If you think about the painting you see, you often quickly flip through the photos in your brain’s multi-layered organizer and see dozens of images of a Jesus that looks more like us than how he accurately could have looked.
In America, we have surfer Jesus with his loose fitting robe for comfort and an over coat. He has the trendy sandals on. (This reminds me of when I ran, and lost for class office in Bible College, I had a top ten list that included the fact that I wore sandals like Jesus did.) The same idea of picturing Jesus through our cultural lens goes for all cultures.
Philipino churches have an Asian Jesus; African churches have a dark skinned Jesus in their art. In my class on communicating in cultures, our prof showed us images of Jesus at the beginning of class that depicted him in the eyes of different cultures.
Ultimately, we can criticize this reality that we make
Jesus into a character we can relate to as a narrow view of our Lord rather than a more precise picture of the creator of the universe. We have had lots of good work done in video over the past years remaking some of the films with meek Jesus that looked more like effeminate Jesus and redubbing the words for humors sake to make the point that Jesus likely had more of a backbone and strength of persona than that. However, we will always imagine Jesus as one of us. We cannot escape the present reality that we are drawn to people like us, and when we see Jesus as different as us…well…that creates barriers that makes us uncomfortable.
Yet this same Jesus even as he does relate with us better than anyone, also must stand in contrast to us as only he fulfilled the destiny God designed for us. Only he lived out life as perfect and devoted to God above all other things. At some level Jesus should disturb our status quo and pull us from where we are into where he wants us. He is not just buddy Jesus to pull from a crass film knocking the Catholic Church and looking for a better way to Market Jesus. He doesn’t just hang around us dining and drinking with us until we finally get it and turn around to follow him.
We see him walking a balance of living in the world and standing out as different and attractive as alternative to living life the way we think we should. We see Jesus in the homes of people with less than ideal backgrounds, or even in the home of a well respected man when a prostitute comes in Jesus had a way of accepting people where they were, so much so that this prostitute did not care that everyone would see her and be repulsed. She walked in with her hair down advertising that she was not a respected woman of society. She even used her long hair to wipe Jesus’ feet with the perfume she poured over it (Luke 7).
On the other hand, people came out of the woodwork wanting to follow Jesus while keeping some prerequisites. One guy wanted to bury his father (meaning he wanted to receive his inheritance first), and others wanted to hold onto their property (Mark 10). Jesus looked them dead in the eye and said follow me with everything or don’t bother. John 6 shares a story when many walked away from Jesus, and he didn’t go running after them trying to explain his story of the kingdom better. In fact, he turned to his closest allies and asked if they too would abandon him. Jesus stood firm, without wavering, as he lived out God’s mission to redeem humanity, example God’s incredible love and give us a glimpse of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).
Now, let’s hold in tension the idea of Jesus, the one we imagine, and Jesus, the one who walked the dusty roads of Galilee as we wrestle with how we know God. This understanding hit me fresh recently in talking with our Thai teacher. She told a story of how as a new Christian she remembered being so angry with Jesus. I said, why? Why, could you be so angry at Jesus? I was thinking of the typical person that blames Jesus for something going wrong in their life.
I couldn’t have been more surprised when she meant a she became angry at Jesus after reading the gospel account of his life. I thought in stunned amazement, what he did in the pages of those narratives that could get a kind, gentle hearted Thai girl so worked up. Don’t get me wrong, all cultures have their fits of anger, so even if the Thai people are generally sweet natured, they can still have their moments. Nonetheless, I couldn’t imagine how Jesus could make her so angry.
She went on to tell the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree. When she read over that story, she thought Jesus was so mean. From her perspective as a gentle person who lets frustrating circumstances roll off her back, she saw a powerful man misusing his power. He cursed that fig tree in Mark 11:12-14 and didn’t even give a second thought to it. Again, being visibly angry in a culture like Thailand is a terrible offense.
When she saw Jesus curse the tree for not bearing fruit, she saw an angry and unjust man. That is until she talked to her pastor and learned the culture and geography. She thought why was he so unkind to the tree and angry. Why not just go find another tree for some figs. When she understood more and saw that Jesus was giving a living parable to his disciples about the importance of bearing fruit, she saw Jesus in a new light.
Sometimes our impressions can cause us to have a misguided image of Jesus. We might not realize it at first, but if we never do, the Jesus we picture ends up being the Jesus we follow. I admire my teacher for being brave and asking her pastor to explain the story of Jesus better. She wanted to understand Jesus, the real Jesus and not just have her misconceptions guide how she thinks about Jesus.
Let’s be careful that we don’t make Jesus like us, rather, let’s strive to be made like Jesus as God works on our lives. What is one misconception of Jesus that jumps to your mind as you read this?