Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting
Finding the Heart of Jesus' Life: Looking
at Jesus in the Gospels
How do you and I learn to be Christian disciples if
not by exploring the events of Jesus' life? We can discover Jesus'
experience only by listening carefully to what the Christian community
said about him in the Scriptures. Yet the Scriptures, as the Church
teaches, are accounts of faith. Thus Scripture writers were not
so much concerned with historical details as they were with conveying
the meaning of Jesus' presence among us. How do we get to the Jesus
the disciples encountered, the experiences behind the statements
Because Scripture and Church teachings emphasize the divinity
of Jesus, our own experience of Jesus is just about the opposite
from the disciples' experience of him. The disciples first encountered
someone they knew as a fellow human being, Jesus of Nazareth. Only
gradually—indeed, not until after the Resurrection—would they recognize
and proclaim his divinity.
For those of us who come almost 2,000 years later, faith
in Jesus' divinity is almost taken for granted, for it is affirmed
throughout the Gospels. Indeed, many of us may find it easier to
believe that Jesus is God than to accept that he was truly human.
In order to appreciate as fully as possible the events in the life
of Jesus of Nazareth, we must follow the same path the disciples
followed, beginning with the human Jesus. In this Update
we'll look at Jesus' vision and his encounters with others as found
in the Gospels. In doing so we'll get a glimpse at the heart of
his earthly life.
Only two New Testament books describe the birth of Jesus:
Luke (1:1—2:52) and Matthew (1:1—2:23). But the two stories are
very, very different in their details. Because most of us have combined
the two stories in our hearts and minds, we realize these differences
only by looking at the two accounts separately. Matthew focuses
on Joseph, has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem, and includes
the Magi and the flight into Egypt. Luke focuses on Mary, has Mary
and Joseph living in Nazareth (going to Bethlehem only for the Roman
census), and includes the shepherds and a peaceful visit of the
Holy Family to Jerusalem.
In his extensive study of the infancy narratives, the
late Scripture scholar Raymond Brown emphasizes that what is important
is the religious message of the stories. What is this message? Brown
claims it is twofold:— to proclaim the identity of Jesus as truly
God and truly human and to show how Jesus is linked to and fulfills
the Hebrew Scriptures. Brown states that each infancy narrative
is, in fact, the whole Gospel in miniature: The full identity of
Jesus (divine and human) is revealed; this Good News is shared with
others and accepted by some (shepherds, Magi, Simeon, Anna) but
rejected by others (Herod the king, the chief priests and scribes).
Accordingly, we must focus on the meaning and not on the details
of the stories.
Surely an important dimension of Jesus' life was his
experience of religion.— The story of the people of Israel was Jesus'
story. As he grew, Jesus listened to and prayed with the Hebrew
Scriptures.— He pondered the lives of Abraham and Moses, of Jeremiah
and Isaiah. Their God was Jesus' God—a God who continued to be active
in the people's lives, freeing and choosing and calling them back
to the covenant. This Jewish context, then, nurtured Jesus' knowledge
of and relationship with God.
Luke develops the picture of Jesus' identity and mission in the marvelous and
powerful scene of the keynote address in Nazareth (4:14-30). Scripture scholars
help us to appreciate Luke's creativity as artist and as theologian. Writing
his Gospel many years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Luke wanted
to share his community's experience and commitment and vision. So he felt free
to rearrange his primary source, Mark's Gospel, by moving this Nazareth synagogue
scene (Mark 6:1ff) to the very beginning of Jesus' public ministry (Luke 4:14ff).
Luke's creativity is also found within the text itself, as he weaves together
selections from several different chapters of Isaiah and omits some other points.
As it stands, the exact text Luke puts on Jesus' lips would not be found on
a synagogue scroll.
This passage is truly a keynote, establishing the basic themes of Luke's Gospel.
Jesus, the anointed one (the Messiah, the Christ), teaches and heals and proclaims
the presence of God's— Reign. Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promises for
the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned.
Indeed, Luke's Gospel goes on to describe many examples
of Jesus teaching and healing the poor, including Peter 's mother-in-law
and the leper. Then, when some disciples of John the Baptist ask
Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come?" Jesus replies: "Go and
tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind regain their sight,
the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are
raised, the poor have the good news brought to them" (Luke 7:20-22).
God's Reign is breaking into the world through Jesus.
Jesus' relationship with God
In attempting to appreciate the heart of Jesus' life,
as we have already seen, we must pay special attention to Jesus'
faithful and loving relationship with God and to Jesus' understanding
of the Reign of God.
Scripture scholars have helped us to appreciate the significance of Jesus'
relationship with God, whom he addressed as "Father" and even "Abba."
Some scholars say that Jesus chose this word that small children used to address
their fathers. Abba is best translated "Daddy." It conveys a sense of
childlike simplicity and familiarity.
Other Scripture scholars have recently offered the image of patron
for understanding Jesus' use of Father. Appreciating the
cultural world of the first century suggests this alternative interpretation,
which implies a mature personal relationship with the one who empowers
and distributes benefits, with special emphasis on trust, responsibility
Although offering different emphases, these images are important for our consideration
of Jesus' experience because they point to a very profound relationship between
God and Jesus. How did it develop? We have no way of answering in detail, but
we can assume that this bond developed gradually as Jesus lived life, heard
the Hebrew Scriptures, asked himself about his own response to God, listened
to John the Baptist, and began his own prophetic ministry, taking time to be
alone and to pray. The God of Jacob, Deborah, Hannah, David, Amos, Ezekiel was
Father to Jesus.
We catch another glimpse into Jesus' experience of God in the parables.
One of the most helpful is Luke 15:11-32—traditionally called the
Parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable about the possibility
of reconciliation is better described, however, as the Parable of
the Forgiving Father. The details are familiar: The younger son
demands his inheritance, leaves home, spends all the money and finally
returns to his father's house, asking to be treated as a servant.
Notice the actions of the father: He allows his son
freedom even to waste the inheritance; he watches for his return.
He forgives the son without any bitterness, throwing a party to
celebrate. He goes out to console the angry older brother.
In this parable Jesus is telling us a lot about his
own experience of God. Abba is a both a dispenser of goods and a
forgiving, gentle parent. Jesus evidently feels very close to this
personal God, a God who reaches out to all, both those who wander
away and those who stay at home.
Jesus' focus on the reign of God
If we look closely at the events and teachings of Jesus'
life, we see that Jesus focused his energies neither on himself
nor on the Church. Jesus' whole life was directed to the Reign of
God, a central image in the Gospels.— Simply put, the Reign means
that God's power is at work in a particular situation.— God's saving
presence is found there. The Reign (also called Kingdom or Sovereignty
in some translations) does not imply a particular place or time;
the Reign is present whenever and wherever God's loving presence
is manifested. Therefore the Reign may exist in individual persons,
in institutions and in the whole world. The miracles of Jesus are
symbols of God's Reign breaking into our world, of healing and salvation
overcoming brokenness and sin.
Let's look at one powerful example given in the Gospels.
For the people of Israel, leprosy had become not only a medical
problem but also a ritual impurity. The people considered the disease
to be divine punishment and feared that the community would also
suffer if the leper were not forced outside the town.
Jesus not only rejects the judgment but also crosses
the boundaries of purity laws to touch the alienated. Mark's Gospel
describes the scene this way: "A leper came to him [and kneeling
down] begged him and said, 'If you wish, you can make me clean.'
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said
to him, 'I do will it. Be made clean.' The leprosy left him immediately,—and
he was made clean" (1:40-42).
With a simple but profound touch, Jesus breaks down barriers, challenges customs
and laws that alienate, and embodies his convictions about the inclusive meaning
of the Reign of God. This dramatic touch is also described in Matthew 8:1-4
and Luke 5:12-16.
This event reveals not only Jesus' care for an individual in need
but also his concern about structures of society. Jesus steps across
the boundaries separating the unclean and actually touches the leper.
In doing so, Jesus enters into the leper's isolation and becomes
unclean. Human care and compassion, not cultural values of honor
and shame, direct Jesus' action. He calls into question the purity
code, which alienates and oppresses people already in need. Indeed,
this encounter with the leper is one example of how Jesus reaches
out to the marginal people in Jewish society, whether they be women,
the possessed or lepers.
Teaching God's Reign by parable. Jesus used parables
to speak about the Reign of God. Although he thus risked being misunderstood,
Jesus allowed his listeners to make the connection between what
he was talking about and what they were already expecting. He usually
upset many of their preconceived notions of God's righteousness
and power. Yet he took a chance that his words would touch the people
in their depths and that they would act upon this discovery. He
did so because he believed that the Reign of God, so evident in
his own experience, could—and would—be recognized by others.
At times Jesus began his parables with the statement, "The Reign
of God is like.... " At other times, this statement is only implied.
In Luke 8:4-15, for instance, Jesus simply begins, "A sower went
out to sow his seed," and goes on to describe the different types
of ground on which the seed fell. Part of our need in hearing
this parable is to recognize that Jesus is describing very poor
farming techniques. His hearers at the time, of course, knew that;
they also knew that even the best techniques of the day produced
about sevenfold. But in the parable the rich soil produces a hundredfold.
Jesus is telling his listeners how surprising God's Reign is, how
overflowing in goodness—not sevenfold but a hundredfold!
A similar parable can also be misunderstood because we do not know
specifics from Jesus' day. In Luke 13:20-21, Jesus describes a woman
mixing yeast into three measures of flour. Most of us miss the heart
of Jesus' teaching because we do not know that three "measures"
of flour is enough for 50 pounds of bread! Years ago in an I
Love Lucy TV episode, Lucy was baking bread and this huge loaf
just kept rising and coming out of the oven, finally pinning her
against the kitchen wall. The exaggeration of the Lucy show expresses
the heart of the parable. The Reign of God is full of joy and surprise
Because of Jesus' intimate relationship with God, Jesus experienced
the presence of the Reign in and through his own life. And what
he tried to tell others in his parables is that they could experience
this Reign too!
Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Another section of
the Gospels which provides rich insight into Jesus' experience of
God's loving and saving presence is what we commonly know as the
Sermon on the Mount (although the location in Luke's Gospel is level
ground—see Luke 6:17-49; see also Matthew 5:17:29). In this
collection of Jesus' teachings we discover some of the surprise
and goodness of the Reign: The hungry will be satisfied; those who
weep now will laugh; those who are poor will be part of the Reign.
The Sermon also gives other characteristics of life in the Reign:
love of enemies, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, humility and
nonviolence. Especially here we confront the challenge expressed
in Jesus' understanding of God's Reign. "Love your enemies, do good
to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those
who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28). "Be merciful, just as your Father
is merciful" (Luke 6:36). And, as is typical of Luke's Gospel, we
also hear about the dangers of wealth and complacency (Luke 6:24-26).
Death and Resurrection
Let's now look at the end of Jesus' life: his passion, death and
resurrection. As with the infancy accounts, we tend to combine the
different passion narratives in our hearts and minds. Still, there
are significant differences in the four portraits. For example,
Mark describes Jesus as abandoned by his disciples, rejected by
the crowd and seemingly forsaken by his God. But John describes
Jesus as being in control, freely laying down his life and dying
in a sovereign and life-giving manner. In his portrait of the passion,
Luke continues to emphasize the same characteristics and experiences
of Jesus found throughout the Gospel: compassion and healing, forgiveness
and profound trust. Thus even the passion accounts, while rooted
in a historical fact (the crucifixion), are stories of faith in
which theology, not biography, determines how events are narrated.
But the passion and death are only the beginning of
Jesus' glorification. The Resurrection completes this central event.
In the descriptions of the Resurrection we find much symbolic language:
dazzling lights, appearances sudden as a flash, a mysterious inability
to recognize Jesus but then ecstatic joy with the recognition, a
sudden fading away. All this reminds us that the Resurrection is
a different kind of reality, not the same kind of historical event
as the crucifixion.
The Resurrection is an experience in faith, known and proclaimed by the disciples
but denied by unbelievers. The Resurrection can be understood as God's affirmation
of Jesus' faithfulness and trust. Abba's power raises Jesus to transformed
life. The disciples experience Jesus as alive in a new way. His presence transforms
them and their world.
At the heart of Jesus' living and dying are his intimate, loving relationship
with God and his bold, creative proclamation of God's Reign. We 21st-century
disciples of Jesus are called to live and share this Good News!
Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., is professor of theology
at Xavier University, Cincinnati. He holds a Ph.D. in social ethics
from the University of Southern California and is the author of
numerous articles and books, including the award-winning Conscience
in Conflict: How to Make Moral Choices (St. Anthony Messenger
NEXT: The 'Luminous' Mysteries (by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)