First, many thanks to the University of Cantabria for inviting me to speak about Jesus in this auditorium, that I didn't know and that's a bit imposing ...
Nothing can give me more joy than speaking about Jesus and, above all, doing so in an open forum where it is easy for believers and nonbelievers to listen, which gives me even greater joy.
Let me begin by telling you that today, in the sectors concerned about Jesus and about researching the history of Jesus, He is being spoken about in a very new language. I'm going to tell you some of the things that are being said about this Jesus whom we love and believe is ours, that He belongs only to our faith. Today, people who aren't even believers say things like this: Jesus doesn't belong only to Christians; He is part of the human heritage. Others say: Surely Jesus is the best that history has given and it would be a tragedy if humanity forgot Him some day. Also: Jesus not only inaugurated a new religion, but a new era. Never in history, some say, has a greater religious symbol occurred than Jesus' project, that they call the Kingdom of God. If the world paid attention to Him, it would change; if it became the backbone of culture, politics and religion, mankind would live in a horizon of hope not dreamed of today. And others: it's true that it's in crisis, the end perhaps of a Christian religion greatly influenced by Greek philosophy and Roman law, but we're on the threshold of a new development of the Jesus movement.
Jesus still has not given the best. Jesus could still be a real surprise, and I'm seeing more and more that Jesus is being spoken of as the soul that the world needs to live in a more dignified and hopeful way. I want to talk now about this Jesus. Today's conference is titled "Jesus' Alternative". It's an attempt to summarize Jesus' project with some clarity and in a somewhat lively manner.
We believers think that God is incarnate in this man. Others do not believe so, but all of us -- all believers, of course -- are interested to see how this man lived and what He wanted to introduce into human history.
We all know that Jesus was born in Galilee where, in the 30's, obviously, there wasn't the separation between what we know how to differentiate spontaneously today -- the economic, the cultural, the political, the social ... this was not possible in the society in which Jesus lived. There isn't even a word for "religion" in Aramaic. Of course, Jesus was a religious man, but He lived in a society where religion was implied, guiding, justifying, promoting a whole way of understanding and experiencing life and society -- so much so that, at the time, for the Hebrew people, the Torah, the law of Moses, the law of God is, at the same time, the Constitution, so to speak.
As we get closer to Jesus we see that, in this society, He isn't a scribe, a teacher of law, nor is He a priest. He doesn't teach a doctrine per se. We sometimes have imagined that the most specific aspect of Jesus was teaching the true religion, a doctrine that the disciples would then have to disseminate the right way, but it isn't so. At the core of Jesus' preaching, beyond a doctrine, is a fact, an event, something that is happening, that He is experiencing and He wants to spread to everyone.
All researchers agree that the summary made by the evangelist Mark -- the first evangelist -- is the most correct. It says: Jesus proclaimed the Good News of God, God as something new and good. Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is near, that this God doesn't want to leave us alone to face the problems and challenges, but to steer our life in a healthy, happy way. Jesus invites us to change our way of thinking and speaking, He invites us to believe this Good News, to live believing in Him. Jesus perceives that a new era has begun, but we must welcome it. Today, all researchers believe that the Kingdom of God was the true passion of Jesus, the core, the heart of His message, the passion that inspired His life and also the reason why He was executed. The Kingdom of God is "Jesus' alternative".
Of course, the Kingdom of God is much more than a religion; it goes far beyond the beliefs, precepts and rituals of a religion. It's a way of understanding God and living that changes everything. As you see, Jesus wanted to introduce to the world a new experience of God that lets us live in a new way, with hope and a different horizon. This is the project, the Kingdom of God.
The surprising thing is that Jesus never explains what the Kingdom of God is in conceptual language. He doesn't know how to speak in formal language like the priests of the temple, or in the legalistic language of the scribes. Jesus is a poet. Today, Jesus' poetic side is highly valued. The metaphors, the images, and especially the parables of Jesus were some of the best in world literature at that time, in the first century. With this parabolic language, rather than speaking of doctrines, Jesus speaks of how life would be if there were more people who were more like God.
Deep down, Jesus had this passion, this fire within: How would life be in the Roman Empire if Tiberius didn't reign in Rome, but rather God, that is, someone who would do what God wants for humanity? How would Galilee change if Antipas didn't reign in Sepphoris and later in Tiberias, but someone who saw things as God sees them? How would the religion of the Temple in Jerusalem change, if Caiaphas weren't there and if a priest reigned who really wanted what God wants? That was Jesus' obsession. And we have to ask ourselves: What would our society and our Church be like, if there were more and more people, men and women, who were a bit more like God?
To speak of the "kingdom", Jesus uses a political term, not a religious one. The evangelists translated it into Greek and used the expression basileia, a word that, in the 30's, was only used to talk about the Roman Empire, the Empire of Tiberius. While Jesus was in Galilee, Tiberius was resting on Capri. He was an older man who just wanted riches, honor, power ... but he was the one who, with the Roman legions, had created the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana, the international order ... everything that, in Jerusalem where the high priests spoke perfect Greek, was defined by the term basileia.
You can imagine the surprise, the anticipation, and also the suspicion that Jesus must have caused when He began to say that the Kingdom of God -- not that of Tiberius -- was near, and invited all to enter that kingdom. What was Jesus trying to do by introducing a "kingdom" that wasn't of a politician, nor a religion, but of God?
When we pray the Our Father, we say "Thy Kingdom come." We don't ask to go to Heaven, but, with Jesus, we ask that His Kingdom come here first, to earth itself. So what then does Jesus mean when He invites us to enter the kingdom of God? For starters, we have to get out of other realms -- the realm of violence, the realm of money, the realm of terror -- to "enter" the "Kingdom of God".
I'll try to explain what this project of the Kingdom of God is for Jesus. I'm going to develop it in four points:
- In God's project, the acton principle -- the highest law -- is love, to put it concretely, compassion.
- Second, the dignity of the least as an aim. Jesus wants to orient everything towards the least. The Kingdom of God is creating among all, with the collaboration of God, a more humane, more dignified, friendlier, happier, more blessed society, starting with the least. It's the only way to proceed. We must always mention this "starting with the least" when we talk about Jesus.
- Third, healing action as a program. Jesus came to heal life.
- And finally -- we mustn't forget this because we all need it -- forgiveness as a goal. How could there not be forgiveness for all, if Jesus on the cross asked for forgiveness for those who were executing Him? They were not repentant, and Jesus forgave them. Jesus, the Son of God incarnate cries out to the Father: "Forgive them, they know not what they do."
1. Compassion as an action principle
God is merciful. This is the basis of the actions of Jesus. Today, research agrees unanimously that Jesus of Nazareth lived and communicated a healthy experience of God. Jesus did not project onto the face of God the fears, ambitions, and ghosts that all religions, including the Christian one, project onto God.
Jesus never talks about an indifferent God, cold, oblivious to human beings, turning His back on our problems...Nor do we see Jesus presenting a God who is worried about His own interests, His glory, His liturgy, His temple, His sabbath...God is concerned about us. Neither does He speak of a God who wants to rule the world with natural laws that the Creator has introduced in the very reality of creation -- a very valuable theology that comes from Greece, from Greek philosophy. In the substrate of the experience of God that Jesus has, is that God is compassionate, He is tender. Compassion is God's first reaction to His creatures. That is, the first thing that God feels when looking at us is compassion. Jesus says that God feels for His children what a mother feels for the child in her womb, that is, God carries us in God's womb.
The most beautiful parables, the ones Jesus worked on most, and perhaps those He most repeated, are always those through which He wants to share with the people His experience of a compassionate God.
In the parable we usually call "The Prodigal Son", the real protagonist isn't the son, but the good father. The first people to hear that parable must have been totally surprised. This wasn't what they heard from the masters of the law in the synagogue, nor from the priests in the temple in Jerusalem. Is God like this? Like a father who isn't concerned about his heritage, but respects the behavior of his children, even when they make blunders, who isn't obsessed with his morality, but follows everyone closely -- the one who is at home and the one who is far away? A God from whom you can drift away but to whom you can return without any fear, because He will be waiting for you? Remember how the father is watching to see if the son is coming, and when he sees him still far off, the father was filled with compassion for him -- literally "his insides trembled" -- he lost control and ran and hugged and kissed him warmly ... in public! Never did a patriarch of those families act like that, it was a women's thing. He treats him maternally; he doesn't let him continue to confess. He has suffered enough; he doesn't demand anything of him. He makes no rite of purification, even though he returns impure. He requires no penance of him. He immediately thinks he has to show him what it's like to live with the father. We will have a feast, he says, and asks the oldest son to come, to welcome him. Is God like that? Is God someone who wants to guide us all towards a final feast, in which the feast of freedom, of dignity, true happiness, will be celebrated?
The parable talks about lost sons who come back to the father and are welcomed by him, faithful sons who have to welcome the brother, and it talks about a banquet, a feast, music, dancing...Is this God's secret? Do we believe in this God?
There is another surprising parable that we usually call "The Workers in the Vineyard" although, really, the protagonist is the owner of the vineyard, a good man who wants work and bread for all. As you know, he goes out into the plaza at 6 in the morning, at 9, at 12, at 3 in the afternoon, and finally at 5...when there's only an hour left until the end of the workday. And surprisingly, he pays everybody one denarius, which is what a family needed to live each day in Galilee. When he pays them all the same, those who came first protest, and the owner asks them: "Are you envious because I am generous?"
This parable must have caused widespread bewilderment. What is Jesus suggesting? The owner of the vineyard doesn't look at the merits of each person, whether he worked hard or worked little. What concerns him is that everyone have something to eat tonight. Is it possible that God is like this? Could it be that God, rather than being concerned about our merits, is concerned about responding to our needs? This shatters all our preconceptions. What could the scribes of the law say and what can the moralists say today? Jesus is disconcerting, God is amazing. If God is someone who is compassionate, who, unlike us who are aware of how others respond to us, good or bad ... the first thing He feels is compassion for us, this would be the great news.
From this experience of a compassionate God, Jesus is going to introduce a principle of action: compassion.
Jesus was faced with a society where there were many groups, parties, spiritualities... but everyone agreed on the starting point. Everyone accepted that in a book of the Old Testament, Leviticus, it says: "Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy." The people must be holy to imitate a holy God. And who is this "holy God"? He who dwells in the holy Temple, a God who chooses His people, but curses the pagans, a God who accepts the pure and rejects the impure, a God who is a friend of the good, but hates sinners ... However, Jesus was called the friend of sinners, that is, when God becomes incarnate in a man, people see this man as a friend of sinners ... thank goodness!
This way of understanding the holiness of God as something contrary to the sinful, the impure, the contaminating, led Jewish society as Jesus knew it to be a tremendously discriminating and exclusionary society. To begin with, the holiest people, those who hold the highest rank for holiness are the priests because they have to enter the most sacred areas of the temple, and then came the people...the priests are, in some way, closer to God, the people farther away...and people still think this way. I have a neighbor, a senior, who used to tell me to pray for her because God will pay more attention to me...she thinks she is far, and that I, by being a priest, am next to God.
Males were considered to have a ritual holiness far superior to women, who were always suspected of being impure because of menstruation and childbirth; they couldn't be priestesses and they couldn't enter the temple...only a bit ahead of the pagans. The pious, the just, the observers of the law, they are blessed by God; the sinners, the cursed ones. The healthy were thought to be blessed by God; the sick, wounded by God. They couldn't enter the temple. Why would a deaf-mute enter the temple, if he couldn't hear God's law or sing the psalms? In other words, it seems like God is like us, we who like to always have pleasant, young, clean people near us...
When Jesus comes, He has to react from His experience of a compassionate God, and He does so in a daring way. Instead of saying, like Leviticus, "Be holy, because I, the Lord, am holy", Jesus says, "Be compassionate as your Father in Heaven is compassionate" and He introduces a totally new horizon into human history. Jesus doesn't deny God's holiness, but He makes it clear that what qualifies and defines the holy God is His compassion. God is great, He is holy, not only with us; He is holy not because He rejects the pagans, the sinners, and the unclean, but precisely because there is room for all in His holy heart. God doesn't exclude anybody. Anyone who draws near to Him will be welcomed, God loves without excluding anyone.
Therefore, read the gospel and you will see that compassion isn't just one more virtue -- like the works of mercy might be -- but it's the only way for us to begin to be like God. The way of looking at the world with compassion, looking at people with compassion, looking at events and the whole of life with compassion, is the best way for us to become more like God. It might seem that this compassion business isn't too much in fashion, it might be sentimentalism...some are kinder, they have more heart, others no...but it's not like that. For Jesus, compassion is an action principle; it's simply internalizing others' pain, that the suffering of others hurts me, and reacting by doing everything possible for that person and easing their suffering to the extent that I can.
All of you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the road is an injured man, left to his fate. Three travelers pass by. First, a priest and a Levite appear. They are men of the temple, holy men, those who represent the holy God in the temple. Probably the injured man would look hopefully at them. Representing God, they would have compassion for him. However, the priest came by, saw him, and made a detour. The Levite came by, saw him, and made a detour. Both of them have seen him, both have just come from the temple, they have worshipped the holy God, but they don't have compassion. Then a hated Samaritan comes by, who hasn't come from the temple -- he was prohibited from doing so at that time. Surely the injured man looked fearfully at him. He's afraid he's going to kill him. The Samaritans and the Jews were total enemies, but this man saw him and -- always the same verb -- had compassion. He was moved inside and approached him -- he made himself a neighbor -- and did everything he could for him. He heals him, disinfects him, bandages his wounds, sets him on his mount and takes him to the inn where he cares for him...He has compassion.
Is it true that the kingdom of compassion doesn't always come via religious routes, but that it can come through the compassion of a man who knows how to approach an injured person? In the parable, Jesus introduces a complete twist. The representatives of the temple pass by, the hated Samaritan heals compassionately. Compassion breaks down all barriers; even a traditional enemy, feared by all, can be a channel of God's compassion. The Kingdom of God can be built from religion and from other sectors, provided that compassion is alive.
2. The dignity of the least as a goal
"Living with compassion" was a message that was a big challenge for all. They were accustomed to living according to some religious principles. When Jesus came, He found a religion -- that of Moses -- that was 20 centuries old, and had modeled for all groups the spirituality of the temple, some dogmas that Jesus, with compassion, gradually diluted. The choice of Israel made them feel like the chosen people. They wanted to become "the navel of the earth" and they thought that when the Messiah from God came, he would liberate the Jewish people and destroy the Roman people. When the Messiah comes, he will destroy the sinners and save the saints ... However, when Jesus comes, He calls all of them to live out the Kingdom of God, because He wants a better, happier life for everyone, beginning with the least. He says you have learn to live from "a different place", with compassion for the suffering, defending the least, welcoming all unconditionally, defending the dignity of every human person.
If you read the Gospels from this key, you will not see Jesus concerned with organizing a religion like the others, attentive to how to do liturgy, the sacrifices in some other different, more dignified manner... but you will see Him calling everyone to accept this compassionate God and create a new society, looking out for the least. This was a revolution.
In Israel, everything was quite clear: God would intervene to destroy the enemies and annihilate the wicked. But Jesus comes and surprises everyone because He doesn't take the side of the chosen people against the Romans. The Kingdom of God is not going to be built by some people destroying and dominating others. All are waiting for the Messiah -- or God, depending on the version -- who destroys sinners and saves the just. However, Jesus approaches sinners and welcomes everyone to His table.
Thus He makes them see that the Kingdom of God will not consist of the victory of the good to make the evil pay for their sin. Jesus calls all to conversion and to live, looking out for the least, for the neediest, for the most defenseless and forgotten ones. And He starts to use provocative language: the Beatitudes, which are not a long list that Jesus gave one afternoon when He was more inspired, but shouts that Jesus gives at different times in His life and that the Christian communities gathered together for catechesis.
I will remember the three that everybody thinks certainly come from Jesus. When Jesus sees those people, the peasants of Galilee who have remained landless, pressed by tax debts, He tells them: Blessed are you who have nothing, the poor, the indigent, because you have God as king. The Kingdom of God is yours; the Kingdom of compassion, of kindness, of justice, belongs to you, before anybody else, to you. Jesus sees they are hungry, above all He sees all the children, the street children, He sees the women's hunger, and He tells them: Blessed are you who are going through hunger because God wants to see you satisfied. One day you will see Him, you are the first...Jesus sees how those peasants cry when they remain landless. The hardest thing for a peasant is to not have been able to defend his lands, or when they are gathering the harvest and see the tax collectors coming from Sepphoris, escorted by some small troops to take the best for themselves, and Jesus tells them: Blessed are you who cry now, because one day you shall laugh. One day God will make you happy.
We all have to start looking towards them. Jesus spoke with full conviction. What He says, I would translate today like this: those who matter least to people are those who matter most to God. Those who are left aside in the empires that we men build, the "excess material", are those whom God welcomes. Those who are most forgotten, the powerless, those are the ones who, before anyone else, have God as advocate and Father. Jesus is very realistic. He doesn't think that hunger and tears will disappear in Galilee. What He does do is give an indestructible dignity to all who are victims of abuse and injustice.
Look how we ought to learn to look at life. For God, the compassionate God, all those people who bother us because they beg from us, those who are in the street, the abandoned ones, the homeless..are the first. And this means that Jesus gives their dignity the utmost seriousness. Nowhere is the good life being built if the least are not being looked out for. Spain isn't doing well, Europe isn't doing well, the world isn't doing well, as long as we're only looking out for our interests and amassing more and more millions of hungry people in the world. And no religion will be blessed by God if it isn't a compassionate religion. Compassion makes us look out for the least. The greatest heritage of Jesus, the one that today not only believers but also non-believers see and value in Jesus is this: to welcome the Kingdom of God is to make all religions, not just the Christian one, all cultures and policies, look out for the least before anything else.
3. Therapeutic action as a program of the Kingdom of God
When looking at John the Baptist, we discover that all his activity is focused on sin. He is concerned with the sin of the people so he denounces sinners and invites them to repentance, offering them a liturgy of conversion and forgiveness.
However, he doesn't make a single gesture of compassion, of kindness. He doesn't heal any sick person. It seems as if he doesn't see the sick, nor the many children there were in those lands. He doesn't cleanse the lepers, he doesn't welcome sinners or prostitutes...Surely, the first thing that captured people's attention, as Jesus began to act, was the huge gap that existed between the great John the Baptist and Jesus.
In the pages of the Gospel, we see that Jesus doesn't stay in the desert, but goes walking all over Galilee. He draws near to the people, he wants to bring God with Him to visit the people. We can't imagine Jesus preaching conversion for the people and offering repentance to sinners, like those missionaries who used to travel through our towns and cities during Lent as a Paschal fulfillment.
Jesus approaches the sick, who are even brought to Him...such that we could say that Jesus is introducing a religious revolution of a healing nature, a therapeutic religion that has no precedent in Jewish tradition. Jesus announces salvation by healing; this is what's new. Jesus is concerned with sin, much more than we are, but He sees that, for a compassionate father, the greatest sin is to introduce injustice, unjust suffering, or tolerate it by turning one's back to it. For Jesus, sin is not something that is dealt with in morals books, an offense against God...Sin is embodied in those who are suffering and being forgotten by everyone, so He begins to heal.
Jesus' actions disconcert the Baptist, who sends some of his disciples to ask Him: "Are you the one who was to come, or should we wait for another?" Jesus answers them: "Tell John what you are seeing: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed,...and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. I have come to heal. Tell John not to be scandalized."
On another occasion, when they accused him of healing in the named of Beelzebub, the god of the flies, the god of the plague, He tells them: I cast out demons by the finger of God because the Kingdom of God is coming to you. When there is a struggle against suffering, when pain is alleviated, when a healthier life opens up...there, the Kingdom of God is in action. What Jesus did, basically, was heal life.
Don't just think about whether the healings Jesus accomplished were on the physical level, the psychological one, etc...Those healings are what best indicates and points to Jesus' whole project, because He doesn't heal arbitrarily or for sensationalism. The texts repeat again and again that Jesus had compassion. Jesus healed, moved by compassion. He sees that those who are most suffering are the first who need to experience in their own flesh how good God is. It's the most downtrodden, hopeless, the most broken, those who no longer even have a human face, who we have to put in the center of our hearts and our religion, because they are at the center of the Father's heart.
You could say that all the work of Jesus is aimed at creating a more healthy, more humane, more breathable, more bearable society... Remember, for example, Jesus' rebellion against many pathological behaviors with religious roots, how Jesus criticized the harshness, the legalism, the worship devoid of love ... Jesus wants to heal religion. His effort to create a more just and fraternal society, His offer of free pardon to all, His welcome to all those mistreated by life or the injustice of men ...
His cries -- "the last shall be first", "the prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God before you"...are tremendous screams that are echoing here. Jesus' most repeated phrase is: "Be not afraid!" "Men of little faith, why are you afraid?" "Take courage, I have conquered the world." It's a call to confidence, to live in a different way.
When Jesus entrusts His mission to His disciples, don't imagine them as hierarchs, theologians, or liturgists, but rather as healers. And always, invariably, He gives them two charges: Proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near, that God is nearer than you think and He wants to take over this very disastrous life, and then...heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons...freely you have received, freely give. The first mission of the Christian religion is not to do theology, nor even to celebrate worship. Everything has its reason for being, but the first thing is to heal life, to be healers. A parish must be, before anything else, a healing community, so that in this neighborhood people live with healthier habits, in a more humane way, without forgetting anybody, drawing near to those who suffer most...that's the conversion we need.
4. Forgiveness as a goal
What provoked the greatest scandal and the greatest hostility towards Jesus was his friendship with sinners. Nothing like this had ever happened in Israel. It was unheard of. To many specialists, this is the most revolutionary trait of Jesus. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea...are great men of God, but they don't surround themselves with sinners. They don't eat with them. No prophet, not even the Baptist, approaches sinners with the respect, the friendship, the sympathy that Jesus does. They were particularly disconcerted that He would invite everyone to His table and invite them to follow Him. How could a man of God accept these people as friends, these undesirables of society, without requiring a "novitiate" of them, a change?...It's scandalous, unimaginable that a man of God could eat with sinners. However, Jesus insisted on making this gesture, even though He knew it was provocative, but it was the clearest.
Searching in our sources, one immediately sees the reaction Jesus aroused. First, surprise. "This one eats with publicans and sinners." It's unheard of. And then the accusations: He's a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of sinners. Shame! He doesn't know to keep His distance...
Meals were sacred in that society. You couldn't eat with just anybody. In Jesus' society, the rich eat with the rich, the poor with the poor, the Jews with the Jews, the pagans even ate unclean food, the Pharisees with members of the Pharasaic communities, in Qumran, only members of the community...What honorable and respectable person is going to eat with just anybody? However, Jesus insists on opening His table to all. One didn't have to be pure, one could be a clean woman, one could be a prostitute, one could be a pious man, one could be a sinner apart from the alliance...
It's that, as we said, in the Kingdom of God, compassion, welcoming mercy replace that exclusive holiness. The Kingdom is a table open to all. What is most characteristic...what identifies one of Jesus' groups is precisely not excluding anybody. As a believer, I'm convinced that probably there has never been anybody on Earth who has proclaimed friendship, forgiveness, God's welcome of all, including those who forget or reject Him, with as much strength, depth and realism as Jesus did.
In my style, I'll leave Jesus' final message resonating here, because I think we all have to listen to it. When you see yourself judged by the law, including religious law, do not forget God. Feel yourselves to be understood by Him. When you see yourselves rejected by society, know that God welcomes you. When no one forgives you, when no one understands that you could be better, think and feel God's endless forgiveness around you. You don't deserve it; none of us deserves it, but that's how God is. God is love and forgiveness. Never forget it; believe the good news.
I have tried to bring us near, albeit in a very incomplete manner, to what was the essence of Jesus. If this is Jesus' alternative, nothing can be more important in today's Christianity than returning to Jesus. We are distracted by many things, condemning and discrediting each other ... within the Church itself... without listening to Jesus. Actually this is what gives me pain and, of course, until I die, I will live just for this. We don't realize that the best thing we have in the Church -- the most valuable, the most attractive thing -- is Jesus. No one, not our pastoral programs, or our liturgies, can attract as Jesus can. The churches are in crisis, but not Jesus. People are more interested in Him than ever, while we here are distracted by many things.
In my next lecture, I will try to show, in a very simple way, that going back to Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God made man, is the most urgent task we have in Christianity today.