Chapter 3: Greater Love Hath No Man Than This

Jesus Lord and Christ
by John Knox (current)

Chapter 3: Greater Love Hath No Man Than This

Havelock Ellis says of Napoleon that there must have been in him "the answer to some lyric cry of the human heart." One should perhaps apologize for mentioning Napoleon and Jesus in the same breath, but the remark applies to Jesus in a sense and measure in which it does not begin to apply to Napoleon. The experience of every generation since his own age demonstrates that there is in Jesus an appeal stronger than that of any warrior, statesman, artist, or thinker, of antiquity or of modern times. Although the kingdom of heaven which he preached may sometimes seem as far from realization as when the Caesars ruled the world, he remains the most epic figure which has appeared upon the scene of man’s life. And to hundreds of millions the most radiant day of all the bright and dark days in the story of mankind is that which saw his birth -- no wonder an earlier and more imaginative age made it a day of weird unearthly beauty, when a strange star hung low above the city of David and a multitude of angels broke with sudden glory the silence of the dawn.

No one can escape the fascination of Jesus who is capable of feeling the mystery of beauty or can sense the meaning of great genius. There have been scholars who have held that Jesus has been overestimated, but it is significant that none of the poets has shared that judgment. In fact, if you would find the highest tributes to Jesus’ personality, do not go to the theologians, but to the poets; go, that is, to the men and women emotionally and intellectually keyed to the recognition of beauty and greatness whenever they appear in human life. Some of the poets have been far from good, but greatness and beauty could not pass by without their seeing them, and they have known infallibly that greatness and beauty never passed so near as in the brief life and tragic death of Jesus of Nazareth. That same fact the common people of the world have always sensed, from his own time to ours. No one else holds or has held the place in the heart of the world which Jesus holds. Other gods have been as devoutly worshiped; no other man has been so devotedly loved.

In the first chapter of this book I pointed to the impression which Jesus made upon those of his contemporaries who knew him best as an indisputable evidence that the historical Jesus was a figure of altogether extraordinary stature. No later generation has held Jesus in higher regard -- however different have been the terms used to express it -- than Jesus’ own generation, the generation of Paul, did. That is a perfectly amazing fact, which, discount it as you will, points unmistakably to Jesus’ unique greatness. Although we can be surer of the fact of the greatness than of the qualities of character in which it consisted, we can go some distance in identifying those qualities, and that is the task we have set ourselves in the present chapter.

At the very outset I should call attention to the significance, with reference to the personal character of Jesus, of the teachings of his which we have already briefly considered. The most important thing about the religious and ethical teachings of Jesus is not that he taught them but that he thought them. If Jesus had not taught in any formal way at all, or if, he having done so, his companions had completely forgotten his words, even so the church would still have come into being. For the church was created around a person, not a teaching; and historically the greatest value attaching to Jesus’ words is that they indicate so much as to his own character.

Who could read, for example, the teachings of Jesus about sincerity and humility without realizing that he himself was amazingly free from all deceit and pride and that truth was for him the very breath of life; without knowing that here was a person not only utterly incapable of falsehood himself, but one to whom falsehood in others would have been as suffocating as a tomb?

Speaking very generally, one may say that Jesus’ teaching discloses a man of incomparable moral insight, understanding, and imagination, of singular moral purity and integrity, of extraordinary moral courage and ardor, of intense devotion to duty, of joyous trust in God -- phrases which seem woefully inadequate to describe the personal reality one feels back of the Sermon on the Mount or the parables in the fifteenth chapter of Luke. In a word, the religious teaching of Jesus reveals an individual of superlative genius, and this genius undoubtedly accounts in considerable measure for the impression he made.

Taking all of this for granted, I go on to mention several qualities of personality which assuredly belonged to the Jesus of history and which hold some part of the secret -- never to be fully known -- of his original influence and perennial fascination.

For one thing, we can be quite sure that Jesus was a person of surpassing charm and winsomeness. If anything is certain about Jesus, it is that people, many people, loved him and loved him intensely. Lovableness, being not so much a quality as a whole complex of qualities, can hardly be analyzed or explained. In Jesus’ case, it has close connection with the moral character to which we have referred and shall refer again, but it indubitably consisted also in the genuineness, completeness, depth and ardor of his humanity, in the most usual sense of that term. There is every indication that he had a warm sense of being a man, of belonging to the world, of participating in its life. Although he took life very seriously, there is no reason to think he took it solemnly; perhaps he took it too seriously to take it solemnly.

It is clear how much pleasure he found in observing nature -- it is in his words that the sparrow achieved its immortality and the lilies of the field blossom eternally. His love of children, his dependence upon human companionship, need hardly be remarked. The parables disclose with what pleasure and tolerance he surveyed the broad scene of human activity: the merchant seeking pearls; the farmer sowing his fields; the real-estate man trying to buy a piece of land in which he had secret reason to believe a treasure lay buried; the dishonest secretary, who had been given notice, making friends against the evil day among his employer’s debtors by reducing their obligations; the five young women sleeping with lamps burning while the bridegroom tarried and unable to attend the marriage because their sisters who had had foresight enough to bring additional oil refused to lend them any; the rich man whose guests for dinner all made excuses; the man comfortably in bed with his children who gets up at midnight to help his importunate neighbor only because he despairs of getting rid of him otherwise; the king who is out to capture a city; the man who built his house upon the sand and lost it in the first storm of wind and rain; the queer employer who pays all of his men the same wage whether they have worked the whole day or a single hour; the great lord who going to a distant land entrusts his property to his three servants and judges them by the success of their investments when he returns; the shepherd whose sheep falls into a ditch; the woman with ten pieces of silver who, losing one, lights the candle and sweeps diligently till she finds it, and makes the finding of it the occasion of a celebration in which all of her neighbors are invited to share -- and how long such a list might be!

How surprisingly long such a list might be, in view of the brevity of the accounts of the teaching of Jesus which have survived! The whole gamut of human life presented with absolute fidelity and with freshness and great good humor. I am sure it was with laughter in his eyes that he confused those who objected to his companions’ plucking the grain heads as they passed through the fields on the Sabbath with a reminder of what David, the idealized hero, had done, entering the "house of God," taking the consecrated bread from the Holy Place, and giving it to his companions because they were hungry. And surely only a man with a sense of humor could have pictured persons with great beams of wood hanging from their eyes going about trying to discover specks in the eyes of others.

Jesus tells his companions one day that he has almost given up hope of understanding what certain of his contemporaries really wanted or approved. He suggests that they resemble children in the market place who just will not play any game with their mates, so that the latter say, "We have piped for you and you would not dance; we have wailed for you and you would not beat your breasts." For John the Baptist, Jesus goes on to say, came neither eating nor drinking, and the people said, "He is crazy; he has a devil"; and he himself has come both eating and drinking, and they call him "wine-bibber and glutton, friend of tax-gatherers and sinners." I do not know how it happens that this remark of Jesus, which could not have seemed so important to his biographers, came to be included in their narrative, but we have every reason to be grateful for it. Not only is it almost surely authentic, but it unmistakably discloses the important fact that Jesus was of such character as to lay himself open to the charge of his enemies that he was a wine-bibber and a glutton. No ascetic would have gained any such reputation; John had been an ascetic and was called crazy, as one would expect. Jesus plainly identifies himself as one who believed that what is beautiful and good in the world and in human life is to be enjoyed without apology. Joy, no more than pain, was to be received with fear.

Such an attitude toward this world is by no means necessarily pagan or secular. It may be and in Jesus’ case was profoundly religious. He tended to erase the line that separated the sacred from the human, but that did not mean the surrender of the category of the sacred, but rather its extension so that it included all that was truly and essentially human. For although evil had marred the image of God in man, he was still God’s child and all of man’s concerns were concerns of God.

Closely related to this humanity of Jesus, indeed one of its most important elements, was his exceptional capacity for love. This is the other side of his lovableness, and here again we are on altogether firm historical ground. Men differ widely in their capacity for loving others, both as to the intensity and the extensiveness of their devotion. The difference, at least in large part, is in the imagination. Jesus was manifestly extraordinarily sensitive to the reality of human personality. We have had occasion to note his joyous response to nature; in similarly ardent fashion he felt the appeal of other persons -- other persons as such, whether man or woman, young or old, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, sinner or saint. He particularly enjoyed the association of children because they are so simply and sincerely human. He defied conventions which sought to separate him from other men and became known as the "friend of outcasts." He hated injustice and error because of what they did to "these little ones." Above all else, he hated hypocrisy, because it concealed a human being even from himself and made impossible the kind of fellowship Jesus was so eager to bestow, and to receive.

We are accustomed to say that love, in the most important sense of the word, is not a feeling, but a moral attitude, an attitude of good will. That is true; but with Jesus, I venture to say, it was both. There was in him, so far as human frailty permits, utter disinterestedness, complete devotion of will to the highest good of others (although Jesus would have denied this utterly), but there was also the warmth of affection and the deep enjoyment of fellowship with all sorts and conditions of men. No one ever responded to beauty or truth in another with a more ready and grateful appreciation, or to another’s need with a quicker, tenderer sympathy and a more exquisite understanding. His love for others was a phase of his love for God. The "two commandments" for him were really one. The only fellowship with others Jesus wanted or would have regarded as worthy was fellowship at so deep a level that it was also fellowship with God.

Special mention must be made of Jesus’ attitude toward sinners. And here I cannot do better than quote from Montefiore, the great Jewish student of Jesus.

The rabbis [he writes] attached no less value to repentance than Jesus. They sang its praises and its efficacy in a thousand tones. They, too, urged that God cared more for the repentant than for the just who never yielded to sin. They, too, welcomed the sinner in his repentance. But to seek out the sinner, and, instead of avoiding the bad companion, to choose him as your friend in order to work his moral redemption, this was, I fancy, something new in the religious history of Israel. . . . Jesus seems (upon the slender evidence we have) to have perceived the good lurking under the evil. He could quench the evil and quicken the good by giving the sinner something to admire and to love. He asked for service and put it in the place of sin. The hatefulness of his past life was brought vividly to the mind of the sinner as the antithesis of his new affection and of his loving gratitude. It was, doubtless, often a daring method; even with Jesus it may not always have been successful. But it inaugurated a new idea: the idea of redemption, the idea of giving a fresh object of love and interest to the sinner and so freeing him from sin. The rescue and deliverance of the sinner through pity and love and personal service -- the work and method seem both alike due to the teacher of Nazareth.(This and the following quotation are from Some Elements of the Religious Teaching of Jesus. Quoted by permission of The Macmillan Company.)

It is only fair to add that Montefiore does not find Jesus always consistent:

He urged his disciples to love their enemies [he writes] but so far as we can judge he showed little love to those who opposed him. He urged that the lost sheep be actively sought out; but except in the way of sheer abuse and bitter vituperation, he did nothing to win over to his conception of religion the Pharisees and rabbis who ventured to criticize and dislike him. To the hardest excellence of all even Jesus could not attain.

Such a statement, although certainly fair in intention, is not altogether just. For one thing, nothing is more sure than that much of the anti-Pharisaic invective in the Gospels is traceable not to Jesus but to the churches in which the tradition of Jesus’ words took form a generation later -- churches involved in active and often bitter struggle with the synagogues throughout the Roman empire. Exception can also be taken to the ascription of Jesus’ indignation against Pharisees or others merely to the fact that "they ventured to criticize or dislike him." No account of Jesus could be even approximately correct which did not call attention to his frequent and sudden anger; it is one expression of the ardent temperament of which we have spoken. But no ethical judgment could be true which fails to recognize that although anger may always be a sign of human frailty, it is also on occasions a mark of sensitiveness to injustice, cruelty, or perverse and harmful error. Such anger is by no means incompatible with love.

I would not insist that Jesus’ anger invariably had this character. It cannot be easy, even for God, always to hold judgment and love together; and Jesus shared our flesh. Perhaps, as Montefiore asserts, there were some men whom Jesus found it desperately difficult, if not impossible, to love -- or, at any rate, always to love; although it would certainly be a mistake to identify these simply as Pharisees. Could it have been this fact about himself which Jesus remembered when someone called him, "Good master," and he answered, "Do not call me good; there is no one good but God"? If so, it is perhaps not altogether fanciful to suggest that the cry from the cross, "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do," may mark the moment when he at last succeeded in scaling a moral height which had hitherto eluded him. At last he could forgive his enemies, even his enemies, all his enemies. At last he was able to look at men as God does and to pity (without ceasing to judge) them for all their sins, even for the malice and cruelty which had driven the nails through his hands and now laughed at his anguish. If so, he knew in that moment all the joy and all the agony of God. . . .

An ardent person, of singular moral purity and integrity, "for whose love the whole world was too small" -- no wonder men loved him in return with a supreme devotion!

But men did more than love Jesus; they were ready to make a Christ of him. And for such readiness on their part the kind of thing I have been trying to say seems scarcely to account. I should like to make two further statements, although the first of them must be made very tentatively.

It has already been pointed out that no decision is possible on the question whether Jesus regarded himself as Messiah or not. We cannot here go into the merits of this issue. The Gospels, of course, represent Jesus as being fully aware of his messiahship, but the fact that this awareness is more conspicuous in the later than in the earlier Gospels and, particularly, that in Mark the messiahship is a secret which at first no one and later only a few shared -- this fact strongly suggests that the tradition that Jesus was conscious of being the Messiah developed in the church in response to its own faith in his messiahship, and does not truly represent Jesus’ actual conception of himself. This suggestion is confirmed by what would appear to be the inherent improbability of Jesus’ thinking of himself in any such role as that of king of Israel, not to mention more supernatural messianic conceptions. On the other hand, the church’s faith in his resurrection and in his messianic character would be more easily explained if Jesus held the view about himself which the Gospels attribute to him.

It is probable that the truth lies somewhere between these two alternatives -- that is, that Jesus, although he did not think of himself as Messiah, did regard himself as sustaining a relation of peculiar intimacy and responsibility to the kingdom of God. What that relation was we cannot know; Jesus would not have said -- that much truth at least lies in Mark’s "messianic secret." But Jesus carried the burden and joy of it in his heart, and Jesus’ associates sensed with awe that there was a mystery about his consciousness of himself into which they could not be initiated. Unless Jesus had some such conception of his own relation to the kingdom, I cannot believe his disciples, ardently though they may have loved him, could have come to conceive of him as Messiah. Love might bring him from the grave, but love could hardly have exalted him to the skies.

But this, like everything else connected with Jesus’ consciousness of himself, must be said only with the greatest tentativeness. With more assurance one can find in the tremendous moral challenge which Jesus presented to his disciples a source of the reverence they felt for him. In our brief discussion of the teaching of Jesus I more than once referred to the exalted terms in which he described the righteous will of God and to the utterly uncompromising way in which he interpreted God’s demands; and earlier in this chapter I pointed out that this teaching throws light not only on Jesus’ ideas but upon his character. It was not in his words, however, that the meaning of God’s will for Jesus would have been most impressively revealed. It was in what his companions could not have helped observing of the strenuousness of his ethical life, the ruthlessness with which he disciplined himself, the constancy and intensity of his desire to know the will of God; it was in the glimpses they would occasionally have had of the agony of his devotion, as when he cried, "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am straitened till it be accomplished!" -- it was in such experiences that those who knew him would have sensed how unutterably important to him was the Father’s will and how high and far the goal on which his eyes were set. They would have found themselves confronted in him with a moral reality -- disturbing, sometimes even terrifying, but not to be ignored and never to be forgotten -- which might alone have prompted the solemn wonder, "Is this the Christ?"

But such remarks as this chapter has contained fall immeasurably short of explaining the influence of Jesus. The Christian church had its origin in a mystery, if not in a miracle; in the unexplained, if not in the inexplicable. The historical student tracing backward the history of the church can proceed facilely enough until he reaches the vigorous, joyous faith of the primitive Christian community. Given that faith, as it is expressed, say, in the letters of Paul, the historian can account plausibly for all that follows, and show how effect followed cause in a sequence as "natural" as such sequences ever are.

But when the historian attempts to go back of the faith of the early church, he immediately runs into insuperable difficulties. He cannot lay his finger on a cause even approximately adequate to the effect. Was it the resurrection of Jesus? But what can such an answer mean to the historian? And yet what answer which seems at all adequate can be expressed in the terms of "scientific" history? Was it the belief of the early church in the resurrection? But that answer only pushes the question back one step further, for one must ask, "How did that belief arise and why was it so significant?"

The answer to that question may be sought in the personality around which the church was formed, but that answer also eludes us, for Jesus’ personality cannot be fully recovered and no historical reconstruction of it on the basis of the Gospels quite accounts for the effects which that personality is known to have produced. There is always a gap between what the Gospels tell us about him and what subsequent events tell us he was. And somewhere in that gap -- unrecovered and unrecoverable -- lies the secret of the mighty impact which Jesus of Nazareth made upon his age.

When those who directly felt his influence tried to explain him, ordinary descriptive terms seemed futile and irrelevant, and the "explanation" became a cry of faith:

"God has come near in Christ. The God of all nature and history has manifested himself powerfully in this man. In the life and death of Jesus, in the beauty and terror of it, a strange and divine event has occurred, after which nothing can be the same again, either for ourselves or for mankind. With that event a new kind of life has entered the world, eternal life, life of new moral quality and of strange spiritual power; and this life is available, in fellowship with Christ (who is still alive!), to all who by repentance and faith will place themselves in readiness to receive it. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself."

The historian will not be able to use such terms of faith, but he will miss the most important thing about Jesus if he fails to take them into account, for no fact is more certain or more significant than that there was in the character of Jesus a dimension to which those terms refer. The faith of the early church, whatever else it does, points unmistakably to the surpassing greatness of Jesus, a greatness far beyond our power either to describe or to explain.