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What think ye of Christ?

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WHAT was he really like? If you ask most people, they will tell you that he was a kind man who loved peace. After all, didn’t he say, Blessed are the peacemakers? He did tell us to love one another. But how many remember that the Jesus who said Blessed are the peacemakers also said, Think not that I come to bring peace, but a sword? And before his arrest he told his disciples to go and find swords for themselves.

When we actually open the gospels, our unexamined prejudices about the character of Jesus receive a shock. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? He was rough with the Scribes and Pharisees calling them hypocrites, blind guides, whited sepulchres which indeed appear beautiful outward but are within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Yet Jesus ate and drank at banquets with these same Scribes and Pharisees, held conversations and made merry with them – even to the extent that, as Jesus himself said, he got the reputation as a drunkard and a wine-bibber. As we might say, Ooh, he did like a party!

If you listen to the bishops – or to those other great theological experts, the pop stars who go on about saving the planet and the millionaire footballers chiding the government for not providing enough free grub – you come away convinced that Jesus was a friend of the poor and condemned the rich. But there are plenty of accounts in the gospels of how Jesus sat at table with rich men. Joseph of Arimathea, who begged the Lord’s body from Pilate and paid for his sepulchre, was one of the wealthiest men around – and a disciple.

I wonder how long it will be before our prime minister, under the influence of his missus, has Jesus as a fully paid-up member of the green lobby? Well yes, Jesus did ask us to consider the lilies of the field but, in what looks like a fit of temper, he also cursed the fig tree so that it became barren and died. He did say that God cares for the birds of the air, even for the sparrows.

But remember what happened to the pigs, the Gadarene swine? Jesus sent them violently down a steep place into the lake and were choked. Oh dear – whatever would the RSPCA say? Gadarene swine indeed! Don’t say such things or you’ll be convicted of hate crime! What would the parable of the Prodigal Son be without the fatted calf? But vegans forswear meat and our generation of health obsessives won’t eat anything with fat in it. Fatted calf? Say it not unto the Five Fruits and Vegetables a Day Enforcer. Jesus did not say, Behold, thy cholesterol is sky high. Give us this day our daily statins.

I know: let’s pretend we’re Sigmund Freud and go right back to Jesus’s relationship with his mother. The first we hear of this is a colossal piece of impudence and insubordination, when he’s twelve and stays behind in the temple. His mother is at her wits’ end. She seeks him for three days. And, when she finally finds the divine scallywag, Mary gets only the cheeky reply: How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?

The psychoanalyst would have to say that Jesus’s relationship with his mother was problematic. It gets worse: what does he say to Mary when she makes that request for wine at the wedding in Cana? Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come. In fact his whole family relationships were not exactly smooth. Bystanders said to Jesus, Thy Mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. And his reply? Who is my Mother? Who are my brethren?

The problem with modern interpretations of Jesus’s character is that they all try to force him into their own materialistic, secular, socialist mould. They deny the miracles, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, of course, and make Jesus out to be a gentle teacher of platitudes: love is better than hate, forgiveness is better than bearing grudges, a little bit of kindness goes a long way. We know all those things. They are morally obvious and undeniable. The modern theologians try to pass Jesus off as one of themselves: perfectly reasonable and urbane – and, like them, entirely without imagination or spirit: as Malcolm Muggeridge once said, they see Jesus as ‘the Labour Party candidate for Galilee South’.

This fashionable secular Jesus is against globalisation and in favour of aid to African dictators and naturally against all warfare. It goes without saying that this Jesus, born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth and executed just outside Jerusalem, would have hated Israel! He doesn’t go foxhunting, or smoke, or be sexist. Their Jesus believes firmly in best practice, health and safety, full compliance, equal opportunities and diversity training. He constantly urges his disciples to reduce their carbon footprint. He said, Suffer the little children to come unto me. Well, I hope he’d had his CRB check first. These modern parsons – guitar in one hand and the Guardian in the other – see Jesus not as he is, but only according to their own wokish prejudices.

But what if the four gospels were not made up by liars and fantasists? What if the miracles all happened as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John say they did? And there was a Virgin Birth? And there was a Resurrection? Let us mention just in passing some of the sayings of Jesus which the modern critics ignore. Let us hear about the Jesus who said to his followers, Whosoever’s sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever’s sins ye retain, they are retained.

What when they asked him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? Did Jesus modestly deny he was and say Not me, guv! I’m just the UN ambassador to the developing nations? No, he said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven.

What about the Jesus who raised Jairus’s daughter and Lazarus? What about when he said, Before Abraham was, I am? He also said, I and the Father are one. By what right do the modern theologians merely omit the bits of the Gospel that don’t suit their secular bias?

When we read the gospels in their entirety, we are not allowed to come away thinking that Jesus was a nice, kind man who taught the blinking obvious, told us all to be nice to each other and get in touch with our inner selves. He didn’t wander about Galilee performing psychological tricks and curing people of their imaginary mental health issues. Jesus made astonishing claims about himself: most outrageously that he was God and that at the Last Day he will come to judge the quick and the dead, take the sheep to heaven and send the goats to hellfire.

You can read the gospels and say that such a man was a preposterous megalomaniac and mad. What you can’t say is that he was just a nice man, a good preacher and a skilled therapist. You can believe instead the gospels and the record of the church over 2,000 years. Throughout those two millennia Jesus has never gone away. And, as millions of people worldwide have discovered, this Jesus is a living presence, with us now.

For as he also said, Behold, I am with you always even unto the end of the world.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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