Observations From Reading the Bible: Jesus Was a Down-to-Earth, Nitty-Gritty Son of God
(Matthew 8: 20) by Rev. Paul J. Bern
Before I begin this week's message, let me point out that no one can arrive at the conclusions I have arrived at here unless they read the Bible extensively. The Bible is, among many other things, the owner's manual for all of humanity. I make it my business to read my owner's manual as often as I can. Even on the days when it seems too busy to take time to read the Word of God, the words in the Bible and the substance of their meaning are always on my mind to the greatest extent I know how. And, so it should be with anyone claiming to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus Christ.
How can anyone identify as being Christian without ever reading about all the things Christ had to say, and all about what he did? Having said all that, the next thing I would like to point out is that Jesus was a lot more like us than we think, and a lot less clean cut than the iconic image of him that floats around Western culture. You know the image. It’s the one where Jesus is walking like he’s floating in robes of pristine white followed by a bunch of birds singing while women and children bring him flowers, or something like that. He’s the polished, manicured, clearly squeaky clean Son of God who had perfect teeth.
But despite the Christian belief that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, Jesus was a rather grungy kind of God. He was the son of a Jewish carpenter, and life in the 1st century when Jesus lived was far more lurid and unfinished than our collective religious memories seem to recall. To that end, I suggested recently to a couple of astounded colleagues of mine that Jesus actually had to go to relieve himself from time to time, perhaps even on the side of the road between Capernaum and Jerusalem.
What blew them away the most was when I insinuated that Jesus, like almost every other human being living in the rural world in that time, might have even had severe flu-like symptoms on an occasion or two from sleeping outdoors, as it is written, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). It seems like an obvious statement that Jesus was both God and man if you're a believer. But to others it seems at best inappropriate, and at the worst sacrilege, to imagine Jesus in this way. Instead, Western culture depicts Jesus with an ever-present halo around his head.
Actually, the Jesus of the Bible was more human than most people are conditioned to think. I call this the gritty side of Jesus. He was grittier, and a lot more like us than many believe. That’s one of the primary reasons why Jesus appealed to so many thousands of people back then, and why they followed him so readily. They could relate to him. He was authentic. He was the ultimate teacher from a small town who knew and understood the economic insecurity that was common in the 1st century (and which seems to have made a comeback today).
Times must have been rather tough for Jesus at points in his life, for he even spoke of being homeless, having to sleep on the ground with no roof over his head. He also knew what it was like to have his message rejected and how it felt to be misunderstood. Jesus was regarded with such little significance in his hometown that one of his critics once remarked sarcastically, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” Jesus eventually had to move to a different city (Capernaum) because his teachings so infuriated the people living in his hometown that they drove him out of Nazareth and even tried to throw him off a cliff.
The real Jesus had dirt underneath his fingernails and calluses on his hands and feet. He probably smelled badly from sweating profusely in the Middle Eastern sun on his long hikes to Jerusalem and parts beyond, and Jesus was, without a doubt, rumored to be a hypocrite or absolutely mad for all the time he spent with prostitutes, wino's, and those afflicted with leprosy. That's not exactly a clean-cut image for the Son of God by Western standards. Moreover, He had a rather shady reputation. Some people thought he was a revolutionary. The religious leaders called him a heretic, and others even accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton – in no small part because of the vagabond group of disciples he had with him. Ultimately, Jesus was crucified as a criminal by the Roman Empire.
No serious “religious” leader of His day would have ever recruited such a group of people. For his core 12 disciples, Jesus included a tough-as-nails, bombastic fisherman (Peter), a chief tax collector named Matthew (the most hated and despised occupation of the time, like politicians are today), an eventual traitor who was stealing money out of the offering bucket (Judas), a prolific skeptic (Thomas), two jocks nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” (James and John) and Simon the Zealot, a member of a radical political party which believed in using violence to kick the Romans out of Jerusalem.
Jesus could be sarcastic at times, too. He often snapped back at the Pharisees with a tone fit for late-night television. In a terribly embarrassing moment for all those around him, Jesus even called these respected religious teachers “a brood of vipers” that were the sons of Satan. That’s not exactly the behavior of a sweet, religious self-help teacher with a halo over his head. It’s the behavior of a frustrated man who, although he was divine, knew how it felt when annoying and offensive people claimed to know more than Jesus did. Lots of theologians and other self-appointed 'ministers' have laid out opinions over the centuries as to the true nature of Christ, and in the process they have attempted to hijack Jesus’ humanity by defining it in philosophical rather than in Spiritual terms.
The true image of Christianity is that of the Son of God, namely Jesus, sometimes would arrive on the scene with dirty hands and feet, and the occasional but nasty head and chest cold. Jesus came in a time period when the Roman Empire's gods were housed in gigantic temples and portrayed with superhuman powers and with superhuman physiques. Their gods were believed to be far away from people on their mountains or hemmed up in their sanctuaries. Jesus arrived in defiance of this prevailing imagery. Jesus didn’t come flinging lightning bolts from a mountaintop, or playing politics in Rome. He came to live in a typical Middle Eastern village called Nazareth that was home to a few hundred typical people. He didn’t decide to brandish his power, but to spend most of his time with the powerless and disenfranchised. And when he started a religious movement that reshaped history, he did it in the most profound and anticlimactic way. He let himself be killed, and then he busted open a tomb and rose from the dead on the morning of the third day after his crucifixion during the celebration of Passover.
The real Jesus, the genuine Jesus, conquered death and the grave so that any and all persons who call upon his Name can be saved from them both. In Jesus we meet a Savior who understands the desire to sleep just a few more hours when it’s time to go to work. Jesus Christ was a man who had to control his temper sometimes, and who did so with divine smoothness and grace. In Jesus we find a God we can relate to because he chose to relate to us, and he did so in a magnificent way. He was the God who became dirty so that the world’s souls might be made clean. Jesus is the ultimate superhero! Even Superman, Wonder Woman and Spider-man bow down on their knees and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and that he is all in all. Nobody else even comes close.