From Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution
Those not familiar with the gospels often view Jesus as the stereotypical prophet of passive nonresistance. What would happen to us, they say, if we let the wicked do as they pleased, as Jesus tells us? But to fully understand Jesus one must reexamine his words and actions as attempts to restore the original intent of the law by destroying dehumanizing traditions. On that basis Jesus actually engaged in a kind of civil disobedience, whereby he and his disciples systematically violated those traditions that only helped to oppress the people. One by one they exposed them, and they did so with the sole aim of breaking the cast that enclosed the truth.
The events that followed the speech at Nazareth show how Jesus went about breaking customs that enslaved his contemporaries. We left Jesus in the synagogue when he assumed the role of Messiah. His speech was poorly received. He was too well known in his own town to begin recruiting disciples there. Those who head him exclaimed, “Where did this man get these things? What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” So Jesus told them, “Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.”
The people of Nazareth dared him to perform miracles: “Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.” Matthew and Mark simply report that Jesus did few miracles there because of the people’s lack of faith. Luke, however, gives a different explanation – Jesus did not want to perform miracles in Nazareth, and instead gave an unpatriotic speech comparing himself to Elijah and Elisha. Neither of them, he said, did any miracles in their own country because of the wickedness of their fellow countrymen.
Thus, Jesus completely broke with the inhabitants of Nazareth. He had attacked their pride as members of the chosen people and would suffer the consequences of his audacity. After he narrowly escaped death for the first time, he left his childhood town, never to return.
He soon broke with his family as well. At first, things were well between Jesus and his family. The Gospel of John pictures Jesus going down to Capernaum with his mother, brothers, and disciples. But this harmony did not last. Tension probably developed with Jesus started selecting his apostles. He called Simon, Andrew, James, and John, but omitted his brothers. From that time on, when Mary or her sons wanted to communicate with Jesus, they had to wait outside and have an intermediary request an audience with him.
The untimely interventions of his mother and brothers had certainly made this break necessary. Jesus later said, speaking from experience, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” The day his mother wanted to see him, he asked, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” This must have hurt his family very deeply. Then, pointing to his disciples, he exclaimed, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus separated from his family in order to found a new family made up of all those who want to do God’s will.
Jesus’s brothers thought he had gone crazy, and so one day some of them came to Capernaum to seize him. They found some scribes from Jerusalem who confirmed their opinion, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” They were convinced he was a lunatic.
Eventually, Jesus’s brothers gave up trying to keep him from acting and instead attempted to make him do imprudent things. It is possible that some of them were Zealots and thought he was too timid. They may have tried to accelerate the course of events by forcing Jesus to take the leadership of a nationwide insurrection. If the uprising failed it would mean he was not the Messiah. If it succeeded they would then join him. For this reason they urged him to go to Judea so that his followers would see the works he was doing. They argued, “No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” But Jesus did not follow their advice and refused to go to Jerusalem at that time.
Understanding the reasons that pushed Jesus to break with his family enables us to better understand the motives that drove him to break with the scribes and Pharisees.
The first conflict arose over the forgiveness of sins. The Pharisees were impressed by the healings Jesus performed. One day, a paralytic had been let down through the roof to hear Jesus inside. When Jesus saw his faith he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” But for the Pharisees, here Jesus had gone too far! They were scandalized because, as they saw it, God alone could forgive sin. In their way of thinking, there existed a kind of accounting system between God and man, whereby only acts of penance and offerings could absolve one from sin.
Jesus saw sin in a completely different light. It was a grave illness that attacked a person in his or her soul, much like the paralysis from which the body of the man before him was suffering. God in his loving, fatherly power wanted to restore this man to spiritual wholeness, as well as to physical health. Jesus was the hand of God, the healing Messiah. He expected only one thing from the sick: faith. Whereas the Pharisees held religiously to rules and human institutions, Jesus announced an encounter between God who “restores all things” and all those diseased in body and soul.
Another conflict arose between Jesus and the Pharisees while Jesus was recruiting apostles. The choice of the first four did not seem to have aroused any criticism. They were respectable people, fishermen on the lake, who owned their boats and their nets.
But the choice of the fifth apostle raised a wave of criticism. There was a man in Capernaum the people avoided at all costs. He was neither a leper nor a Gentile. Worse yet, he was a publican, a tax collector to whom the government had leased customs rights for the city’s port, where freight from Syria was loaded onto boats. Levi had become rich and had gathered around himself a crowd of rather shady characters. His house was open to all sorts of people, his place was noisy, and those who came drank hard. This is precisely the man Jesus noticed one day sitting at the tax office. He chose him as his disciple. “Follow me!” was all Jesus said. And Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
Unfortunately, things did not go smoothly that night. To celebrate his new vocation, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to a feast. Levi’s friends joined them. They began to eat and drink. Now, the whole city knew the reputation of Levi’s friends. The scribes from among the Pharisees motioned for some of Jesus’s disciples to come out. They still had some regard for the prophet of Nazareth and they wanted to help him out of a scrape. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” they asked.
Jesus overheard them and responded that he enjoyed being around publicans and sinners, not to adopt their lifestyle, but because they were sick and in need. He asked: Is the doctor reproached for his contacts with sick people? Then why would anyone want me to turn away from those who need me most? Is it for fear of catching some ritual impurity or for fear of public opinion? I have come for those who are poor in soul and body. They are looking for me, but you, who consider yourselves and your practices healthy, refuse to see your need. And since you think you don’t need me, I have not come to you. My kingdom is only for those who want to be healed.
The Pharisees and even the disciples of John the Baptist were annoyed that Jesus and his disciples never fasted. Instead of displaying the appropriate austerity, they must have formed a joyous group. One can imagine them going through the streets of the Galilean cities, chatting and joking, in no way affecting the stern expressions on the faces of the Pharisees and John’s disciples. When asked why, Jesus turned the question around: Why is it that my disciples do not fast? Ask me, rather, why they should fast at all. Is there anything sad about the kingdom of God? They are on the way to a wedding banquet with the bridegroom. In the name of what ill-natured spirit do you want to prevent the bridegroom’s companions from rejoicing?
Yet another conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees had to do with the Sabbath. In this case, Jesus deliberately and visibly demonstrated his opposition. The Jews were forbidden to do any work on the Sabbath. In particular, they could not harvest, thresh, winnow, glean the harvest, grind the grain, or carry food from one house to another. All Jews, except the most rebellious, kept the Sabbath holy. Anyone who violated it was required to go to Jerusalem and offer a special sacrifice.
But on one Sabbath day Jesus passed through a ripe grain field. With his consent, his disciples tore off the heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. By doing this, they were simultaneously violating all six of the legal prescriptions mentioned above! The Pharisees were shocked: “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
Jesus’s response to the Pharisees is most revealing: You criticize my disciples for eating when they are hungry? What was the purpose behind the Sabbath in the first place? Do you think God created us to be bound by a thousand and one sabbatical ordinances? Is the Sabbath God’s punishment in order to torture human beings? No! “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” It is a day of liberation, a gift from God that we may rest.
Why was it so important for Jesus to defy his contemporaries, to associate with shady characters, to adopt easygoing manners, to dissociate himself from pious folk, and to authorize his disciples to violate the Sabbath? Was it really necessary for him, by irritating Jewish opinions on mere details, to jeopardize the success of his gigantic undertaking, the establishment of God’s kingdom? Would it not have been wiser for him, who wanted to give the Sabbath its original meaning, to conform temporarily to the accepted customs, gain a good, serious reputation, and then try to reform the institutions of Judaism from the inside?
The best explanation may be that Jesus had the soul of a revolutionary. He had come, he said, to create something brand new, from the bottom up: Do you think I will tear the new garment of my teaching in order to patch the worn-out robe of your old practices? Certainly not! The new patch would tear the old cloth and make the hole worse, and my new garment would also be ruined. And this wine of my kingdom, filled with ferment, do you think I will pour it into the old wineskins of your traditions? Of course not! My teaching would burst your customs. The wine would spill and be lost as well as your wineskins. Pour the new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.
Jesus’s message was unequivocal. He came not only to change individuals but to restore God’s people. He had to change practices as well as hearts in order to restore God’s people. He had to change practices as well as hearts in order to restore God’s justice in the world. If institutions were not changed, if conventions were not challenged, they would smother under their weight the noblest souls – even those who had been momentarily awakened to his call for a better world. And if Jesus did not hesitate to defy conventions, neither should we!
These confrontations with the Pharisees reveal the nature of the “sword” Jesus wielded. His sharpness and defiance were necessary to cut people – and even institutions – free from the stifling cast of human tradition.
Yet Jesus’s revolution was always fueled by an overwhelming compassion. This was the profound motive that impelled him to restore God’s covenant with his people to its original purity. He was not anti-establishment, per se. He came not to condemn, but as a physician to heal and restore. God is love. He wants human beings, bearers of his image, to be treated with respect and mercy. This is why the Messiah risked losing his life at the hands of tradition’s defenders in order to heal the sick, the weak, and the least of his brothers.