In certain religious circles, the letters WWJD serve as a password or shibboleth. Web sites sell bracelets and T-shirts with the cryptic motto. Some politicians tell us this watchword guides them in making decisions. The letters stand for "What Would Jesus Do?" We are assured that doing the same thing is the goal of real Christians.

But can we really aspire to do what Jesus did? Would we praise a twelve-year-old who slips away from his parents in a big city and lets them leave town without telling them he is staying behind? The reaction of any parent would be that of Jesus' parents: "How could you treat us this way?" (Lk 2.48). Or if relatives seek access to a Christian, should he say that he has no relatives but his followers (Mk 3.33–35)? We might try to change water into wine; but if we did, would we take six huge water vats, used for purification purposes, and fill them with over a hundred gallons of wine, more than any party could drink (Jn 2.6)? If we could cast out devils, would we send them into a herd of pigs, destroying two thousand animals (Mk 5.13)? Some Christians place a very high value on the rights of property, yet this was a massive invasion of some person’s property and livelihood.

He is not just like us... he has higher rights and powers.

Other Christians lay great emphasis on family values—should they, like Jesus, forbid a man from attending his own father’s funeral (Mt 8.22) or tell others to hate their parents (Mt 8.22, Lk 14.26)? Or should they go into a rich new church in some American suburb, a place taking pride in its success, and whip the persons holding out collection plates, crying, "Make not my Father's house a traders' mart" (Jn 2.16) or "a thieves' lair" (Mk 11.17)? Would it be wise of them to call national religious leaders "whitewashed tombs, pleasant enough to outer appearance, but inside full of dead bones and every rottenness" (Mt 23.27)? Are they justified in telling others, "I come not imposing peace, I impose not peace but the sword" (Mt 10.34)? Or "I am come to throw fire on the earth" (Lk 12.49)? Should they imitate Jesus when he says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but never will my words pass away" (Mk 21.333)? Or when he says, "I am the resurrection" (Jn 11.25) or "I am the truth" (Jn 14.6), or "I have the authority to lay down my life and I have the authority to take it up again" (Jn 10.18)? None of those who want to imitate Jesus should proclaim that "I am the light of the world" (Jn 8.12) or that "I am the path" to the Father (Jn 14.6).

These are just a few samples of the way Jesus acts in the gospel. They were acts meant to show that he is not just like us, that he has higher rights and powers, that he has an authority as arbitrary as God's in the Book of Job. He is a divine mystery walking among men. The only way we can directly imitate him is to act as if we were gods ourselves—yet that is the very thing he forbids. He tells us to act as the last, not the first, as the least, not the greatest.

And this accords with the common sense of mankind. Christians cannot really be "Christlike." As Chesterton said, "A great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it." The thing we have to realize is that Christ, whoever or whatever he was, was certainly not a Christian. Romano Guardini put it this way in The Humanity of Christ:

If Jesus is a mere man, then he must be measured by the message which he brought to men. He must himself do what he expects of others; he must himself think according to the way he demanded that men think. He must himself be a Christian. Very well, then; the more he is like that, the less he will speak, act, or think as he did; and the more he will be appalled by the blasphemy of the way he did behave. If Jesus is mere man as we are, even though a very profound one, very devout, very pure—no, let us put it another way: the measure of his depth, devotion, purity, reverence, will be the measure in which it will be impossible for him to say what he says... . The following clear-cut alternative emerges: either he is—not just evil, for that would not adequately describe the case—either he is deranged, as Nietzsche became in Turin in 1888, or he is quite different, deeply and essentially different, from what we are.

To read the gospels in the spirit with which they were written, it is not enough to ask what Jesus did or said. We must ask what Jesus meant by his strange deeds and words. He intended to reveal the Father to us, and to show that he is the only-begotten Son of that Father. What he signified is always more challenging than we expect, more outrageous, more egregious. That is why the Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac calls him "of all the great characters history places before us, the least logical." Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor knew this when he reproached Christ for puzzling men by being "exceptional, vague, and enigmatic."


For two years, Jesus slipped through all the traps set for him. He moved like a fish in the sea of his lower-class fellows. He kept on the move, in the countryside. If I think of music to be heard in the background of his restless mission, it is the scurrying agitato that opens Khachaturian's violin concerto.  He went into cities as into alien territory. He was a man of the margins, never quite fitting in, always "out of context." He sought the wilderness, the mountaintop. He gave the slip even to his followers (Mk. 7:24). The puzzled disciples trotted behind, trying to make sense of what seemed to them unexplicable, squabbling among themselves about what he was up to. It would never have occurred to them to wear a WWJD bracelet.

Jesus ghosted in and out of people's lives, blessing and cursing, curing and condemning. If he was not God, he was a standing blasphemy against God. The last thing he can be considered is a "gentle Jesus meek and mild."

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