Paul Prather

Paul Prather: If Jesus walked the streets today ...

Doe-eyed hippy and fierce, disapproving force are among the ways his modern followers envision Jesus.
Doe-eyed hippy and fierce, disapproving force are among the ways his modern followers envision Jesus. Getty Images/iStockphoto

I'm stuck on the subject I've written about in my two most recent columns: what Jesus did and didn't say when he was walking the earth, and what he might say if he were here today.

For a long time, my congregation's Wednesday evening Bible-study group has been examining the words of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament's Gospels.

It's been slow going. Jesus' statements are by turns so illuminating or befuddling or outrageous that often we'll discuss a single sentence for a half-hour.

More than once, various members of our group have blurted out, "No wonder they killed him."

No wonder, indeed.

Today, there seem to be multiple Jesuses floating around our culture.

There's the doe-eyed, vaguely hippie-looking Jesus of popular religious art who carries lambs on his shoulders and wears an expression that implies he's polished off a bottle of Xanax.

There's the muscular Jesus of another school of pop art who juts a square jaw, sports boxing gloves and looks as if he's about to whip the fool out of the devil.

There's the do-gooder Jesus, who lobbies for Medicaid, heats with solar energy and eats only organic vegetables and free-range chickens.

There's the right-wing Jesus, who cuts billionaires' taxes, despises immigrants, favors a strong defense and dispatches hurricanes as punishment for gay marriage.

It's weird. Nearly every faction in our society has discovered a Jesus who's just like them.

Where they got him, I can't say.

They didn't find him in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (It should also be noted that occasionally John's Jesus doesn't share an identical likeness with the Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But that's another column.)

The New Testament Jesus will make your 21st-century head spin.

Are you wrought up about abortion and the so-called homosexual agenda?

You won't get any help from him. He didn't mention either subject. Abortion and same-sex liaisons were reasonably common in the ancient Greco-Roman world and, at least in certain circles, accepted.

But he didn't talk at all about these issues, or else the disciples who later wrote down his words chose not to include his pronouncements.

I'm not arguing that Jesus would have approved of abortion or gay rights today. I'm saying he left behind no statements, period, pro or con. You'll have to interpret his silence according to your own particular biases and traditions.

On the other hand, do you think Jesus was a freewheeling social liberal who regarded every variety of personal, moral or sexual predilection as equally valid?

Then try on this statement: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28, New American Standard translation).

He adds that anyone who divorces and later remarries also becomes an adulterer.

Yikes. Is he overstating the case, exaggerating to emphasize that lust and divorce can be harmful? Is he telling us we're all sinners bound to burn in hell like so much kindling? Is he demonstrating how ridiculous it is to judge others legalistically, when we're all imperfect?

I wish the authors had added some explanatory footnotes. They didn't.

Are you looking for a f amily values spokesman?

Well, the Gospels portray Jesus as conceived in the womb of an unmarried girl. His earthly father disappears early from his life (Joseph probably died, but the Bible doesn't say).

Jesus argues with his brothers. He never marries and never has children. His extended family thinks he'd demon-possessed.

He declines to welcome his mother and brothers, who have come to visit him during one of his preaching trips, by explaining that anyone who accepts his teachings is as important as they are. He tells his followers they must hate their own families in comparison with their love for him; he warns one guy not even to attend his own dad's funeral.

Looking for justice?

Jesus says that if someone tries to steal your coat, you should give him your shirt as well. If the government unjustly requires you to carry a soldier's backpack a mile, you should carry it 2 miles. If someone slaps you, you should let him slap you again.

Have anger issues?

Jesus says that if you've ever called anyone an idiot, you're a murderer in God's sight.

Want to think Jesus was a great moral philosopher, but not divine?

He claims to be the incarnate son of God, the Messiah, the resurrection, the life and the only path to the heaven. As C.S. Lewis observed, the one thing we can say with certainty is that Jesus wasn't simply a great moral teacher. He was possibly a liar, possibly a lunatic or possibly God. But he didn't leave us the great-philosopher option.

I could go on, if I had the space.

The point is, if Jesus were walking our streets today, most of us would be about as horrified by him as people were 2,000 years ago.

Or, as one of my Bible-study friends bluntly put it: "We'd crucify him again."