There is no doubt that many people, including many Christians, imagine a Jesus that never existed. And usually, the Jesus they imagine so often looks just like them. And it goes on today, all the time.
This problem only begins with the classic images—Jesus the long-haired, blondish Florentine—by which we have been traditionally bombarded. Those images, historically accurate as they may or may not be, exist because they arose amidst a particular culture at a particular time, and the people who produced them were creating a Jesus that looked like them—or at least their patrons. But that it illustrative of the problem. We do the exact same thing—on both individual and social levels.
Beyond Jesus’ mere appearance—of which we actually know very little—we do the same thing regarding His person, manners, beliefs, and teachings. It’s a great (as well as cheap and lazy) way to bolster our own beliefs and culture with divine authority, without the trouble of so much comparing them to the records of Jesus in the Bible.
A great example of this appears in a recent column on HuffPost, by a liberal religious writer Mick Mooney. He asks, “What Would Jesus Do? Do You Really Want to Know?,” assuring us by implication that he really knows and we don’t—and the truth is about to shock us!
Then follows a modern parable: a mother gives her child a WWJD bracelet and implores him to live by it. He promptly begins to behave in ways that shock her sensibilities and values:
A week later she was shocked to see that her son had become friends with prostitutes, was hanging out with ‘sinners’ — even buying people who were already drunk yet another round of beers!
Worse still, he had walked into their church the previous Sunday and tore down the book store, overturned the tables and threw the cash register through the window, he then made a whip and chased the pastor out of the building, declaring he was turning God’s house into a den of thieves.
Most shocking was what happened when his mother went to picket the local abortion clinic. To her embarrassment, her son was also there, but he was standing with the women who just had an abortion, and yelled at the protesters: “You who are without sin, throw the first stone!”
Then, in an awkward and ironic attempt at a sermonette, Mooney brings in the twist. The mother then fashions a new bracelet to get the lad to act the way a good conservative fundamentalist is really supposed to. Out with the WWJD, and in the WWAPD. That stands for “What Would a Pharisee Do?”
Usually, the liberal intellectual elite are a bit more subtle and sophisticated. I was disappointed here. But back to the story. That new bracelet straightened things right up:
Since her son has been wearing the new wristband, looking at it to help him make his decisions, he has become a dedicated tither, a public prayer warrior, an active condemner of ‘sinners,’ a passionate defender of the Old Covenant law, and has a great reputation as a godly young man amongst other religious people.
Like I said, it is a bit awkward.
And of course, there’s a bit of truth here and there to it. I can grant to a certain degree that Jesus produced wine for a party that had by implication already “drunk freely” (John 2:10). I can certainly grant that He gave the moneychangers in the temple a bad day (twice actually). (Indeed, I reported the only known non-canonical eyewitness account of that event.) I can even go so far as to say that Jesus would show compassion to certain sinners—perhaps in some situations even to abortive mothers after the fact—whom many are naturally inclined to condemn.
But would Jesus have bought and paid for drunkenness? Would he have denounced church bookstores and cash registers wholesale (no pun intended)? Do Christians really picket abortion clinics targeting mainly those walking out (or is it rather trying to stop those walking in, and those running the place)? These and other questions need to be qualified before undertaking such a liberal crusade.
The overwrought analogies are bad enough, but with the twist of the alleged “Pharisee,” the liberal becomes more transparent than he wishes. The only accounts we have of Jesus are in the Bible. These accounts are situated within the context of Old Covenant history. Jesus was the culmination and fulfillment of—not the abolition or negation of—all Old Covenant law and promises. Yet the good Jesus in Mooney’s story looks doesn’t look very much like the law and promises; He looks a whole lot like a modern liberal. Why it just so happens that this Jesus’ values line up exactly with those we would expect of a liberal writer like Mick Mooney. Hmm.
It is here that the punch line goes from clumsy to ironic. What was the sin of the Pharisees after all? It was adding to the word of God. It was nullifying the law in the name of their own pious culture: being wiser, purer, or even more compassionate, than God Himself (see Matt. 15; Mark 7:1–13). The irony is that in the name of condemning alleged Pharisees, it is Mooney himself who has become the self-righteousness one.
And the worst part of this self-righteousness is that for Mooney, the alleged Pharisee is “a passionate defender of the Old Covenant law.” Unfortunately, many people, including many conservative Christians, are conditioned to think that high esteem for God’s law equals Pharisaism. But this is as far from the biblical record as Florence is from Jerusalem.
Think about it: Jesus did not come to destroy the law but fulfill it (Matt. 5:17–18). Where do you think His teachings came from? Was His teaching about love a new thing? Here’s what Jesus taught:
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:35–40).
On these two commandments (about “love”) depend—literally “hang”—the entirety of the Old Covenant law. What’s the hook? The hook is that both of these commandments themselves come straight from the heart of “Old Covenant law.” The first is from Deuteronomy 6, and the second is from the dreaded Leviticus, chapter 19 verse 18.
Jesus did not rebuke the Pharisees for dwelling on God’s law, but for not dwelling on all of it—especially its most important parts: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23).
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus did not rebuke the Pharisees for following Moses; He rebuked the Pharisees for not following Moses: “There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:45–46).
And we could go on. Despite the derisive parable of our subject liberal, Jesus Himself was a passionate defender of Old Covenant law, and He commands us to be also.
So what would Jesus do? Not what this liberal says (dreams) He would do. Jesus would “do” Old Covenant ethics. Anything else is more like what a Pharisee would do. To be sure, modern conservatives are often quite Pharisaic in their personal and political ethics. That hardly means liberals, humanists, have the solution. Theirs is usually far worse. Let’s not fashion a Jesus after ourselves, but ourselves after God’s Word.