How Do You Picture Jesus?

By Ms. Jane Burkett, Licensed Lay Preacher

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

How do you picture Jesus?

Several years ago I went to a presentation on depictions of Jesus in art from around the world. It was fascinating to see Jesus as a Korean, East Indian, African, Native American, and several others. In most cases the artists had made Jesus indistinguishable in dress and ethnicity from any other person in their culture. So, for example, a painting would show a Japanese man in a kimono speaking to a group of other Japanese people on a mountainside. It’s a different way to see the Sermon on the Mount! As I said, it was fascinating, but I have to admit that it was also challenging for me. The illustrations made me uncomfortable because they didn’t depict Jesus how I had always imagined him.

A few years after that, a group of scientists published a picture of what Jesus really probably looked like. They had studied the skulls of 1st century Galilean men, and forensic anthropologists were able to reconstruct the face shape. They used early artwork to inform them on skin tone and hair. The picture they produced was of a swarthy man with short black curly hair, which is not at all how I pictured Jesus. Of course, I know Jesus isn’t from northern Europe, but still to this day I picture him as a tall, handsome white man, with shoulder-length brown hair, neatly-trimmed beard, a soft glow emanating from his skin, and a perpetual half-smile on his face.

It’s obvious that I’ve been deeply influenced by the art of 20th century North America. And that art was influenced by a long line of European artists who didn’t depict Jesus as a 1st century Palestinian Jew. But even though I know my image is historically inaccurate, I’m quite attached to it, and something in me rebels when I see other renditions Jesus.

We all have pictures of Jesus, and our ideas of what he looks like physically probably aren’t really of much importance. After all, his own disciples didn’t recognize him after the resurrection. The question for us, then, is do we recognize him in his teaching?

Because just as artists have influenced our ideas of Jesus’ physical appearance, many sources have deeply influenced our picture of Jesus’ personality and teaching. And we have a tendency to end up with a picture of Jesus as someone who is perhaps best described as super nice.

And then we hit passages like the second part of today’s gospel reading, where Jesus chastises a man for wanting to bury his father, and another for wanting to say goodbye to his family and friends. What kind of heartless person would say no to these requests? How could Jesus be so harsh and unreasonable?

So let’s take a closer look. First, I’d like to point out a pattern in the gospels: Jesus has a tendency to use hyperbole (exaggeration) when he talks about the demands of discipleship. On one occasion he says that if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. But of course he’s not really telling us to mutilate ourselves. He doesn’t mean us to take this saying literally. After all, your eye and your hand don’t cause you to sin; it’s your will, which controls your eyes and hands, that causes you to sin. The image Jesus uses is designed to be shocking, in order to drive home the point that avoiding sin is really important. So we see that Jesus had no problem being controversial or shocking in order to convey the importance of his point. And I think that’s what he’s doing in today’s reading. He’s being intentionally shocking.

So today’s reading presents us with 3 different men and their reactions to the idea of following Jesus. Their reactions cover the range of options, from eager volunteering, to volunteering with a condition, to not volunteering at all.

The first man wholeheartedly volunteers to follow Jesus without reservation. Now you would think that would be the ideal response, and Jesus would be happy. But instead he says, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” That seems strange, but remember the context: Jesus is on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem, where he knows he’s going to be crucified very soon. He’s just been rejected by the Samaritans, apparently because his talk of being crucified doesn’t fit with their idea of who the Messiah should be. So Jesus wants this volunteer to understand what following him really means. It’s not going to be hanging out with a dynamic, brilliant, inspiring teacher and healer, perhaps learning some of the tricks of the trade along the way. Instead, it’s going to mean rejection and laying aside his own needs and even his own life. Well, that information is enough to give anyone pause. Maybe we don’t want to follow Jesus after all.

So we come to the second man. He doesn’t volunteer to follow Jesus, so Jesus tells him to follow, and the man then offers an excuse for why he can’t right now: he has to bury his father. Now, there are a couple of problems with this excuse. First, if his father were already dead, then why is he off listening to an itinerant preacher rather than being in official mourning and making funeral arrangements? So it appears his father isn’t dead yet, and he’s referring to the fact that he has to care for his father in his old age, which could be years. This brings us to the second and greater problem: the man doesn’t believe that he can follow Jesus and obey God’s commandment to honor his father, at the same time. He thinks he has to choose between loving his father and following Jesus. But there’s never a conflict between following Jesus and doing what’s right. After all, to follow Jesus didn’t always mean literally leaving one’s home to travel around Palestine. Think of Mary and Martha. They were disciples who didn’t leave their home. And remember the guy we read about last Sunday, who was possessed by all the demons that Jesus exorcised and sent into the pigs? That man begged to travel with Jesus after he was healed, but instead Jesus instructed him to go home and tell everyone what God had done for him. So staying at home is a possibility for followers of Jesus. And we see then that this man has created a false choice, and in so doing he’s put his father before God.

Now to the third man. He volunteers to follow Jesus, but with a condition that will delay him: he wants to say goodbye to his family and friends. He’s made a similar mistake as the second man. He’s willing to follow Jesus, but just not yet. He has some things he wants to do first, and he’s put those things before God.

The word for putting something ahead of God is idolatry. Now the first thing I think of when I hear the word “idolatry” is worshiping the golden calf or some other object. That’s not a form of idolatry many of us are tempted to. There’s also the idolatry of money, where we put our trust and security in our wealth rather than God. That’s a bigger temptation and Jesus addressed it on several occasions. But in today’s reading Jesus points out what I think is actually the most tempting idolatry of all: the idolatry of human love. It’s the most tempting form of idolatry because it’s so good, it’s so close to the truth.

That’s the thing about idolatry; we don’t usually turn bad things into idols; we turn good things into idols. It’s the good things we’re most passionate about that we’re most likely to put ahead of God.

Now, it may seem incongruous to say there can be idolatry of human love when Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But he commanded us first to love God. We were made for human love, but we were also made for God’s love. As St. Augustine wrote, “God, you have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Human love can’t fill the space in our hearts made for God’s love. Plus, left to our own devices, we tend to love selfishly, as a means of fulfilling our own needs and desires. But God is love, and he shows us what true love looks like. Love is patient and kind. It doesn’t insist on its own way. It’s not resentful, but rejoices in the good of the other. And so, paradoxically, when we put following God before family and friends, God will help us to love them better.

So, in today’s reading we see that following Jesus entails hardship, but that not even the best thing in this world, love for friends and family, should keep us from it.

In a few minutes, Blake will be baptized, and his parents and godparents will promise to put their whole trust in Jesus Christ’s grace and love, and to follow and obey him as their Lord. It’s a good time for all of us to renew our commitment to trust and follow Jesus, and it’s a good time for all of us to reflect on our own priorities.

What good things might be standing between you and fully following Jesus? It could be family, friends, money, sports or hobbies, work, use of technology, commitments to worthy causes, or ideas and principles. I know I’m very tempted to make ideas into idols, and to seek God’s blessing on my own ideas rather than to seek to understand God’s will. So I invite you to pray on it, and to consciously invite God into those parts of your life that you’re most passionate about, and to make a habit of regularly consulting God about them.

I’ll leave you with an example. As a young man, St. Jerome loved classical Latin literature, and especially Cicero. One night Jerome had a dream in which he was standing before God, and God asked him if he was a Christian. Jerome said yes. But God said, “No, you aren’t a Christian, you’re a Ciceronian, a follower of Cicero!” Jerome was convicted by this dream, and for over a decade he gave up reading the classics entirely and focused on reading Scripture in the original Greek and Hebrew. As you can imagine, he came to know Scripture very well. Years later, when the pope got fed up with all the bad Latin translations of the Bible available at the time, he asked Jerome to make a better Latin translation. And so Jerome’s love for Latin and his love for Scripture were combined and put to good use. Jerome’s translation is, of course, the Latin Vulgate, and it was so well respected that it was used exclusively by the church in Western Europe for nearly 1,000 years!

So you never know how God will use your passions if you let God be first in your life. Amen.