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Unwrapping Jesus, by Philip Yancey

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You Might Not Have Wanted Jesus At Your Backyard Barbecue

In writing a book about Jesus, one impression struck me more forcefully than any other: we have tamed him. The Jesus I learned about as a child was sweet and inoffensive, the kind of person whose lap you want to climb on, Mister Rogers with a beard. Indeed, Jesus did have qualities of gentleness and compassion that attracted little children. Mister Rogers, however, he assuredly was not.

I realized this fact when I studied the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the persecuted. Blessed are those who mourn.” These sayings have a soft, proverbial ring to them—unless you happen to know someone poor, persecuted, or mourning. The homeless huddling over heating grates in our major cities, the tortured prisoners whose pictures are displayed by Amnesty International, the families of the Oklahoma City bombing victims we see interviewed on television—who would think of calling them blessed, or “lucky”?

In all the movies about Jesus’ life, surely the most provocative—and perhaps the most accurate—portrayal of the Sermon on the Mount appears in a low-budget BBC production entitled Son of Man. The director, Dennis Potter, sets the Sermon on the Mount against a background of violence and chaos. Roman soldiers have just invaded a Galilean village to exact vengeance for some trespass against the empire. They have strung up Jewish men of fighting age, shoved their hysterical wives to the ground, even speared babies in order to “teach these Jews a lesson.” Into that tumultuous scene of blood and tears and keening for the dead strides Jesus with eyes ablaze. “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you,” he shouts above the groans.

I say it’s easy to love your own brother, to love those who love you. Even the tax collectors do that! You want me to congratulate you for loving you own kinsmen? No, Love your enemy. Love the man who would kick you and spit at you. Love the soldier who would drive his sword in your belly. Love the brigand who robs and tortures you.

Listen to me! Love your enemy! If a Roman soldier hits you on the left cheek, offer him the right one. If a man in authority orders you to walk one mile, walk two miles. If a man sues you for your coat, give him the shirt off your back. Listen! I tell you, it is hard to follow me. What I’m saying to you hasn’t been said since the world began!

You can imagine the villagers’ response to such unwelcome advice. The Sermon on the Mount did not soothe them; it infuriated them.

I came away from my study of Jesus both comforted and terrified. Jesus came to earth “full of grace and truth,” said John: his truth comforts my intellectual doubts even as his grace comforts my emotional doubts. And yet, I also encountered a terrifying aspect of Jesus, one that I had never learned about in Sunday school. Did anyone go away from Jesus’ presence feeling satisfied about his or her life?

Few people felt comfortable around Jesus; those who did were the type no one else felt comfortable around. The Jesus I met in the Gospels was anything but tame.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 1998, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Philip Yancey is the award-winning author of over twenty books. You can learn more about him at his website, PhilipYancey.com.

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