“God’s viewpoint is sometimes different from ours—so different that we could not even guess at it unless He had given us a Book which tells us such things.”(Corrie ten Boom)
This gap between the human and divine perspectives is highlighted by the prophet Isaiah: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The Bible is like a kaleidoscope with countless mirrors. No matter how many times one turns them, they constantly reflect the gap between our ways, our thoughts, our words, our methods, and God’s. This tension between the divine and the human will is revealed much more clearly in the New Testament, in the life of Jesus Christ.
Slalom between Messianic expectations
In the Jewish world—partially under Greek cultural influence and politically subjected to the Romans—where Jesus would be born, there was a background of hazy Messianic expectations. The common denominator hereof was the general belief that the Messiah would set the nation of Israel free from Roman rule. Solomon’s Psalms, an intertestamental apocryphal, underline the Pharisees’ perspective on this subject: the Messiah would banish the nations ruling over Israel and judge them. He would rule over the people with wisdom and justice, doing away with any kind of oppression and removing any stranger from the country.
It is intriguing to discover that the Messiah was rejected, although His coming was expected by the Jewish people for more than a millennium. His coming was a subject of prayer, in the temple and at home, and a favourite theme of Jewish songs. The Jews and especially the religious leaders of the time were also familiar with the prophecies about His birth, life, and death.
The way in which the false expectations of the Jews regarding the Messiah were shaped must be analysed within the historical and religious context of the chosen people.
Israel had been chosen by God, not on account of some special merit, but to fulfil a mission; that of spreading the knowledge of the Law but also of the symbols and prophecies on the coming of the Messiah. Their repeated disobedience deprived them of the blessings mentioned by the prophets, which would have come true provided they had loyally obeyed God. Idolatry, a sin they would fall into again and again, was the reason why God allowed them to be taken into slavery. The Babylonian captivity healed them, in the end, from it, but, after their release, they started erecting a wall of division between themselves and the other nations. A Messiah that would bring salvation also for non-Jews was inconceivable to the Jewish exclusivist mindset.
The Jews had set barriers, even amongst themselves, and religious teaching had become an instrument of division between the educated and the uneducated, the worthy and the unworthy. Although religious education enjoyed a special respect, the decline in these institutions was inevitable as long as God’s word was being studied less and less. In “Ethics of the Fathers”, a compilation of teachings form Jewish tradition from the period between 300 BC and 200 AD, it is mentioned that “a child of five years should study the Bible, at ten the Mishna, at fifteen the Gemara” (Mishna is a lengthy commentary on the Bible, and the Gemara is a commentary on the Mishna). Graduating from a rabbinic school had become the condition for a man’s acceptance into Jewish society. Slowly, graduates started wearing different clothes, meant to set them apart from those who had not been to these schools, and who enjoyed no recognition.
In this world dominated by religious rituals and ceremonies, and the thirst for power and prestige, a Messiah would put on the “servant’s robe” and accept the unacceptable. He walked with steps sure to lead to rejection: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11).
“For unto us a child is born”
“The most beautiful story in the world/And the greatest story ever”, as poet Charles Péguy called it, wasn’t so for Joseph and Mary, at least not in the beginning. The news of His birth, brought by the angel Gabriel, must have shocked Mary and Joseph both, the latter secretly deciding to leave his fiancé.
“Nine months of awkward explanations, the lingering scent of scandal”—a continuous source of mockery Jesus had to bear from childhood until the moment of His trial, when the priests “abused the Son of God with foul epithets. They taunted Him with His parentage”. He who has been from eternity has entered human history, and His incarnation, itself a humiliation, took place in radically different conditions than what the people expected from the Messiah. Bethlehem was expecting a liberator, but He came as “a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). It was like God was preparing “the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance”.
Not even the religious leaders were aware of the event taking place in Bethlehem and which was about to change the course of history. Jesus was only sought by the Magi—strangers who the Jews regarded as excluded from divine blessings—and shepherds—a category of religious and social outlaws, viewed as unclean and excluded from the temple’s ceremonies.
It is impossible to find a Christmas card depicting scenes of the massacre ordered by Herod in Bethlehem to kill the One he thought would deprive him of the throne. This event, however, is part of the series of events connected to Jesus’s coming and reflects the violent character of the world He would be born into. In His first years, Christ had to go into hiding in Egypt, being a fugitive, a stranger hunted down by the authorities in His country, rather than the One who the chosen people had been hopefully clinging to for centuries.
Come to save what was lost
As if the circumstances of His birth, the low socio-economic status of His parents, and the simple profession practiced by Jesus were not sufficient reasons for stumbling, His public activity was different from everything the religious leaders had imagined the Messiah doing. He went into the houses of the poor and suffering and did not avoid the company of the sinful, not even that of tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, or the demonized—or demon-possessed. Many wondered whether the true Messiah could make such “dramatic social choices”, defying the Jewish class system of the first century. The law excluded mingling with sinners. Sharing the table with beggars, prostitutes, or tax collectors, considered traitors of the national cause, was a “religious, social, and cultural taboo”.
His mission bewildered even His closest collaborators. John the Baptist, the one who had recognized Him as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), sent his followers to Jesus, from the prison he was thrown into by Herod, to ask Him, “‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’” (Luke 7:20).
The kingdom He was talking about was another stumbling block. Jesus’ contemporaries were waiting for a king that would exercise military and political control, and His miracles stirred up hope about a coming reclaiming of the throne of Israel.
“This is He who will make Judea an earthly paradise… He can satisfy every desire… He can heal the soldiers who are wounded in battle. He can supply whole armies with food.” Jesus disappointed them. He did not live up to these expectations, and talked to them about a spiritual kingdom that would welcome people from every nation, built on principles that differed from those of worldly kingdoms. His followers were not called to be served, but to serve others, following in the footsteps of the Great Teacher: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Such a reversal of values was nothing short of an offense to the religious leaders, used to standing out with their godliness, imposing strict and useless rules on others, and using their influence over the people for their own benefit (Matthew 23:3-7). The call to repentance and to the fulfilment of the “more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23) must have also been scandalous to those who regarded their descent from Abraham and captivity in the letter of the Law supreme arguments of their moral superiority.
The crucified One
“No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46). This is the report the ushers who had been entrusted with the mission to catch Him and bring Him before the priests, came back with. Paraphrasing the ushers, we could say that no one had ever lived like He did. Jesus’ characteristics depicted in the Gospels are “so striking, so perfectly inimitable that its contriver would be more amazing than its hero”, said Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Jesus’ birth was humanity’s opportunity to see the Unseen in the beauty of His character, but “Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23) was the culmination of the revelation of a love impossible to understand by the human mind.
“If this is a man…” said Levi Primo, bitterly, in the title of an overwhelming book. Primo was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who described the dehumanization he and his companions experienced, being stripped of their identity in the camps.
“Is this still the Son of God?” This must have been the question of the disciples who witnessed His cruel and dishonourable death.
The way people treated Him was so humiliating that Jesus wished for three of His disciples to witness the manifestation of His divine nature on the Mount of Transfiguration, in order for this evidence to uphold their faith in Him during His agony. Both then and now the idea of a grandiose, frightening, and glorious God is perfectly plausible to the human mind. A God breathing inside of a baby’s body, who touches the untouchables and who allows Himself to be hung on a cross between the heavens and the earth, suffering a thief’s death, can be nothing other than God’s plan, miles away from any human plan.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.