Jesus is the central figure in Western civilization, and now his name is invoked by the faithful in far-flung lands. Our culture gives us glimpses of Jesus at almost every turn--in film, art and music. Yet do we all see the same Jesus? After two millennia of probing and pleading, the question remains: Who is he?
No one seems able to get the last word. We shouldn't be surprised. Even in the early Christian centuries, Jesus' followers toiled to articulate his identity. The struggle to understand Jesus revolutionized their whole concept of God--and by implication their model of the kind of universe we live in.
Most of us grew up with Jesus--or at least with some image of him. We imagined him lying in the manger. We heard stories of his childhood, getting "lost" in the temple, and we remembered being lost ourselves, wandering around the grocery store among the unfamiliar legs of adults.
We heard of Jesus telling stories about seeds and weeds and pigs and figs. We sang about how he loves the little children ("red and yellow, black and white").
Jesus is a staple of popular culture. He was "just alright" with the Doobie Brothers in the `70s. He was a "Superstar" back then. Eric Clapton professed: "I have finally found the way to live...in the presence of the Lord."
In the `80s and `90s, Jesus' name seemed to change hands. With the spread of cable TV, it was Jesus in the hands of the televangelists that most people remember. His name was crooned, shouted and said in a thousand ways. "JEE-ziss." "JAY-zuss." And it was used for a thousand purposes: To guarantee health and prosperity for some, and to motivate others to care for the poor. To call modern sinners back to old-time religion, and to save them from judgment by old-time religion. To inspire Marxist-style revolution, and to secure conservative devotion to the American Dream. The most educated seemed no less interested in understanding Jesus than the least educated.
Of course, Jesus himself might well be uncomfortable with the endless abstract speculation and controversy about his identity. He might tell us that the best way to learn about him would be simply to try doing what he taught, living as he lived, loving as he loved. And in the end, he'd probably tell us that more important than our interpretation of him is his interpretation of us.
But Jesus would certainly interpret our varied ways of trying to get a glimpse of him--whether in art or scholarship--in the most compassionate way possible.
That's how he received the diminutive Zaccheus, who scrambled skyward in a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. As he did with Zaccheus, Jesus would reward our sincere and energetic eagerness to see him. He would know the limitations of our perspectives. He would call us down from the trees we've climbed to a mind-jolting personal encounter with him. He would invite himself over to eat in our home today. And we would spontaneously become better people than we've ever been before.