„What would Jesus have done?“

„What would Jesus have done?“ – This question comes up again and again in the discussion of controversial current issues, such as the blessing of homosexual partnerships, the admission of women to the ordained ministry, euthanasia or in questions of war and peace. As a rule, it is not asked as an open question, but used to support one’s own position. At the point where I rub my head against the church’s proclamation on doctrinal or moral questions, the doubt arises as to whether the official teaching is „according to Jesus“ at all. Wouldn’t Jesus have decided on this or that question in exactly the way that corresponds to my own opinion? The accusation that “Jesus would have wanted it completely differently” has permeated all controversial discussions for decades. The first assumption is that the church has to stick as closely as possible to the proclamation of the Bible in its teaching. This assumption is absolutely correct. The second assumption is that, for whatever reason, the church has at one point or another misunderstood or misinterpreted the gospel message. There is a kernel of truth in this assumption as well. Teaching and preaching are not static. They must also find up-to-date answers to current challenges in thinking and acting. It is not clear whether these answers always follow the prevailing opinion or whether they strongly contradict it. Listening to the gospel, questioning tradition and current theology are meant to critically question the zeitgeist. For example, when Pope Francis vehemently opposed the capitalist economic system in his encyclical “Laudato sii”, this met with sharp rejection, especially in the USA. Based on scripture and tradition, the pope had questioned current patterns of thought. Even this small example shows how difficult the answer of faith to the questions of the time can be. „What would Jesus have done?“ Today’s economic system of globalized capitalism was unknown to him. However, the injustices of our day can certainly be named from the idea of a universal justice to be striven for, which is to be found in both the Old and the New Testament. The reference to the gospel usually has a critical meaning.

A tension arises: the gospel is always read in a specific time context. One will always find aspects in it that are compatible with this time context, but others that contradict it. The Catholic Church in particular therefore questions the Bible in its search for an understandable proclamation for today, always in the light of tradition. The underlying premise is that the transmission of faith can, in the long run, provide a proper understanding of how Scripture is to be understood and interpreted. This is based on the fundamental theological assumption that God Himself does not change. His self-disclosure has become reliable, constant and unsurpassably clear in Jesus Christ. There are objections to the understanding of tradition. Tradition is always a brake that prevents (at least rapid) innovations. Whether this is good or bad in one case or another only becomes apparent in retrospect. Tradition is also changing. The classic example is the recognition of universal human rights, which were initially rejected by the church (because they did not come from Christian but philosophical sources), but were later recognized as binding because they are also bearable and meaningful from Christian basic considerations. Between these two beliefs lay more than 100 years of conflict and contention. Isn’t that faster too? Wouldn’t it simply be possible to switch off the inhibiting effect of tradition and make adjustments and changes in the church much more quickly? “What would Jesus do?” – The original question returns here. Isn’t the Bible enough for us to find answers for today? Isn’t it about a „contemporary“ faith?

The so-called “Life of Jesus Research” is an example of the struggle with tradition. This term includes, among other things, publications that attempt to reinterpret the biblical message without taking the tradition of the churches into account. It is about a Jesus who is supposed to be freed from the supposed appropriation by theology and the teaching office. The authors often claim to have discovered the „true Jesus“. A prominent example is the book „The Life of Jesus, Critically Considered“ by Friedrich David Strauss, published in 1835. The author wanted to view the gospels in their general mystical meaning and removed them from the contemporary Jewish context. With him Jesus becomes a figure of the general humanity, a target image of the deified human being, of the human being in his pure, unadulterated, purified form. Strauss fitted the person of Jesus into the philosophical thinking of the time. The guiding ideas for this come from German idealism, above all from Hegel’s philosophy, whose basic ideas at that time represented something like a social „common sense“, at least among the educated. So here appeared a really modern version of the faith that spoke precisely to the times. Such portraits of Jesus appear again and again. They reflect the figure of Jesus in relation to a specific social situation. Jesus is contextualized. For example, he appears as the proto-Protestant (Adolf von Harnack), as the founder of a purely spiritual, charismatic, institution-free Christianity (Friedrich Heiler), as a freedom fighter for the poor and weak (Leonardo Boff) or as a champion of gender equality ( feminist theology). All of these attempts at interpreting Jesus are justified. They point to partially underexposed aspects of the gospel and promote ideas that can be helpful for a contemporary interpretation. At the same time, there is also a danger in the beginnings of the “untraditional” interpretation of Jesus. At the time of National Socialism there were numerous attempts to interpret the gospels as the figure of an „Aryan Christ“ by making him an opponent of his own Jewish religion. Such attempts were very contemporary and modern at the time, but in retrospect they were shameful nonsense.

„What would Jesus have done?“ In addition to works such as those by Strauss, there have always been voices in research on the life of Jesus that warned against the time-related monopolization of Jesus for certain political or philosophical goals. In some cases, the rejection turned into the opposite. Albert Schweitzer, but above all the Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, referred to the great uncertainty of the biblical tradition: one can no longer approach the historical Jesus, i.e. Jesus as he really was, thought and acted as a human being. There is no neutral interpretation of his person, since after all the gospels are already the product of a belief in the divine sonship and resurrection of Jesus. Bultmann’s objection had a powerful effect. Shouldn’t one be able to find anything „authentic“ about Jesus in the gospels? Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998), one of Bultmann’s students, used modern means of textual criticism to search for traces of the historical Jesus in the Gospels and filtered out a basic stock of authentic words from Jesus. Today it is generally assumed that the biblical writings have preserved far more of the historical Jesus than was assumed at the beginning of the 20th century. It might be interesting elsewhere to present today’s criteria for Bible research. For further reasoning, I would start from the basic thesis that the gospels essentially give us a realistic picture of the proclamation and life of Jesus. Even if much was varied and embellished in the course of an initially oral narrative tradition, we can certainly recognize the decisive basic features, i.e. what the central messages of Jesus were. Nevertheless, looking at Scripture is never entirely historically reliable. Whether exactly this or that word of Jesus came from himself can rarely be answered unequivocally. Even the gospels are part of the tradition and not documents of modern historical historians (although these can also come to very different conclusions in the biographical description of a specific person…). Read through the eyes of believers, the Bible is „revelation“, i.e. it gives us a reliable insight into the things that God wants to communicate about himself, without each sentence being read in a different way from the understanding of the biblical authors and the faith community .

I hope I haven’t discouraged you now. From what you have read so far, you might get the impression that you need a theological degree to understand the Bible. Luckily that’s not the case. The opening question “What would Jesus have done?” is always about a personal understanding. How do I read the Bible, what is important to me, which passages are important to me, which ones guide my actions? Of course, you must and may answer these questions personally. I suspect that everyone who studies the gospels has their own image of Jesus. Research helps to complete and sharpen this picture and perhaps also to protect us from one or the other misinterpretation. The tradition has the same task, which to a certain extent reflects the religious knowledge and understanding of past generations through the centuries. However, anyone who wants to claim general validity for their image of Jesus must be able to justify it before these authorities. The first and fundamental approach to Scripture is that of an ordinary believer. The depth and connections of the Bible can be opened up to everyone. Personal contact with God in prayer and meditation is more nourishing for personal faith than many a scientific, objectified discussion. Faith is not primarily a question of universities, but of spiritual life. That is why there is a much older tradition of Jesus piety alongside research on the life of Jesus. The most widespread Christian book after the Bible is „Of the Following Christ“ by Thomas von Kempen (1380-1471). Thomas and the so-called „Devotio moderna“ (devotio = „devotion“) posed the question of Jesus anew. Whoever wanted to understand Jesus should immerse himself in the example of Jesus. It was about accepting Jesus into his soul life. The pious observer should check his own attitude against the example of Jesus and imitate it. For example, Jesus becomes a virtuous life and thus also determines my own life in the world. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) developed a similar program in the Spiritual Exercises. In contemplating the life of Jesus, the individual should reflect their life and allow themselves to be shaped from within towards their own vocation. „What would Jesus do?“ becomes here a „what is Jesus doing and what would he want me to do?“ Question about „what Jesus would do“ today understood more ethically. It’s about action. So the Bible is a point of reference, an orientation. Following Jesus then means above all acting like Jesus. This question is then related to very specific situations. What would Jesus do today if the question of taking in refugees came up, how would he react if a friend got into trouble for money, how would he deal with the question of racism, would he bless same-sex partnerships?

Such questions are at once easy and difficult to answer. They are easy to answer, because for me personally, my image of Jesus can result in a concrete call to action. They are difficult to deal with because, for the reasons given above, general maxims for general action arise only with difficulty. If you look at the question „what would Jesus do today“ from the perspective of a Bible Student, you could say: We don’t know. This is about topics that were not topical at the time of Jesus or at least are not dealt with in the Bible. The modern emancipation movement and the desired equality of the sexes in all areas of society is a modern question. We can infer from the gospels that Jesus had a comparatively open relationship with women (e.g. that they are found among his circle of disciples, that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection, that there were apparently real friendships with women, such as Mary and Martha) . Advocates of the female priesthood deduce from this biblical finding, among other things, that Jesus himself would have been open to it. A counter-argument is that Jesus entrusted his succession in preaching, healing and forgiveness of sins only to men, the group of apostles. According to the other side, this is due to the patriarchal structure of the time and the symbolism of the circle of twelve as the re-establishment of the tribes of Israel. Socially Jesus might not have been able to go further then, but he would be today. But this discussion is also full of assumptions, since it would first have to be clarified whether Jesus actually wanted an ecclesiastical office, as it then developed in the first centuries. Again, there are a variety of arguments. It is not so easy. For example, there is the saying of Jesus: “Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave (Mt 20:27)”. Here and elsewhere, Jesus apparently accepts a social order in which there are slaves. At least there are no quotes that Jesus rejected slavery. Now what makes sense? Saying „Jesus would abolish slavery today“ or „Jesus would not abolish slavery today“. The second sentence sounds strange to our ears. We cannot make any definite statement on this from the Bible passages alone. We would help ourselves by saying: „In those days slavery was so taken for granted that it was not questioned. Today Jesus would clearly oppose it.” I would say so too, but can I be sure? What do we do with the following sentence from the Sermon on the Mount: „Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery“ (Mt 5:32)? From the logic of Jesus‘ time, the meaning is clear. Adultery is a serious sin (as affirmed by Jesus in several places). In Jewish law, divorce was a way of ending a marriage for a serious cause. If the sentence is translated into modern times, this means: „Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery and thus a serious sin“. Roughly speaking, this is still the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which is apparently well-founded in the Bible. So what would Jesus say today about the divorced and remarried? Would he revise his teaching from back then? I do not want to decide this question, just to point out that a simple answer to what Jesus would do today is hardly realistic. There are two extremes. The first is to assert that Jesus would of course share our often very liberal answers to ethical and moral questions. Jesus, so the idea goes, would have long since shared our Western lifestyle with its positions on individual freedom and self-determination (including a bit of criticism of capitalism). The counter-position is that Jesus would probably throw up his hands over his head at our rotten ethical standards and attack our immoral times in the strongest possible terms. Both positions are well represented today. Both positions can refer to the Holy Scriptures in their assessment. We can’t help but read and understand the Bible from within a certain tradition, a certain worldview. Anyone who works alone with certain quotations and develops his arguments based on individual episodes from the Gospels cannot get beyond the question of personal „consideration to be correct“. But now we are dealing with generally valid standards that are to be derived from the gospel. Can such things even exist?

Is every interpretation of the gospel only relative? Don’t we really know what the gospel wants to say? It’s not that easy. The classic Catholic way would be to entrust oneself to tradition, i.e. to accept that the binding interpretation of faith only takes place in the large community of the Church over the centuries and can be made binding by the papal magisterium in case of doubt. It can be objected that tradition itself has to be interpreted again and again. It is often more polyphonic than it might appear from the outside. The Second Vatican Council, for example, took into account the findings of the then current Bible research and consciously opened the rich treasure of the Church Fathers (i.e. the early theologians), from which it brought out a wide variety of finds. Tradition was thus questioned, but opened to a new direction. In the case of the Council, this can be demonstrated by many examples. The alternative to the traditional model is the charismatic model. This is about the individual who, because of his faith, becomes an independent interpreter of the Bible through the Holy Spirit. There is no tradition, but a spontaneous, always new interpretation of the Bible. So everyone can proclaim the message of the gospel anew to the best of their knowledge and effort, but above all through believing reflection in prayer. This is the way Bible interpretation is practiced in some free church communities. Individual preachers or pastors present their interpretation to the congregation and try to convince them of it through the sermon. If you find these people credible and inspired, you recognize them as religious authorities (otherwise you just change churches). If one considers such an understanding of biblical interpretation to be correct, one also accepts the personality cult that goes with it. The American televangelist is the ultimate religious authority for his followers. His speech is true because it is recognized as inspired. Depending on my own religious and social feelings, there is always the right preacher for me. The charismatic model brings a variety of different interpretations between which I can choose, or even the opportunity to appear as an interpreter of the Bible. Therefore, it is also conceivable in the charismatic model that teachings such as: “The end of the world is imminent”, “Donald Trump is a prophet”, “We need a holy war against Islam” or “Corona is a sign of demonic possession“. Such messages are biblically justified. Even if we find such interpretations of the Bible wrong or harmful, there is no religious authority that can stop a preacher from saying such things. He himself is the supreme authority in religious matters.

„What would Jesus do?“ -So, can this question be answered at all? I can reassure anyone who has got the impression that the interpretation of the gospel is arbitrary or a purely personal matter: Of course we are not completely helpless. What I wanted to make clear so far: We never read the Bible without presuppositions, but always explicitly or implicitly in a certain interpretive tradition. Even the biblical texts themselves are evidence of traditions of interpretation. The interpretation of the Bible is also never independent of the current temporal and personal context. We always interpret them against the background of our own questions. This can be done collectively in an effort to reach an ecclesiastical consensus, or it can be free and charismatic. Individual sentences in the Gospels are often not a reliable basis as individual statements – for historical reasons that have to do with the complicated textual history of the Bible, but also for reasons of reliability. Anyone who reads the gospels has the impression that there are contradictions to be found there. Bible quotes can be contradicted by other Bible quotes. Individual statements must therefore be read in the context, i.e. in the context of biblical theology as a whole. The Bible itself gives the best indication of which readings of its writings make sense and which do not. Basic theological lines can be found in Scripture that forestall an arbitrary interpretation of Scripture. For example, one can assume that the statement „God is good“ represents such a basic consensus of all scriptures, even if there are individual passages in which the reader may well have doubts about such a statement. Another basic trait is „God wants the redemption of the world“ – that is, wants to lead the world to good. „God makes a covenant with his people“ – he faithfully walks his way with Israel (later extended to include the non-Israeli communities of believers).

The gospels also follow certain ideas and insights that can hardly be refuted from the scriptures. The depiction of the preaching and the work of Jesus are pervaded by basic lines. The question „What would Jesus do?“ can be answered within the framework of such basic lines, perhaps not for every individual case, but always in a certain direction or tendency. In the following I would like to pass on a few insights that have been largely undisputed in Bible research over the past few decades. Of course, this also happens here with the indication that future Bible researchers will perhaps set different priorities.

If one approaches the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, one fact above all is of particular importance: Jesus was a Jew. His teaching and his story stand in the tradition of Israel. The gospels, especially the so-called synoptic gospels according to Mark, Matthew and Luke, emphasize this connection, even if their reach already extends beyond the Jewish communities to the so-called Gentile Christians. The Gospel of Luke speaks in the resurrection reports (Lk 24) about the fact that the risen Jesus „opened the meaning of the Scriptures“ to the disciples. His life is therefore closely linked to the Jewish faith tradition. In modern biblical scholarship it is therefore common today to understand Jesus as a man of his time, as a Jew in Israel around the year 30 according to the Christian calendar. In fact, it is hardly possible to interpret the gospels correctly without understanding the latent references to the Jewish scriptures, the so-called „Tenach“ (Torah = the five books of Moses, the history books and wisdom writings, as well as the books of the prophets). It is about more than the idea that the old promises were fulfilled in Jesus, i.e. that, for example, the death on the cross refers to the fourth song of the Servant of God (Is 52/53). Rather, Jesus‘ life and preaching can also be understood as an expression and interpretation of the Jewish faith. For some interpreters, Jesus appears as a Jewish teacher of the law (Rabbi), or is portrayed as such in the Gospels. In line with this, he apparently insists that not a single letter of the law (that is, the legal provisions set out in the five books of Moses) may be changed (Mt 5:18). In doing so, Jesus places himself in the tradition of Jewish teaching, even if he grants it a special interpretation.

But before we delve into the interpretation of the law, let’s take a step back. All gospels have the public ministry of Jesus begin with John the Baptist. This is placed in the tradition of the Jewish prophets. Outwardly like the prophet Elijah, he appears in the Jordan desert, the place where Elijah was taken up to heaven (2 Kings 2) and proclaims the coming of the end times. According to Jewish tradition, Elijah’s return heralded the appearance of the end-time Messiah, that is, the king sent by God to Israel, who would bring about God’s final victory over the enemies and would unite all peoples in the confession of the one God Israel. Indeed, John points to the coming of the Messiah. At the same time, he criticized Herod, the ruling vassal king at the time, who was considered an illegitimate king because of his origins. So John announces the judgment and the end times. Now, according to his message, there is another opportunity to convert in order to escape God’s judgment – also a classic prophetic motif, e.g. in the book of Jonah. Baptism, i.e. washing, is a symbolic act of cleansing, which is also intended to express an inner cleansing from sins. When John is thrown into prison by Herod, Jesus begins his mission. In a way he continues John’s collection movement. At least it has not yet become clear to the world that Jesus is this Messiah (as is already implied with the baptism in the Jordan). At the beginning of Jesus‘ preaching there is the call: „Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!“ (Mt 4:17). The „kingdom of heaven“ means the perfection and redemption of the world. The theologian Walter Kasper actually points the whole work of Jesus to this commission. The signs of the kingdom of heaven (or „kingdom of God“) are peace, reconciliation, justice, healing, and victory over evil. Therefore, the actions of Jesus, such as healing the sick and casting out demons, can be seen as pointers to the coming of the kingdom. In Jesus the kingdom of God is „already among you“ (Luke 17:21). It is still inconspicuous, like mustard seed, but it should grow and thrive (Mark 4:30ff.). The decisive question now is whether people accept Jesus‘ message, i.e. find faith, or reject him. So here is a unique opportunity to participate in the kingdom of God. The Gospel of John exacerbates this decision situation. It is less about the kingdom of God and more about faith in Jesus as God’s son. Those who come to this belief will be saved, the others remain in the dark. The deeds of Jesus in the fourth gospel are signs of this divine sonship. Anyone who meets Jesus meets God himself. „I and the Father are one“ (John 10:30).

The idea of the „Kingdom of God“, understood as the perfect people of Israel, to which the Gentiles will eventually join (Is 60) and the idea of the Messiah as the „Son of God“, the eschatological king, are firmly part of the Jewish faith. The claim of the gospels is that these prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus. So the gospels can be read towards these promises. The New Testament scholar Gerhard Lohfink therefore sees the mission of Jesus as a gathering movement to restore the people of Israel. It will be reunited and finally to be completed. The twelve apostles therefore remind us of the twelve tribes of Israel. In this way of thinking, Jesus‘ turning to sinners can also be classified in this theological line. Jesus is concerned with finding the lost sheep and bringing them back to the flock, following the shepherd’s example (Lk 15). Jesus acts here not only out of pure philanthropy (certainly that too). In many healings, the question of faith plays a major role. The blind Bartimaeus calls Jesus as „Son of David“, i.e. as Messiah, and is healed. Jesus tells him: „Your faith has saved you“ (Mark 10). You can find this connection again and again. So Jesus gives people on the fringes of society, whose fate in the mind of the time was often connected with the idea of sin, the opportunity to reintegrate themselves into the people of Israel. One could perhaps speak of an “inclusive attitude”. This inclusion always aims at faith. However, the gospels indicate a slow development. A key passage is the healing of the daughter of a heathen woman (Mt 15). Jesus answers her request: “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” So it is initially only about the gathering of Israel. When the woman asks him further, he says: “Woman, your faith is great. It shall be what you will.” Something perhaps unexpected is happening here. Apparently it is also possible for non-Jews to participate in God’s work. Belonging to Israel is no longer decisive here, but solely faith in Jesus. The mission of Jesus thus acquires universal and thus eschatological dimensions. The gathering of Israel and the conversion of the nations have begun.

The ethical instructions of Jesus can also be understood in this basic line. The mission of the spirit belongs to Israel’s eschatological cosmos of expectation. He brings about renewed belonging to the people of Israel and to God (Is 44:3ff.) and a renewal of the covenant between God and his people (Jer 31). At the same time, communion with God is linked to an understanding of the law. Ezekiel says: „I will put my Spirit within you and make sure that you follow my laws and pay attention to my legal decisions and fulfill them“ (Ez 36:27). It is not about an external, but an internal understanding of the law. Here lies the basic conflict that Jesus fights out with the Pharisees. He accuses these teachers of the law, who are pushing for the most literal possible implementation of the legal texts, to be hypocritical at various points. In Jesus‘ great „anger speech“ about the behavior of the Pharisees (Mt 23), he explicitly accuses them of denying people access to the kingdom of God. Through their interpretation of the law, they make it impossible for sinners to return to the community of Israel. While the Pharisees, so the charge goes, pay attention to outward observance of the law, they neglect to follow the inner sense of the law. In the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10), Jesus provocatively gets to the heart of this accusation. At the beginning there is a question from a teacher of the law about the most important commandment. After consensus was reached that the double commandment to love God and love one’s neighbor should be considered the most important commandment in the law, Jesus tells his parable: A man is attacked and lies half dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite pass by. They must not defile themselves as they are on their way to temple service. This would be the case when touching a dead person. So you go on. The two fulfill the law to the letter. The rules of purity for the service are their top priority. The Samaritan (i.e. non-Israelite) fulfills the law intuitively according to Jesus’ reading by giving priority to caring for the neighbor. The point is that he understood more of the law than those who passed by, even though he didn’t even belong to Israel. Jesus and the Pharisees repeatedly disagree on these and similar questions. Is it more important to keep the Sabbath rest or to heal a person despite the Sabbath rest (Mt 12)? There is evidently for Jesus something like a meaningful, intuitive fulfillment of the law, which gives priority to the urgency of the healing, redemption, forgiveness and salvation of a human being over others.

„What would Jesus do today?“ – The answer to the question can be answered more easily by looking back at the outlines of the commission and mission of Jesus just indicated. They have been repeatedly worked out by Pope Francis in a similar form in recent years, for example when he speaks of the basic assumption of God’s mercy, of going to the margins („to the lost sheep“) and of the hierarchy of truths. Pope Francis always assumes that concrete life requires concrete ethical and moral responses that are not always in line with current regulations. The same applies here as for the Jesus of the Gospel: First and foremost it is about the salvation and redemption of people. It is always a matter of making decisions in favor of faith. That is why the Pope exhorts pastors to discern wisely in cases of doubt. Where it is necessary in the sense of evangelization or also in the healing of certain soul needs, decisions can be made with a view to God’s work of salvation, which the church serves as an instrument, which go beyond the legal norms described. However, this does not mean that the norms are suspended. Not everything is right and good. The reality of sin and also of the devil (according to the Pope in various places) is there. The temptations are many. The point is to seek the way of salvation and to keep the necessary scope for conversion and faith open. It is a path between rigorism and arbitrariness. Even Jesus does not change the norms, but how we deal with the norms. And a second element is important: signs of salvation are always to be expected outside of the community of believers. There is an intuitive obedience to the divine will outside of Israel, the Church or religions at large. In my opinion, this basic approach makes it possible to deal with the concrete assessment of ethical questions in a meaningful way. The question of „what Jesus would do today“ cannot be answered arbitrarily, but rather based on Jesus‘ attitude in the Gospels.





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