One speaks of an ending in great despair. Another tells us of Jesus looking up to God and passing away in great peace, saying, “My work is done.”

 

Was it really worth it to the world to have lost many more years of Jesus’ teaching for the clarification of the proper usage of one of the outer courtyards of the temple in Jerusalem?

How tragic, for Jesus and the world!

 

Postscript: The Persecutions of the Early Christians and Paulus

Most Galileans returned to the north. Some of Jesus’ immediate followers stayed in Jerusalem, close to their executed master’s place of departure, “going underground” to evade persecution or by strictly submitting to all priestly rules. The crowds in Jerusalem, which had cheered Jesus only a few days earlier, had turned around or acted in submission and passivity, as all crowds do. The Christ’s teachings were finished, or so it seemed.

Then came the apparitions of Jesus to his followers: the ascension phenomenon and, most dramatically, Pentecost. This overwhelming spiritual experience gave Jesus’ followers renewed strength, and groups of committed “Christians” began to form.

It did not take long for the authorities to hear about visions of Jesus’ supposed resurrection and the new reappearance of groups of his followers—the Christians. One of Jesus’ priestly judges had predicted, “if (Jesus) was not of God, time would take care of him.” But time had not taken care of Jesus’ teachings or of the Christians. Was God with them, after all? Their numbers grew. It became necessary to act. The persecutions set in. Some groups dispersed and found new followers in distant cities.

The brash and ambitious Saulus made himself a name as an exterminator of Jesus’ adherents—specifically and often only of those who did not strictly submit to Judaic laws and priestly authority. After clearing Jerusalem of them, he traveled to Damascus, which was many days of travel away. Then the unexplainable occurred: Saulus became Paulus, a most ardent Christian.

Paulus gave Jesus’ teachings a new turn. From now on, his teachings were presented on the level of a coherent theology and philosophy, as influenced by Greek thought. Human sin and redemption through faith in Christ—in sum, the goal of reaching heaven—moved into the foreground, sometimes at the expense of the basic and most important teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on that Mount.

The group of followers, previously restricted to Jews, was opened up to the people of all nations. Thus began the dramatic growth of Christianity separate from Judaism, which Jesus had mostly cared for.

A small group in Jerusalem attempted to restrain Paulus (or Saint Paul, as he is known to us)—to no avail.

Then the hierarchy of priests in Jerusalem was swept away in the destruction of that splendid city by the Romans after the great revolt of 66-70 AC and finally so by the final revolt of 132-136 AC. Only a few Pharisees escaped to become the rabbis in Jewish centers in the Diaspora.

Groups of the original Christians dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. Those who had lived in Jerusalem remained together and migrated to what later became Arabia. They were later known by Muhammad and, thereby, influenced the origin of the teachings of Islam.

The Roman Christians and followers of St. Paul became dominant in the West, forming and participating in Europe’s triumph in the world—all too often failing to follow the teachings of their master about humility, a clean heart, peacemaking, and being merciful; all too often overlooking the meek, those with simple thoughts, the mourners, and those suffering from injustice.

The world went its way toward modernity, remembering Christ in one basic symbol, not one related to his light-filled mission and essential ethical teaching of the first days, but to his darkest moment, the one on the cross.

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A word about Judas:

Judas may have been proud about his connection to the priests and Pharisees, as being above the other apostles who were provincial fisherman or small-town people of rural Galilee – thereby provoking the rivalry with his fellow followers of Jesus, as typical for such groups.

Judas may actually have wanted to help, possibly even save Jesus by warning him. After all, Paulus, when much later threatened by persecution, once, upon being warned, saved himself by escaping across a town’s walls at night.

Jesus, at the last supper, saw that differently and dismissed Judas.

The reaction by Judas can be seen as typical for certain individuals who feel hurt in their pride. Then, in a vengeful reaction, almost in rage, they try to do harm to the one who they felt offended them. Much harm has been done in this world by people in the state of vengeful rage. Judas took the premium money from the priest, who then betrayed Jesus to the Romans, leading to Jesus’ capture.

As also somewhat typical of people with phases of rage, Judas calmed down after some time and the pendulum of his emotion swung back. Now, his heart returned to that Jesus who had been his idealistic mentor and guide. Now, Judas saw the deep guilt he had piled upon himself in betraying this Jesus, later called the Christ. In a self-destructive new wave of emotional rage he threw away the premium money and hanged himself in despair.

If Judas had been a member of our family, possibly our brother, would we have felt only rejection and condemnation for Judas or would we possibly have been somewhat sorry for him – would we possibly have felt sme compassion for him – as for others who act in vindictive rage and then deeply regret their misdeeds?   

Where there ever any moments in our own life when we betrayed Jesus?

 

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What if Rome had not become Christian? What course would the Western world have taken through history? Where would our civilization stand in regard to ethics and other social thought? Would there have been social welfare, a Red Cross, all the charitable work in the world, and foreign assistance among nations? Shouldn’t we be glad to live in our civilization as it is now?

Do we gladly remember Jesus for his mission and its effect?

 

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