The Widow’s Offering

Mark 12:41-44

Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and
to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses
and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. Then a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he said to his disciples, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.”

The widow

Some of the most important people in the Bible are nameless. The widow in today’s Gospel is surely one of them.

When Jesus saw her putting her coins into the Temple treasury box, he pointed her out to his disciples, as an example for them. But what was she an example of?

(We are now once again in the stewardship time of year, and many are the sermons that have pointed to this poor widow as an example of someone who gives her all to her church and to charity – and I’ve preached one of those sermons myself!)

It’s true that the poor among us are much more likely to give sacrificially than the rich – perhaps because no one knows better than the poor what poverty feels like.

But have you ever thought that Jesus is not talking about money here, but about something else altogether?

The setting

So let’s step back from this widow for a moment, and look at the context in which her story has been set.

Mark’s Gospel has been telling us that this week is Jesus’ last week on earth.

The week began when he entered Jerusalem, riding on a lowly donkey, while massed Roman legions were marching through another gate to maintain order during the Passover.

Then Jesus went into the Temple and drove out the merchants who had set up their tables in its courts, selling their wares and in the process swindling the poor.

Returning to the Temple the next day, he sat down to teach his disciples and the others who crowded around him. He warned his disciples to watch out for the self-important people who were walking proudly through the Temple, ostentatiously depositing their offerings in the treasury – the same people who took away widows’ houses and scorned the poor.

And that’s when Jesus pointed to this widow, putting her last coins into the treasury box.

The disciple’s offering

In just two more days it would be Passover, and the Last Supper, and the night in Gethsemane, and the trial before Pilate, and the cross on Calvary.

Just like this poor widow, letting her last coins fall into the treasury, Jesus was pouring out his life – teaching, healing, giving, suffering, dying.

At the Last Supper he would even take the cup of wine and tell his disciples – and telling us, in every Eucharist – “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many.”                                                                   (Mark 14:24)

At that moment during supper, his disciples were afraid, but they still didn’t know what was about to happen.

Later on they would remember what Jesus said, and meditate on the lengths he would go to serve others. And later still, they would begin to understand the example he had set for them: he was not only giving himself for others, but calling them to do the same.

The New Testament only begins to make sense when we understand that it was written for Jesus’ disciples – and when we begin understand that we are Jesus’ disciples, too.

So, if we are his disciples, we are called to give ourselves for others — to pour ourselves out, not just into Temple treasuries or into worthy charities, but into the world around us. But to walk the road that Jesus walked – to walk the way this widow walked – that is so hard!

How can we learn to offer ourselves, as she did – as he did?

The disciple’s prayer

I’ve come to understand that prayer is the first step toward offering ourselves for others.

I’m not talking about prayers when we’re using words, whether we’re in church, waking up in the morning or going to bed in the evening, or at times throughout the day when we are stressed or drawn to the needs of others – although of course this kind of prayer is necessary.

And I’m not talking about those times when we’re prayerfully reading, or listening to music, or looking at art, or walking in the natural world, reflecting on the presence and meaning of God in our lives – although of course this kind of prayer is necessary, too.

And I’m not talking about those times when we’re listening to (or watching) the news, feeling our hearts going out to people who are being threatened by fires, crushed by earthquakes, drowned in storms, murdered by guns, rejected for the color of their skin, persecuted for their religious faith – although this kind of prayer is necessary, too.

I’m talking about simply opening our hearts, our minds, our selves, to God – so God can be with us throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year, going with us wherever we go.

Or to say it more accurately, so we can be with God throughout our days, throughout our weeks, throughout our years, going wherever God takes us – following Jesus wherever he goes.

Henri Nouwen writes *

Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness…

Why would you really want to do that?

Perhaps you would let the Other cross your inner threshold to see something or to touch something. But to allow the Other into that place where your most intimate life is shaped – that is dangerous and calls for defense.

An elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center… She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.

When you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fists and give up your last coin. So… when you want to pray… the first question is: How do I open my closed hands? …. Perhaps you can find your way to prayer by carefully listening to the words the angel spoke to Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and the women at the tomb: “Don’t be afraid.”

Don’t be afraid of the One who wants to enter your most intimate space and invite you to let go of what you are clinging to so anxiously. Don’t be afraid to show the clammy coin which will buy so little anyway…. Each time you dare to let go and to surrender one of your many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving You must be patient, of courses, very patient until your hands are completely open.”

That day in the Temple, when Jesus watched the widow pouring her coins into the treasury, he saw that she knew how to open her hands wide. He watched her letting go of her fears for the future.

Can we also look at this woman, and learn how to follow her – to that place where we become willing to let God lead us into our future?

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – November 11, 2018


* Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands. Ave Maria Press, 1995.


Come, Follow Me

St. Anthony’s Monastery, Egypt

Mark 10:17-22

We can hear today’s Gospel speaking directly to us, through the power of God’s Word – words first spoken by Jesus, words echoing down through the centuries, words which still call us today: Come, follow me.

Perhaps no story in Christian history shows the power of this Gospel more than the story of St. Anthony of the Desert.

Anthony was born in Egypt, the child of Christian parents, only 200 years after the first Christian churches were established. As a child Anthony loved to go to church with his parents, and he listened to the Scriptures read in church so carefully that he remembered them for the rest of his life.

Now when Anthony was about twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him with all their property.

A few months later, on his way to church, Anthony was thinking about a Scripture he had heard on a previous Sunday: How the first Christians had sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the Apostles for the care of the needy (see Acts 4:35).

Then, when Anthony entered the church, he heard this Gospel being read:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey,
a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him,
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing;
go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving,
for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

When Anthony heard these words, he felt they were spoken directly to him. So he sold the property he had just inherited from his parents and – setting aside some of the money for the care of his younger sister – he gave the rest to the poor. Then, taking only a wooden staff and his cloak, Anthony walked out into the desert, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Soon disciples were following Anthony into the desert, gathering around him to live with him and learn from him. (In later centuries other monks would call Anthony the “Father of Christian Monasticism,” because he inspired similar communities of monks, first in the Egyptian desert, and then throughout the Christian world.)

Now these are the words that inspired Anthony throughout his life:

Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

At the end of a very long life, when he knew that his death was approaching, Anthony told his disciples to give his possessions away as soon as he was gone – 3 things in all:
his old wooden staff and two sheepskin cloaks.

In the end, that’s all Anthony had left – two cloaks and a wooden staff.  Throughout his time in the desert, Anthony’s only wealth came from his love of God and from the Word of Jesus.

The Word of God and the Power of Wealth

So Anthony’s story is really a story about the power of God’s Word.  But his story is also a story about the power of human wealth.

By the middle ages, even though they were founded upon the teachings of St. Anthony and those who followed him, many Christian monasteries had become fabulously wealthy because they held onto the money and possessions given to them over the years.

How hard it is to hear the Gospel in the face of wealth, even for those monks who heard it every day of their lives!

Wealth, in Anthony’s time as in ours, always has the power to drown out the Word. Unless the Word is planted so deep in our hearts – teaching us to love others, constantly calling us to share what we have – wealth can keep us from hearing the Word.

Wealth, in our time as in Anthony’s, builds up over the years; we can hold onto it and treasure it, and at the end of our lives we pass it on to our heirs.

And the Word, in our time as in Anthony’s, can enter deeply into our hearts, working there until it prods us into action. But the Word can also go right over our heads.

Some of us will hear Jesus’ words, but we think there’s no way we could follow them. (Some of us imagine that we, too, are being called to walk out into the desert with just a staff and a cloak.)

Others will make a practice of giving away some of what we have: from the ordinary giving of everyday people, to the extraordinary giving of some of the richest people in our country today.

But many who have heard Jesus’ words will still spend our lives collecting possessions and wealth. (Some of us can hear this Gospel, and even Anthony’s story, without really letting it speak to our hearts.)

So what did Jesus mean when he said, “Follow me?”

Anthony heard Jesus tell him to sell everything, and walk out into the desert.

The Way of Love

Very few of us are called to live in the desert; but all of us are called to walk the Way of Love.

The Way of Love will be different for every one of us, but those who have been taught how to love, and those who have learned how to share, can learn to resist the call of wealth.

In Anthony’s life, it was his parents who taught him to love Jesus, and to love the word he heard in church.  In my own life, it was my grandmother, who showed me her love of Jesus, and taught me to share with others. Who taught you the Way of love?

The Word of God is the Word of Love. Love was the Word that hovered over the waters of chaos, at the very beginning of time.  The Word of Love lived deep in the soul of Jesus, who looked on that rich young man and loved him, even though he knew that the man would not find the strength to follow him.  And the Word of Love is still working through the Spirit, who breathes through us here today.

It is the Word of God, the Love of Jesus – who loves us all, and connects us all  – who calls us all to share what we have been given.

My prayer for all of us today is that we will hear these words of Jesus, letting them penetrate deep into our hearts, helping us find the Way of Love, and helping us to share more of what we have been given.

And my prayer for Leela and her family today is that she will someday hear Jesus’ words, and remember Jesus’ words throughout her life: Come, follow me.


Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood, at Leela’s baptism. 

Learning from the Canaanite Woman

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice, for a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  She begged him to caste the demon out of her daughter.  He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”  So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.   Mark 7:24-30

Whenever I hear a story from the gospels, I’ve learned to ask myself:

What does this story tell me about Jesus?
What does it tell me about God?
What does it tell me about the world that Jesus lived in?

In today’s gospel Jesus has traveled beyond the border separating Galilee from the land of the Canaanites. Today there’s a heavily militarized border there between Israel and Lebanon. But there were no borders under the Romans –  you could go almost everywhere, because Rome kept an iron grip over every people around the Mediterranean Sea.

But even without borders, there are always walls between people. It seems that we humans have evolved with the need to protect ourselves from “the others” – that is, anyone who is different from us.

And so today we’re still building walls — between peoples, languages, sexes, classes, and religions.

Today’s Gospel shows us this tendency even in the human Jesus: His culture and his Scriptures were telling him that he was called to the people of Israel.  He believed that he had been sent to bring the lost sheep of Israel back into the fold.

He was probably visiting a Jewish home in Tyre. (It’s still a city in southern Lebanon today, bombed for decades now by Israeli planes and armies.) But into this Jewish home comes a Canaanite woman, begging healing for her daughter.

And now we see Jesus changing his mind – he begins to understand that his call is not only to his own people, but to anyone seeking the love and mercy of God.

Jesus changed his mind? Now the story gets interesting!

Maybe Jesus wasn’t born knowing everything. Maybe he had to learn and grow — just like us — and maybe he, too, had to stretch his mind to see his world as God saw it.

Perhaps Jesus was divine not because he was all-knowing, but because he knew how to open his heart to God. Perhaps, growing up, Jesus had to learn how to listen — and how to be aware of the needs of others.

Perhaps Jesus also had to learn how to pay attention to his own deep feelings, and then to reflect on the meaning of these things. (Perhaps he learned to “ponder these things in his heart”, as the gospel says of his mother Mary).

I think Jesus always yearned to “dwell” – to live and move and have his being –
in that place where God lives.  And in learning to “dwell” – listening, feeling, reflecting, praying – he learned to understand where God lives.

But notice, in this Gospel story, that Jesus also found the strength to return to God whenever he found himself off-base, whenever he was wrong, whenever his vision was incomplete.

Can you do that?  Can I do that?

Usually I can understand what’s right and what’s wrong, and often I can see where God dwells, but still it’s hard to move myself to that place.  Yet that’s what we see Jesus doing in his encounter with the Canaanite woman.

So we look again at this Gospel, and ask:

What can we learn about Jesus? He was a human being who lived and learned,
with a unique ability to stand where God stands.

What can we learn about Jesus’ world (and ours)?  We humans have always lived in a world of walls, and even when the walls are breaking down, our first impulse is to build new ones.

What can we learn about God from this Gospel? The God of Jesus Christ builds no walls, but embraces the world.

The early church had to remember the Canaanite woman. They had to remember her because she taught Jesus about the breadth and height and depth of God’s love.

And so, down through the centuries the Canaanite woman has been teaching the church about God’ love, through this Gospel we’ve heard today.

In the 16th century, when the English prayer book was written, the authors still remembered this woman; and you probably remember her prayer, too. We always called it “the Prayer of Humble Access”, but we could have called it “the Prayer of the Canaanite Woman”):

We do not to presume to co:me to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy…. BCP p. 337

And in the late 20th century, the poet Brian Wren wrote this hymn, which says it all:

When Christ was lifted from the earth, his arms stretched out above
through every culture, every birth, to draw an answering love.
Still east and west his love extends and always, near or far,
he calls and claims us as his friends, and loves us as we are.
Where generation, class, or race divide us to our shame,
he sees not labels but a face, a person, and a name.
Thus freely loved, though fully known, may I in Christ be free
to welcome and accept his own, as Christ as accepted me. Amen.

To hear the hymn, go to

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood
on Sunday, September 9, 2018.

A Whale of a Tale

The Prophet Jonah Before the Walls of Ninevah

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20

After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

A whale of a tale

The Bible tells us that Jonah, the man we’ve heard was swallowed by a whale, was actually a prophet. So here are three things to know about prophets:

(1) Being a prophet is never easy;
(2) Prophets are called to be truth-tellers, not fortune-tellers; and
(3) Everyone – not just a special few – has a call to prophesy.

(1) Being a prophet is never easy:

Today’s lessons (at least, the portions we’ve heard this morning) make being a prophet look easy. Jonah saves 120,000 people (not to mention every animal) in the enemy’s city. Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and calls disciples, and they immediately drop everything to follow him.

But would you really want to be a prophet? (Just look at the Gospel again – Jesus’ story begins with John the Baptist’s arrest by Herod.) Everyone knows that being a prophet is never easy.

We all know about Jonah, the man who is said to have survived in the belly of a whale, but we don’t much else about him. Actually, the story of Jonah was originally a legend that circulated all around the Middle East. When we lived in there in the sixties, we visited two beach towns – one in Lebanon, the other in Syria, which called themselves “Nebi Yunis,” (the Prophet Jonah in Arabic) – each town proclaiming that it was the very place where the whale coughed Jonah up.

How can a human being survive for three days in the belly of a whale? That’s the question the name of Jonah usually raises. Biblical literalists still argue that Jonah really survived his time in the whale, thinking this old story is about miracles. But it’s not a story about miracles at all – it’s a story that points out how hard it is to be a prophet. It’s even a story that makes fun of prophets.

(Here are some more reasons not to be a prophet – you might be killed; you might be thrown into jail; you might be hated; and you certainly will be laughed at.)

After centuries of being told as an oral legend in various languages around the Middle East, the Hebrew book of Jonah was written around 500 years before Jesus was born. The writer takes the old legend and turns it into a short story. It’s a very short story, only four chapters long.

God calls Jonah to be a prophet, but Jonah doesn’t want to do it. The whole idea of going all the way from Israel to Ninevah, a big city in today’s Iraq, to be a prophet turns Jonah off. He is absolutely sure that no one in Ninevah, a great foreign power, will listen to him.

So Jonah runs away to Joppa, a city still on Israel’s Mediterranean coast today, and there he boards a ship heading for Turkey. He thinks he’s escaped God’s call, and falls asleep happily in his bunk on the ship.
And while Jonah sleeps, God stirs up a great storm. The ship’s crew becomes desperate, and each sailor falls on his knees, begging his own god to save them. Finally, after a couple of stormy days, the ship’s captain comes down and wakes Jonah up from his nap, asking him to pray to his God, too. Maybe Jonah’s God will stop the storm.

But Jonah already knows why the storm has blown up – God’s angry at him. So Jonah talks the crew into throwing him overboard, thinking that this punishment will take away God’s anger. And Jonah is right – the storm is calmed and the ship survives.

But now a great sea creature (which we call a whale) is sent by God to swallow Jonah. For three days and three nights Jonah suffers inside the fish’s belly. He finally confesses his disobedience, and he begs God for mercy. Then God speaks to the sea creature, which spits Jonah out onto dry land.

Now, after his rescue, Jonah knows he has to go to Ninevah, to tell the people there to repent. So he walks the thousand miles to Ninevah, muttering all the way that no one will listen to him. But when he gets there, he hurries through the streets calling people to repent – and to his surprise, they do! The people beg for forgiveness – and God, being a forgiving God, does forgive them. What a great outcome to Jonah’s hard work!

(2) Prophets are called to be truth-tellers, not fortune-tellers:

But Jonah is furious, and he angrily tells God this is the reason he tried to run away. He says,

“Oh Lord, Isn’t this what I told you when I was still in my own country? Isn’t this why I ran away? For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

(What Jonah meant was this: “I knew that you would be merciful to the Ninevites, even though they are foreigners and don’t believe in you!”)

So Jonah finishes by saying, “Now, O Lord, just put me out of my misery.” And in his snit, Jonah goes outside the city and sits down in the scorching sun, prepared to die. But God makes a bush to grow up over Jonah, to give him shade. And Jonah is happy for the shade. But the next day, a worm comes and attacks the bush, and it withers away. Then the sun rises, a great east wind comes up, and the hot sun beats down on Jonah’s head, and once again he begs God to let him die.

Then God says to Jonah: “So you are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people and also many animals?” And Jonah says to God: “I knew that your are gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…. But who is getting your mercy? Me? Or these foreigners, who don’t even believe in you?”

(3) Everyone, not just a special few, has a call to prophesy:

Increasingly in this nation, we are becoming foreign countries to each other. Many of us, like Jonah, are beginning to think that God should have no mercy on the foreigners, the illegal aliens, or the lazy poor. Others are thinking that God should have no mercy on the haters, the prejudiced, and the penny-pinchers who won’t spend an extra cent to help the poor.

And most of us are still thinking that one person, the right person, will make all the difference and lead us to the promised land.

So here’s the task ahead of us: we don’t need any lone prophets, we need a multitude of prophets to speak the truth.

So, what prophetic word is God giving to you?


Preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church
January 21, 2018

Walking the Jordan River

Waters shall break forth in the wilderness…
Isaiah 35-10

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God…
Psalm 46:1-12 

On either side of the river is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit,
and the leaves of the fruit are for the healing of the nations…
Revelation 22:1-5

Then Jesus came to the Jordan, to be baptized by John….
Matthew 3:13-17 

The Jordan River winds through the whole Bible, a sacred symbol for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Jews remember that their ancestors crossed through the Jordan into the promised land.  Christians remember that Jesus came there to be baptized in its waters. And Muslims remember Muhammad, whose closest companions were buried there.

In today’s Gospel Jesus steps into the Jordan…. not just to be baptized in a symbolic action, but to be completely drenched in the river.

Are you ready to step into the waters, too?

Walking the river with Jesus

As a young boy, Jesus probably climbed into the mountains north of his home in Nazareth, perhaps even reaching the springs that feed the river near Mt. Hermon.

Cascades near Mt. Hermon

He would have seen farmers using the Jordan’s water to irrigate their farms…

The upper Jordan

He would have hiked around the Sea of Galilee, formed by the river over many centuries.

The Sea of Galilee

And as a grown man, after his baptism in the river, we know he climbed into the dry hills above the Jordan, to wrestle with his call to ministry.

The lower Jordan desert

Walking the river today

I invite you to walk the Jordan River with me this morning.  We could choose to hike along the Colorado River, sacred to the Native Americans who live along its banks, dammed by American engineers, and diverted to American farms before it reaches Mexican land.

Or we could walk along the Ganges as it rushes south through India and Bangladesh, or along the Nile as it winds through the nations of North Africa.

We could be walking almost any river on Earth, because every river has ecological, human, and spiritual value to the people who live nearby; but we’re walking the Jordan today because it already has spiritual value for us, and it is crying out for practical solutions to its many problems.

The Jordan from outer space

For a river with such mighty meaning, the Jordan River is very short – only 156 miles long.  It was once more than 75 feet wide, flanked by willow trees and poplars and filled with fish that could be eaten; but today, at its best the Jordan is less than 6 feet deep. It’s become more like a creek than a river.

The river flows through some of the most dangerous and disputed land on Earth.  Its sources begin in the mountains where the borders of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel meet.  Then, below the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan forms the border between Israel and two Arab nations.

But the crisis facing the river Jordan involves more than international politics.  Today environmentalists blame Israel, Jordan and Syria for crippling damage to the river and its ecosystem. 70% to 90% of the river’s waters are used for human purposes along the upper Jordan, and the remaining water comes from sewage and the contaminated agricultural run-off.

at Yardenit

Just below the Sea of Galilee, the modern pilgrim comes to Yardenit, where the Israelis have created a pool of clean water.  Every year more than 600,000 pilgrims come here, to step in the water, to be baptized, or to be re-baptized. If you only saw the Jordan here (as most Christian pilgrims do) you might think that the Jordan River is still robust and vibrant.

at Alumout

But just a few miles south of Yardenit, we come to the Alumot Dam, which diverts the fresh water into Israel’s national water carrier.  A small sewage treatment plant processes the rest, sending a thin stream of brownish-yellow sewage water back into the stream. As the river continues south, the sewage from thousands of Israelis living in the upper Jordan Valley; from thousands of Israeli settlers and Palestinians on the West Bank; and from a quarter-million Jordanians provides the Lower Jordan River with most of its water.

at the Island of Peace

A few miles south of Alumot, we come to the “Island of Peace”. To find an Island of Peace anywhere in the world is rare, but to find it in the Middle East is a miracle.  The land here is Jordanian, but it’s owned and farmed by an Israel kibbutz.  100 years ago, kibbutz leaders received permission from Jordan to build a hydroelectric power station, and the canals and dams built for the station created an island.  In spite of continuing conflict Israel ceded the area to Jordan 25 years ago, as part of the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace. Jordan agreed to lease it back so the Israeli farmers could continue to cultivate the land. The kibbutz on the Island of Peace continues to this day; international pilgrims still visit; and Friends of the Earth – Middle East hope (now called EcoPeace) hopes to create a “Jordan Peace Park”.

at Bethany beyond the Jordan

A few miles south of the “Island of Peace” we come to al-Maghtas – or “Bethany beyond the Jordan”. This is the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism – honored and visited for nearly 2,000 years of Christian history.   Today pilgrims walk down steps that led to a deck on the river’s edge, and – if they dare – can step into the Jordan’s waters.

Two years ago, EcoPeace led journalists on a tour of the river.  One of the journalists recorded,

“One look at the river and we understood why we came on the trip. It was pitiful.  The Jordan River, for all its fame, was a narrow  brownish stream that gurgled its way south.  On the opposite side, just a few meters away from us in Jordan, was a similar wooden deck where tourists came and went.

“One pilgrim put on a white cloth and calmly entered the water. The guide, who had been explaining how the river turned from gushing rapids into a fetid stream, stopped mid-sentence as we all watched in horror. “

Sometimes our convictions about spiritual truth the can blind us to material reality.

   at the Dead Sea

A few more miles, and we come to the Dead Sea. The Jordan always ended here; the waters have no outlet because the sea is so far below sea level. But today the Dead Sea is truly dying, shrinking by the day as its waters are drained away for human use.

The Jordan River is the latest victim of the Syrian civil war

More than 3 million refugees have fled Syria to date, and over half a million have settled in bone-dry and water-impoverished Jordan.   Environmental issues are understandably a very distant second to humanitarian concerns, but the rising numbers of refugees needing water have reduced the river’s flow to a trickle.

Za’atari refugee camp

One of the Jordan’s major tributaries, the Yarmouk River, flows southwest out of Syria and forms the border between Syria, Jordan and Israel.  Nearby is the Za’atari Refugee Camp, the second largest refugee camp in the world and now the fourth largest settlement in Jordan.

(To illustrate the impact that humans have on these rivers, note this: When refugees began to flee southern Syria, the amount of water flowing downstream to the Yarmouk water greatly increased – because the water is no longer being used by Syrian farms and towns.)

EcoPeace Middle East  

EcoPeace Middle East is an international organization active in environmental peacemaking. With 40 paid employees and hundreds of volunteers, EcoPeace publishes scientific and social research, spearheads national-level advocacy campaigns and engages in grassroots community development.

One of EcoPeace’s major goals is the rehabilitation of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.  Its Good Water Neighbors project engages residents of all ages, mayors and municipal representatives in 25 communities throughout all three countries in a united effort to rehabilitate the regions’ shared water resources.  Amazingly, considering the region’s problems, EcoPeace has made surprising headway in encouraging cooperation to save the river.

A study by EcoPeace scientists shows that the Jordan River could return to life with 400 million cubic meters of fresh water annually.  Where would the water come from?  Half would be returned by Israel, a quarter by Jordan, and the last quarter by Syria.  EcoPeace says those percentages are based on historically who has taken what.  “Historically, Israel has taken 46% of the flow. So it can at least return that much and because of its [strong] economic situation it can return more.”

Impossible?  The work EcoPeace has done with local councils and the media has created a public outcry which in turn has convinced the local authorities near the Sea of Galilee to finally build a sewage treatment plant, which will treat the waste and then use that water for other purposes.

A proposed Jordan River Peace Park is another source of hope to EcoPeace . Its leaders envision an island national park where Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians, who so seldom meet, might congregate and try to overcome their differences.

What are we going to do about water?

This has been another week when we’ve felt defeated by American politics, alarmed by world leaders threatening war, and overwhelmed by monster hurricanes and earthquakes.  Can we muster any energy to save earth’s waters?

Every worth-while task is daunting.  It doesn’t matter whether you want to save the salmon in the Columbia River or the Morro Bay Estuary, share water equitably from the Colorado or the San Joaquin delta.  It doesn’t matter whether your water issue starts with underground wells in Cambria or Paso Robles, or the with the cost of treating sewage in Los Osos.

But if Israelis and Jordanians can maintain an Island of Peace in a region of war, what could we do here?

I know that everyone here this morning is already personally doing something to care for the environment.  We’ve learned to recycle, take shorter showers, stop using Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles  – small personal actions that mount up when we do it together.  But how are we working together to pressure our local officials, our national leaders, to make better decisions about water?

If some brave Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians can cooperate to save the Jordan River, can’t we muster the patience to deal with our own neighbors, with our community service districts, with our county, state and national leaders?

How big a task is too big for us?  Let’s return to this morning’s psalm:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea.
though the mountains tremble at its tumult.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Psalm 46

As I see it, there are two ways to respond to what this psalm is saying.

We could hear it saying,  Don’t worry, leave it to God.
Or we could hear, God will give you strength to do the work before you. 

What do you hear?

Every worth-while task is daunting, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

The Mud Creek Slide

Yesterday when Rob read this verse – the mountains toppled into the depths of the sea – he was reminded of the great slide on Highway One north of us – and the mind-boggling challenge of repairing it.

So Rob asked, should we wait for God to fix this – these mountains that have tumbled into the sea – or can God give us strength – the strength to decide to fix our infrastructure, to repair our roads and our dams, and then agree to pay taxes so the state of California can fix it?

Rob says that’s one thing he can do.

What’s  your  “one thing”?

Preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos
River Sunday: September 24, 2017


Jesus: The Human Face of God

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.


What is metanoia?

Over the years, when have you experienced metanoia?
      What could new metanoia mean for you today?
         What could metanoia mean for your home?
            For your town?  For our country?



Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your soul.
For my yoke is easy and my burden light.

Matthew 11:29-30

The soul of man is the lamp of God. 
Hebrew Proverb

This is a biography of Jesus, not a theological tract, though I take seriously the message embodied in the story of Christ that unfolded in real time. In Jesus: The Human Face of God, I offer a fresh look at him from the viewpoint of someone (a poet, novelist, and teacher of literature) who regards scripture as continuous revelation, embodied  not only in the four gospels – still the main source for information about the life of Jesus – but also in extra-canonical writing, such as the Gnostic Gospels, as well as in centuries of poetry and literature, where we see that prophecy remains active and  ongoing. I emphasize throughout what I call the gradually realizing kingdom of God – a process of transformation, like that of an undeveloped photograph dipped in chemicals. The process  itself adds detail and depth to the image, which grows more distinct and plausible by the moment.

Literal-minded readings of the scriptures distort this understanding of the kingdom of God in unfortunate ways. In my view, one is not “saved” by simply checking off the boxes in a code of dogmatic beliefs – this is not what Jesus had in mind.  He asked more of us than that, and offered more as well. And so,  in this portrait of Jesus’s life and ideas, I put forward a mythos – a  Greek word meaning story or legend – which suggests that the  narrative has symbolic contours as well as literal heft, and that one should always read this story with a kind of double vision, keeping in mind the larger meanings contained in the words and deeds that have mattered so much to Christians over two millennia.

Modern theologians have talked about demythologizing Jesus, but I want to remythologize him. At every turn in this biography, I try to imagine what Jesus meant to those who  encountered him, and how his teachings and behavior inspired  deeply personal transformations with public or social (even political) implications.

Jesus was a religious genius, and the Spirit moved in him in unique ways, with unusual grace and force, allowing him access to the highest levels of God-consciousness. His own life provided an example of how to behave in the world, urging us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to turn the other check when  struck, and to remain fixed on “faith, hope, and love.”  “This is  my commandment,” Jesus said, putting before us a single ideal, “That you love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12).  The simplicity and force of this statement take away the breath.

In the course of this book, I make an effort to place Jesus and his teachings within the context of desert wisdom. He came into this world at a turning point in history, a devout  Jew trained in the laws of Moses and the traditions of Judaism.  But he lived on the Silk Road, where he had access to Eastern as well as Western ideas. These currents informed his thoughts, and the Sermon on the Mount – where the core of his teaching  lies in compressed form – extended and transformed key Jewish concepts while absorbing the Hindu and Buddhist idea of Karma: the notion that we ultimately reap what we sow.  Jesus thought of the human mind in Greek terms, of course: an amalgam of body and soul. Yet his understanding of the human condition drew on every available concept as he set forth at the age of thirty with energy and passion, hoping to reshape the world, speaking not to elites – those who ruled the Roman Empire  or administered the Second Temple in Jerusalem – but to the  poor, the weak, and the marginalized. Here was, indeed, a revolution.

He was a ferocious, challenging teacher, hardly the Jesus “meek and mild” of the church hymn. And he made huge demands on those drawn toward him, as when he says in Mark  8:34: “Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and  take up his cross, and follow me.” It’s an audacious invitation and one that Christians rarely take with the seriousness intended. The Way of Jesus, as it might be called, involves self denial, a sense of losing oneself in order to find oneself, moving  through the inevitable pain of life with good cheer, accepting  gracefully the burdens that fall on our shoulders and the tasks  that lie before us. This is true discipleship,

On this subject, I often recall the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and minister who was executed by the Nazis in a concentration camp at Flossenburg on April 9, 1945, only a few weeks before its liberation by the Allies. Bonhoeffer stood up boldly to Hitler, and his anti-Nazi activities led to his arrest by the Gestapo. During his imprisonment in Berlin’s Tegel Military Prison for a year and a half, Bonhoeffer offered comfort and inspiration to his fellow prisoners, and even his Nazi jailers admired his courage and compassion, the example he set for others in a dire situation. He imitated Jesus there,  making use of his example, allowing it to define his own life and actions.

Bonhoeffer reflected passionately on the meaning of his life, writing in his diary only a few months before his death: “It all depends on whether or not the fragment of our life reveals the plan and material of the whole. There are fragments which are  only good to be thrown away, and others which are important for centuries to come because their fulfillment can only be a divine work. They are fragments of necessity. If our life, however  remotely, reflects such a fragment … we shall not have to bewail our fragmentary life, but, on the contrary, rejoice in it.” (1)   

In The Cost of Discipleship, a bracing theological work, Bonhoeffer meditates at book-length on what it means to take up the cross: “Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship. An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ.” (2)   So it won’t do simply to follow a doctrinal system, marking off the things one has to believe in order to be “saved.” To follow the Way of Jesus, one has to walk in a certain direction, experiencing the difficulties as well as the illimitable freedom of that choice. “Happy are the simple followers of Jesus Christ who have been overcome by his grace,” writes Bonhoeffer. “Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ, are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world.” (3)   Bonhoeffer’s statement makes one question the idea of dogma, the notion that one should adhere  to strict rules and prescribed statements in order to pursue the  Christian way.

Jesus himself would have been startled to learn that, only a few centuries after his death – with the conversion of Emperor  Constantine in the early fourth century – the Roman Empire itself would officially adopt his teachings and make them the law of the land. He might well have balked at the thought that a world religion would arise in his name, with competing theologians (and armies), all convinced that their understanding of his gospel message is correct, while other views are wrong. Jesus had no intention of founding a church (Greek: ekklesia) in competition with Judaism, although as the parable of the mustard seed suggests, he could imagine large numbers of people flocking to his tree of ideas like birds.

In the last chapter of this book, I explore the “afterlife” of Jesus, how a church gradually formed, with competing ideas about what his life meant. I also explore the various attempts to write about his life, which in the modern age began in the eighteenth century, when after the Enlightenment a degree of skepticism arose about the historical status of Jesus and the deeds  and words relayed in the gospels. But that’s later in the story.  The starting point, for me – as suggested above – is the world into which Jesus was born, a pervasively Jewish world in Palestine at one of the major junctures in history, when the message that Jesus offered struck a small chord among a core group  of people  – most of them Mediterranean peasants who could  barely read or write – that would grow louder and more resonant in time.

Yet questions loom: Who exactly was this man, Jesus of  Nazareth? Was he, as some scholars argue, a wandering rabbi, a magician, a healer and exorcist like many others at this time, including Rabbinic sages such as Honi ha-Ma’agel or Hanina ben  Dosa?(4)   Was he also an apocalyptic visionary who imagined an end to history? As anyone who reads the gospels soon notices, Jesus quoted easily and often from Hebrew scriptures, with incredible alertness to parallels that foreshadowed his own story.  He understood that Jews in Palestine felt profoundly uneasy  under Roman rule, and he reflected this political reality in the  things he said and did. But it’s important to keep in mind that he was always a good, if unconventional, Jew. The fact that he took himself to be the long-awaited Christ (the Greek word  for messiah) would, in fact, hardly have endeared him to Jewish  authorities, who never imagined that the Chosen One would come from peasant stock in a remote Galilean village. That wasn’t what they had in mind, and they looked askance at his purveyance of “signs and wonders” – miracles and astounding deeds that drew crowds wherever he went.

Christians have sometimes turned away from the supernatural aspects of his life with a sense of embarrassment. Walking on water? Giving sight to blind men? Healing lepers? Turning water into wine? Bringing the dead back to life? Rising from the dead after being crucified? Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy – both sons of the Enlightenment – sifted through the gospels with great care and a red pencil, underlining the aphorisms where his wisdom shone; at the same time, they crossed out the supernatural parts, including the Resurrection, which they assumed no self-respecting intellectual could abide. In What Is Religion? Tolstoy puts his views forward without fudging his skepticism: “Religion is not a belief, settled once for all, in certain supernatural occurrences supposed to have taken place once upon a time, nor in the necessity for certain prayers and ceremonies; nor is it, as the scientists suppose, a survival of the superstitions of ancient ignorance, which in our time has no meaning or application to life; but religion is a certain relation of man to eternal life and to God, a relation accordant with reason and contemporary knowledge.” (5)

To this day liberal Christians tend to deflect the “superstitious” parts of the Jesus story and prefer to see religion as “a relation accordant with reason and contemporary knowledge,”  with Jesus as a prophet who preached love and nonviolent resistance to evil. He becomes simply a wise man who wished us to behave like the Good Samaritan in the parable (Luke 10:29-37), that kindly fellow who went out of his way to help a robbed and beaten traveler who lay by the roadside. This was ethical behavior of a high order, and Jesus encouraged such habits of rectitude and responsibility. Love your neighbor. Treat people as you would treat yourself (unless you happen to treat yourself badly).

This Jesus stands in contrast to the Jesus of evangelical Protestantism, where he becomes the Savior, the single doorway to heaven, the only route to eternal life, the way to ward off the flames of hell. Indeed, we’re all familiar with the bumper sticker versions of this theology, perhaps best summed up as “Jesus Saves.” For such Christians, the Redeemer was required by his father in heaven to die for the sins of humanity. In this tradition, simply believing that he gave his life for our sins buys admittance to God’s kingdom. This is widely known as conversion: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, and your house,” as we read in Acts 16:31. It’s a simple idea, attractive to large numbers of people, although such a picture of Jesus and his “good news” tends to oversimplify his message and meaning, leading to a kind of limited vision that is both reductive and – in my opinion – dangerous. It suggests that one can, in an instant, cross a magical line and acquire salvation instead of entering into the gradually realizing kingdom of God, a process of daily transformation.


Jesus invited, even insisted on, a change of heart, asking us to repent. But repentance is only part of the deeper meaning buried in the Greek term μετάνοια (metanoia) – a key word in the New Testament. The word derives from meta, meaning “to move beyond,” as in metaphysics, or “grow large or increase.” Noia means “mental” or “mind.” So the word, quite specifically, means: “to grow  large in mind.” When scriptures suggest that one should “repent” in order to be “saved,” this actually means that in addition  to having a change of heart – and that remains a core meaning here – one should go beyond the mind, reaching for awareness of the spirit, for a deep grounding in God.  Even to be “saved”  doesn’t relate to “salvation” in the most common sense of the  term: soteria in Greek. It means “being filled with a new spirit.”  In other words, one shifts consciousness, through prayer and  meditation, through worship, seeking a larger and wider consciousness. One wakes up into the kingdom, moving beyond  the deadening confines of everyday reality.

This is very different from the usual focus on repentance and salvation, concepts that actually derive from the early Church Fathers, especially Justin Martyr, who influenced Irenaeus and  Tertullian, early theologians who focused on the need for remorse, for expiation – getting rid of one’s sinful deeds by admitting them. St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin in the late fourth century, absorbed this teaching, and he set in motion  a range of theological misperceptions by translating metanoia as paenitentia, which becomes, in English, repent, as in the King James Version (KJV): “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2) .

This translation does not reflect a properly complex version of the term metanoia (which occurs fifty-eight times in the New Testament). The word itself suggests a beckoning by God toward the human soul, an invitation to spaciousness and awakening. (6)   It implies a reaching beyond (meta) the mind (noia), a wish to acquire a wider spiritual awareness.  A better way to translate this verse in Matthew would be: “Have a true change of heart and wake up to God. The spaciousness of his kingdom lies inside you. Transformation is not only possible: it lies within your grasp.” This, for me, is what it means to be “saved,” and it asks more of us than mere assent to a list of beliefs. It requires a mindfulness and absorption of God’s kingdom that is, in the end, life changing.

While not a biblical scholar, I have over many years been in close contact with Christianity and Christians from different (often conflicting) theological traditions. Growing up in the home of a former Roman Catholic turned Baptist minister, I often sat through hot summer evenings in tabernacle meetings of a kind familiar to anyone who has watched Billy Graham on television. Indeed, I heard the Reverend Graham in person on more than one occasion, and countless times on television and radio – my family listened every Sunday at lunchtime to his weekly radio sermon. I continue to have genuine sympathy for what might be called “that old-time religion.” Every morning at the breakfast table, my father read from the King James Version of the Bible, large portions of which I committed to memory.  I later studied the Greek New Testament, reading a good deal  of theology in college, graduate school, and beyond. Christian theology has been a preoccupation of mine for some five decades. (I should note that most of the versions of the New Testament quoted in this book are my own, produced by working from an interlinear Greek-English text. For reasons of familiarity I sometimes prefer the King James Version, as when I quote the Beatitudes or the Lord’s Prayer. I use the KJV in all cases when quoting from the Hebrew scriptures. To my ear, it’s what the Old Testament sounds like.) As a young man I became, and I remain, a member of the Episcopal Church, with an Anglican disposition – a consequence of ten years spent in Britain, perhaps.

My religious affections range widely, probably as a result of the mongrel past described above. At the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, I wrote a graduate thesis on Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit movement and an innovator in the field of devotional practice, as seen in his Spiritual Exercises, which dates to the early sixteenth century. In college, I was thoroughly enamored of modern theologians like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, who brought my evangelical orientation into question; yet I retain a sympathy for the religion of my childhood: my heart warms when I hear hymns like “Blessed Assurance” or “Just as I Am.” My own religious  practice, however, draws on many strands in Christianity, and  my reading in the field ranges over any number of (often contradictory) spiritual writers, many of them as much influenced by Buddhism as Christian theology. (I regularly teach a course  on poetry and spirituality at Middlebury College, bringing me into constant contact with a range of spiritual writing from the  Psalms through the Tao Te Ching, the poems of Rumi, as well  as T. S. Eliot, R. S. Thomas, Charles Wright, and Mary Oliver, among others. In fact, I write as someone who has spent more time reading poetry than scholarly studies of Jesus.) Although I will allude frequently to competing interpretations of biblical texts, my focus will remain on my own understanding of the  meaning of the life of Christ – provisional as this must necessarily be.

In the final chapter of this book, I attempt to deal with the often contradictory efforts of scholars in recent centuries to locate the historical foundations of the Jesus story: the so-called quest for the historical Jesus. It’s not easy work, as the biblical trail alone is often blurry, and the usual techniques of “scientific” history rarely apply here. The gospels themselves can’t be considered historical evidence in the modern sense of that term.  But in my attempt to reimagine the mythos of Jesus, I try to take  all this uncertainty into account, retelling the story as I see it, noting the difficulties of interpretation where they arise, drawing attention to contradictions where they exist, while trying to see Jesus steadily and whole through the kaleidoscopic lens of  many texts.

Now in my mid-sixties, I’m still in search of Jesus, and this seeking often seems more important than the finding. To a large degree, this biography itself represents the fruit of my decades-long project of trying to understand Jesus and to take his example purposefully in my own life. I often recall some lines from the Gospel of Thomas, one of the Gnostic Gospels discovered in the sands of Egypt at Nag Hamrnadi in 1945:

If you are searching,
You must not stop until you find.
When you find, however,
You will become troubled.
Your confusion will give way to wonder.
In wonder you will reign over all things.
Your sovereignty will be your rest.  (7)   

This search, for me, involves a great deal of confusion, although it often gives way to wonder, to a feeling of all-embracing peace and sympathy for others. Jesus invites me to consider the lilies, and to understand that, by grace, I have access to a wider kingdom than I’d previously imagined. It’s a matter of “thy will be done,” not my own willing: a shift of emphasis that lifts the burden.

While I pay close attention to the facts in this biography of Jesus, the historicity of his life is less important than the meaning of the story itself. It doesn’t matter what aspects of his  life – his sayings, the exemplary deeds that formed the core of his ministry, the miracles – can be confirmed (or denied) by historians. At the end of his recent book, Constructing Jesus, Dale C. Allison, Jr. – a leading New Testament scholar – concludes his long study with a moving frankness: “While I am proudly a historian, I must confess that history is not what matters most.  If my deathbed finds me alert and not overly racked with pain, I will then be preoccupied with how I have witnessed and embodied faith, hope, and charity. I will not be fretting over the historicity of this or that part of the Bible.(8)   This rings true in  my ears.

What matters is the way that God moved in the life of Jesus, who showed us how to find this spirit within ourselves.  Ralph Waldo Emerson put the matter succinctly in his “Divinity School Address” delivered at Harvard in 1838:

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of the prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion,  “I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would  you see God, see me.”

The story of Jesus transcends time and physical boundaries. To understand it, one must remain open to every possibility, regarding the miracles of Jesus and the Resurrection as mysteries more alluring than frustrating, more inspiring than disconcerting. I narrate the life of Jesus from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond – with sympathy for its profound mythic pull, its transforming powers. I stop by the wayside to explain major moments or concepts that may not be familiar to all readers, such as the Virgin Birth or the Transfiguration. In the process of remythologizing Jesus, I take in stride the supernatural aspects of his life, believing that reality is more complex than we usually think, and that we can’t begin to imagine the truth of things with the limited intellectual and perceptual machinery we’ve  been given. In this, I follow St. Anselm, who referred to “faith on a quest to know:’ writing: “For I do not seek to understand  so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. (9)   

Within the Christian worldview, history becomes a pattern of timeless moments. And the work involves trying to find a place in the bewildering universe of hints and guesses that confront us as we search, looking around us at things we can scarcely hope to comprehend with the limited intellect and resources we’ve been given. As T. S. Eliot put it so beautifully in  “The Dry Salvages”:

                        These are only hints and guesses,
 Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.


How would you explain the Greek word metanoia?
Over the years, when have you experienced metanoia?

What could new metanoia mean for you today?
What could metanoia mean for your home?
For your town?  For our country?



1  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 33.

2  Bonhoeffer, 59.

3  Bonhoeffer, 55-56.

4  For a discussion of the Jewish context of Jesus, see Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (London: Collins, 1973) or Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012).

5   Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy, ed. Jay Parini (London: Penguin, 2009), 164.

6   For a fuller discussion of metanoia, see Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His .Message (Boston: Shambhala, 2008), 37-38. See also Murray A. Rae, Kierkegaard’s Vision if the Incarnation: By Faith Transformed (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). My reading of metanoia is also reinforced by Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 219-20.  Borg says: “The Greek roots of ‘repent’ mean ‘to go beyond the mind that you have.’”

The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin, ed. Lynn Bauman (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2004), 8. I am grateful to Cynthia Bourgeault for directing me to this translation.

8   Dale C. Allison, Jr., Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 462.

9   Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, The Major Works, trans. M.J.  Charlesworth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 87.


It would be impossible to acknowledge all of those who have helped me along my path over many decades in my pursuit of Jesus, but several friends read this manuscript in various drafts, including a number of gifted theologians and biblical scholars. These include Ellie Gebarowski Bagley, J. Stannard Baker, Edward Howells, Paul Jersild, John Kiess, Richard McLaughlan and O. Larry Yarbrough. Without their encouragement and suggestions, this book would have been infinitely poorer, although I accept full responsibility for all errors of fact and judgment. The manuscript was closely read by my editor and friend, James Atlas, and by my wife, Devon Jersild. Their suggestions were acutely intelligent and always helpful as well as encouraging.


Chapter 1 – Ancient Palestine

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.


Where did the “silk road” go in Jesus’ day? 
Do we live on a “silk road” today?
How does today’s “silk road” change the way we see the world?


Jesus was a Near Eastern event.  
– Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus

The lilies are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
Psalm 16:6


I  recently stood at sunrise on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, with goat bells tinkling in the middle distance.  The Mount of Olives loomed in a rising mist, the air tinged with the odor of cypress, not unlike the smell of sage with a twist of lemon. It occurred to me that for thousands of years this prospect had remained more or less unchanged. This bleached landscape was a place where generations of merchants and caravans traveled along the Silk Road in search of wealth and adventure, where foreign armies came and went, where religious passions met, sometimes mingled, often clashed in near apocalypse. The walled city itself was a palimpsest, with many erasures and overwritten passages; it speaks of stratified cultures, layer upon layer: pagan, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and many iterations of each. It has always, indeed, been a site of placement and displacement, sacred to someone, a major cross roads between East and West, an incendiary point on any map of the world.

For good reason, theologians, historians, and archaeologists have focused intensely on Palestine, especially in the biblical period, and recent work has produced revelations that only enhance the mythic aspect of place in this land. Palestine is a magnet for mythos, the cradle of desert wisdom. And the narrative residue of this area is daunting: a thousand and one tales mingle here, true and partially true, fantastic or realistic. The degree to which ancient Hebrew scripture represents what actually occurred during the millennium before Jesus’s birth, up through the day of his crucifixion in the third decade of the first century is, by itself, a subject that has vexed scholars over the centuries. Yet we know a great deal more about Palestine now than we did only a century ago. “It is no exaggeration to say that since the mid-twentieth century our Western map of the known Christian universe has been blasted wide open.” writes Cynthia Bourgeault, a scholar who has looked closely at the wisdom tradition in the teachings of Jesus. (1)  She refers mainly to the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, at Nag Hamrnadi in Egypt, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran. In fact, the doors and windows have been flung open by archaeology and textual criticism, and our knowledge of ancient Palestine has multiplied exponentially, bringing new perspectives on the life of Jesus.

A few points we can assume: Jesus was no illiterate carpenter without access to the marketplace of ideas. Living on the Silk Road, a trading thoroughfare between East and West, he would have encountered Hellenistic notions of the soul’s immortality that poured in from the West, from Greece and Rome, and felt the heady winds of mysticism blowing from Persia and the East. Many cultural historians, such as Jerry H. Bentley, have dangled the possibility before us that Buddhism played a role in the shaping of early Christianity, with stories about the Buddha often having parallels in the life and teachings of Jesus. (2)  At the very least, religion and trade were binding influences in Palestine at this critical juncture in time, and one can’t overestimate the impact these had on ideas circulating in Galilee at the beginning of this millennium.

In short, the world into which Jesus was born during the time of Augustus Caesar was cosmopolitan as well as Jewish, if reluctantly under Roman authority. The emperor allowed any number of client kings to operate on its behalf: Herod the Great, for instance, kept an eye fixed on Rome for direction as he reigned over an impressive kingdom, where religious culture flourished, centered on the magnificent Second Temple in Jerusalem, which (according to Luke 2:39-52) Jesus visited with his family, who probably joined regular caravans from Nazareth, his home village, to worship at religious festivals, such as the feast of Passover.

This was a desert world alert to every spiritual wind that swept its bright and stony surfaces, a place with “an awesome, all-pervading sense of time and space,” as Joseph Campbell, the great student of world myth, has noted, calling it “a kind of Aladdin cave within which light and darkness, spirit and soul, interplay to create” a world where the human and the divine mingled under the relentless sun. Campbell concludes: “The individual in this world is not an individual at all, but of an organ or part of the great organism – as in Paul or Augustine’s view of the Living Body of Christ. In each being, as throughout the world cavern, there play the two contrary, all-pervading principles of Spirit and Soul.” (3)


Ancient Palestine stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River and adjoining territories: a landscape of olive and fig trees, juniper and date palms, fields of grain, vineyards, fragrant desert flowers and plants, undulating mountains and fertile valleys, with sunlight shimmering off stone buildings – especially the magnificent Second Temple in Jerusalem, which Herod (shortly before the birth of Jesus) enlarged to a size nearly as big as his ego. It became the focal point for Jewish worship, even for civic life in the capital. Indeed, the rebuilding of the Second Temple involved large numbers of people over several decades. According to Joachim Jeremias, a revered New Testament scholar: “When the work began, 10,000 lay workers and 1,000 priests trained for the purpose are said to have been engaged.” (4)  That’s a small army. The historian Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE), who remains a major source of information about the early Christian era, described entering the Temple himself and being dazzled by the golden facade that made him blink with admiration and awe. Jeremias says: “Even though we must take the statements of Josephus with critical caution, we cannot doubt that the Temple was built with the greatest possible splendor and provided great opportunities for craftsmanship in gold, silver and bronze. Indeed, on entering the Temple, no matter from what direction a man came, he would have to pass through double gates covered with gold and silver.” (5)

Jesus didn’t enjoy such luxuries, being from a poor village in Galilee, the son of a journeyman (Greek: tekton), perhaps a carpenter or mason by trade: linguists continue to argue over the exact meaning of that term. It’s certain, however, that life outside the Temple itself was anything but lavish for most Jews in this era. They lived in houses of rough-cut stone with flat tiled roofs and unpainted wooden doors. The windows had no screens, of course, so flies were daily companions. These crude dwellings had packed-dirt floors and open courtyards where family and friends gathered for meals and conversation in a peasant society wedded to the agricultural rhythms of planting and harvest times. In the course of any day, Jesus would have seen chickens, sheep, cattle, oxen, camels, goats, horses, and donkeys. The city streets would often have been paved or cobbled, but this was mostly a land of dusty roads and dry, windswept vistas. The smell of dung lingered in the air.

Few people in Palestine at this time could read and write, though devout Jews listened to readings of the Hebrew scriptures, the Tanakh, which included the Pentateuch (or Torah) – the five books of Moses – as well as the Prophets. The so-called Writings, such as the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or Job, were later additions to the canonical Hebrew Bible, but they circulated among Jews along with a large quantity of Midrash, a kind of writing devoted to interpreting the meaning of scripture, especially its legal and ethical aspects. Jesus knew these texts well, as we see from his conversations as reported in the gospels, and regarded teaching as a central aspect of his mission: indeed, his followers often called him Rabbi or Teacher. As I noted before, he considered himself a devout Jew with ideas about reforming Judaism, not someone with designs on starting his own religion. It’s significant that he never left a word of writing himself, which meant that his sayings and parables rode on the uncertain breeze of oral tradition, circulating like spores, taking root here and there.

His native language was Aramaic, a Semitic tongue commonly spoken in Palestine at this time, especially among Jews. (It was in the Canaanite family of languages). By the first century, Greek had become the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean, and this was true in Palestine as well, as it had been under the influence of Hellenistic culture since its conquest by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. One assumes that Jesus had some knowledge of Greek, although we lack hard evidence for this. The Romans, who arrived in the middle of the first century BCE, preferred Latin for official purposes, but Latin was rare in the streets (though not unknown). From the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, a Roman prefect, we can assume that Jesus spoke Latin, although his degree of fluency can’t be known. In short, Palestine offered a very complex linguistic stew.

Close to home, Jesus had access to civilized culture. He could have walked to Sepphoris in less than an hour, this city of forty thousand inhabitants and the capital of Galilee, as it lay only a few miles to the northwest of Nazareth. It was the home of King Herod Antipas (until he moved his palace to Tiberias in the 20s CE, when Jesus would have been a young man), and the royal court brought visitors from far and wide. The city perched on the top of a mountain like a bird, hence the Hebrew name for it: Zippori, after tzipor, meaning “bird.” As the discoveries of recent archaeology reveal, it was a wealthy metropolis: the elaborate mosaic floors and colonnaded, paved streets confirm this. It was a busy commercial center, with two markets where traders brought goods from far and wide: woven fabrics from the east, an array of earthenware pots, jewelry, oil for burning in lamps, wooden furniture, beer and wine, fresh fish and fowl, various meats and baked goods, seasonings that included cumin, garlic, coriander, mint, mustard, and dill. Both men and women walked about in loose-fitting tunics, although the men wore leather belts or cloth girdles. Sandals were made of leather and sold in the marketplace. Any number of coins circulated for currency, often minted in Sepphoris.

Of course a substantial sector of the population in Palestine labored in agricultural jobs in this era. They planted and reaped barley or grapes or cared for animals. A smaller group manned fishing boats or worked in what might be considered the clothing industry: weaving cloth for tunics, tooling leather for sandals and belts. Some labored in the olive-oil business, cultivating the orchards or pressing the olives themselves. A number of beekeepers could also be found, as honey was much prized in Palestine, then as now. One could also find a number of butcher shops in any small city or town, and meat from Palestine traveled as far as Athens. Luxury goods, too, attracted any number of specialists, such as jewelers and goldsmiths. Jesus would have been familiar with all of these professions, and he made use of many images from the everyday lives of working men in his parables.


Galilee in the first century was charged with religious feelings, with competing groups of rabbis – Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai each founded traditions of biblical study and practice, often in competition for followers. Several devout sects flourished, including the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots – the latter a group that didn’t come fully into view until the Jewish revolt of 66 CE, although precursor movements certainly existed. (Jesus not only knew of these sects but possibly belonged to one of them, as Geza Vermes – a pioneering scholar of Judaism and its influence on Christianity – notes.) (6)  Each of these sects of Judaism had elaborate rules and habits, although none of them emphasized “belief,” as the term is commonly understood by Christians today. Judaism, then as now, was a religion of practice, not intellectual or emotional assent. You lived as a Jew, following the laws put forward in the Torah. The afterlife could take care of itself.

The Sadducees – the name alludes to Saduc, a legendary high priest during the time of King David – formed an elite of wealthy or influential Jews, including the priests and elders who presided over ritual life in the temple.  A worldly group, they got along well with outsiders (travelers from Rome and Greece, Gaul, Egypt and elsewhere) and considered the Pharisees narrow-minded because of their fanatical adherence to Mosaic laws. One occasionally hears of them in the Bible, as when in Matthew 22:23 we read of certain members of this group approaching Jesus: “That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.” In Acts 23:8 we hear that this group had no belief in angels or spirits. Their world was utterly material, focused on the here and now, the physical universe, where ritual mattered as a guide to ethical behavior. They welcomed foreigners into their midst, even non-Jews.

The Pharisees, as their name suggests (the root of the term means “set apart”), wanted nothing to do with outsiders (non Jews or gentiles), and today they would be considered purists. They thought of themselves as “friends” (Hebrew: haberim) of the covenant made by God through Moses with the people of Israel. They first arrived on the scene in the second century before Jesus, and by the time of his public ministry had become a dominant voice in Judaism, with strict rules of admission that included a period when they had to prove their willingness to adhere to ritual laws. (7)  They stressed the need to help the poor and asked their members to tithe, giving a tenth of their income to the poor. As opposed to the Sadducees, they believed in the resurrection of the dead and leaned toward prophecy – ideas and tendencies that would influence Jesus in his thinking. And yet Jesus was in conflict with them repeatedly, as when, in Matthew 15:1-3, they complained to Jesus about the behavior of his followers: “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat bread.”  Jesus couldn’t abide such rules, and suggested to his disciples in Matthew 23:5 that the Pharisees did all their works “to be seen by men.” That is, they were showing off, concerned with out ward conformity, not inward transformation.

The Essenes and Zealots were lesser movements in Palestine at this time, but they appealed in various ways to Jesus and his followers. Like the Pharisees, the Essenes advocated Jewish separateness, which they took to an extreme, living in exclusive communities, pursuing repentance and ritual purification. Some lived in mountain caves at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the mid-twentieth century). They were ascetics who led disciplined, prayerful lives – the Jewish equivalent of monks and nuns. They believed in the human soul and the resurrection of the body, concepts that Jesus would reinforce in his teaching. (There was a branch of the Essenes, or an offshoot, centered in Egypt called the Therapeutae, who strongly encouraged celibacy as a sign of devoutness, even encouraging new followers to abandon their wives and families. They engaged in a practice not unlike psychological counseling, and so they could be considered the ancestors of our present-day therapists.) The Zealots, barely in evidence yet, were less spiritually adept and theoretical. They were political revolutionaries: guerrillas, in effect. (One of the disciples of Jesus, Simon, may have been a Zealot.) In response to what they regarded as Jewish humiliation by the Romans, they wished to drive these pagan invaders from their homeland. As one major scholar of Jewish history has said, “From Galilee stemmed all revolutionary movements,” and these “so disturbed the Romans” that they put pressure on local authorities to repress them by whatever means. (8) Among the legendary heroes of rebellion was Judas the Galilean, a cofounder of the Zealots. When we think about the eventual crucifixion of Jesus by Roman authorities, it’s worth recalling that he associated with people – rabble-rousers, in effect – who resisted foreign occupation. The Zealots never forgot how badly the Jews had been treated by foreign occupations, and they recalled the destruction of the First Temple with a special distaste for their humiliation at the hands of the Babylonians.

For Jews, the past wasn’t really past. When the First Temple (or Solomon’s Temple) was destroyed during the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, significant parts of the Jewish population  – largely the middle and upper classes, which numbered about ten thousand people – were swept into captivity by the Babylonian Empire, which vastly outnumbered them. The loss of the Temple – the center of Jewish spiritual and political life – was irreparable and seemed to contradict everything God had foretold in the Holy Scriptures about the triumph of  Israel over its enemies, forcing a crisis of confidence, even a crisis of faith. Why had God done this to us? Jews wondered. Had he not made promises about our triumph? From this crisis came many of the mournful psalms and lamentations of the Hebrew Bible. But one also saw the emergence of Ezekiel and Daniel, books of the Old Testament that embody the dream of a return to the homeland, with a theology of salvation in which a Davidic kingdom might be reestablished under the protective eye of God. (Notice that salvation for Jews was a political manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth, not a personal matter, as with many Christians.)

Not surprisingly, it was during the long Babylonian exile that Jews began to conceive of an actual adversary to God, someone who had plotted against his grand scheme for the triumph of Israel, and his opposition helped to explain the trouble at hand. This oppositional figure – not especially terrifying in his first appearances – was called Ha-satan, meaning ‘the Adversary.’  “Although he was a fairly insignificant nuisance in the Hebrew scriptures, he grew in status in later Jewish literature,” says Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, “particularly among writers who were influenced by other religious cultures which spoke of powerful demonic figures.” Ha-satan evolved into Satan, growing in stature during the early Christian era, especially in the Book of Revelation, where he stages a final assault on God’s authority at the Battle of Armageddon. Needless to say, he also took a star turn through the Book of Job – one of the later books of the Hebrew scriptures.

In the wake of the Babylonian exile, for half a century, the First Temple lay in ruins. It was a devastating period but, in retrospect, a fallow time, during which fresh ideas from Greece poured into the region, ultimately affecting early Christian thought in the first century. Alexander the Great had seized control of Palestine and adjacent territories on his eastward expansion, and he opened Judaic doors to Greek philosophical thought while giving the Greek language a solid foothold in the Middle East that it would not relinquish for generations. The dualism of Plato, in particular, with its distinction between the body and the soul, was a legacy that influenced thinkers such as the apostle Paul, whose theological speculations became the foundation of Christian thought. (9) One hears the Hellenistic note, for example, in the idea of “emptying out” or kenosis – the word Paul chooses in his jaw-dropping theoretical effusions in the second chapter of Philippians: “Do nothing out of personal ambition or self-regard but in humbleness regard others as more important than yourself. Let all of you look not only to your own interests but to the interests of others. Have the mind of Christ in yours, thinking of him, who (though he was a god) didn’t consider his equality with God something he could attach himself to. Instead, he emptied himself out, taking on the form of a servant, having been born in the likeness of a man. And he humbled himself further, to the point of death on the cross. For this, God raised him up.” Even here, in my reading, I detect echoes of the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple, that note of exile, a sense of Paul grappling with Greek ideas in original ways, shaping them to his own theological purposes.

Jesus benefited from the eclectic mix of ideas in Palestine during his coming of age. Yet it could not have been easy for him or any other devout Jew during the Roman occupation at the beginning of the first century, when there were strenuously competing notions about the nature and worship of God and the proper forms that religious practice should take. As the Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin recalls: “There were no rabbis yet, and even the priests in Jerusalem and around the temple were divided among themselves. Not only that, but there were many Jews both in Palestine and outside of it, in places such as Alexandria and Egypt, who had very different ideas about what being a good, devout Jew meant.” (10)  For his part, Jesus – a man with remarkable skills of spiritual intuition – had his own ideas, and these often conflicted with those of more conventional Jews, especially his notion of self-sacrifice: giving up the ego, allowing God to control our lives. “Blessed are the meek,” he would say, “for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).  Before this, one would have to look hard to find anyone celebrating “the meek” or suggesting that they would inherit anything at all, let alone “the earth.”

In a unique fusion, Jesus gathered up many of the loose ends of Judaism, which had frayed badly in Palestine during this era. In a sequence of disruptive sayings and parables, some of which had their origins in Judaic thought and some from elsewhere, he set before the world an ethical code with visionary force, with the power to transform lives and society in spiritual and material ways. But he would do more than that, taking on the role of Messiah or (the Greek word for it) Christ: a luminous figure who became the ultimate symbol of suffering, death. and resurrection. It’s not for nothing that we begin counting a new era from the date of his birth: Anno Domini, meaning the year of our Lord. But he came not only to provide comfort and ethical guidance, but to challenge those around him in ferocious, unsettling, even frightening ways. As T. S. Eliot put it so well in Gerontion:  “In the juvescence of the year / Came Christ the tiger.”

The Silk Road


What was the “silk road” in Jesus’ day? Who and what did it connect?
Do we live on a “silk road” today? Who and what does it connect?
How has today’s “road” changed the way we see the world?


1  Bourgeault, 16.

See Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

3  Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York: Viking, 1964), 397-98.

4  Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus, F. H. and C. H. Cave (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 22. This translation was based on the third German edition of this book, published in 1963.

5  Jeremias, 23.

6  Vermes, 62.

7  Jeremias, 251.

8  Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews 1 (South Brunswick, N.J.: T. Yoseloff, 1967),74.

9   See Martin Hengel, Jews, Greeks, and Barbarians: Aspects of the Hellenization of Judaism in the Pre-Christian Period, John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980). Hengel wrote numerous books on the Greek influence on early Christian thought and culture.

10 Boyarin, 5.




Chapter 2 – In the Beginning

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.

Questions to guide your reading:

For you, what is the deep meaning of “the Christmas Story”?

John’s Gospel opens, “In the beginning was the Logos.”
What is the


God became like us so that we might become like God.
– St. Athenasius, De incarnatione   

Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire?
– Mark Doty, “Messiah”

The early Christians had little information about the circumstances of Jesus’s birth, and curiosity must have overwhelmed them. The first Christian writings – the letters of Paul (written perhaps two decades after the Crucifixion) – say nothing about Christmas or the birth of Jesus; indeed, Paul shows no interest whatsoever in the life of Christ, his origins, or his family life. The earliest gospel, Mark, makes no mention of the birth whatsoever. Neither does the author of John appear to have any knowledge of Christmas. Instead, that gospel famously opens with a philosophical speculation about Jesus being present before anything else in the form of logos, a Greek term that has no decent equivalent in English, though it’s rendered as “Word” in nearly all translations: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The emphasis here lies in the notion of logos as an all-governing principle of creation permeating created things. But this is hardly like the Christmas story, which is much less philosophical and abstract.

Christmas is, by contrast, a legendary tale about a threatened family. A messenger of God comes to Mary, a terrified young virgin, and informs her that she would conceive a son without having slept with her husband-to-be, Joseph. The story soon becomes a narrative of dislocation and poverty: Jesus is born in a manger in Bethlehem, with his parents on the road, away from home. It’s a story with obvious political implications, too, as Jesus – a marginal Jew born in meager circumstances – nevertheless seems to threaten the maniacal King Herod, who didn’t want a rival for kingship of the Jews, and so he tried to get rid of this potential rival by killing all young male children in the region – a mythical event known as the Massacre of the Innocents. So the family is forced to hide in Egypt, adding the element of flight and fear to the story. But it’s also a charming and magical account, with alluring imagery that sticks in the mind: a star hovers over the barn where Jesus lies, marking the spot of his emergence into history. Wise Men or Magi come from the east, traveling with gifts, on camels. Shepherds keep watch over their flocks by night, while the desert is cold, glistening on the eve of the Messiah’s birth. The event happens at the winter solstice, when the world grows still in icy weather, only to open up and begin to move again, slowly, as it leans toward hope in the form of a baby, who arrives with the holy hush of amazement.

Only Luke and Matthew include Christmas in their narratives of the life of Christ, perhaps reformulating legends that had spread by word of mouth for many years, and their versions of the birth of Jesus sit uncomfortably together, with many contradictory elements. It’s possible that these accounts arose gradually, in the decades after the death of Jesus, in different communities, and so the stories emphasize unique aspects of the tale, deepening the legend in ways that spoke to their present needs, as followers of Jesus, as threatened and marginal communities of faith who struggled to make sense of the man whose gospel or “good news” informed their lives.

The foregrounding moment in this tale is the Annunciation, a point at the beginning of the tale where Mary (and also Joseph, although separately) get a surprise visit from the angel Gabriel – a spirit mentioned only in the Book of Daniel before this startling appearance to Mary in the quiet of her chamber. Gabriel explained calmly to this young virgin that she would bear a special son. The angel speaks with a respectful brightness: “Hail, you that are highly favored, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:38). This appearance, and the astonishing message of Gabriel, terrified the poor girl.  Yet Gabriel told her not to be afraid but to celebrate: “You have found favor with God.” (This favor was the “grace” we associate with Mary, as in “Hail Mary, full of grace,” although the phrase comes from a misreading of the Latin translation of the Bible: the Greek word kechoritomene simply means “favored one.”) (1)

The Annunciation has a wondrous quality about it, and it has been touchingly rendered in paintings by many of the greatest artists of the West, often with challenging interpretations of the scene, as in Fra Angelico’s bold fresco at the San Marco convent in Florence (finished in 1445), where Mary is no meek teenager frightened by her situation and wishing to withdraw; rather, she stares with a frank boldness into the eyes of Gabriel, fully composed and taking on her fate as the person who will deliver God’s child to the world. She seems proud, even delighted, by the fact that God singled her out as “handmaid of the Lord.”  Her crucial moment in history has come, and she seems equal to the task at hand.

The contradictions in the two birth narratives emerge with the genealogies that Matthew and Luke offer, as a way of establishing the pedigree of Jesus. In Matthew, the lineage begins with Abraham – the ultimate Jewish patriarch of the Old Testament – and moves to David, a triumphant Jewish king, then pivots through a sequence of royal Jewish names. This seems in keeping with the Jewish slant on Jesus generally offered in that gospel, as it stresses the Judaic heritage of the Christ child. Luke, on the other hand, offers a lineage that would appeal to gentiles as well as Jews: Jesus’s ancestry starts with Adam, father of all mankind, and not Abraham, a shift of emphasis that brings Jesus into a larger family that included gentiles. David is still there, but the line runs this time through the prophets, suggesting a more spiritual kingdom than the one that Matthew had in mind.

In both narratives, Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. No doubt it meant something to early Jewish followers of Jesus that Bethlehem should be the birthplace of their beloved rabbi, as this small city on the West Bank of the Jordan was the home of Jesse, father of David. It’s a place where David had once kept sheep and eventually was crowned King of Israel. Unlike Nazareth, probably the real birthplace of Jesus, it had huge symbolic import. One recalls that when Philip, a disciple of Jesus, explained to Nathanael that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by Moses, Nathanael asked in a withering voice: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:43-46). It’s also significant that in the Old Testament one hears that a future shepherd of the flock of Israel would emerge from Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-14). So it was fitting that the birth of Jesus should be associated with a holy place.

In Matthew, the Christmas story morphs into a tale of displacement, fear, and flight, with the Holy Family escaping into Egypt, a thrilling but scary narrative. In Luke, a very different kind of story unfolds. Joseph and Mary have been forced to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because of a Roman census that is never even mentioned in Matthew. (2)  It’s not obviously a dangerous situation. Indeed, Herod does not threaten male children in Luke, nor do Jesus, Mary, and Joseph rush away to Egypt to escape the vengeance of Herod and his desire to murder a rival to his throne. It’s an altogether more comforting story, easier on the ears of children, if less riveting.

The discrepancies in the Christmas narratives don’t matter, not unless one feels an urgent need to regard these texts as literal truth, the infallible Word of God (not unlike the Koran in fundamentalist Islam). Each account of the Christmas story has its unique emphasis, with Matthew putting forward the concept of Jesus as royalty, in both his lineage and the notion that people of importance (the Magi) would come from far away to worship at his feet. Herod’s sense of rivalry is also important in Matthew. He is a royal person, after all, if only in a spiritual way, and his presence in the world has political consequences, for himself and others. Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes the ordinary aspects of Jesus, his position as a marginal person. He is the son of Adam and the “Son of Man” as much as “Prince of Peace” or “Son of God.” (3)  Poor folk – shepherds are nothing if not poor – come to visit the manger, not Magi bearing fancy gifts.

Yet Luke is a wonderful writer, adding scenes that intensify the mythic echo chamber of the story. He says, for example, that after Mary became pregnant, she paid a three-month visit to her cousin Elizabeth in Hebron, in the hill country south of Jerusalem. Elizabeth was an old and previously barren woman. Her husband was Zacharias, an elderly priest of the temple, who learned from an angel that his wife was pregnant. (This visit to Zacharias mirrors a similar visit to Joseph, who has never gotten much attention for having been told by an angel that Mary’s child would be someone special.) Zacharias actually doubted the news about his wife’s pregnancy. How could such a thing happen at their age? Never one for skepticism, God struck Zacharias dumb, though he later regained his powers of speech upon the birth of his son: a symbolic restoration. The angel instructed Elizabeth that her son should be named John, and he in due course became John the Baptist. The narrative pointedly foreshadows a later story in the gospels, where John precedes Jesus as a prophet and religious teacher, then baptizes him in the Jordan River. And so the birth of John prefigures the birth of the Incarnate Word, Jesus: the spirit made flesh. John himself becomes “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Elizabeth understood Mary’s situation at a glance. She intuited that the Holy Spirit, not Joseph, had created this child in her cousin’s womb, and she understood that Mary would deliver the Son of God to the world. She cried out with a kind of giddy appreciation: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Mary replied eloquently and modestly, lowering her eyes to the floor: “My soul does magnify the Lord.” Her response echoes in history, and the words have been set frequently to music, called the Magnificat after the Latin version of Mary’s statement, which begins: Magnificat mea Dominum. (4)

The concept of the Virgin Birth, a miraculous event, means a great deal to Christians as a sign from God that the spirit was sent to dwell in human form. Yet it’s worth recalling that the word “virgin” had an elastic meaning in both Greek and Hebrew. “It was certainly not confined to denoting men and women without experience of sexual intercourse,” notes Vermes. “The Greek word could explicitly or implicitly include this meaning, or the main stress could fall on the youth of a girl or boy, and generally, though not necessarily, on their unmarried state.” (5) In The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell observes: “On the level simply of legend, without regard to the possibility of an actual miracle, the Virgin Birth must be interpreted as a mythic motif from the Persian or Greek, not Hebrew, side of the Christian heritage.” (6)  Judaism, with its love of patriarchy, could not easily have generated a story in which the Messiah was not really one of Abraham’s full-blooded sons.

Exactly what the gospel writers meant by proclaiming Mary’s virginity has preoccupied theologians down the centuries as they have tried to understand or tease out its many possible implications. What is not in dispute among Christians is the more general idea that Jesus was no ordinary man, and that from conception he carried within his soul the spark of God, as in the word “Immanuel,” which means “God dwells within,” a name first mentioned in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign: the young maiden will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel.” And the Virgin Birth anchors the Christmas story, putting forward a theological point of considerable subtlety as well as force.

Despite the lack of any reference to it elsewhere in the entire New Testament, the Virgin Birth remains a central tenet of Christian dogma, one developed by the Church Fathers – those early, highly influential, theologians and teachers, such as Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine. Sensing the lack of scriptural authority for the concept, the authors of later apocryphal gospels, such as the Infancy Gospel of James, often focused on the subject of Mary’s virginity, suggesting that she remained a virgin even after her marriage to Joseph. The fact that Jesus had siblings, however, complicated the matter. Was Mary not their mother?  These siblings may, of course, have been half siblings from an earlier marriage or, perhaps, cousins. Theologians have argued as much. But Matthew 13:55 states firmly that Jesus had at least four brothers (James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas) and two unnamed sisters. None of this contradicts the idea that Jesus was Mary’s first child or that he didn’t come from Joseph, but of God – at least in a symbolic way.

The rather fantastic idea that a human being might give birth to a child created by a god would have puzzled no one in the ancient world.  Important people were often thought to be part human, part divine: Romulus and Remus, for example, the mythical twins who founded Rome, were the children of Rhea Silvia and the god Mars. It was frequently said that Augustus, the great emperor, was conceived in the Temple of Apollo, with no human father. Modern readers with any knowledge of pagan mythology will be familiar with the concept of gods mingling with human beings, sometimes with astounding consequences, as when Leda was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, producing an offspring named Helen, who would become Helen of Troy, that extraordinary beauty whose face, according to the poet Christopher Marlowe, “launched a thousand ships” and led to the Trojan War.

Just to note: the Virgin Birth should not be confused with the Roman Catholic idea of the Immaculate Conception, the doctrine that Mary was a human being and yet conceived without sin (Latin: macula), and therefore Jesus was not born to someone who had been tainted by the transgressions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, relating back to the doctrine of original sin, which simply means that every human being is stained by the sins of their original parents. But this lurches into the wilder thickets of theological speculation. What matters in the Christmas story is that Jesus should have come into the world in a way that conveyed a sense of his unique connection to God as well as his deep-seated humanity. The Virgin Birth, as a mythical concept, delivers that message quite beautifully.

It’s worth dwelling on the story of the Magi, told with compression and charm in Matthew 2:1-12. “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking Where is the infant who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star rising, and have come to pay him homage.” The star actually hovers over the stable where the child lies, suggesting to many in later years that these wise men could have been astrologers, who read meaning into stars and their patterns. “On entering the house, they saw the infant with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure baskets, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by a different path.”

This unlikely visit forms a haunting piece of narrative, often depicted by painters and framed with idiosyncratic perfection in T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” In this poetic monologue, one of the wise men revisits the miraculous event years afterward, remembering a journey undertaken in the “very dead of winter.” It had been a “cold coming” over icy mountains: a journey from the old world of faithlessness and uncertainty to the new world, where redemption and new life seemed at last possible. The three Magi may well have been “holy Zoroastrian astronomers,” as E. F. Burgess speculated, suggesting they were used to following the signs of heaven. The “Yonder Star” that drew them to the West “was a sign prophesied 600 years before by Zoroaster. The prophecy not only described the celestial occurrence, but also specifically named Bethlehem as the birthplace of the new prophet.” (7)

The Magi have lodged themselves in the Western imagination, where names soon attached to them: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. That they came “from the east” has within it a sense of the rising sun, the beginning of a new day. In various Christian traditions, the wise men traveled from Babylon, Persia, or Yemen. The actual number of Magi is never stated in Matthew, but since they brought three gifts, they are commonly imagined as a trio. The gifts they bring seem to acknowledge the royalty at hand, and this follows Matthew’s efforts to make the Jesus into a princely child, with a Davidic heritage. And there is the added sense of fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, as in Isaiah 60:3: “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”

The gifts they bring have symbolic radiance.  Gold was then, as now, the most valuable of metals, the standard for wealth from time immemorial, fit for a king.  Frankincense was a coveted perfume associated with temple rituals.  And myrrh was a kind of oil, used for anointments and during the process of embalming. (It was later used in the Eastern Orthodox Church for major sacramental rites, such as confirmation or extreme unction – the last rites of the Church – which are bestowed upon the dying.) It was also widely believed in Jewish tradition that royalty would visit the infant who would become the Messiah, and the writer of Matthew understood the significance of this homage, that the Magi stand in for all yearning Christians, those who lean to beginnings, in search of the child who will bring light to the world in a dark time.

Even with all of its gleaming details, the Christmas story leaves a lot to the imagination, which is why in subsequent centuries the followers of Jesus filled in the blanks wherever possible, making the myth as concrete as they could. Neither Matthew nor Luke, for instance, specified the date of Jesus’s birth – the calendar year would have been different in any case.   Christians didn’t settle on December 25 as Christmas Day until the fourth century, and this choice probably had something to do with its proximity to the winter solstice or its position as the final day of the Roman Saturnalia. It was in the late third century, in fact, that the Roman emperor Aurelian established this date as a feast day celebrating the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus), so it already had festive and quasi-religious prominence.(8)  The Unconquered Sun becomes the Son of God, who conquers death itself.


What followed the manger scene in Bethlehem varies in Luke and Matthew, as noted above. In Matthew, the family in due course returns to Nazareth after the flight to Egypt, once the coast is clear. The flight itself, as Matthew wished to emphasize, fulfilled a prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures (Hosea 11:1), where we read that a future leader will come “out of Egypt.” Such a twist in the narrative may have been added to underscore the Jewish inheritance of Jesus as well as to amplify the mythic reverberations of the story. The echoes between the flight to Egypt and the legendary flight of the Jews into Egypt during the period known as the Exodus were intentional. As ever, Matthew had a Jewish audience in mind, and his readers would hear the reverberations in his telling. Herod wished to get rid of the child who might be a future king of the Jews much as the Pharaoh (Exodus 2:15) wanted to get rid of Moses, issuing a bloody command (1:22) that every Jewish male baby be thrown into the Nile. God instructed Joseph, father of Jesus, in his dreams how to proceed in difficult circumstances, perhaps reminding readers that Joseph’s namesake in Exodus possessed the gift of interpreting dreams: so much so that his talent attracted the eye of Pharaoh (Genesis 37:19; 41:25).

Matthew’s Egyptian episode fascinated later writers, as we see in the Apocrypha and Gnostic Gospels – material excluded by makers of the official canon, yet fascinating to read. In one of these, palm trees bow down before the progression of the infant Jesus – an image of such brightness that it somehow lodged in the Koran (19:25). In some versions of the flight to Egypt, a patient nurse called Salome looks after the child, and some regard her as the sister of Mary; indeed she is occasionally thought to be the Mary who appears beside Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross in Matthew 27:55, though once again the gospel narratives lack enough specificity to make such an identification.  Names, in fact, presented a constant problem for later generations of readers, who couldn’t be sure that a particular name in the New Testament attached to someone with the same name elsewhere.

After his birth, Jesus would have been circumcised on the eighth day, in accordance with Jewish custom; the eight days symbolize the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the eighth day. Luke mentions that Jesus was circumcised, dwelling on the ritual presentation of the child at the Temple (Luke 2:22-40). In this memorable scene, an elderly man called Simeon the Righteous steps into the picture from the wings, thrilled to see the Messiah before he dies. He was possibly one of the temple elders from the tribe of Levi who would have been authorized to bestow on the child the usual blessing for such occasions: “The Lord bless thee and keep thee, the Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee, the Lord lift his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). With relief and delight, he lifted the child in his arms, telling God that he could “now dismiss” him from this world. He offers a remarkable prayer of thanks known as the Nunc Dimittis, meaning simply “Now dismiss.” It opens movingly: “Now Lord, let your servant go in peace.” Another devout person in the temple at the time was Anna, referred to as a “prophetess” and remembered as a kind of godmother to Jesus. (Her name could also be translated as Hannah, echoing the story in Samuel where the prophetess Hannah gave birth to Samuel, another blessed child who would play a pivotal role in the history of the Jews.)

The ritual of purification happened forty days after the birth of the child in keeping with Jewish law (as framed in both Leviticus and Exodus). As required by law and custom, the parents of the newborn child sacrificed a pair of turtledoves (young pigeons) – no doubt because they could not afford to sacrifice a lamb.(9)  Here, as elsewhere, readers must choose which tradition to follow, Matthew or Luke. If Jesus and his family had fled to Egypt from Bethlehem, as Matthew suggests, he would never have gone to Jerusalem for Mary’s ritual purification, though literal-minded readers find ways to reconcile these stories.

Reconciliation is unnecessary, however, as anyone who engages Christianity in liturgy and practice will know; the Christmas story requires no defense. It represents the moment when the timeless enters time, when God begins a grand process of revelation. The star hovering over the manger in Bethlehem beckons, and the notion of wise men, or Magi, coming from the east to pay homage to the Christ child feeds our sense of expectation; we, like them, embark on a journey without a guarantee of arrival, bearing the gift of our own hope. And every year, as the holiday looms in late December, the urge to sing out in adoration comes. As the poet George Herbert wrote in the seventeenth century: “The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?”


We know nothing about Jesus during the years of childhood, adolescence, and young manhood except for a slight but intriguing story in Luke 1:41-52. This glimpse of him involves his conversation with Temple elders in Jerusalem, at the age of twelve, offering a look at his developing character. It gives us an opportunity to see how Jesus regarded himself – and was viewed by others – at the doorstep of manhood.

The family – Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and his siblings – traveled to Jerusalem on their annual pilgrimage to the Second Temple. This edifice would have dazzled the young man: fifteen stories in height, with a profusion of gold ornamentation on a foundation of glistening limestone blocks called ashlars. The Wailing Wall – still in place – was its western foundation, and it’s all that remains of the original edifice. It was actually a sequence of interlocking spaces that included rooms for prayer, worship, and study. Rabbinical courts met there as well, including the Sanhedrin. Like the Egyptian pyramids, Herod’s Temple was a wonder of the world, grander than anything in Rome itself. That Mary and Joseph would come to Jerusalem to visit the Temple says something about their piety and spiritual ambitions. Being a tekton, or carpenter, Joseph ranked low – even a peasant with a little bit of land had more clout in society. Yet the family must have had the support of the Nazarene Jewish community. One assumes that Mary and Joseph traveled as part of a company of faithful Jews who made this three-day journey along dusty roads, traveling in a caravan, taking plenty of food and water, with some of the pilgrims riding on camels or donkeys. They would have passed through the lush Galilean countryside into the barren hills of Judea, edging along high cliffs as they approached the Holy City, with its amber walls, no doubt joining a throng that moved toward Jerusalem for the high holidays.

Jesus and his family would have entered the Temple through a grand entrance on the southern slope, which archaeologists have uncovered. It contained a series of bathing pools or miqvaoth that pilgrims used for ritual purification before entering the presence of God. One would have heard singers from the tribe of Levi chanting hymns from the Book of Psalms. One then approached the esplanade of the Great Court, under a series of broad porticos. The interior courtyards were reserved for Jews who had been purified in a ritual fashion. The final approach led to the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in Judaism, which once (during the First Temple period) contained the Ark of the Covenant. Of course neither Jesus nor his family would have seen this holy place, which the High Priest himself could only approach one day a year (on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, when blood was sprinkled on the altar).

After a week of celebrations that included gatherings for prayer, the sacrificing of animals, ritual bathing, and attendance at readings of Holy Scripture, the family of Jesus began their journey back to Nazareth. In the shuffle of their departure, Jesus got left behind, and his parents hurried back to look for him. It would have been terrifying for them, as anything might happen in a strange city. For two days they searched for their child without luck. On the third day they found him in the Temple, where he sat in a circle of elders and discussed the meaning of scriptures – the gospel doesn’t give much detail here, although it would have been highly unusual to see a child of this age in such august circumstances and being taken seriously by the elders at hand. Jesus seems to have been precocious as well as devout and wildly self-confident. Mary, however, was not impressed by this spectacle, and she asked her son how he could act in such an inconsiderate manner. He replied, in a tone that still rings with a shock: “Don’t you know I must be about my father’s business?” As we read in Luke 2:50, “And they didn’t understand what he said to them.”

Jesus reluctantly deferred to his mother, who had apparently not fully absorbed yet that her child was God’s own son. He went with his parents back to Nazareth and “was subject unto them,” fulfilling the commandment to obey one’s father and mother. (A later writer may have added this reassuring verse, feeling uncomfortable with this adolescent rebellious streak in Jesus.) During the years of his public ministry, however, Jesus urged his disciples to abandon their homes and to put everyone and everything to one side in pursuit of God’s will for them. Family did not come first, not in his own life, even as a boy of twelve. He was obviously not easy for his parents to control, and it’s probably a good thing that we hear little about him in Nazareth until he reemerges as a grown man.

This anecdote has another purpose, giving us a sense that Jesus was a scholar at heart. From an early age, he devoted himself to studying the scripture, and he enjoyed discussing the meaning of various passages. This seems right for one who would, in due course, become a model teacher, a man addressed by his followers as Rabbi, which means “a teacher of Torah,” one grounded in Jewish law, the halakha. In fact, during the years of his public ministry, Jesus wandered through Galilee and adjacent territories with a notable aura of mission, offering his own readings of familiar Hebrew texts, attracting large crowds, who found his teachings both uplifting and convincing, if at times challenging and even heretical. This radical teacher is, in fact, an adult version of the twelve-year-old boy in the Temple.

The paucity of stories about the young Jesus frustrated early Christians, but any number of apocryphal evangelists took up the subject with relish, trying to fill in gaps. Over twenty more gospels have been found, sometimes in fragmentary form in languages such as Syriac and Armenian as well as Greek.(10)  In many of the anecdotes associated with this extra-canonical literature, Jesus takes the form of a trickster child-god from mythology, performing astounding (often silly) miracles. In one of them, for instance, he turns a salt cod into a live fish, scaring the wits out of his boyish companions. Elsewhere, he forms a number of birds from raw clay and then brings them to life with a sweep of the hand: voila! In another, he shows a command of the alphabet that astonishes his teachers. But there is a dark side, too, as in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where he blinds the parents of a child who offends him – a bizarre and cruel act that seems calculated to make readers dislike or fear him. (One assumes, perhaps, that the writers of these gospels projected their own angers or frustrations onto this fantasy version of Jesus, which the church firmly rejected. Indeed, the Gospel of John states clearly that the miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana was Jesus’s first miracle.)

So where was Jesus during his first thirty years, and how did he spend his time? One easily imagines him working with his father, perhaps in nearby Sepphoris, helping to build a theater or colonnade or sports arena. It’s obvious that he studied the Hebrew Bible at his local synagogue, as his later ministry reveals an intimate knowledge of these texts. He might have spent time working in nearby vineyards or barley fields, as his later teachings often rely on pastoral images, perhaps gleaned from childhood. His geographical horizon was limited, a point that emerges when he commands his followers to witness for him “in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and to the outermost parts of the earth” (Acts1:8).  The likelihood is that Jesus never left Palestine, although folklore has placed him as far afield as India. The notion that Jesus visited England was prevalent, too, as we see when William Blake asks: “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?”  The answer, alas, is: No.

The hidden years in the life of Jesus remain unrecoverable, the stuff of legend, most of it fanciful. No doubt he underwent many of the same transformations, sexual and personal, that occur within the body and mind of any adolescent. He grew in knowledge of the world and, in his case, vastly increased his spiritual awareness. “That he, like every human being, struggled toward some definition of self within, in relation to, and perhaps in opposition to, larger social units is equally clear,” writes John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew, a major four-volume study of Jesus and his teachings.(11)  Yet Jesus came into full public view only in young adulthood, after his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, when the heavens opened for him, and he experienced a transformation from Jesus to Messiah or Christ: one fully realized in his ministry, his death, and his ultimate resurrection.


For you, what is the deep meaning of “the Christmas Story”?

John’s Gospel opens, “In the beginning was the Logos.” How
would you explain the


Notes for Chapter 2

1.  The liturgy of the Christian church owes more to the Latin translation by Jerome than to the original Greek gospels, which were not widely known until long after many traditions and rituals hardened into formalities. Even most of the Church Fathers, including Augustine and Aquinas, knew very little Greek. It wasn’t until the time of Erasmus and Luther, in the early sixteenth century, that it was taken for granted that a biblical scholar should go back to the original Greek for guidance.

2.  The census is mentioned in Luke 2:1. The author takes pains to identify the time: it happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. There are complex historical problems with the dating; but there was certainly a governor of Syria called Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (d. 21 ACE), who is mentioned in such ancient historians as Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius. This leads us to a further question: If the Christmas story here is “made up,” why did the author take such pains to identify the historical setting? Perhaps the question answers itself. Veracity is important in a testimony, and the gospels are testimonial literature. The more specific the details, the more believable the story becomes. One added problem is that the census under Quirinius only related to the province of Judea, not those living in Galilee.

3.  The phrase “Prince of Peace,” commonly associated with Jesus, actually derives from a passage in Isaiah 9:6 in the Hebrew scriptures.

4.  J. S. Bach’s Magnificat (1723) is among the finest musical settings of this passage.

5. Vermes, 218.

6. Campbell, 336.

7.  E. F. Burgess, “T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi.’” Explicator 42 (Summer 1984), 36.

8.  A Syrian commentator called Dionysius bar-Salbi, writing in the twelfth century, seems to have first suggested that Christmas was moved from January 6 to its present position because of the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. For a discussion of this and other theories about the dating of Christmas, see Thomas J. Tally, Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991).

9.  From this, perhaps, follows the number of birds among the gifts given during the Twelve Days of Christmas, including the partridge in a pear tree!

10.  This was quoted by Ireneaus of Lyon toward the end of the second century CE. A similar gospel is the Protoevangelium of James, which has similar tales of the young Jesus. For a good survey of recent scholarship on the Thomas tradition and other non-canonical gospels, see: Simon Gathercole, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

11.  John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. I (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 254.



Chapter 3 – His Ministry Begins

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.


When Jesus meets the devil in the desert (see Matthew 4:1-11),
what does the devil mean by “all the kingdoms of this world”?

When Jesus preaches in the synagogue (see Luke 4:16-21),
who does he say belongs to “the kingdom of God”?

When Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray (see Matthew 6:9-13)
what does he mean by the prayer, “thy kingdom come”?

To his great baptism flocked
With awe the regions round, and with them came
From Nazareth the son of Joseph deemed
To the flood Jordan – came as then obscure,
Unmarked, unknown.
– John Milton, Paradise Regained


The public life of Jesus began with his baptism in the Jordan River. He came, as it were, out of nowhere, a young man from Nazareth: “obscure, / Unmarked, unknown,” as Milton says in the above epigraph. But his obscurity would soon disappear.

The moment of his baptism is called the Epiphany, an English translation of epiphanaia, which means “astonishing appearance.” Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah, was revealed for the first time as he stepped from the river: “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up immediately out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him.” Soon a voice came from heaven: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). From this moment on, he’s out walking in the world, healing and teaching, gathering disciples, preaching that God’s kingdom was at hand – like ripe fruit on the tree of life.

An actual dove did not descend upon Jesus in any of the gospel accounts. Instead, the spirit fell upon him “like a dove,” and the imagery of this graceful bird has grown familiar because of iconic paintings of this scene, such as Andrea del Verrocchio’s depiction of 1475, which shows a brilliantly lit white dove appearing directly over the head of Jesus, with hands (of God?) setting it afloat while two small angels watch the baptism (at least one of these angels may have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci, a young apprentice of Verrocchio). Dove or no dove, Jesus was filled with the God’s spirit, experiencing a sense of rebirth, renewal, and mission.

The notion that God should speak – becoming a Voice – is rooted in the Jewish tradition, as “it was a firmly held rabbinic conviction that saints and teachers were commended in public by a heavenly Voice,” says Vermes. “Furthermore, when such a commendation is directly accredited to God, the person in whose favor it is made is alluded to as ‘my son.’” (1)   The next time we hear God speak from heaven about his son in these terms will be toward the end of Jesus’s public ministry, on the mountain when he undergoes the change from earthly body into spiritual body known as the Transfiguration. Again, the voice proclaims a revelation.

A crucial figure in the life of Jesus is John the Baptist, his cousin, “the one who goes before him in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). Scholars widely accept him as a historical person, as Josephus mentions him. A wild ascetic in the gospels, the Baptist embodies “a voice crying in the wilderness” (Mark 1:3). His appearance startled people, as he wore a crude garment made from camel’s hair and refused to shave or cut his hair or make polite conversation. He was a solitary (probably an Essene at one point) who fasted and prayed for long periods (Matthew 1:18). Many thought he harbored a devil. Some theologians have argued that “John the Baptist may have been an angelic pre-existent spirit,” therefore not obliged to descend into the flesh, as Rowan Williams observes. (2)  Interestingly, a cult centered in Alexandria grew up around him – a movement that actually rivaled the religion of Jesus, even though he was quite explicit about his being a forerunner of the Messiah, not the Messiah himself.  “He must increase, but I must decrease,” said John, rather modestly, of himself in relation to Jesus. (Then again, Christian evangelists wrote the gospels.)

In Acts 18:24-25, one sees how highly John the Baptist stood in particular circles. On his travels, the apostle Paul met a man called Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He’s described as “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.” In a telling comment, Paul explains that Apollos had been “instructed in the Way of the Lord,” and yet he knew only of John the Baptist, not Jesus. This suggests that the idea of the Way of the Lord was less tied to the person of Jesus than is often assumed. Paul notes with considerable unease in writing to the Corinthian church that people were being baptized in many names, not only in the name of Jesus. This struck him as a dangerous precedent, given that any number of wandering preachers claimed spiritual authority.

This was, as I’ve noted, an era rich in prophets and fiery rebels, magicians and freaks, some of them holy men in the tradition of charismatic Judaism (and with emotional ties to older prophets, such as Elijah). The practice of baptism, however, was not something original or strange among these types. In fact, ritual immersion had been a common practice among Jews throughout the Second Temple period, as scholars have observed. It was often preceded by “a time of careful teaching in the Torah and the Prophets and in the proper way to observe the traditions of Judaism.”(3)

Ritual bathing remains a common practice throughout the world: everyone has seen pictures of Hindus plunging into the Ganges. This ritual takes on symbolic overtones when it becomes baptism, a rite of transformation. In the Christian tradition, baptism is a crucial sacrament, a sign of God’s willingness to accept a soul into the fold, and – in adult baptism – it signals a renewal and commitment to the Way of Jesus, a life dedicated to others, a life of worship and adherence to specific ideals. The practice acquired a fresh intensity with John the Baptist. He used the ritual of full immersion as a sign of spiritual awakening, as in metanoia, which (as explained earlier) in addition to signaling a change of heart means to open one’s mind to God and thus be filled with new life. The person being baptized has made a commitment to reordering priorities and seeking what Jesus called “the kingdom of heaven.” For John, in particular, the act of baptism suggested death and rebirth through spiritual cleansing.

In this time of intense political instability, the secular powers feared John’s popularity. Herod Antipas (a son of Herod) ruled in Perea and Galilee, where he rivaled his father in his penchant for sheer – almost gleeful- brutality. According to Mark (6:7-8), John disapproved of this ruler’s marriage to the wife of his half brother, Philip I; he denounced him bluntly, saying: “It is not lawful for yon to possess your brother’s wife.” This was too sharply critical, especially coming from one who had attracted a following of his own, and John soon found himself imprisoned in the frontier fortress of Machaerus, where he was beheaded at the request of Salome, the king’s stepdaughter. (She seems to have bewitched Antipas with her belly dancing- a detail that Mark could not pass over.) John’s head arrived at the palace on a silver platter, a vision that Titian painted memorably in the early sixteenth century, with the innocent face of Salome hovering near the ghastly severed head as if to say, “You mean I did that?”


John the Baptist fades from history, but Jesus emerges. Empowered by his baptism, with the vocal approval of God, he did as many ascetics had done before him: took himself into the desert for forty days. This was a symbolic number, paralleling both the years spent in the desert by ancient Israel on their journey to the land of Canaan and the fasting time of Moses before he received the Ten Commandments: “And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water” (Exodus 34:28). Fasting often marks the prelude to a period of spiritual testing, which followed in the desert, when Satan appeared before Jesus with a series of tests.

In Mark, the temptation of Christ gets short shrift – almost everything gets short shrift in Mark – while in Luke and Matthew the authors expand on it vividly. How could they resist?  Their accounts conform in so many ways that scholars attribute the nearly identical conversations between Jesus and the Devil to Q, a lost source that the writers of these gospels drew on for details. (Q refers to Quelle, a German word for “source.”) The temptation scene is absent from John altogether, which (with other evidence) leads us to believe the author of the Fourth Gospel had probably not read the three so-called Synoptic Gospels (from a Greek word that means “seeing together,” suggesting that Mark, Matthew, and Luke drew on the same sources, with the latter two evangelists copying from Mark, often word for word).

The larger mythic question is this: Why does the story of the ministry of Jesus begin in the desert, with temptations by Satan? Was it because this would make Jesus seem more like us? It’s a fact that everyone is tempted by one thing or another. Error is sin, a stepping off the “right” or “straight” path; the word “right” in Anglo-Saxon means the direct or straight route from one point to another. The “wrong” path is the “crooked” one.  As the Lord’s Prayer says: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Evil, again, is error, a misstep, a move in the wrong direction – hamartia in Greek, meaning “off the mark.” We all get off the path now and then, sometimes wildly off course. I don’t want to downplay here the meaning of sin, however. As William Law, an Anglican devotional writer of the eighteenth century, put it very sharply: “The whole nature of the Christian religion stands on these two great pillars, namely the greatness of our fall and the greatness of our redemption.”(4)

Try to imagine Jesus, led by the Spirit, wandering in the desert, fasting and praying, feeling his own sweat and stench, the gritty sand in the folds of his skin, in his hair. Dryness would have parched his skin, a mirror of the spiritual aridity he sought to relieve through prayer and fasting. John the Baptist had lived in this manner for years, and this wasn’t as odd as it sounds.  Holy men often went into the desert for long spells of solitude, but Jesus did so at the age of thirty, having been perhaps a carpenter for more than a decade. Within hours, Jesus would surely have grown hungry, so it makes sense that the first temptation involved turning stones into bread. Jesus replied to Satan with consummate poise: “One does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4). Here he simply quoted (indirectly) Deuteronomy 8:3: “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.” That is, we live not by ingesting mere food; in fact, the material world fails to satisfy our full spiritual needs.

In the second temptation (or third one, depending on whether you follow Luke or Matthew, who reverse the order and differ on whether the temptations occurred during or after the forty days), Satan led Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, telling him to jump off to prove that he is God’s son, as God would surely supply enough angels to break his fall if he were truly divine. Jesus rightly mocked this suggestion, saying tersely: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The third temptation found Jesus and Satan with a commanding view from the highest mountain in the desert, from which it was possible to see “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Matthew 4:8). Satan offered this geographical expanse to Jesus if he would only worship him, not God – Satan’s version of what is now often called “the prosperity gospel” by shady televangelists, who regularly manipulate their flocks by offering a path to earthly riches, as if the kingdom of God had any monetary basis. Jesus merely scoffed at Satan here, as well he should: “Get away from me!”

Matthew and Luke tell the same story in the same words, although their reversal of the order of the second and third temptation remains a point of curiosity for scholars, suggesting that authorial discretion played a role. That is, the writers of these gospels worked from oral and perhaps written traditions, picking and choosing, ordering their material in a fictive way (fiction derives from a Latin word – fictio – meaning to shape material, highlighting some things, suppressing others.) In each of the temptations set before him, Jesus replied to Satan in his inimical style, saying: Don’t tempt me, and don’t try to put God in a position to rescue me. In his behavior with the Adversary, he showed us exactly how to act when tempted: You sidestep the tempter, and walk away.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell has described what he calls a “monomyth,” the classic journey of the hero, a story that underlies most narratives that feature a spiritual transformation. The hero – Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, Odysseus, or virtually any heroic figure – follows a familiar path: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”(5)  Soon after the hero’s “call to adventure,” his summons to follow a unique path occurs, and he must go into the wilderness (literally and figuratively); he must be tempted. As Campbell observes, the tests that a hero confronts often come in threes, and the story of Jesus follows the pattern. He meets three “tests” or “temptations” – the Greek word is ekpeiraseis, which means “a putting on trial.” The point of these temptations seems clear: the humanity of Jesus requires that he, like everyone, face trials in his life, and the way forward means dealing successfully with these tests. In Hebrews 4:15, the writer – writing in the tradition of Paul’s letters – suggests that in Jesus his followers possess a “high priest” who is “in every respect tested as we are.”(6)


For Jesus, this time in the desert clarified his intentions, and he resolved to take his mission into the world. But how would he do this? Where to begin? He had no formal education, no wealthy or influential family behind him. In fact, his family appears to have regarded him as somewhat volatile, even mad. One sees this in the Gospel of Mark, where the evangelist tells us that when he was preaching to a large crowd one of his family members said: “He’s out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). They tried, without luck, to “take custody of him” at one point, hoping his radical energies might be restrained. It’s obvious that Jesus did not have an easy time in Nazareth, among family members and neighbors who had watched him grow and wondered why he had come back from the desert full of strange ideas.

As Luke tells it, he had a rocky debut as a preacher in his home town.(7) On a fateful day, he went to the local synagogue where he must have worshiped for decades on the Sabbath.  Surrounded by familiar faces, he stepped forward to read from the sacred scrolls, choosing a passage from Isaiah, a familiar text:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). So far, so good. Everyone would have nodded wisely. But then Jesus said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Hearing this, the crowd grew restive, even angry. Did Jesus somehow imagine he could fulfill this prophecy in his own person? Wasn’t this the carpenter’s son? Perhaps he really was crazy, as some had already suggested.

That Jesus would speak at all in the synagogue suggests he must already have established himself as someone with spiritual authority and rabbinical skills, and some that day were “amazed by his gracious words.” In his reading from Isaiah, it’s clear that Jesus did some editing of the text, mixing passages from chapters sixty-one and fifty-eight. Kenneth E. Bailey, a biblical scholar who has spent much of his life in Israel, suggests that this community would have known this particular passage well, as it lay “at the heart of their history and self-understanding.”(8) Bailey notes that in the Targumim – a first-century translation of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic – there was an emphasis in this passage on the triumph of Jewish settlers over their gentile neighbors, who had pushed into this region of Galilee in ways that threatened Jewish settlements. In this charged atmosphere, there would have been strong resistance to the political message that Jesus seemed to repress in favor of a more spiritual one.  They would have asked why he chose to turn a passage about the triumph of the Jews into one about paying attention to the poor and afflicted.

As Bailey observes, fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that Jesus was preaching on a theme very much in the air in the early decades of the first century, especially among the Essenes, who strongly identified with the poor (being forerunners of later monastic orders, who took vows of poverty). In fact, many scholars have wondered if Jesus might actually have belonged to this sect at one point, or at least have been deeply influenced by their teachings.(9)

That Jesus identified himself as one anointed for this work of “proclamation” certainly agitated the Nazarenes. To their ears, his interpretation of a beloved passage smacked of heresy and self-delusion, and the appropriate punishment for heretics was stoning. “And they were offended by him,” Luke writes.  “But Jesus said to them, A prophet is not without honor except in his own country or in his own house” (Luke 13:61). At this point, Jesus had riled the crowd to such a point that they actually drove him from the synagogue to a cliff at the outskirts of the village. They intended to push him over the edge, a fall that might have resulted in death or severe injury. But for mysterious reasons they didn’t.

Did Jesus say something to defuse the tension? (He was clever on his feet, capable of withering remarks, and there was also the local-boy factor. Would they really push the son of Mary and Joseph over the edge of a cliff?) One regrets that none of the gospel writers gives us more details, as the scene cries out for elaboration. All we know is that Jesus escaped the hostile intentions of his neighbors, that he walked away unharmed. Perhaps he spoke to them in his usual frank way, engaging their sympathy, reminding them of something he had said or done before. Did he call them out by name, fixing them with a familiar gaze? All of this is left, like so much in the gospels, to the imagination of readers. Positioned, as in Luke, at the outset of the ministry, this incident in the synagogue sets the scene for all the trouble that would follow, as Jesus continued to press against the boundaries of taste and received wisdom, angering many who heard him, setting the stage for his eventual arrest and execution.

The incident in the synagogue – and the reaction of the local community – frightened the family of Jesus, and their fears only intensified when he began to move from village to village, exorcizing demons and healing the sick, attracting large crowds and gossip, too. That he brazenly sought out whores and slaves, lepers and tax collectors – people on the bottom of the pecking order – didn’t reassure them. Even though an angel of the Lord had prepared Mary for something unusual, her son’s behavior probably confused and upset her. (Joseph may have been dead by this time, as no further mention of him will be found in the gospels or any further book of the New Testament.) Eventually, however, the family accepted Jesus as a gifted rabbi, if not the Messiah. Indeed, his brother James would actually play a large role in the early Christian communities, directing its operations from Jerusalem, rivaled only by Paul as a shaping force in the decades after their leader’s departure.

And yet there is the discomforting fact that Jesus had reservations about family life, especially as it relates to discipleship. He asked his followers to reject their loved ones if they really wished to join his mission. His directives could be vehement, as in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.”  However you examine this and other passages, it’s obvious that Jesus made uncompromising demands on those who would follow him: not unlike the Therapeutae – one of several monastic sects of the era who favored living apart from family in the pursuit of spiritual goals.

His own relations with his mother often seem puzzling, as in the wedding at Cana, where he performed his first miracle.  The story appears only in John 2:1-11, which presents this magical tale with a compressed grace:

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you or to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing nearby were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He then said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and is disciples believed in him.

A few things stand out in this passage. For a start, Jesus and his disciples chose to attend this wedding with Mary, who obviously played a large role in the life of her son, or he would not have come. For all his comments about putting aside one’s family to follow him, Jesus didn’t disapprove of weddings. His public ministry begins, in earnest, at such an occasion. And a wedding, then as now, was worthy of celebration, so the lack of wine threatened to dampen the spirits of those in attendance. But why did Mary complain about the wine to Jesus? What did she really expect of him?

The response to Mary sounds rude to modern ears: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” What hour did he mean? Did this ominous-sounding phrase anticipate his death on the cross? Or did this allude to his ministry at large, which was only just beginning?  There is no doubt, to me, that Jesus implicitly affirmed the ritual of marriage by staging his first miracle or “sign” at such an event. This point takes on some importance in the context of Paul – a major theological force – who would later say that it was “better to marry than to burn” (1Corinthians 7:9). That’s not a ringing endorsement of holy matrimony. Yet it seems important that the ministry of Jesus began where it did – at a wedding feast, with his mother in attendance.

Family life mattered to him, even though we get only brief glimpses of him in that context, creating a narrative vacuum where rumors flood in, many of them unfounded. The notion that Jesus was married seems to have traveled widely – from the Mormon preacher Orson Hyde, who argued that Jesus was a polygamist who married Mary Magdalene and Martha and perhaps another Mary, to The Da Vinci Code, a popular novel by Dan Brown that claimed Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus. No canonical details give credence to such notions, though in two of the Gnostic Gospels – The Gospel of Mary and The Gospel of Philip – one finds references to Mary Magdalene that could lead one to assume that Jesus felt especially close to her.  In Philip, for instance, Jesus kissed Mary Magdalene on the lips. It’s worth noting this, if only to remind us that the Jesus story cannot easily be confined to the handful of documents selected as canonical by bishops in later centuries. The life itself forms a wide-ranging and complex mythos with countless stray elements that challenge orthodox views at every turn. (The recent discovery of an ancient Coptic fragment that alludes to the wife of Jesus has created further interest in the notion that Jesus could have been married, although most scholars dismiss the idea as unlikely, given that the gospels – even those outside the canon – make no reference to any wife of Jesus, and they would probably have noted this, as they mention that others in his circle, such as Peter, had a wife. It would have been odd to leave out such a key piece of biographical information.)(10)

From Cana, Jesus set forth in earnest, speaking to large or small crowds in his unique fashion, gathering disciples, baptizing those who wished to change their lives, preaching in ways that challenged and startled those who heard him, casting out demons, healing the blind and deaf, the palsied, the leprous. He raised several people from the dead (not just Lazarus), and that wasn’t the half of it. As John remarks at the end of his gospel, “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if everyone of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). No wonder his legend spread, a stone tossed into a pond with ever-widening circles. The larger significance of the gospel story is put simply by Thomas a Kempis: “God can do more than man can understand.” (11)


When Jesus meets the devil in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11),
what does the devil mean by “all the kingdoms of this world”?

When Jesus preaches in the synagogue (Luke 4:16-21),
who does he say belongs to “the kingdom of God”?

When Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray (Matthew 6:9-13),
what does he mean by the prayer, “thy kingdom come”?


1   Vermes, 206.

2. Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, znd ed. (Cambridge: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2.002), 146.

3. Stephan J. Pfann, “The Essene Yearly Renewal Ceremony and the Baptism of Repentance,” in The Provo International Conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls: Technological Innovations, New Texts, and Reformulated Issues, eds. D. Patry and E. Ulrich (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 336.

4. Quoted in Stephen Hobhouse, William Law and Eighteenth Century Quakerism (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1927), 240.

5. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), 23.

6.  Biblical scholars generally agree that the language of Hebrews is not Pauline.

7. See Mark 3:21, for example.

8. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 154

9. There is a minor cottage industry of books claiming to “prove” that Jesus was an Essene or closely allied with this devoutly ascetic group, which had a major outpost in the caves of Qumran. And the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect ideas similar to those we associate with Jesus.

10. See “A Faced Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife,” by Laurie Goodstein in The New York Times (September 18, 2012). This fragment of papyrus was brought before the scholarly community by Professor Karen L. King of the Harvard Divinity School at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome in September, 2012.  Professor King herself has noted that this fragment proves nothing about the marital status of Jesus.  It’s nevertheless an intriguing bit of information from the ancient world, which suggests that questions about Jesus and his marital state could have been widespread in antiquity.

11. Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003), 139.

Chapter 4 – Healer and Teacher

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.


Jay Parini writes, “Jesus’ ministry became a series of encounters, one-on-one confrontations that changed the lives of those who met him, whether they came to him for healing or instruction. Some brushed against him by accident; yet few didn’t feel the force of their meeting with the Son of Man.  Each felt the presence and power of his presence, his intense contact with the kingdom of God, his emotional and intellectual resources, the life-enhancing waters that flowed from him.” (see p. 45)

How do you think Jesus maintained his “intense contact
with the kingdom of God”?

When have you experienced contact with God’s  “kingdom”?
What words would you use to describe your experience?


In his Beatitudes, Jesus used the word blessed in a way
that seems completely foreign to our way of thinking. 

What did blessed mean to Jesus?

Jay Parini says that the Beatitudes can tell us what kind of man Jesus was.
Read through the Beatitudes again:

What do the Beatitudes tell you about Jesus’ personality?

Each morning of this next week, read one of the Beatitudes, and then reflect on its meaning throughout the day. Each evening, look back over your day for an example of that Beatitude in something that happened — or in someone you met.

1. The poor in spirit
2. Those who mourn
3. The meek
4. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
5. The merciful
6. The pure in heart
7. The peacemakers

Jesus said, “I am not your master.
Because you have drunk, you have
become drunk from the babbling stream
which I have measured out.”
 – Gospel of Thomas 

Here are your waters, and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
– Robert Frost,  “Directive”

 I still have many things to say to you,
but you cannot bear them now.
– John 16:12


After his hair-raising debut at the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus set out on his public ministry in a determined fashion, walking through Galilee and neighboring provinces. His exact travels vary in the different gospel accounts, but the general directions remain clear, extending out from Capernaum and bordering regions, ending in Jerusalem. From the moment of his baptism, however, he understood and even embraced his fate, although its lineaments emerged gradually.

His ministry became a series of encounters, one-on-one confrontations that changed the lives of those who met him, whether they came to him for healing or instruction. Some brushed against him by accident; yet few didn’t feel the force of their meeting with the Son of Man. Each felt the mystery and power of his presence, his intense contact with the kingdom of God, his emotional and intellectual resources, the life-enhancing waters that flowed from him.

One example will stand in for many. In John’s gospel, he traveled widely on foot from Judea through Samaria, heading back to his base in Galilee, then heading out again. He and his disciples baptized people wherever they went, often going off in pairs to do this work at the behest of Jesus. In Samaria, in a town called Sychar, where Jacob had a well in ancient times, Jesus is seen by himself; exhausted, he sat by this particular well. It was noon when a Samaritan woman stopped to draw water.

“Will you give me a drink?” Jesus asked.(1)  

It shocked her that he spoke to her at all, let alone with a request like this one. “You’re a Jew;’ she said. ‘Tm a Samaritan woman. And you ask me for a drink!”

Jews and Samaritans did not associate in those times, and – probably more to the point – a self-respecting Jewish man did not speak to a strange woman at a public place like a well. But Jesus would speak to anyone, wherever and whenever he chose.

The conversation turned progressively more complex, testier, with the stakes increasing as they spoke.(2)  

He said to her: “If you had any idea who asked you for a drink, and what God can do actually for you, you would have asked if this man could give you some living water.”

She replied: “Sir, you have nothing to use to draw water, no bucket. This well is very deep. And where can one get this living water you talk about? Don’t tell me you’re more important than Jacob, our father, who gave us this well and drank from it himself, as have his sons and their animals for generations.”

Jesus said, “Those who drink this water will grow thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I offer won’t thirst again. I provide the waters of eternal life.”

She smiled, wise-cracking. “Please give me this amazing water, so I won’t get thirsty again, and I won’t have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus had her number, however. “Go get your husband. Tell him to come here.”

“I have no husband,” she replied coolly.

“That’s true,” said Jesus. “In fact, you’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with at the moment isn’t even your husband.”

Now she was flummoxed, even frightened. How did he know all of this? “Sir, you’re a prophet. I see that now.”

They talked more, and the wheels in her head began to spin. She said, “I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he’ll explain everything to us.”

He responded, “I, the one speaking to you, am he.”

Shocked by this statement, and convinced of its truth, she rushed to tell people in the village about the compelling if rather testy man she had just met at Jacob’s Well.

Like so many of the encounters between Jesus and a stranger, this anecdote layers meaning on meaning. Jesus had been walking for a long time and was “weary” (Greek: kopiao, meaning “beaten down”). In his exhaustion, he stands in for each of us, travelers who stop for refreshment at the hottest time of the day without a bucket but thirsty. In the midst of this crisis comes an opportunity, which is always for Jesus a moment of human exchange and transformation. (He is transformed as much as the person encountered, as he grows into his prophetic role, testing the limits of his own gifts.)

This time, he encounters a double alien: a woman and a Samaritan. Self-respecting men didn’t talk to strange women, especially in these circumstances. But Jesus felt her yearning, her fragility masked by bravado. He always broke down barriers, never erected them. The fact that she was a Samaritan, with “heretical” views, didn’t faze him. As a race, the Samaritans mingled Jewish and Assyrian ancestry, blending so-called heathen practices with traditional Jewish worship.  Josephus in his Antiquities calls them “idolaters and hypocrites,” and this view prevailed within orthodox Jewish circles. So Jesus took a risk in speaking with this woman, inviting her to give him a drink.

As ever, Jesus spoke in metaphors, indirectly. The literal image quickly became a symbol here: real water transformed into “living water,” water from a spiritual wellspring. What Jesus offered was a fresh way of looking at the world, a new code of behavior. You talked to women without troubling over gender rules. You confronted people about their past lives, their current situation. You didn’t worry about their racial or political origins but sought to bring them into a state of reconciliation with God, a condition of atonement that would fill them with “living water” that reached beyond physical thirst. Hardly any story in the gospels seems more to the point, more instructive, on such different levels.


At the start of his ministry, Jesus established a base of operations at the northwestern end of the Sea of Galilee, at Capernaum – a village directly on the Silk Road that marked the last stretch of territory ruled by Herod Antipas. Lower Galilee (the Hebrew word means “circle” or “district”) was known for its great physical beauty: forests and fertile land, the lake itself, and the smooth shoulders of green hills. Light breezes carried whiffs of lavender and thyme to nearby villages. Sheep and cattle grazed in valleys. It was a bountiful place, as Josephus notes, saying that Galilee was “rich in soil and pasturage” and possessed such a “variety of trees” that most residents devoted themselves to agriculture, the easiest way to earn a living there.   A distinction should be made, however: Upper Galilee was almost a separate country: hilly, remote, overrun by bandits and political or religious zealots. Lower Galilee, on the other hand, was fertile, abundant. Villages dotted the lower region, which bordered the Sea of Galilee on the east, with the Mediterranean (near what is now Haifa) on the west. It was in this region that Jesus focused his ministry.

The major cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias lay at the southern end of Galilee, and these attracted traders from far and wide.   But in the course of his ministry, Jesus seems to have skirted them, preferring a rural ministry and village life.

In Capernaum, Jesus began to gather disciples, enlisting four sturdy fishermen almost at once: Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, and John. (The latter may have been the so-called Beloved Disciple, a mysterious figure mentioned in the gospels but without citing his actual name.) Within a short time he added Philip, Matthew, Nathanael (also called Bartholomew), Thomas, James, Simon the Zealot, Judas (also called Thaddaeus), and Judas Iscariot – twelve in all, in symbolic conjunction with the twelve tribes of Israel. The names vary slightly as they appear in the gospels and this confuses readers. Peter, for instance, was also called Simon – a fairly common Hebrew name. Jesus sometimes referred to him as Kephas, in Aramaic, adding to the confusion. In Greek, his name was Petros (meaning “rock”).  Peter – on whom Jesus by tradition had built his church – was a married man. (We know this because he had a mother-in-law whom Jesus healed when he found her in bed with a fever.)  Probably most of the disciples lived in or around Capernaum, and one can only imagine what private dramas may have taken place within their households as they tried to explain to their families that they planned to drop everything and follow Jesus.

Mary Magdalene entered the picture early. She was not among the twelve disciples but played a huge role in his ministry; she was there at the foot of the cross and was, crucially, the first person to see him after his resurrection, as recorded in both Mark and John. She was (by tradition) the author of the apocryphal Gospel of Mary, discovered in 1896 but probably dating from the second century. One should also note a line from the Pistis Sophia – a significant Gnostic text also dating from the second century – where Jesus says that Mary Magdalene would “tower over all my disciples.” That Jesus enormously valued her company cannot be doubted, though the idea that Mary Magdalene was more than a very dear friend remains a point of speculation.

Although unmarried, Jesus liked being around women, and made a point of including them in his company. A good picture of what his ministry looked like appears in Luke 8:1-3: “Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had been cast out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others.”  Women followed him eagerly, and many became leaders in the early Christian church. It was much later – many decades after his death – that misogyny took root in the church, making it awkward for women to assume leadership roles. But Jesus himself never shied away from women, nor did he discourage them from assuming spiritual authority in his name.

The twelve disciples remain fairly indistinct, though we pick up tidbits of individuality here and there. There were two pairs of brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John. Philip was born in Bethsaida, the home of Andrew and Peter, and he appears to have spoken Greek (instead of Aramaic), so he later traveled to Greece, Phrygia, and Syria to convert the gentiles in their familiar tongue. Simon the Zealot was sometimes called Simon the Cananaean (or Canaanite), and one assumes he had strong political views, given his membership in the revolutionary Zealots. His presence reminds us that, however spiritual the kingdom of God might be, there was a political element in play, and Jesus acknowledged this by including Simon among his twelve. On quite another note, Matthew was a tax collector – a disreputable occupation among Jews, who loathed the Roman authorities – and he may be the one called Levi in Mark. By allowing a tax collector among his closest followers, Jesus showed everyone he met that he took no obvious political side in the struggles between Roman rule and its client kings in Palestine. Thaddaeus was also called Judas, but he was not the Judas who betrayed Jesus in the final days. That was Judas Iscariot – a creature of legend, much of it post-biblical. We learn in Acts 1:26 that to replace Judas, “the lot fell upon Matthias.” This way, the number could remain twelve. But Matthias remains a bit of a mystery, lost in the pages of history.

Modern archaeologists have added a good deal to our sense of the historical reality behind the ministry of Jesus. They found, for instance, the remains of an ancient synagogue in Capernaum – possibly the exact spot where Jesus taught. When he took up preaching there, the people listened keenly and “were astounded by his teaching, because his words had authority” (Luke 4:32). He taught them that the kingdom of God lay at hand, even within them, and urged them to open their hearts and minds to the spiritual realities he had himself experienced, inviting them to drink from the living waters.

One of his earliest acts – a public demonstration of his unusual gifts – was to cast out a demon from a severely deranged man, an exorcism that startled the village where the man had lived. Later, he cured Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and news spread quickly about this wonder-working healer who had fetched up in Capernaum to perform amazing feats. Crowds gathered at sunset outside of Peter’s house, where those with “various kinds of sickness” surrounded Jesus, who healed them one by one, ever patient, always listening as much as speaking.

Jesus also spent time instructing the twelve in Capernaum, making sure they understood his ideas before they took his ministry on the road. At one point, he gathered a child into his arms and declared: “Whoever receives one child in my name receives me.” The message came through loudly: Don’t let your ego get in the way of your goal, which is to spread the good news of the kingdom. And remember that it’s not a complicated message, as any child can receive it. Go with your heart, not your head.

The story of Jesus as healer and exorcist has a peculiar ring today. But in Palestine twenty centuries ago, healers and exorcists roamed the landscape, many of them quite gifted. In truth, nobody in the gospels seems to have doubted that Jesus performed miracles of healing or cast out demons; it was only a question of in whose name he performed these mighty acts.(3)  To me, it’s not surprising in the least that Jesus could empower those with physical ailments or “demons” to recover: faith is a tonic, and Jesus asked those he healed to put their trust not in himself but in God.

Great men in the ancient world were often thought to perform miracles. Philo, a major Jewish writer and contemporary of Jesus, writes that the Emperor Augustus was an “averter of evil” who quieted storms and stopped plagues, and nobody questioned this assumption. People thought that the Emperor Nero had quelled a storm, too.(4) Indeed, the kinds of miracles that Jesus performed suited an age before the advent of psychoanalysis or antidepressants. He had a surprising talent for opening up the victims of madness to healing energies, and this doesn’t sound especially “supernatural” to me. It may require a stretch to imagine he could make a blind man see or a victim of paralysis walk; but I have no doubt that faith can boost one’s immune system and that its emotional balm has healing effects. Most of the other miracles in the gospels, such as walking on water or quelling storms or turning water into wine, strike me as intensely symbolic acts and should be considered as such. This doesn’t mean they should not be considered true as well. It means that the writers of the gospels had a different view of truth from that held by modern philosophers and historians who, in Oscar Wilde’s sublime phrase, are “always degrading truths into facts.”(5)

The gospels offer tantalizing glimpses of the public ministry of Jesus, repeating things he said in slightly altered form – not a surprising thing, given that Matthew and Luke appropriated much of Mark. Plagiarism was not a problem in those days, and one assumes in any case that Jesus repeated himself: all teachers do. He honed his message on the stump, finding the right emphases, the best rhetorical structures for making his points. This must have been a superb time for him and his disciples, who reveled in his presence, consumed by his fiery nature, his wit and wisdom, his superb knowledge of Hebrew scripture, his sense of God’s presence working in his life and potentially transforming theirs as well as they shifted from village to village, often sleeping outside under the stars, bypassing towns and cities by going through the countryside, where they slept in fields or barns. Needless to say, both the Roman and Jewish authorities looked warily on this itinerant band, who seemed oblivious at times to laws and customs.

One gets a hint of the immediate problem in Mark 2:23-28, where Jesus and his followers “went through the fields of grain” near a village “on the Sabbath day.” As they walked, the disciples of Jesus blithely plucked “corn” (probably barley) at random. This annoyed the local Pharisees, who followed Sabbath laws with fanatical rigidity, assuming that the way into God’s kingdom involved adherence to specific codes. You simply didn’t reap on the Sabbath, even if you need food.  The Pharisees – as strict followers of Mosaic law – complained to Jesus, who explained that King David himself had gone into the high priest’s house once and taken the “show bread,” which only priests could eat with impunity; he gave this bread to his hungry followers. And why not? David was a king, after all, and it was good to be king.

Jesus’s lackadaisical response to Jewish law shocked and annoyed the Pharisees. Who did he think he was? Was this young man from a poor family in Nazareth claiming to be a royal personage, even David reborn? Did he have any idea how scandalous he sounded? Jesus listened to them respectfully but rebuffed their legalistic thinking: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath: Therefore the Son of Man should also be considered Lord also of the Sabbath.”(6)  One can only imagine their response.

One tracks Jesus in his daily ministry in different ways in the four gospels, and it’s impossible to get a clear route or sense of chronology. Yet a kind of summary of his work appears in Matthew 4:23-25: “And Jesus walked about Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of sickness and disease among the people. And his fame spread even throughout Syria: and they brought unto him sick people that were taken with different illnesses and torments, and those who were possessed with devils, and those that were mad, and those that had forms of paralysis and palsy; and he healed them. And vast multitudes followed him from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond the Jordan.” Although glimpses of him occur in various parts of Palestine, he confined himself to Galilee and  its shorelines for the most part, with a final journey to Jerusalem through Judea and Perea.

The exact length of his ministry remains unknown, though he apparently began preaching and teaching when he was “about thirty years old” (Luke 3:23). The events described in Mark could easily have taken place within a single year or less, even a few months, and this is true of Matthew and Luke as well. Only one Passover celebration is mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels, hence the assumption that the ministry occupied him for a year or so. In John, however, three Passovers occurred in the course of the public ministry, which suggests to many readers that three years must have elapsed. But the gospels’ narratives follow no timeline, and events in the story occur in a different order in each  version, and the lapse of time is impossible to gauge.  Not being biography in the modern sense of that term, the gospels should be taken as impressionistic accounts of an extraordinary life, and the authors (probably many authors, who expanded and modified earlier texts) shift the scene of the action from one place to another almost at will to illustrate the sort of things that Jesus did, often gathering the specific teachings of Jesus into neat summaries – not unlike the helter-skelter way in which they would have been presented in real time.

Matthew, in particular, arranged the teachings in well-defined sections. This gospel may actually have been a textbook, written in Antioch for an audience of students at what might have been a very early Christian seminary of sorts.(7)  It puts forward a tidy compilation of sayings and parables, laid out in didactic fashion. At the core of this teaching lies the Sermon on the Mount, which draws on vast reservoirs of desert wisdom, looking to the East as well as the West for inspiration and ideas.  If it were the only record of Jesus that survived, it would suffice to place him among the handful of major spiritual and ethical guides in history.


The Sermon on the Mount begins with a series of statements known as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12).  These aphorisms reach far beyond the ethics of traditional Judaism, appropriating a version of the Hindu and Buddhist idea of Karma, which suggests that what happens to us is rooted in our deeds: If we show mercy, we receive mercy, for instance; if we behave violently, violence will define us. This is called the Karmic cycle, and it became a pervasive and grounding concept in Eastern religions. Of course, Jesus framed the concept in ways unique to himself and developed in later Christian doctrine, as in Galatians 6:7: “Whatever a man sows, that shall he reap.”

The Beatitudes follow in the King James Version, as the text is so familiar:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness:
for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you,
and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven:
for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

 It was Pope Benedict XVI who said in his excellent study of the life of Jesus that anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount attentively must realize that the Beatitudes present “a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure.”(8)  We can deduce what kind of man he was from things he advocated in this sequence of statements centered on his dream of a fully realized kingdom. Each of the Beatitudes refers to this kingdom, which is already within reach of those who listen. That Jesus should begin with the “poor in spirit” matters hugely, and it embodies the most radical turn in his teaching.


“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

It’s an appealing start, but who exactly are “the poor in spirit:’ and how do they relate to the poor in the usual sense, those without worldly goods? (In Luke, the opening Beatitude omits “in spirit,” confusing the matter and opening a good deal of debate.) Jesus refers to an understanding of the poor as pictured in Isaiah, where “poor” refers to those with a humble demeanor. He praises this humility, which may connect to physical poverty (as it clearly does in Isaiah 58:7, where the poor are those without bread), or those requiring sustenance for their spirits. The message here seems broader, however: the humble will be blessed (Greek: makarios, usually translated as “blessed,” also means “joyful” as well as “favored” or “happy”), and they will come into a kingdom that exists beyond time and space.

As the poor in spirit often dwelled in material poverty, the correlation between those literally and figuratively poor would not have been lost on those who listened to Jesus. The people of Palestine were hardly wealthy, and the crowds who gathered before Jesus experienced rural poverty of a grueling sort, threatened each day by hunger and disease, discouragement and fear of violence. That Jesus should speak to them, especially in the first of his Beatitudes, must have been heartening. They had a special place in God’s kingdom.

There’s an old Jewish story that goes like this: A rabbi is asked why nobody sees the face of God anymore, as they did in ancient times. The rabbi says ruefully that it’s because nobody these days can stoop so low.(9)  In many ways this is what Jesus means in this first Beatitude: Stoop! Find your blessings in those who lack power, wealth, or resources. Prefer humility to arrogance. This is the way to happiness, to a blessed state. (10)

“Blessed are they that mourn.”

Jesus understood that life is suffering – one of the four “Noble Truths” espoused by the Buddha. (11)  Jesus singles out those in special anguish, such as those who mourn the death of a loved one, the anguish of a relative or friend, the pain of illness or mental despair. For anyone, it’s only a matter of time before anguish descends. As the poet Robert Hass has written: ”All the new thinking is about loss.” But so is all the ancient thinking. As this Beatitude suggests, in the midst of losses, God offers comfort. In fact, in times of great personal difficulty, spiritual progress becomes possible. Ever conscious of the Jewish scriptures, Jesus recalls here Ecclesiastes 7:3, where we read: “Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.”

“Blessed are the meek.”

Who are these people, the meek, who will “inherit the earth,” which is quite a grand reward for their behavior? We don’t usually like the meek, and the word in English has unpleasant connotations: the meek are timid, frightened, even foolish. They tug their forelocks and bow to those who are stronger. But this isn’t what the Greek word (praeis) actually suggests. Aristotle uses this word to mean somebody who understands the golden mean, who picks a way between anger on the one hand and subservience on the other. (12) Another translation of the Greek word is “nonviolent” or “peaceful.” Further, the term correlates to a word associated in Hebrew scripture with Moses: “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).  One doesn’t usually think of Moses, a great Israelite leader, as “meek.”  But the word obviously has many levels of association.

In this Beatitude, Jesus alludes specifically to a famous Hebrew text, Psalm 37:11, which reads: “But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace” (KJV). Those who will inherit the earth will not be aggressive or self-aggrandizing. They will be “meek,” in the fullest sense of that term, nourished through its Hebrew and Greek roots.

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness.”

The message turns on two verbs: to hunger and to thirst, words that in the context of Middle Eastern life in the first century must have carried a special vividness. Here physical needs stand in for spiritual realities. The blessed ones reach for dikaiosune or “righteousness,” for a condition that, in Greek, suggests a yearning for oneness with God, a conjunction of wills. “It does not mean the ethical quality of a person,” cautions Bultmann. “It does not mean any quality at all, but a relationship.” (13)  The relationship in question is between God and the seeker, and it has to do with the seeker’s actions as well, in which he or she aspires to accept and understand the will of God. And Jesus would have had in mind a passage from Isaiah 32:17:  “And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance forever” (KJV). The righteous shall “be filled,” their hunger and thirst “satisfied” as they come into the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are the merciful.”

Here is an obvious reference to the Karmic cycle, as noted above. And Jesus himself showed mercy repeatedly as he moved from village to village, as when he met a blind beggar by the road (Luke 18:38) and the beggar called to him: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus restored his sight at once. This willingness to act, to respond to those who ask for help, occupies the core of Christian ethics. It can’t be overstated: the essential Christian urge is toward forgiveness. It should displace feelings of anger, hate, resentment, and revenge. This is a transformation that, in my view, occurs naturally as one takes up the cross of Jesus and follows him. There is no time for revenge. One looks around and sees everywhere such need, and resolves to act, in political ways or simply personal ways, offering help to those who require counsel, friendship, food, or shelter. The natural consequence of such “mercy,” of course, is forgiveness, the ultimate gift of the spirit, as it provides a conduit to atonement or union with God.

“Blessed are the pure in heart.”

Purity of heart belongs to those who behave without mixed motives, who live in accord with God’s will, and who therefore apprehend this purity Jesus asks for. The point is amplified memorably in Titus 1:15: “To the pure all things are pure: but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; even their minds and conscience are defiled.” This Beatitude follows naturally from being humble and “meek,” from giving to others, from listening to Jesus when he tells us to “love one another” as he loved us. But it suggests as well that the very act of striving for purity activates a vision of God: in becoming pure, we become Godlike, merging with the Spirit. We “seek his face,” as Psalm 105 urges us to do, and we find it: the face of God that, as St. Augustine once suggested, we discover in the human visage of Jesus.

“Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Jesus blesses those who promote peace among their friends and neighbors, saying they will become the “children of God.” And by extension, he blesses those who promote peace at large, These are the  happy ones, the true inheritors of the kingdom; being filled with peace, they spread peacefulness around them. The peacemakers must always step forward, urging caution in situations where war or conflict arises. In an age dominated by horrendous violence and wars, these words by Jesus must have sounded a loud gong. Again, a Karmic truth emerges in this Beatitude: making peace leads to peacefulness, which ultimately defines the kingdom of God as a state of true reconciliation with the Creator. The true children of God understand that their peacefulness is a gift to the world at large.

“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”

This final Beatitude would have pricked the ears of his disciples, each of whom would suffer martyrdom by the end of his life. The evangelist here, writing in a time of political stress for Jews after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE, would also have caught the attention of severely persecuted and threatened Christians.(14)   His promise to them was the ultimate boon: the kingdom of heaven, in all its dimensions, implying a kind of restoration as alienated human beings unite with the ground of their being, no longer “outside” of eternity but satisfied, complete, entering a “world without end,” as we read in Ephesians 3:21. As always, righteousness means rightness with God, oneness, a convergence of the human and divine will, as seen fully within the person of Jesus himself.


The Beatitudes form only the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, which occupies three long chapters in Matthew. What follows directly is often called the Antitheses – six statements that adhere to a rhetorical form that would have sounded familiar to readers schooled in classical rhetoric: “You have heard it said that … but I tell you this.” They amplify Mosaic laws in significant ways. I paraphrase them in what follows, with a brief comment on each:

1. You have heard it said, Do not kill. I say this: Don’t even be angry.

Jesus lost his temper at times, so one may well ask if he was hypocritical. On this, he might have agreed with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Jesus had a large mind and heart, and he entertained many weathers of feeling – like any human being. Yet he clearly hated injustice, poverty, and cruelty of any kind. He also understood that anger isn’t a useful response, as it will eat away at the soul.  Again, the idea of Karma presides, however Christianized by Jesus: anger leads to murderous behavior. Forgiveness leads to godly behavior. So he takes his listeners back to the origins of murder, anger itself.

2.  You have heard it said, Don’t commit adultery. I will go further: Don’t even lust after someone in your heart.

The strictness here seems, in today’s erotically-charged world, to pose an impossible ideal. How can one possibly not lust after somebody in one’s heart? Do we control this? Jesus was of his time, and this ideal may seem far too much to ask. But it underscores a message that still has relevance. Our lives are happier without insane lust, as Shakespeare suggests in Sonnet 129, where he writes, “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.” Shakespeare meditates on lust in its various forms: past, present, and future. In each case, it roils the human spirit, producing shame, unease, blame, and myriad other distresses. It rarely helps in the pursuit of fidelity, which is where (in the Christian view) happiness lies. As Wendell Berry, the poet, has said: “What marriage offers – and what fidelity is meant to protect – is the possibility of moments when what we have chosen and what we desire are the same.” (15) Jesus locates the Karmic origins of adultery in lust. It’s a cycle that can only be broken at the beginning. That might seem like an impossible task; but the beginning is always coming around again, so hope lies there.

3.  You have heard it said, If you wish to divorce your wife, serve her divorce papers. I say this: The only way you can leave your wife is if she is unfaithful.

The message is clear: fidelity lies at the heart of love. You can leave someone only if he or she has already left you. And yet Jesus builds here on the previous antithesis, where he suggests (to me) that fidelity lies at the heart of both marriage and community. And only within a community of faithful people is one actually free. Sexuality is sacramental, and when taken out of this context, it leads to exploitation. Respect, sexual discipline, and fidelity lead to the practice of love, and this is something worth practicing.   And yet, as Wendell Berry further writes, “the idea of fidelity is perverted beyond redemption by understanding it as a grim, literal duty enforced only by will power.” (16)  It’s not about forcing the issue, settling into a joyless relationship. Fidelity and love move into the same space naturally, blossoming in the good soil of a respectful relationship.

4.  You have heard it said, Don’t break an oath. I tell you this: Don’t make promises or oaths in the first place if you’re in danger of breaking them. Say yes or no, and don’t hedge.

Whatever you say, you should mean it. Be clear. Jesus calls for sincerity and transparency in making promises or commitments to others. Here he asks for fidelity of the tongue as well as the body and soul. Again, faithful speech leads to good faith. Our words must become deeds. (John P. Meier, in a long chapter on what is called the “prohibition of oaths” in the fourth volume of A Marginal Jew, makes the sensible point that the more severe teachings of Jesus – that one should not make oaths or promises, that one should not divorce one’s spouse – are further examples of Jesus as “the eschatological prophet proclaiming the rules of conduct binding on those who already live” inside the kingdom of God.(17)

5.  You have heard it said, An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you this:  If somebody strikes you, turn the other check.  If someone demands your jacket, give it to him and  your cloak as well.

This remains a core teaching of Jesus and, perhaps, his most radical revision of Judaic morality, upturning the apple cart. Resist evil but do so without violence is a strong message, one that influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. But it’s a complicated matter, one that has vexed Christians throughout modern history. Political leaders who supposedly follow the Way of Jesus have rarely taken his teachings on the matter of passive resistance to evil with anything like the seriousness they require. Jesus’s approach sounds too radical, a bit frightening. As human beings, our natural tendency is to strike back in self-defense if not anger. Jesus cuts against the grain, as ever, asking us to respond to evil not passively but actively, showering love and good will on those who hate us, who do us harm. He asks for restraint and much more. He asks for insane generosity: give it away, especially if you love it. Cast your bread upon the waters.

6.  You have heard it said, Love your friends but hate your enemies. But I say this: Love your enemies. Do good to those who try to harm you.

This behavior represents an extension of the previous antitheses. It’s an ideal, and it suggests another way to break the Karmic cycle of hatred by allowing love to flow toward even those who fall into the category of “enemies.” In a sense, this love – modeled by Jesus in his life and deeds, especially in going to the cross – dissolves hatred. It’s a potent instrument that makes change possible. As before, Jesus builds idea on idea, amplifying and extending his thoughts.  It seems unnatural to do good to those who try to harm us; but it’s the Christian way, offering an alternative to the violent response that often comes more naturally when we feel attacked.

These six antitheses take seriously the command to love.   In various ways Jesus suggests that we can break cycles of violence and hatred, that the possibility of change lies before us, within our grasp. He takes every consequence back to the actions that produced it, for either good or evil, urging us to undergo a change of heart. Yet he understood that we can’t simply do this hard work of transformation by ourselves. Change requires God’s intervention in our lives, an overflowing of the Spirit into human consciousness. Only by the grace of God can we begin to effect change, to participate in the gradually realizing kingdom that lies within us, however difficult of access. This is not a matter of willing ourselves to perfection; it’s about letting the will of God enter our lives, so that his will becomes ours: a very different dynamic.

Aware that we must seek God’s help in our shift of consciousness, Jesus offered an example of prayer, a bid for grace that he asked his disciples to emulate, making prayer and meditation a central part of their spiritual practice.


The Lord’s Prayer occupies a central place in the Sermon on the Mount, as it should. It invites us to acknowledge our imperfections, our helplessness, framing a wish for the kingdom of God to come as quickly as possible.

With a single gesture, Jesus put prayer at the center of the Christian life, and some of the most vivid scenes in the gospels occur when Jesus goes off by himself to pray, as he does in the desert or, during his final week, in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Prayer was, for him, a way of opening himself to God-consciousness. It was, as prayer must be, a way of listening, allowing a kind of holy silence to fill the mind’s honeycomb. A prayer is a bid (the Anglo-Saxon word for prayer is bed, and the German word is beten, in Dutch, bidden), a bid for grace, for communication with the Spirit, an invitation to be filled with God’s love. We speak to God in prayer as well as listen; but we require words, as Jesus knew, which is why he put forward this example in Matthew 6:9-14: (18)

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us .from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.

Two versions of this prayer exist, in Matthew and Luke, and not all manuscripts of Matthew add the doxology (the last three lines).(19)  But the character of the prayer is consistent in both versions. One begins by praising God, regarding him as a father – a traditional Jewish idea, as when God speaks in Exodus 4:22: “Israel is my son, even my firstborn.” But Jesus urged us to make a personal connection with God, as in a father-child relationship. Every phrase in the Lord’s Prayer resonates with the Jewish scriptures, emerging from earlier concepts but always expanding, modifying, shifting as Jesus offered his followers a New Covenant.(20)

The other elements of the prayer fall easily into place. We invite God’s kingdom to arrive sooner rather than later. God’s will (not ours) controls our aspirations, so it’s no use forcing the matter, trying to grit our teeth and white-knuckle our way to perfection. We ask for “daily bread” (21) – referring here to spiritual sustenance as well as food. In keeping with what was already put forward in the Beatitudes and Antitheses, Jesus suggests that we must forgive those who do us ill while asking forgiveness for our own foolish, ill-considered, cruel, selfish, and thoughtless deeds. Penitence lies at the heart of this prayer. We must ask for forgiveness, as we inevitably fall into error, stepping off the path. We wish to be delivered from evil (in Greek, the evil one: ho poneros-a version of the Hebrew Ha-satan). Evil is everywhere around us, and we hope that God will keep us from its path. The doxology in the last three lines offers more praise to God. So the prayer begins and ends with praise. It’s a wonderfully focused petition, a way to share in the prayer life of Jesus by following his example.

The immediate focus of “Thy kingdom come” – on the emerging kingdom of God – needs elaboration. The problem of exactly when Jesus thought the kingdom would arrive or what form it might take has vexed New Testament scholars, especially after Johannes Weiss (1863-1914), a major German theologian, put forward his theory of Jesus as a prophet obsessed with the idea of the coming “end times” or eschaton. And the Book of Revelation – as a conclusion to the New Testament – has not helped matters, offering a fevered vision of the final days, though it almost certainly refers to things happening at the time it was composed, not a vision of some dire end-of-the-world scenario, as Elaine Pagels has argued.(22)  Indeed, it might better have been called Apocalypse Now.

The Lord’s Prayer is gentler than anything in the Book of Revelation. It encourages a penitential attitude, so that the full benefits of prayer (which include reconciliation with God) can be experienced. This bid for grace is easily repeatable, like a mantra – as when Christians “pray the Rosary,” moving from bead to bead on a necklace – where it often forms a part of a spiritual exercise.(23)  This is the only time in the New Testament where we get any sense of how Jesus actually sounded when he prayed, and we put ourselves in his shoes by repeating these words, which engender strong emotions and open the heart to divine consciousness. We become, in the course of saying the Lord’s Prayer, like Jesus himself.


While the Lord’s Prayer occupies the center of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus follows it with a number of important sayings and exhortations as well as parables. The sixth chapter of Matthew moves toward a lovely passage, beautifully rendered by the King James translators:

Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil nor, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

As an antidote to worry, Jesus suggested that we “consider the lilies.” Faith bestows ease, confidence, and emotional balance. And here lies the reward of following the Way of Jesus: we can’t add anything to our stature that God hasn’t already given, by his grace. To a degree, this teaching of Jesus once again parallels a key Buddhist idea, that the universe will take care of us.  We have only to observe the present world, pay full attention to its details, and its meanings will reveal themselves: “For the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19: 1).


A diamond glitters in Matthew 7:12: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (KJV). Since the Middle Ages, this piece of ancient wisdom has been called the Golden Rule.(24)  It’s also known, less poetically, as the ethic of reciprocity, and versions of this idea occur in most world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. In the Analects of Confucius (XV.2.4) another framing of this thought appears: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”(25)  Similar statements go back as far as the Code of Hammurabi – probably the oldest written statement of this principle, dating from around 1780 BCE.(26) A version also appears in the sayings of Rabbi Hillel, a major religious leader at the time of Jesus, who delivered what is often called the Silver Rule. Hillel asks people to refrain from doing anything to others that would feel distasteful to them personally. Jesus could easily have heard this teaching from Hillel or his followers. He might have picked up versions of this idea as he talked with merchants or travelers on the Silk Road in his youth. In any case, it doesn’t matter where Jesus got the idea: it was already in the air. And he improved upon it, making it central to his teaching.


The Sermon on the Mount ends with a blizzard of aphorisms that act as a summary of the whole, as in the following selection (KJV):

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

       Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find.

Ye shall know them by their fruits.

It’s worth recalling that aphorisms or sayings are not parables, which remain central to both the content and form of Christian teaching. A parable is a brief, indirect story with a moral; it may, like a Zen koan, provide a puzzle that needs solving – or have a point that sneaks up on the listener. The Sermon ends with a good example of the form, the parable of the two houses, which instructs the reader on how to interpret and use the sayings of Jesus:

Therefore whoever hears these sayings of mine, and obeys them, I consider him a wise man who built his house upon a rock: And the rain came down, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and yet it didn’t fall because it was founded on a rock. And everyone who hears these sayings of mine, and doesn’t obey them, shall be considered a foolish man who has built his house upon the sand. And the rain came down, and the floods arrived, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell: and the fall of it was great.

It was a deft move in this parable to end with a metaphor of two houses, one built on sand and therefore unstable, and one built on solid rock. It’s not a difficult parable, as anyone can comprehend the metaphor. Sigmund Freud once said that whenever people dream of a house, they dream of their own soul.  Jesus intuited this, and his two houses are human souls, one of which has a foundation provided by Jesus – a rock-like sense of the human condition enhanced by his teaching. Souls in communication with God should fear no storm, no dislodgment.  The wind and the rain will fail to topple (although they might shake) such people.  But those with souls built on sand will find it difficult to weather out a storm.


Wherever he went, Jesus spoke in parables, and these – in the Synoptic Gospels especially – form the marrow of his teaching.  In using parables, Jesus harks back to Hebrew scripture, which provides an array of Jewish parables (Hebrew: mashal). In Ezekiel one finds short, pithy statements or aphorisms – a genre that Jesus loved – as well as longer allegorical stories with a twist or moral at the end, the main form of parable that Jesus adapted for his purposes. That they often seem to possess a secret at their core may puzzle some, but the origins of the parable lie in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, and it wasn’t foolish to disguise messages in ways that made them less accessible to the larger world, especially during times of exile or political turmoil.

Ezekiel, for instance, was written during the Babylonian exile, when Jews found themselves in a foreign land, at a loss to understand their state. Solomon’s Temple had been thoroughly destroyed, and narratives that prophesied the triumph of Israel seemed hopelessly at odds with developments on the ground.(27)  The nation of Israel had been uprooted: physically and spiritually. The plot of their story had been rudely disrupted. So the author of Ezekiel and other writings sought a hidden narrative, a buried design that might be grasped in the form of parable. In The Parables in the Gospels (1985), John Drury says: “The element of secret knowledge which had always been part of the structure of prophecy came to dominate it. The prophet became a wise man, a dreamer and visionary, an interpreter of dreams like Joseph in his affliction and exile. As such he held the clue.”(28)

The parables in the gospels function in a similar way, offering oblique teachings, almost preternaturally evasive in certain instances. In Mark 4:13, for example, Jesus says (perhaps with a slight grin): “You don’t know this parable? So how will you know all the parables?” The parable here concerns the sower who sowed his seeds in stony ground. The birds came and ate the seeds; other seeds fell on “good ground,” and they yielded fruit in abundance. In the middle of the telling Jesus says: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.” There is a lot of mystification, as Jesus goes on to say that the parables make sense only to those who hear them with the ears of faith; those on the outside can’t understand what they hear. Mark observes that Jesus spoke in parables to the people at large, “and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples” (Mark 4:34). Jesus didn’t want the people at large to understand his words too easily, “lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.”

Readers may object: Doesn’t Jesus actually want his followers to be forgiven? This verse – like so many verses in scriptural writing – needs context for understanding. Mark actually quotes a passage from Isaiah (6:9-10), where God tells his prophet to say to the people: ”And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.” Keeping this passage from Isaiah in mind, one begins to see this puzzling remark of Jesus as yet another attempt by the evangelist to place him, perhaps clumsily in this instance, in the tradition of Jewish prophecy. Mark assumes incomprehension, that the audience at hand will hear Jesus but not understand his words. They will not accidentally “turn and be healed,” as their turning would be an intentional act. One must, however, assent in order to understand.

The continuously pressured, anxiety-filled historical context of Jews under Roman rule freights the parables of Jesus.  They generate multiple layers of meaning as Jesus attempted to communicate with people who might resist what he had to tell them, as with the infamous saying that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.(29)  Here, as elsewhere, Jesus wished to annoy, even outrage, the elite classes, especially those who understood only too well that this upstart crow sought to overturn aspects of Jewish law, despite his protest to the contrary in the Sermon on the Mount. His new covenant posed a threat to the old one, making those who listened nervous. If they dropped everything and followed Jesus, anything might happen.

Jesus spoke fearlessly, unafraid to challenge or upset those who listened. One senses that edge in his parables, a cunning that threatens to undermine established opinion and overturn expectations. He shocked his listeners into fresh understandings, as in the parable of the mustard seed, which appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. In Mark 4:30-31, it runs as follows:

What’s a suitable image for God’s kingdom? What parable might I use to explain it? Think of a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of plants. It puts out such extensive branches that the birds in the sky can nest in its shade.

In other words, something quite massive can grow from something as tiny as a mustard seed. (The revolt of one person can lead to large political movements, for example. A single spiritual awakening can precipitate a wave of religious feeling.)   The plant in this parable would be the black mustard, which grows to nine feet in height. Jews rarely planted these in their gardens, regarding them as weeds; but one found them abundantly in the fields. The idea of a tree filled with birds suggests that the kingdom of God would in due course welcome all comers, and that it would grow to a considerable size. Although it grew wild, it flourished under circumstances of cultivation. And it had many health-giving properties. This parable works on a political level: one can imagine Christians establishing a righteous kingdom on earth; it also works on a spiritual level, as the consciousness of the individual Christian deepens into a faith-based community, and one begins to comprehend that Jesus is the vine and we are its branches.

Drury writes of this parable: “Here is an image of the eschatological state or kingdom, a tree full of birds. Eschatology, of a decidedly futuristic sort, as we would expect in the context, triumphs and has the last parabolic word before the editorial conclusion.”(30)  That “editorial conclusion” follows in the next verse: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” Drury and many other scholars go to considerable efforts to locate each parable within the developing context of the specific gospel (as well as within the unfolding life of Jesus) and its specific historical setting.(31)

The parables deal with ordinary things, such as baking bread (the Parable of the Leaven) or knocking on a neighbor’s door (the Parable of the Friend at Night) or with a mugging by the roadside (the Good Samaritan). In each case, Jesus wished to teach a lesson, make a point about the kingdom of God, or nudge his followers in a more enlightened direction. But it was easier to communicate with familiar imagery – often drawn from rural or village life. As ever, he met people where they were, in their own daily lives.

A fair number of the best parables concern loss and redemption, as in Luke, where three parables on this theme occur: the parables of the Lost Sheep (the shepherd goes out of his way to locate a strayed animal), the Lost Coin (a woman goes out of her way to find a missing coin), and the Prodigal Son – one of the longest and most highly crafted of parables, where a father lavishly welcomes home a son who has squandered his inheritance on wild living in a faraway land. The son returns in a wretched state, barely alive. His father’s response is overwhelming: he kills a fatted calf to celebrate the homecoming of this “wasteful” or prodigal son. The son’s older brother, however, is not overjoyed by anything that unfolds before him. He has worked diligently beside his father for years. Now he finds the spectacle of his younger brother being feted in such a manner wholly extravagant and surely unearned. Fury and jealousy overwhelm him. But his father speaks to him with calm affection: “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. But it was fitting to celebrate, for this, your brother, was dead, but he’s alive again; he was lost, and now is found” (Luke 15:31-32).

Like others, such as Henri J. M. Nouwen (who wrote a memorable book on this parable), I’ve stood in awe before Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the Hermitage. One of his last great paintings – he died in 1669 and completed this masterpiece in the two years before his death – it captures the moment of forgiveness and mercy essential to the parable. The bearded father’s expression is one of huge relief as he embraces a beloved son who was thought lost but has returned on his knees. His eyes glimmer with love as well as thanksgiving. The resentful older son peeks around a corner, in a darkness that is spiritual as well as physical. His resentment glowers. And yet one feels sorry for him, too. There is a kind of openness to pain in his expression. The light-drenched figures – father and prodigal son – blaze in the foreground. But one grieves for the elder son, who might well be the most important figure in this parable. He, too, is lost and needs forgiveness as well as compassion. The painting reaches forward in time, extending through it, dissolving it. The stillness of the image is indelible, an act of loving attention to a single frame of the parable, the action frozen but kinetic, reflective as well as expectant.


The personality of Jesus, and his radical incendiary ministry, caught the attention of all who heard about it; his reputation spread rapidly through Galilee, where he dispensed his signs and wonders and spread the “good news” of a coming kingdom with astounding energy. In one of the memorable images of the public ministry, we find him standing in a boat in the Sea of Galilee and preaching to those on shore. Not a fisherman himself, he seemed to enjoy being in boats and often employed metaphors derived from fishing. We even find him walking on water in a moment emblazoned in the memory of most Christians throughout the centuries.

In that scene, Jesus walked toward his disciples during a storm, and yet they didn’t recognize him. “It’s a ghost;’ one of them cried (Matthew 14:26). Jesus responded with his typical reassurance and calm: “Be of good cheer; it’s me, so don’t be afraid.” Peter questioned him now, uncertain about the identity of this mysterious figure. But Jesus told him to come toward him. Peter took the risk, walking toward him over the water in a strong wind. When he grew frightened, his faith Withering, he sank into the waves. Jesus reached out to him, lifting him up. “O you people of little faith, why did you doubt me?” As soon as Peter resumed his trust in God, he was buoyed up.

The miracle of the loaves and fishes takes center stage in the gospels, for good reason. It’s the one where Jesus managed to feed five thousand men and women with just five loaves and two fishes, and there was still leftover food. (In a similar miracle, reported only in Mark and Matthew, Jesus fed four thousand.)  It’s a miracle of abundance that occurs in the wake of the beheading of John the Baptist, terrible news that would certainly have upset Jesus and spread fear among his disciples. He withdrew to a small boat, grieving the loss of his cousin, who had inspired and baptized him. After a time of intense prayer, God directed him back into the world, where a crowd gathered around him in the countryside. He went straight to work, healing the sick, offering words of encouragement, and preaching the good news of God’s love. It grew late, however, and the disciples began to worry about the fact that nobody had eaten. They suggested that Jesus send the crowd into nearby towns for food.  Jesus, however, insisted they should stay. Having been handed five loaves of bread and two fishes, he told the huge crowd to sit on the grass. Then he looked up to heaven and, like a magician-priest, broke the loaves and fishes into countless pieces, feeding everyone. Twelve full baskets of food were left over.

The point is that God will meet the needs of his people, even exceed them. It’s a message of abundance: there is always enough, even more than enough. Once again, an act of Jesus recalls a famous scene from Hebrew scripture; in Exodus, God (in the presence of Moses) fed the hungry Israelites with manna from heaven, a snow of bread in ridiculous profusion. The Moses link would have been a strong association in the minds of those fed by Jesus as well as those who later listened to this story as it arose in all four gospels, which suggests that it had a key place in the worship of early Christian communities. Whatever they required, God would provide.

Miracles of healing spin through the gospels, a key part of the work of Jesus, and one cannot ignore them.(32)  But Jesus emphasized that he himself didn’t perform these miracles of healing but that the faith of the person being healed mattered a great deal. Jesus was merely an instrument of God, as in the healing of ten lepers in Luke, where he doesn’t say, “I did this for you.”  He says, instead: “Arise, go your way: your faith has made you whole” (Luke 17:19).  This is not, I think, contradicted by the passage in John where Jesus told skeptics to believe the works that he accomplished, even if they didn’t actually believe he was the Son of God: “Although you don’t believe in me, believe the works I do, so that you may know, and really understand, that the Father is in me, just as I’m in him” (John 10:38). Jesus felt the power of God within himself, and he could engender faith in those around him, and this faith had the power to heal.


As noted, we can’t know exactly how long Jesus and his disciples lingered in Galilee and its environs. But the time came when Jesus himself began to feel the pressure of his destiny, when he saw with absolute clarity that the contours of his life had begun to assume a mythic shape. This understanding may have come to him suddenly or gradually (I prefer the latter), as he walked and preached, healed and comforted. However it came about, he saw that he himself must become a kind of sacrificial, or paschal, lamb. This would be, indeed, the concluding phase of his mission. Jerusalem – the Holy City – now swung into view: he must go there with his disciples, on foot, passing through Judea and Perea. He had something in mind, perhaps inchoate at first but resolving and urgent: an image of himself as Messiah, the anointed one – or Christ. The spirit had been working in him for some time now, enlarging his consciousness, forcing revelations that he would share with those closest to him. He had developed a primal intimacy with God, and the spirit had begun to work, in him and through him, in ways that would affect everyone who came after. “Christ is born:” wrote Emerson, “and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius.”(33)  But Emerson understood that the word “genius” only means “spirit” in Greek, and that it flows from Jesus into each us, as when we find in ourselves the divine spark. “Whenever the mind is simple,”  Emerson continued, “and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away.” And so a new world rises with the sun/son, breaking over the horizon, beckoning as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, stopping by the wayside to listen to his simple, comforting, at times alarming words.


Jay Parini writes, “Jesus’ ministry became a series of encounters, one-on-one confrontations that changed the lives of those who met him, whether they came to him for healing or instruction. Some brushed against him by accident; yet few didn’t feel the force of their meeting with the Son of Man.  Each felt the presence and power of his presence, his intense contact with the kingdom of God, his emotional and intellectual resources, the life-enhancing waters that flowed from him.” (see p. 45)

How do you think Jesus maintained his “intense contact
with the kingdom of God”?

When have you experienced contact with God’s  “kingdom”?
What words would you use to describe your experience?


In his Beatitudes, Jesus used the word blessed in a way
that seems completely foreign to our way of thinking. 

What did blessed mean to Jesus?

Jay Parini says that the Beatitudes can tell us what kind of man Jesus was.
Read through the Beatitudes again:

What do the Beatitudes tell you about Jesus’ personality?

Each morning of this next week, read one of the Beatitudes, and then reflect on its meaning throughout the day. Each evening, look back over your day for an example of that Beatitude in something that happened — or in someone you met.

1. The poor in spirit
2. Those who mourn
3. The meek
4. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
5. The merciful
6. The pure in heart
7. The peacemakers


1.  See John 4:1-42, for the story in full. I compress and paraphrase.

2.  I’m grateful to Cynthia Bourgeault for her reading of this episode in the life of Jesus in The Wisdom Jesus. My account draws on her throughout my discussion of this episode.

3. See Mark 3:2.2; Matthew 12.:2.2.-2.9; Luke 11:14-23.

4. See Wendy Cotter, “Miracle Stories, the God Asclepius, the Pythagorean Philosophers, and the Roman Rulers” in The Historical Jesus in Context, eds. A.J. Levine, D. C. Allison, and J. D. Crossan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 166-78.

5. Wilde, of course, was referring to the English here; more broadly, I suspect, he referred to the English tendency to think in the reductively super-rational ways of empiricism and analytic philosophy.

6. See Vermes, 181. He notes that Rabbi Akiba, and many respected Jewish teachers, made all sorts of allowances for breaking the Sabbath when it was deemed humane or sensible. But the hostility in the gospels toward the Pharisees speaks to their date of compositions, decades after the death of Jesus, when Jews had taken firmly against the idea of Jesus as the Messiah. The Pharisees had replaced the Sadducees as the Temple elite by now, and they were therefore the establishment, so they needed bashing.

7. See Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew, and Its Use of the Old Testament, 2nd ed, (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1968).

8. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2.007),74.

9. Recounted by C. G.Jung in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963).

10. Liberation Theology arose from this first Beatitude, stressing the literal sense of the term “poor.” Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest and theologian, published A Theology of Liberation in 1971, and he argued that Christ called his followers to pay close attention to those at the bottom of society. His writings have found a huge following in Latin America and Central America in particular. “The poor,” he wrote, “are a byproduct of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.”

11. See Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (New York: Riverhead, 1995), 154. A Buddhist monk and renowned teacher, Nhat Hanh writes: “I do not think there is much difference between Christians and Buddhists. Most of the boundaries we have created between our two traditions are artificial. Truth has no boundaries.”

12. Aristotle, Nicomachian Ethics 4.5.3. See Bailey, 73.

13. Rudolf Bultrnann, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Scribner, 1955), 272.

14. Even if written before the fall of the Second Temple, these would have been stressful times for Jews within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Most scholars place the date of composition after the Temple was destroyed.

15. Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977), 122.

16. Berry, 120.

17. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Law and Love, Vol. IV (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 205-6.

18. I use a familiar version from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

19.  Most Protestants use the doxology. Catholics (using the Latin Rite) do not. The doxology echoes a prayer found in I Chronicles 29:11: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and glory.” In the Greek and Byzantine liturgy, the priest usually sings the doxology.

20.  For a thorough reading of The Lord’s Prayer in the context of the Exodus story, see N. T. Wright, “The Lord’s Prayer as a Paradigm for Christian Prayer;’ in Into God’s Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 132-54.

21. The word translated as “daily” in Greek (epiousious) is extremely rare, and it probably means “ongoing” or “continuing to be required” – translators have taken a stab at a decent English equivalent, and “daily” from the KJV seems as good as any. It has certainly lodged in the collective memory.

22. See Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. (New York: Viking, 2012). It’s not surprising that many early church leaders thought this book should not be included in the canonical New Testament. Even Martin Luther, early in his career, thought this apocalyptic vision had nothing to do with Christianity.

23. The Rosary is largely focused on a prayer to Mary that incorporates two verses from Luke: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,  Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death.”

24. For a complete survey of this idea in world religions, see Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). Wattles regards the “rule” as not the embodiment of a single idea but a concept that embraces growth on many levels.

25. This is David Hinton’s translation.

26. This Babylonian code – the foundation of all Western law – was discovered in 1901.

27. It’s interesting to note how many significant texts within Judaism emerged within a context of crisis and exile, such as the Lurianic Kabbalah in the late sixteenth century. Isaac Luria (1534-1572) was a mystic whose arcane writings attracted a huge following among exiled Jews – the Sephardim – who had been driven from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.

28. John Drury, The Parables in the Gospels (New York: Crossroad, 1985), 21

29.  Comical efforts to interpret this saying in ways that make it less difficult for the rich to swallow have appeared over the centuries, including the bogus idea that there was a gate in Jerusalem called “the camel,” and that merchants had to unload their belongings to get through it. No such gate existed, alas. It may well be that the gospel saying turns
on a misprint: kamilos (camel) in Greek could easily have been written as kemelos, meaning cable or tope. In other words, it’s easier to thread a needle with a rope than for a rich man to enter heaven. It’s more probable, of course, that Jesus simply means that it’s not easy for a rich man to enter heaven, given that “Blessed are the poor.”

30. Drury, 60.

31. See C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribner, 1961) and Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, trans. S. H. Hooke, 2nd  ed. (New York: Scribner, 1954). Much of this work builds on the scholarship of Adolf Julicher (1857-1938), who emphasized the central importance of the “kingdom of God” in the parables.

32. The basic Christian argument for belief in the miracles of Jesus will be found in C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Collins, 1947).

33.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance.”