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The four Gospels of Christianity, by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, present events in the life of Jesus, such as his birth, mission, death and resurrection. In the Gospels we find the earthly Jesus whom his apostles knew.

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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 of faith?—

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.

Jesus' birth

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.

Jesus' mission

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 and fidelity.

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 and goodness.

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 5:1—7:29). 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 Press).

NEXT: The 'Luminous' Mysteries (by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)


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