Recently, while discussing topics in the philosophy of religion during my introductory course in philosophy, a student claimed that Jesus was “a rebel.” Although this judgment of hers is not without some truth, it is decidedly false in the sense in which I am sure she intended for it to be taken.
The idea that Jesus was a rebel or radical is certainly an improvement over the “meek and mild” Jesus of the popular imagination. The latter is a neutered Jesus, a Jesus that functions as a blank screen upon which anyone and everyone can project his theological, moral, and political idiosyncrasies. The former, in contrast, is a being with passion and conviction. Also, this reading of Jesus at least has some grounding in the Biblical text.
Still, in the sense in which it is commonly used, the sense in which my student used it, the image of Jesus as rebel is as much of a fiction as is that of Jesus meek and mild.
Many contemporary New Testament scholars have labored hard to promote this depiction of Jesus as a radical or rebel. While I lack their professional expertise, as a Christian, I can confidently reject their reading of the Scriptures.
The problem with the words “rebel” and “radical” lies in their connotations. More often than not, they are explicitly political. And even when they aren’t explicitly political, they are implicitly as much, for they suggest a figure whose critical eye is forever set upon a culture.
Those scholars and laypersons who are fond of referring to Jesus as “a rebel” or “radical” know this. This is why they do it.
By casting Jesus as a “radical,” those students of the Bible whose sympathies lie with the politics of the left—i.e. most of those who characterize Jesus as a “radical”—hope to link Him with their own ideological causes and commitments. For example, Jesus, they say, was a champion of “social justice.” Those who do not consciously subscribe to leftist politics, on the other hand, have their own reasons for seeing Jesus as a “radical”: they want their Christianity—and, thus, their Christ—to have political relevance.
In any case, if we insist on viewing Jesus as a rebel, then we must be clear as to what He was and was not rebelling against.
Jesus was not an “anti-imperialist” rebelling against imperial Rome. Nor was He an “egalitarian” interested in “deconstructing” those “social structures” designed to perpetuate “asymmetries” of “power” between “the haves” and “the have nots.” Jesus was not in the least concerned with dismantling “patriarchy” or “classism.”
If Jesus was a rebel, it was against sin or evil that he railed.
To put this point another way, any portrait of Jesus that isn’t theological is not a portrait of Jesus.
Only in light of Jesus’ cosmic vocation do both the Gospels as well as the rise of Christianity become intelligible.
Jesus did indeed want to change the world—but one heart at a time. For utopian political schemes of the sort that were all too common during His day—and ours—Jesus had no use. Not only did He repudiate those who envisioned the Messiah as a figure who would wrest all power away from Rome and restore Israel to some idyllic condition. Jesus said remarkably little about Rome at all, and what He did say wasn’t remotely subversive, or even angry.
Recall that when Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, He did not first demand of Him that the soldier relinquish his duties. He praised the centurion for his faith. He criticized neither the centurion nor the Roman Empire of which he was an agent.
In fact, unlike—radically unlike—those contemporary leftist activists who style themselves inheritors of a prophetic tradition of advocating on behalf of the oppressed and subjugated, Jesus was not infrequently as harsh with His most devoted disciples as He was His enemies within the Jewish ruling class. But I suppose that this is the point: Jesus had disciples; today’s activists have constituents.
Jesus never would have permitted—never did permit—His disciples to invoke their poverty or their condition of living under Roman occupation (or the occupation of any foreign power) as justification for impiety—much less the sorts of egregious conduct that many of today’s “poor” engage in and for which they are excused by their self-appointed champions.
No, Jesus was no radical or rebel. He was not a visionary or champion of “social justice.” He wasn’t interested in dissolving all class distinctions and ushering in a property-less Eden on Earth.
Jesus was the Son of God. He was interested first and foremost in prevailing over sin and evil, through violence, yes, but the violence that He would permit to be inflicted upon Himself.
Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as Peter said. He became one of us so that He could redeem humanity and transform us into the adopted sons and daughters of God the Father.
No other understanding of Jesus is adequate.