The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Chapter 7

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Chapter 7

Pharisees and Sadducees

Jesus continued his mission, speaking and preaching and offering parables to illustrate his teaching, and Christ wrote down much of what he said, letting the truth beyond time guide his stylus whenever he could. There were some sayings, though, that he could neither leave out nor alter, because they caused such a stir among the disciples and among the crowds that came to listen wherever Jesus went. Everyone knew what he had said, and many people talked about his words; it would be noticed if they were not in the record.

Many of these sayings concerned children and the family, and some of them cut Christ to the quick. Once, on the road to Capernaum, the disciples were arguing. Jesus had heard their raised voices, but was walking apart from them and didn’t hear what they were saying.

When they went into the house where they were to stay he said:

‘What were you arguing about on the way?’

They fell silent, because they were embarrassed. Finally one of them said:

‘We were discussing which of us was the most important, master.’

‘Were you, indeed. Come around here, all of you.’

They stood in front of him. Now in that house there was a little child, and Jesus picked him up and showed him to the disciples.

‘Whoever wants to be first,’ he said, ‘must be last of all and servant of all. Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes as humble as this child will be the most important in heaven. And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me.’

Another time, Jesus had stopped to sit down, and people brought their little children to him to be blessed.

‘Not now!’ the disciples said. ‘Go away! The master is resting.’

Jesus heard them, and was angry.

‘Don’t speak to these good people like that,’ he said. ‘Let them bring their children here. Who else do you think the Kingdom of God is for? It belongs to them.’

The disciples stood aside, and the people carried their children to Jesus, who blessed them, and took them in his arms, and kissed them.

Speaking to his disciples as well as to the parents of the children, he said, ‘You should all be like little children when it comes to the Kingdom, otherwise you will never enter it. So be careful. Whoever makes it difficult for one of these little ones to come to me, it would be better for them if a millstone were hung about their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea.’

Christ noted down the words, admiring the vigour of the imagery while regretting the thinking behind it; because if it were true that only children could be admitted to the Kingdom, what was the value of such adult qualities as responsibility, forethought, and wisdom? Surely the Kingdom would need those as well.

On another occasion, some Pharisees tried to test Jesus by asking about divorce. Jesus had spoken about that subject in his sermon on the mountain, but they had spotted what they thought was a contradiction in what he had said.

‘Is divorce lawful?’ they said.

‘Haven’t you read the scriptures?’ was Jesus’s reply. ‘Don’t you remember how the Lord God made Adam and Eve male and female, and declared that a man should leave his father and his mother and join his wife, and the two of them shall become one flesh? Had you forgotten that? So no one should separate what God has joined together.’

‘Ah,’ they said, ‘then why did Moses make his specification about a certificate of divorce? He would not have done that if God had forbidden it.’

‘God tolerates it now, but did he institute it in Eden? Was there any need for divorce then? No. Man and woman then were created to live perfectly together. It was only after the coming of sin that divorce became necessary. And when the Kingdom comes, as it will, and men and women live together perfectly once more, there will be no need for divorce.’

The Sadducees also tried to trick Jesus with a problem concerning marriage. Now the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection or an afterlife, and they thought they could get the better of Jesus by asking him a question about that.

‘If a man dies without having children,’ they said, ‘it’s the custom for his brother to marry the widow, and beget children for him. Is that not so?’

‘That is the custom,’ said Jesus.

‘Well, now: suppose there are seven brothers. The first marries, and dies childless, so the widow marries the second brother. The same thing happens again: the husband dies childless, and she marries the next, all the way down to the seventh brother. Then the woman herself dies. So ?C when the dead are resurrected, whose wife will she be? Because she’s married all of them.’

‘You’re wrong,’ said Jesus. ‘You don’t know the scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. When the dead are resurrected they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. They’ll live like the angels. As for the resurrection of the dead, you forget what God said to Moses when he spoke from the burning bush. He said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Would he have spoken in the present tense if they were not alive? He is not the God of the dead; he is the God of the living.’

The Sadducees had to retreat, confounded.

Jesus and the Family

But for all Jesus’s defence of marriage, and of children, he had little to say in favour of the family, or of comfortable prosperity. On one occasion he said to a crowd of people who wanted to follow him, ‘If you don’t hate your father and your mother, your brothers and sisters, your wife, your children, you’ll never become my disciple.’ And Christ remembered Jesus’s words when he’d been told that his mother and brothers and sisters had come to see him: he had rejected them, and claimed that he had no family except those who did the will of God. To hear his brother speak of hating one’s family worried Christ; he would not have chosen to write those words, but too many people had heard Jesus say them.

Then one day in Christ’s hearing Jesus told a story that disturbed him more greatly still.

‘There was a man who had two sons, one quiet and good, the other wild and unruly. The wild one said to his father, “Father, you’re going to divide the property between us anyway; let me have my share now.” The father did, and the wild son went away to another country, and squandered all his money in drink and gambling and debauchery, until he had nothing left.

‘Then there came a famine in the country where he was living, and the wild son found himself in such desperate need that he hired himself out as a swineherd. He was so hungry that he would have been glad to be able to eat the husks that the pigs were eating. In his despair he thought of his home, and said to himself, “At home there are my father’s hired hands, and every one of them has all the bread he wants, and to spare; and here I am, dying of hunger. I’ll go home and confess to my father and beg his forgiveness, and ask him to take me on as a hired hand.”

‘So he set off towards home, and when his father heard he was coming he was filled with compassion, and he hurried out of the town to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him. The son said, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and I’ve sinned against you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Just let me work for you like one of the hired hands.”

‘But the father said to the servants, “Bring out the best robe, and some sandals for my son’s feet, and hurry! And prepare a feast ?C the best of everything ?C because this dear son of mine was dead, and here he is alive again; he was lost, and now he’s found!”

‘But the other son, the quiet one, the good one, heard the sounds of celebration and saw what was going on, and said to his father:

‘”Father, why are you preparing a feast for him? I have been at home all the time, I have never disobeyed your commands, and yet you’ve never prepared a feast for me. My brother walked away without thinking of the rest of us, he squandered all his money, he has no thought for his family or anyone else.”

‘And the father said, “Son, you’re at home all the time. All that I have is yours. But when someone comes home after being away, it’s right and proper to prepare a feast in celebration. And your brother was dead, and he’s come to life again; he was lost, and he’s been found.”‘

When Christ heard that story, he felt as if he had been stripped naked in front of the whole crowd. He had no idea that his brother had seen him there, but he must have done, in order to mortify him so exquisitely. All Christ could hope was that no one had noticed, and he resolved to keep even more discreetly to the background in future.

Difficult Stories

Not long afterwards, Jesus told another story that seemed to Christ unfair. Nor was he the only listener to react like that: many people could not understand it at all, and discussed it with one another afterwards. Someone had asked Jesus what the Kingdom of heaven would be like, and he said:

‘It’s like a farmer who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. He struck a deal with them for the usual daily wage, and they set to work. A couple of hours later he was passing through the market place and he saw some other workers standing idle, and he said, “You want a job? Go to my vineyard and I’ll pay you whatever’s fair.” Off they went, and he went on his way, and then came past again at noon, and then once more halfway through the afternoon, and each time saw some other men standing about, and said the same to them.

‘Finally, about five o’clock, he came through the market one more time, saw another group there, and said, “Why are you standing idle all day long?”

‘”No one has hired us,” they said. So he hired them on the same terms.

‘When it was evening, he said to his manager, “Call the men to come and get their pay, starting with the last, and then going back to the first.”

‘When the five o’clock workers came, he gave them each a full day’s wage, as he did to all the others. The workers who had been hired in the early morning grumbled about this, and said, “You’re giving these men, who’ve only worked for one hour, the same as us, who’ve been labouring all day in the scorching heat?”

‘The farmer said, “My friend, you agreed to accept a day’s wages for a day’s work, and that’s exactly what you’ve got. Take what you’ve earned, and go. Aren’t I entitled to do whatever I choose with what belongs to me? Because I choose to be good-natured, should that make you ill-natured?”‘

Another story that Jesus told was even harder for his listeners to understand, but Christ wrote it down for the stranger in the hope that he could explain it.

‘There was a rich farmer who had a manager to look after his business, and complaints began to come to him about the way this man was dealing with his affairs. So he called the manager to come and see him, and said, “I’ve been hearing things about you that I don’t like. I’m going to dismiss you, but first I want a full account of everything that’s owed to me.”

‘And the manager thought, “What in the world am I going to do now? I’m not strong enough for manual labour, and I’m ashamed to beg… ” So he came up with a plan to ensure that other people would look after him when he was out of work.

‘He called his employer’s debtors to him one by one. He asked the first one, “How much do you owe my employer?” and the man said, “A hundred jars of oil.” “Sit down quickly,” said the manager, “take your account, and write fifty instead.”

‘To the next one he said, “How much do you owe?” “A hundred bushels of wheat.” “Here’s your account. Cross out a hundred, and make it eighty.”

‘And he did the same with the rest of the debtors. Now, what did the master say when he heard about this? Whatever you think, you’re wrong. What he did was to commend the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.’

What Jesus seemed to be saying with these stories, Christ thought, was something horrible: that God’s love was arbitrary and undeserved, almost like a lottery. Jesus’s friendship with tax-collectors and prostitutes and other undesirable characters must also have been part of this radical attitude; he seemed to have a real scorn for what was commonly thought of as virtue. He once told a story about two men, a Pharisee and a tax-collector, who both went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood by himself looking up to heaven and said, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other men, a thief, an adulterer, a swindler, or like that tax-collector over there. I fast twice a week, and I give away a tenth of my income.’ But the tax-collector didn’t dare to look up; he kept his eyes down and beat his breast, saying, ‘God, I beg you, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ And this, and not the other, Jesus told his listeners, was the man who would enter the Kingdom.

It was a popular message, no doubt; the common people delighted to hear about men and women such as themselves winning undeserved success. But it troubled Christ, and he longed to ask the stranger about it.

The Stranger Transfigured; A Coming Crisis

He soon had his chance. As he walked one evening beside the Sea of Galilee, thinking he was alone, he found the stranger beside him.

He was startled, and said, ‘Sir! I didn’t see you. Forgive me for not greeting you ?C had you been beside me for some time? My thoughts were elsewhere.’

‘I am always close to you,’ said the stranger, and they fell into step and walked along together.

‘When we spoke last,’ said Christ, ‘you said that next time we would talk about my brother.’

‘And so we shall. What is his future, do you think?’

‘His future ?C I can’t tell, sir. He’s stirring up a good deal of animosity. I worry that if he’s not careful he might meet the same fate as John, the Baptist, or else provoke the Romans as the Zealots are doing.’

‘But is he careful?’

‘No. I’d say he was reckless. But to him, you see, the Kingdom of God is coming very soon, and it makes no sense to be cautious and prudent.’

‘To him, you say? You mean you don’t think he’s right? This is just a guess of his, and he might be mistaken?’

‘Not quite that,’ said Christ. ‘I think we have a difference of emphasis. I believe the Kingdom is coming, of course I do. But he thinks it will come without warning, because God is impulsive and arbitrary. That’s at the root of it.’

He told the stranger the parables that had troubled him.

‘I see,’ said the stranger. ‘And you? What do you think of God?’

‘I think he is just. Virtue must play some part in whether we are rewarded or punished, or else why be virtuous? What the law and the prophets say ?C what Jesus himself says ?C doesn’t make sense otherwise. It’s just not consistent.’

‘I can see how it must trouble you.’

They walked on a little way in silence.

‘And besides,’ said Christ, ‘there is the matter of the Gentiles.’

He left it there, to see how his companion would respond. If, as he thought, the man was Greek, he would naturally be interested.

But the stranger merely said, ‘Go on.’

‘Well,’ said Christ, ‘Jesus preaches only to the Jews. He’s said clearly that Gentiles are dogs, for example. It was on the scrolls I gave you last time.’

‘I remember. But you don’t agree?’

Christ was aware that if this man had come to tempt him into rash words, this was exactly the way he would do it: lead him by soft questions.

‘Again, sir,’ he said carefully, ‘I think it’s a matter of emphasis. I know that the Jews are the beloved people of God ?C the scripture says that. And yet God surely created the Gentiles too, and there are good men and women among them. Whatever form the Kingdom may take, it will surely be a new dispensation, and it would not be surprising, given the infinite mercy and justice of God, to find his love extending to the Gentiles… But these mysteries are deep, and I may be wrong. I wish, sir, you would tell me what the truth is. It lies beyond time, as you told me, but my knowledge is lacking, and my vision clouded.’

‘Come with me,’ said the stranger.