Friday, February 19, 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Finding Jesus Christ: Unexpectedly sane

Click here for an explanation about this series: "Finding Jesus Christ."

I've now had seven full weeks to de-tox from Christmas, which means I can safely talk about the incarnation of the Son of God without feeling haunted by unpleasant associations such as sleigh bells ringing, traffic jams at the shopping mall, and dead Christmas tree needles clogging up my vacuum cleaner. Thank God for February.

An infant child is born into the world and is greeted by people kneeling down to worship him, from dignified wise men who have served in royal courts, to lowly shepherds who nudge sheep through lonely hills. Yet when King Herod learns of it, he tries to kill the child, and his parents are forced to flee with him to a foreign country for a time. Talk about a welcome that could potentially mess with a kid's mind. He's barely out of the starting blocks of life and already people love him and people hate him, people worship him and people want to kill him. The closest analogy I can think of is the way the media tabloids treat big-name child celebrities. You see what kind of a screwed-up human being normally emerges when someone is alternately venerated and demonized by others their entire young life.

Parents don't help. Joseph and Mary were fairly grounded people, yet I can't imagine they were immune to the usual follies of human pride for being the chosen couple to raise the Messiah for crying out loud. A little bragging to the neighbors here, a little over-protectiveness of the child there, and soon the home in which young Jesus had to grow up becomes an atmosphere that nurtures the resentment of his younger siblings toward him. Any normal kid might develop an overblown sense of self-importance as either prodigy or victim, two sides of the same coin, potentially landing him in deep resentment.

Jesus, however, displayed no such angst, no sign of a growing psychosis. Far from becoming an egomaniac, he grew into a more humble man than the world has ever known. Far from embracing more self-protectiveness, he embraced increasingly more pain, more misunderstandings, and more suffering. Rejection by his siblings turned into rejection by his entire home town. He was a rabbi who was an outcast of the synagogue, gawked at by the crowds, persecuted by the authorities, and ill-used by even his friends. His fame turned to infamy, then betrayal, violence and death. His dying words were about forgiveness for his murderers and requesting care for his aging mother. He goes as quietly as if he were a nameless peasant.

I know of no person in human history who has received worship and adoration, coupled with relentless persecution, who did not become an egomaniac or develop a serious, crippling paranoia. Think back in history of emperors and dicators, of kings and sons of kings. Head cases, all of them.

So it's hard to explain where this ridiculously sane and balanced human being came from. Jesus' humility might be explained if he were super well-grounded in his own human limitations, if he went around saying stuff like, "I'm just a regular guy like you. I'm nobody special. I'm just your average Joe Israelite doing my best to serve God." That's what you'd expect to hear from someone like Gandhi, or Mother Teresa. Yet Jesus came with no such self-effacing message. Instead he went around saying, "Truly I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am" (the Hebrew expression for "I have always existed"). "I am the living bread that came down from heaven." "I and the Father are one." How could he be humble and sane and claim to be God who has come down to earth from heaven?

The only crime Jesus was charged with during his lifetime was, essentially, claiming to be the Son of God. A man who claims to be divine either will prove himself to be the worst egomaniac that ever lived, or he will back up his claim with a perfectly lived life. There are only two choices as far as I can see. You make the call.