Chapter 3: Personal Traits
I have said that the reported sayings of Jesus bear the stamp of an individual mind. It may serve as a test of that statement if we now ask, how far is it possible to describe the characteristics of the mind that they reveal?
"The style is the man," they say. What, then, of the style of the teaching of Jesus as it has come down to us in the gospels? A large proportion of it comes in the form of short, crisp utterances, pungent, often allusive, even cryptic, laden with irony and paradox. This whole body of sayings, handed down through different channels of tradition, has an unmistakable stamp. It is impossible to suppose that they are merely the product of skillful condensation by early Christian teachers. They have the ring of originality. They betray a mind whose processes were swift and direct, hitting the nail on the head without waste of words.
There are longer passages with a marked rhythm of their own, which still makes itself felt after a double process of translation, from Aramaic into Greek and from Greek into English. Sometimes, indeed, it appears as if the Greek were only a thin disguise for an original which fell into the regular meters of Hebrew and Aramaic poetry. More often the rhythms are freer, but still with a marked balance and parallelism of clauses. Take, for example, such a passage as the following; it is given by Matthew and Luke with slight verbal differences, but the general structure is unmistakable:
Put away anxious thoughts
about food and drink to keep you alive
and clothes to cover your body.
Surely life is more than food,
the body more than clothes.
Look at the birds of the air;
they do not sow and reap and store in barns;
Yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Consider how the lilies grow in the fields;
they do not work, they do not spin:
And yet even Solomon in all his splendour
was not attired like one of these.1
Here an imaginative apprehension of the wonder and beauty of nature, and of the unity of nature and man under the care of the Maker of both, has brought forth the appropriate literary form for its expression. We may recall other sayings which express this sense of wonder and even mystery in familiar natural phenomena. "A man scatters seed on the land; he goes to bed at night and gets up in the morning, and the seed sprouts and grows -- how, he does not know." 2 "The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going." 3 Clearly we are in touch with a mind of a poetic and imaginative cast. This should never be forgotten in any attempt to understand the teaching of Jesus.
Further, whatever his theme, he thinks and speaks in concrete images and pictures in preference to general or abstract propositions. Thus, instead of saying "Charity should not be ostentatious," he says, "When you do some act of charity, do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets." 4 Where he might have said, "Personal relations are more important than religious observance," he makes a picture: "If, when you are bringing your gift to the altar, you suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, leave your gift where it is before the altar. First go and make your peace with your brother, and only then come and offer your gift." 5 It is not accidental that both pictures have a suggestion of incongruity which is almost comic. Sometimes the picture is deliberately grotesque: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own?" 6
It is this sense for the concrete, this delight in imaginative picture-making, that has shaped the "parables," which are so notable a feature of the gospels. The term "parable" covers a variety of literary forms, but all of them, as we meet them in the gospels, turn upon some familiar aspect of the human scene, depicted with economy of words and with unfailing realism. There are short Stories: about a traveler who was robbed and lay wounded by the roadside until he was succored by a kindly stranger; about a capitalist who entrusted sums of money to his subordinates for investment, and what they did with it; about the employment of casual labor in a vineyard and the question of wages and hours that arose. There are rapid sketches of typical human situations: fishermen picking over their catch, children quarrelling in the market place, a son watching his father at work and learning his craft by imitation. Sometimes a picture is conjured up by a simple turn of phrase: "When a lamp is lit, it is not put under the meal-tub"; "no one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth onto an old coat."
The "parables" (in the broad sense of the term) draw upon a wide range of accurate observation. Their Author is one who has noted with an interest, sympathetic but unsentimental, and sometimes humorous, that this is the way human beings behave. He has recognized their native virtues (the touching affection of a father for his scapegrace son, or the devotion of a shepherd to his flock), but also the odd mixture of human motives. There was a man who kindly got up at midnight to accommodate a neighbor in an emergency -- but he did it because the fellow was making a nuisance of himself! A dishonest servant under notice of dismissal provided for his future by a business transaction which, to say the best of it, sailed near the wind. He was no doubt a scoundrel, but what an example to us all of resourceful action in a crisis!
In this last example it is impossible to miss the tone of irony, and this is something which is often present -- more often than the casual reader might suppose. Sometimes it takes the form of the apparent reduction of great issues to the level of the banal. "When you are asked by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the place of honor. It may be that some person more distinguished than yourself has been invited, and the host will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your place.’ Then you will look foolish as you begin to take the lowest place;7 On the face of it, elementary advice on social behavior, with the most crudely prudential motive. Very likely some of the auditors took it as such. On further reflection it might dawn on them that there was more behind it. "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted"; the "moral" may have been attached by the writer of the gospel (it recurs in several places); but he has put the reader on the right track, though we should perhaps not be wrong in looking a little deeper still. It would be very much in the manner of Jesus to leave people to think out the implications for themselves. To take another example: "If someone sues you, come to terms with him while you are both on the way to court; otherwise he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the constable, and you may be put in jail." 8 Obvious horse sense -- especially if you are not too sure about the administration of justice in your local court -- but it was not just practical advice for litigants. No "moral" is appended, but in the light of the teaching of Jesus as a whole (to anticipate) it is not difficult to see that it touches upon one of its recurrent themes -- that the people he addressed stood in a situation in which decision was urgent and delay dangerous. In the end it is concerned with the eternal issues of human destiny, but this is not on the surface. The assumption is that life is like that, from the lowest levels to the heights. The principles of human action, like the processes of nature, fall within a universal order established by the Creator, to be recognized at any level by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. No circumstance of daily life is too trivial or commonplace to serve as a window into the realm of ultimate values, and no truth too profound to find its analogue in common experience.
Here then we have a whole range of imagery drawn from loving observation of nature and human life. There is, however, also a quite different range of imagery, where realism yields place to fantasy. Take for example the following passage:
The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give her light; the stars will come falling from the sky, the celestial powers will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.9
Such images as these have a long history. They can be traced through many passages of poetry and prophecy in the Old Testament; they had a flourishing career in the "apocalypses" which pullulated in the period just before and just after the beginning of the Christian era; and they lived on. It is impossible to say how far such passages as that quoted above axe authentic utterances of Jesus, and how far the imagery has seeped into the gospel tradition from the environment. The images employed were part of the mental furniture of the period; there is no reason why Jesus should not have employed them. There is in any case nothing original about them. Where we may look for originality is the way they axe applied, and the meaning attached to them. For while this "apocalyptic" imagery was inherited, each writer was free to give it his own interpretation, and nothing is clearer than that the interpretation varies from one to another. We should certainly be prepared to find Jesus not less original than prophet or apocalyptist in his treatment of inherited material. So if he said, "You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming with the clouds of heaven," 10 or, "I watched how Satan fell, like lightning, out of the sky." 11 there is no reason to assume that he intended to describe supernatural phenomena which might, in any literal sense, be "seen", nor is his meaning necessarily decided by the use of the imagery by other teachers -- prior, contemporary, or subsequent. Of this more later.
This "apocalyptic" imagery, then, though it may be said to fall in with the "pictorial" manner of speaking to which he inclined, is not characteristic of Jesus. It was something which he shared with many others. What is characteristic and distinctive v is the realism of the parables. This permits a further inference -- and here we pass from the manner and style which axe patent in the record to the personality behind them. The Author of the parables must have been genuinely interested in people; he must have enjoyed mixing with various types. As such the gospels represent him. He received and accepted invitations to festive occasions, more freely, his critics suggested, than a man of piety should. He dined with persons of respectable standing in local society, and he had at least one friend who moved in the highest ecclesiastical circles (he was an acquaintance of the High Priest" 12). But our informants draw special attention to his association with people who were neither socially accepted nor morally approved. He was censured as "a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners." 13
The peculiar venom that clings to the term "tax-gatherer" has its source in the special situation. Under the Roman administration, indirect taxes (Customs and excise) were collected by a method which lent itself to abuse. The right to collect was put up for sale and bought as a speculation (the Greek term properly means "tax-buyer"). The job was one that had to be done, and presumably it was possible to do it honestly, but the profession was one to attract the less scrupulous, and it had an unsavory reputation; in Greek society "tax-gatherer" was a dirty word. In Jewish Palestine, to make things worse, the taxes were revenue for a detested foreign government, or for local rulers who were its puppets. and their collectors were to nationalist feeling no better than collaborators with the enemy, while for the ultra-pious Jew their close involvement with the "unclean" ways of Gentiles was in itself an offense, They were ostracized from decent society. This goes far to explain the astonishment and aversion which were aroused when Jesus associated with tax-gatherers. Obviously these dubious characters must have liked his company a good deal better than they would have liked that of his critics, even if these had not held them at arm’s length.
It would be easy to misconstrue all this as indicative of no more than a sociable disposition. But this is certainly not the whole truth. When Jesus was criticized for the company he kept, he retorted, with caustic irony. "Healthy people don’t need a doctor; sick people do." 14 They were patients and he the physician; and a main part of the treatment was just his friendship. He was drawn to those who were sick in mind or body, because they needed help that he could give.
Many stories in the gospels illustrate his sensitive response to such need, whether the trouble was physical or moral. By his sympathy and compassion, but also by the strength which they felt in him, he inspired his patients with a new confidence -- with "faith," a term which in the gospels includes both trust in the goodness of God and the courage and firmness which derive from it. A father (we are told) came to Jesus in distress about the apparently incurable malady from which his young son was suffering: "If it is at all possible for you, take pity on us and help us." 15 Jesus replied. "If it is possible! Everything is possible to one who has faith." "I have faith," the father cried; "help my faithlessness." The superficial illogicality is illuminating. This was precisely what Jesus could do for people who were on the edge of despair. In this story there is something almost brusque about the way in which the man’s appeal is answered. There is another story about a man who had given way to a chronic disability, and for years had nursed a grievance which excused him from doing anything about it " (Someone else always gets in before me!"). "Do you want to recover?" Jesus asked, "Then pick up your bed and walk." 16 Compassionate, certainly, but bracing too.
His sympathy was particularly marked with those who labored under a disabling sense of guilt. His assurance, "Your sins are forgiven," restored their self-respect and liberated moral energy. But it was not intended to suggest that the feeling of guilt was a morbid delusion, or that his patients were worrying themselves unnecessarily. To accept forgiveness meant both that they recognized a moral standard from which they had fallen, and that they intended to take to better ways. That Jesus did in fact inspire not only the intention but an effective redirection of effort is implicit in these stories. Among the many references to his friendship with the ill-reputed tax-gatherers there is one only which tells us something about the individual concerned -- Zacchaeus, the wealthy inspector of taxes at Jericho, an enterprising little man who was perhaps no better and no worse than the average of his profession. It was thought shocking that Jesus should have accepted his hospitality. The outcome of the encounter is sufficiently indicated by what Zacchaeus is represented as saying: "If I have cheated anyone, I am ready to repay him four times over." "Salvation has come to this house today!" Jesus exclaimed.17
Again, it is recorded that on one occasion a group of lawyers brought before him a woman detected in adultery, with the hope that he would take the responsibility of pronouncing the ferocious sentence laid down in the Law of Moses (not enforced at that period), or alternatively, would by refusing to do so expose himself as one who condoned immorality. With characteristic irony he ostensibly corroborated the sentence of stoning, but gave it a twist: "That one of you who is faultless must throw the first stone. The group melted away. "Where are they?" be asked. "Did no one condemn you?" "No one, Sir," she answered. "No more do I condemn you. You may go. Do not sin again." 18 Compassion for the woman is no less marked than scorn for her accusers, but the final words have an astringency which rules out any suggestion of "permissiveness." If he said that "tax-gatherers and prostitutes" were more promising subjects than "scribes and Pharisees, it was in the sense that they were free from the odious complacency of the self-consciously pious. They were therefore more open to the physician’s treatment.
All these stories (and there are many of them) make it clear that the persons concerned recognized an authority to which they yielded. When he said, "Your sins are forgiven," they actually believed him, which was sufficiently remarkable in the religious climate of the time, and results followed. It must have been the same sense of authority that led others to respond to astonishingly exacting demands. The accounts of the "calling" of disciples are bald, and less informative than we might wish, but it stands firm that Jesus called upon certain persons to cut loose from home, family and livelihood and commit themselves to an insecure and precarious existence -- and all for the sake of a cause which they only dimly understood -- and that they responded. What led them to do so we are not told; the reader is expected to understand that there was something personally compelling about him. Indeed, with all his ready sympathy and his tenderness toward those who needed help Jesus could evidently be a formidable person to encounter. Two incidents illustrate the public impact he made. In Galilee he faced a crowd of some thousands bent on revolt, and bent on making him lead it -- obviously because they felt the presence of a natural leader -- and induced them to disperse peaceably. In Jerusalem, he drove the traders from the outer court of the temple, apparently by sheer moral force. Both of these incidents we shall have to consider later. They are cited here for the light they throw upon the impression of authority which Jesus made on minds not naturally predisposed to sympathy with his aims.
The note of authority, we are told. was recognized in his public teaching. The tone of many of his sayings bears this out. His "I say unto you" ("I tell you, Take my word for it,") is in all gospels an inseparable mark of his style. And not only did he pronounce decisively upon disputed points, but he was willing to pit his judgment against the venerable traditions of his nation, and even, it would appear, on occasion against provisions of the Law of Moses, divinely inspired as it was believed to be.
Yet the somewhat imperious tone of such sayings must be balanced by a consideration of another feature of the teaching not less prominent in our documents. The gospels report a number of dialogues in which Jesus is represented as arguing a point to a conclusion. They are usually summarized with the utmost brevity, but behind the concise and stylized form we can discern genuine discussions, in which, often enough, the questioner is led to answer his own question -- to answer it as posed in a way he had not thought of before. Many of the parables, it is clear, were intended to serve this purpose: the auditor is invited to pass judgment upon a fictitious situation, and then challenged to apply the judgment to the actual situation.
Analysis of a well-known passage in the Gospel according to Luke will illustrate this. A lawyer asked the question, "What must I do to gain eternal life?" The ensuing dialogue runs somewhat after this fashion. Jesus: "What is your own reading of the Law?" The lawyer: "Love God and love your neighbor." Jesus: "You have your answer." The lawyer: "But who is my neighbor?" Then follows the familiar story of the "Good Samaritan" who befriended a stranger, and the question, "Which of the three proved neighbor to the man?" The lawyer: "The one who showed him kindness." Jesus: "Go and do as he did." 19 The conclusion is peremptory enough, but the questioner has been led to it by a process in which he has taken a real part. In such instances the authority of Jesus has been exercised in bringing people, against their will, it may be, to the point at which they had to face the responsibility of a decision. If a person declined the challenge, Jesus simply left it to him.
Mark tells the story of a well-to-do man who approached him for advice upon the same subject. He was a good young man, and Jesus, we are told, liked him. But he startled him with the challenge, "Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me." The man could not face it. Jesus commented ruefully, "How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through tile eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." 20 We must not miss the note of sympathy; he knew well what a lot he was asking; but he made the demand all the same. And yet when the man refused he made no attempt to bring persuasion or pressure to bear, but let him go away crestfallen. Authority was there, but an authority which respected the freedom of the person.
Authority it was, with no backing of official position or traditional prestige, to say nothing of legal sanctions or the ultimate sanction of force. It must have rested on some indefinable personal quality in Jesus himself. Our primary records hardly allow us to go further, except by inference. After his highhanded action in clearing the traders out of the temple court, we are told, Jesus was directly challenged with the question, "By what authority are you acting like this? Who gave you this authority?" He refused to answer except in evasive terms which suggested that if his questioners could not see for themselves it was useless to tell them.21
The nearest approach, perhaps, to a definition which Jesus countenanced was propounded by an army officer who wanted his help. The story is told by Matthew and Luke, with variations in detail but with close agreement in the essential points of the dialogue. The officer approached Jesus on behalf of a member of his family, or perhaps a favorite servant, who was seriously ill. In support of his plea he urged the following argument: "You need only say the word, and the boy will be cured. I know, for I am myself under orders, with soldiers under me. I say to one ‘Go,’ and he goes; to another ‘Come here,’ and he comes." 22 The implication is clear. He is himself responsible to his commanding officer, and he in turn to the local ruler, who in the end is subject to Caesar in Rome. And therefore the "company commander," just because he is loyally obedient to his superiors, can issue orders which have behind them the ultimate authority of the emperor himself. The authority which Jesus is expected to exert is subject to the same condition. It is a remarkable argument. At the least it suggests how the personality of Jesus impressed itself on a complete outsider. But still more remarkable is it that Jesus appears to have endorsed it, and this could be only in the sense that the authority he exercises is that of Almighty God, just because he is himself loyally obedient to him. This is put in explicit terms in the Gospel according to John: "I do nothing on my own authority, but in all I say I have been taught by my Father. He who sent me is present with me, and has not left me alone, for I always do what is acceptable to him. . . .The word you hear is not mine; it is the word of the Father who sent me." 23
We note here a characteristic difference between John and the others. Matthew and Luke have allowed the truth about the authority of Jesus to come out obliquely; John puts it into the mouth of Jesus himself. In this he is employing a method not unfamiliar among Greek writers -- historians and others -- with whom he has some affinity. He gives what may appear to be revelations about the inner life of Jesus, in the words of Jesus himself, but they must often be read rather as John’s interpretation, sometimes indeed expressed in theological language which would have been strange to the circles in which Jesus actually moved. This is not to say that they should be disregarded in the attempt to understand the mind of Jesus. They are the product of a singularly penetrating intelligence which has long brooded over his remembered words and actions. In the instance we have just considered, as often, John is making explicit what must be read between the lines in the other gospels. But the reticence which they observe on such matters reflects, in all probability, a reserve which Jesus himself maintained, and which we must take to be characteristic of him.
A few well-attested sayings seem partly to break through the reserve. Certainly we cannot miss a pervading sense of dedication to a mission, which at times was a terrible burden: "I have come to set fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism to undergo, and how hampered I am until the ordeal is oven" 24 In spite of his readiness for all kinds of social contacts, his mission set him apart from other men. It is not surprising that there should have been moments when the sense of isolation in an unresponsive society became almost intolerable: "What an unbelieving and perverse generation! How long shall I be with you? How long must I endure you?" 25
Yet at the heart of the storm there was a center of calm: "No one knows the Son but the Father; and no one knows the Father but the Son." 26 In the Gospel according to John this theme of the mutual "knowledge" of Father and Son is developed in theological terms; and indeed there is a whole theology implicit in it. But the saying as I have quoted it from Matthew (and Luke has it with slight verbal differences) is not theology but a spontaneous personal statement. It begins with a confession of the deep loneliness which was increasingly the lot of Jesus; he has found no one who really knows or understands him, not even those nearest to him; but there is One who does know him -- God, his Father. And in that same intimate, personal way he too knows God. Here, we may legitimately infer, is to be found the driving force and the source of energy for an almost impossible mission; here certainly the source of the inflexible resolution with which he went, knowingly, to death in the service of his mission. The words of the Fourth Gospel here ring true: "It is meat and drink for me to do the will of him who sent me until I have finished his work"; 27 and according to the same gospel he moved into the final loneliness of his friendless death with the words, as simple as they could well be, "I am not alone, because the Father is with me." 28 Upon what went on in his mind as the end approached one ray of light is permitted to fall: the prayer, "If it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt." 29 It is the final act of dedication to his mission, and the key to the whole of it.
1 Matt. 6. 25-29, Luke 12. 22-23.
2 Mark 4. 26-27.
3 John 3.8.
4 Matt. 6.2.
5 Matt. 5. 23-24
6 Matt. 7.3.
7 Luke 14. 8-11.
8 Matt. 5. 25-26, Luke 12. 57-59.
9 Mark 13. 24-26.
10 Mark 14.62.
11 Luke 10.18.
12 John 18. 15.
13 Matt. 11. 9, Luke 7.34.
14 Mark 2.17.
15 Mark 9. 22-24.
16 John 5. 6-8.
17 Luke 19. 1-10.
18 John 7. 2-11. This passage was not originally part of the Gospel according to John, being absent from early manuscripts; but there is no reason to doubt that it was a genuine piece of tradition.
19 Luke 10. 25-37.
20 Mark 10. 17-25.
21 Mark 11. 27-33.
22 Matt. 8. 5-10, Luke 7. 2-9.
23 John 8. 28-29, 14.24.
24 Luke 12. 49-50.
25 Mark 9.19.
26 Matt. 11.27, Luke 10.22.
27 John 4.34.
28 John 16.32.
29 Matt. 26.39, Mark, 14.36, Luke 22.42, and compare John 12.27.