Occasionally in popular culture, one encounters portrayals of Jesus as a sort of first-century rebel insurrectionist. In this view, Jesus got in trouble with Jewish authorities for being an outside agitator who travelled around the country and worked people up for a revolution called the kingdom of God. He was a subversive and non-conformist who consorted with all varieties of sinners.
More than 25 years ago, I had a "wanted" poster for Jesus in my high school locker accusing him of being such an outlaw. It was a convenient way to glorify my own insubordination, a rather self-serving way of putting Jesus in a new light.
In fact, when popular culture bothers to pay attention to Jesus, this is often how it paints him. Such portrayals tend to be a way of justifying one's own abandonment of any standards of morality and behavior. One can use Jesus as a supposed model of irreverence and individualism.
In this outlook, any defenders of tradition are, at least by implication, cast as grim forces of darkness who repress the spontaneous and non-conformist forces of light and gaiety. They're rigid, narrow and anti-creative. They will delay the inevitable arrival of the Age of Aquarius.
It needs to be said that while this picture contains shards of truth, it presents basically a false Jesus. And it is important to say this now because Western society is falling into decay partly due to a widespread and growing individualism, an individualism which is determined to portray morality as repression.
Jesus was a strong individual -- a man with a clear sense of his vocation and a determination to carry it out with integrity. But he was not an individualist. He came to do the Father's will, not his own. The carrying out of his mission was not a matter of self-aggrandizement, an excuse for abandoning moral standards.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes a Jesus who was far from being in direct opposition to the religious establishment of Israel. In fact, he endorsed many of its teachings. He insisted on keeping the Mosaic law down to "the least of these commandments" (Matthew 5:19) and "expressed the greatest respect for the Temple in Jerusalem" (Catechism, no. 583).
Jesus did, however, get under the skin of the leaders of a most diverse collection of Jewish movements by making the Sabbath prohibitions of the law secondary to the law of love, by teaching "as one who had authority" (Matthew 7:28), by identifying himself with the Temple and by announcing that the Temple would be destroyed. According to the catechism, "Jesus gave scandal above all when he identified his merciful conduct toward sinners with God's own attitude toward them" (no. 589).
Jewish leaders wanted Jesus executed because he was a blasphemer (no. 591). His "blasphemy," however, was a simple, humble faithfulness to the mission his Father gave him. He knew such fidelity could only bring him suffering and eventually death.
For Jesus, the Jewish law was far from being a form of repression. It was something that he came to fulfil. The problem was human weakness — people are incapable of carrying out the details of the law on their own initiative, whether it be the Mosaic law or natural moral law. It is only by sharing in the divine life of God as his adopted children that we can fulfil the law. And it was Christ's cross and resurrection that made it possible for us to enter into that divine life.
The opposition between Jesus and the Jewish leaders is far from being as stark as it is sometimes portrayed. While the acts of some Jewish leaders which led to Jesus' death may have been seriously sinful, they cannot be cast as a monolithic force repressing the human spirit. Jesus himself was in agreement with much that they taught.
The lesson for our culture is that non-conformity, individualism and irreverence toward religious authority are steps in the wrong direction. They do not move us toward Jesus. What we ought to do is live as Jesus lived -- with total integrity and in total obedience to the will of the Father.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.