The question, “What would Jesus do?” is not the same as the question “What did Jesus do?” This is an important distinction because, as followers of Christ, we are not called to be His admirers but rather His imitators.
“What would Jesus do?” is a phrase that has been around for a long time. It had its latest resurgence in the mid-1990s. It has its origin in the historic Christian imperative to be imitators of Christ. In his article, “WWJD? The Genealogy of a Syntactic Form” (in Critical Inquiry, vol.37, no. 1, 2010), Daniel Shore analyzes how the meaning of that question has evolved over the centuries.
In the medieval age it was common to take the requirement to be imitators of Christ in the indicative form: That is, leading to the conclusion that whatever Jesus did, the same should we do in our lives. This could mean all sorts of different interpretations. As Shore points out:
<<For some, imitating Christ demanded simple charity to one’s neighbors; for others, like Margery Kemp, it required traveling to the Holy Land to visit the Seven Stations of the Cross; while for still others, like St. Francis of Assisi, it involved receiving the stigmata, the bodily marks of Christ’s suffering.>>
But in the 1600s, preachers struggled with the fact that life in their world was very different from the life in Jesus’ day and, therefore, their parishioners were faced in their daily lives with situations for which there was no direct correspondence in any passage of the Gospel. That being the case, they reached the conclusion that the solution was to phrase the question as: What would Jesus do? Shore explains it this way:
<<There is much virtue in would; it allows even those who lead radically different lives from Christ, and who live in radically different worlds, to look to him as a pattern of moral behavior.>>
This is the subjunctive form of the question. Shore goes on to explain the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive forms as follows:
<<In the indicative form characteristic of medieval imitation, Christ’s example posits a definite set of events, experiences, and actions that must be ritualistically reproduced in the life of all believers. As I stressed earlier, this repetition leads to an enormous diversity of practices and should not be understood as thoughtless or mechanical repetition. Even so, the believer begins with Christ’s pattern and then shapes his or her own life accordingly. The subjunctive reverses this priority. The believer begins with his or her own present situation (what should I do about x?) and then turns to Christ’s life as a way of imagining the right answer.
No longer are actions obligatory merely because Jesus performed them. The subjunctive allows one to perform a Christ-like action that Christ never performed himself even as it frees one from the obligation to perform all, or even any, of Christ’s actions in order to be Christ-like. What (Jeremy) Taylor called The Great Exemplar ceases to be a compulsory pattern and instead serves only as an aid to ethical deliberation.>>
If you can get access to this article (through a Library) I highly recommend it. His analysis on this point, as they say, is trenchant. But for now, the quotes above suffice; particularly the last passage. Did anything in that last passage raise any red flags to you? It did to me. Let me pull out the key points in a bullet list, and underline the things that bothered me:
- In the indicative form the believer begins with Christ’s pattern and then shapes his or her own life accordingly.
- The subjunctive reverses this priority. The believer begins with his or her own present situation and then turns to Christ’s life as a way of imagining the right answer.
- No longer are actions obligatory merely because Jesus performed them. The subjunctive allows one to perform a Christ-like action that Christ never performed himself even as it frees one from the obligation to perform all, or even any, of Christ’s actions in order to be Christ-like.
- What Taylor called The Great Exemplar ceases to be a compulsory pattern and instead serves only as an aid to ethical deliberation.
Herein is the danger
The danger in a person “imagining the right answer”, is precisely that the person “doing the ethical deliberation” is me: I become the weak link in the chain. Remember what the LORD told Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 17:9-10 “The heart is deceitful above all things, and incurable; who can know it? I Jehovah search the heart, I try the reins, even to give each one according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.”
Leaning too readily on the “would”, places me in a very real danger: the danger that the righteousness of a given choice (or non-choice) does not stand solely on the Word of God. Rather, I become free to interpret, extend, manipulate, or even improve on the Word of God with my human intellect. If you think this is a strawman, not a real problem, consider The True History of Joshua Davidson, an 1872 novel by Elizabeth Linton. As Shore explains:
<<Linton’s tale of “practical Christianity” tells the story of Joshua, a nineteenth-century carpenter who decides to live out his life according to the example of Christ. But he soon comes to find that example limited by the historical conditions in which Christ lived. Jesus was “the product of His time,” Joshua argues, and while he “did His best to remedy” suffering and injustice “by proclaiming the spiritual equality of all men,” he nevertheless “left the social question where He found it.” Christ’s failure to advocate “radical revolution” leads Joshua to a shocking assertion: “The modern Christ would be a politician.” Instead of “making the poor contented” with their miserable conditions, the modern Christ “would raise the whole platform of society” and “would work at the destruction of caste, which is the vice at the root of all our creeds and institutions.” He would, in short, be a communist.>>
What do you think of that conclusion? How would you respond to this Joshua Davidson? Where did he go wrong reading the Gospel?
The problem is not that our human intellect is so limited that we cannot catch the nuances of God’s Word. If that were the problem, then God wasted His time writing His Word down for us. If that were the problem, the fact that the Son of God became one of us, would be utterly misleading: leading us to assume (wrongly) that we could actually follow Him. No. The problem is that whenever we apply our human intellect to questions such as these, our very human faults, our prejudices, our sins, want to add their own vote.
Do you catch the central fallacy in the book’s premise? It is clearly spelled out in Shore’s summary by the phrase: “Christ’s failure.”
The author, Elizabeth Linton, has decided that the miserable conditions of the poor and the injustices of class distinctions in our society are the fundamental evils of humanity. But if that is so, and Jesus did not eradicate this evil when He had the chance, what does that say about Jesus?
If doing nothing to fix this ultimate plight of mankind is a sin of our time, then it was a sin in Jesus’ time. Which demands we conclude that Jesus sinned. Yet we know that He knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15). In fact, for Him to be the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) He had to be sinless. That was the requirement spelled out throughout the centuries in the sacrifices in the Temple. The only way He could pay for the sins of all humanity was by being sinless and guiltless.
But this is not the Jesus that Elizabeth Linton is preaching through her protagonist, Joshua Davidson. This is how the protagonist explains himself:
<<“Friends,” he said, “I have at last cleared my mind and come to a Belief. I have proved to myself the sole meaning of Christ; it is Humanity. I relinquish the miracles, the doctrine of the Atonement, the doctrine of the Divinity of Jesus, and the unelastic finality of His knowledge. He was the product of His time; and if He went beyond it in some things, He was only abreast of it in others. His views of human life were oriental; His images are drawn from the autocratic despotism of the great and the slavish submission of the humble, and there is never a word of reprobation of these conditions, as conditions, only of the individuals according to their desert. He did His best to remedy that injustice, so far as there might be solace in thought, by proclaiming the spiritual equality of all men, and the greater value of worth than status; but He left the social question where he found it—paying tribute even to Cæsar without reluctance—His mind not being ripe to accept the idea of a radical revolution, and His hands not strong enough to accomplish it, if even He had imagined it…”>>
The deadliest danger: being offended
In my last blog, I mentioned the verse from the parable of the Sower where Jesus talks about the seed that falls on stony ground, representing the person who is initially attracted to the Gospel but who, when faced with persecution on account of the Word, is offended.
That word offended is important. It is the same word Jesus uses in the passage where He is talking to the disciples that John the baptizer sent to him from jail, asking Him if He is the One that was to come. And after Jesus proves to them that they already have all the evidence they need to conclude He is the Messiah, Jesus still does nothing to get John out of jail (where he will die). Instead, He says:
Matthew 11:6 and blessed is whosoever shall not be offended in me.
Jesus uses this word many times. It comes from the root skandalon: a snare. It is the component of an animal trap that is used to spring it closed. In some translations of the parable of the Sower, that word is rendered “fall away”. And the reason is because the Gospel makes it clear that the greatest threat to our faith, to our willingness to believe, is being offended. Namely, seeing and understanding clearly what God is doing or requiring and yet deciding that it is wrong: that God is being unjust, unfair, unreasonable. That if I were God, I certainly wouldn’t do things that way.
Being offended is not the result of a failure to understand on my part; it is the result of understanding clearly what God’s will is and yet rebelling against it.
When you read that speech Linton has put in the mouth of Joshua Davidson, don’t you feel the offense? And yet, the man clearly has understood what the Gospel says.
Look at the core of his disagreement: He says that Jesus’ parables, his teachings, “His images are drawn from the autocratic despotism of the great and the slavish submission of the humble”. In other words, as in the parable of the rich fool or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus or the parable of the unfaithful servant or even the parable of the talents, Jesus acknowledged that His society was clearly divided into the haves and the have-nots. Yet, this same Jesus never uttered a word “of reprobation of these conditions, as conditions…” In other words, Jesus never declared that that class division was evil. Instead, all he did was render judgment on the “individuals according to their desert” (that is, what they deserved).
The fictitious Joshua Davidson is absolutely right in this: Jesus never said abject poverty was an evil. In fact, Jesus quoted a statement God made to Moses in the Old Testament as being a matter of fact: “The poor you will always have with you.” (Mark 14:7)
So, what does that say about Jesus? Are you going to conclude, with Elizabeth Linton, that Jesus was not who He said He is, that He did no miracles, that His sacrifice did not accomplish atonement for our sins, that He was not Divine? Are we to agree with Joshua Davidson that Jesus’ remedy of teaching the spiritual equality of all men was merely a Band-Aid for the mind, a pacifier for the abject poor (or as another man once said: opium for the people), and that He did not grasp that the real mission required a radical revolution because He was too dumb to even imagine it?
Which Jesus do you follow?
There is only one Jesus: The Jesus of the Gospel. And according to that Gospel, not only was Jesus sinless, it was impossible for Jesus to have failed: In the prayer of John 17, Jesus tells the Father:
John 17:4 I have glorified *thee* on the earth, I have completed the work which thou gavest me that I should do it…
Complete means complete. Jesus came to Earth with a mission, and He accomplished it. Everything that the Father, God, the Creator of the Universe, wanted done… Jesus did. He left nothing undone. That is why His last words on the cross were: It is finished (John 19:30). Only this Jesus, the Son of God, is worthy to be followed and imitated.
There is an important corollary that follows from accepting that Jesus is Divine; namely, the fact that His mission was Divinely appointed by the Infinite God who created Space and Time. That means that the passage of the centuries is irrelevant. To think that Jesus was a product of His time, or that His ethical choices and admonitions were constrained by the society in which He lived, is logical nonsense. We are talking about the Infinite God who knows everything, including all of History from the beginning to the end. When Jesus did what He did and said what He said, he knew full well we would be here 20 plus centuries later talking about it.
If we are going to ask, why didn’t he lift the destitute out of their abject poverty? We might as well ask, why didn’t he heal every sick person in the world? Or, how about this one: Why didn’t He lead a revolution and depose Caesar? Didn’t He know that in a few years the successors of Caesar were going to massacre His followers? I claim that the fact that we can ask those questions means that we have understood something… that we actually know the answer… but we may just not like it.
According to the Gospel, the fundamental evil facing humanity is not the injustice of class distinction, nor is it racism. It is not man-made climate change, and it is not the infringement of my God-given liberties by an oppressive government. Add to the list whatever you want.
The fundamental evil facing humanity is personal sin: The fact that without God every single one of us is already condemned.
And that is what Jesus came to fix.
That was the Universe’s emergency. So deadly, so frightening, so unbearable a destiny it was for the children of God to be separated from their Father for all eternity that He did the unimaginable: He condemned to decay the perfect Universe He had created so that it would become for us an undeniable witness of our own imminent decay. And then He chose to pay the ultimate price through His Son: Jesus came into our world to take on the final expression of that decay, to die, as one of us… while carrying all of our sins.
That is what Jesus did. This is the Gospel.
He fixed the real problem of sin once and for all. All the other inequities and injustices of this imperfect world pale in comparison. They really do.
And if you are thinking, aren’t I supposed to do something about those inequities? I would say, ask Jesus. What are we required to do?
Mark 12:29-31 And Jesus answered him, [The] first commandment of all [is], Hear, Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thine understanding, and with all thy strength. This is [the] first commandment.
And a second like it [is] this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is not another commandment greater than these.
But what about the needy? Well… Isn’t he your neighbor?
I think that, in this regard, He already gave us an important principle in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 6: 31-33 Be not therefore careful, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we put on? for all these things the nations seek after; for your heavenly Father knows that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.
If it is true that when I seek God’s Kingdom first, all the rest that I need will follow, then if I indeed have chosen to love my neighbor as I love myself, caring for my neighbor will naturally follow.
I as an individual Christian will do the works that Love requires because Love is alive and working in me.
Isn’t this the meaning of Jesus’ admonition at the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan? As He wrapped up the story, he asked the Teacher of the Law,
Luke 10:36-37 Which [now] of these three seems to thee to have been neighbour of him who fell into [the hands of] the robbers? And he said, He that shewed him mercy. And Jesus said to him, Go, and do *thou* likewise.
I, as a follower of Christ, am commanded to go and do likewise. The commandment is to me, the solitary individual sitting here having this conversation with Jesus. It is not to the crowd… He didn’t command me to change my society, he didn’t command me to start a “GoFundMe” page, he didn’t command me to pass legislation so that the rest of society – or for that matter, the wealthy of my society – do their part in this laudable work. No. The responsibility is mine. The work of Love is for me to do.
Sure, it would be wonderful if many of us or all of us chose to do such kindness. But whether anyone else chooses to do so is immaterial to me. I know what I am called to do.
You see, the only way we can, as Christians, be and act united as the body of Christ is if we get there one by one.
John 13:34-25 A new commandment I give to you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all know that ye are disciples of mine, if ye have love amongst yourselves.
The crowd cannot love… but I can.