09 Mar The Gentle Jesus
The Gentle Jesus
Matthew 11:25-30 and Luke 6:27-30
February 25, 2018
Michelle Fincher (Delivered by Elder John Kerr)
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Almost 2000 years ago when Jesus was walking this earth, he asked his disciples this important question: “Who do people say that I am?” Even these, his closest friends, argued uncertainly over the answer—until the resurrection. In the nearly two millennia since, conflicting answers about the nature of Jesus have never stopped being offered. In the past century alone, some 60,000 books have been written to try to explain Jesus. One journalist in the 20th century, William Emerson, Jr., complained that in different centuries and cultures, people have always concocted “the sort of Jesus they could live with.” (Time, June 21, 1971)
I’d like to suggest this morning that nothing much has changed since Mr. Emerson’s observation appeared in Time magazine. Yet, if we are serious about walking with Jesus, serious about being a follower, not just a fan, we must allow scripture and our collective theological reflection to speak the truth to us about Jesus, rather than concocting a Jesus that we like, that isn’t too demanding, the sort of Jesus we can live with.
Over the last two weeks, we have looked at views of Jesus that sees him as the ultimate Super Human and as a Social Revolutionary. Today we’ll examine a third view, that of the “Gentle Jesus.” As we continue through this series, we will find that within each of the different views there is a continuum of perspectives. That is certainly true of seeing Jesus as gentle. One person’s view of the gentle Jesus will differ from another’s, and for each of us, different images or pictures come to mind.
The image you have on the front of your bulletin is one artist’s rendition of Jesus. Based on this painting, what might you infer about his or her view of Jesus? An appropriate caption that could go with this image are the words of a man by the name of Algernon Charles Swinburne who described Jesus this way: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.” Swinburne lived in Victorian England and his vision of Jesus was weak, even anemic, a pale Galilean. That’s one end of the continuum.
As we’ve seen already, each view of Jesus is rooted in some truth. How does scripture support a perception of Jesus as gentle? First, the gentleness of Jesus is based on what he taught. Take, for example, the most famous sermon he preached—the Sermon on the Mount. One of the Beatitudes that immediately jumps to mind is, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) How many presidents, or kings, or prime ministers can you imagine making a declaration such as that? It was then, as now, a counter-cultural truth to teach.
How about “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Only someone with a “gentle, non-violent” agenda would ever make a statement like this. Jesus is elevating the status of peacemakers everywhere to no less than sons of God.
And then there’s the way Jesus taught his followers to deal with their enemies. “I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)
Finally, what was the primary characteristic of anyone who wanted to be great in the Kingdom of God? “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mk 10:43-44).
The idea of a gentle Jesus is not only based on what he taught; it’s also based on what he did. Imagine, God’s promised Messiah, God’s promised King for centuries, and when he finally comes he welcomes and blesses children. He touches people no one else will get near. He eats with social outcasts. He makes friends with all kinds of people from the wrong side of the tracks—prostitutes and cheats, liars and adulterers, even religious legalists.
And then there’s the scene after his betrayal and arrest in which, standing first before the Jewish High Priest and later before Pilate, Jesus remains silent in the face of the false accusations and charges that were being leveled against him.
Finally, the view of Gentle Jesus is based on what he said about himself. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). And in the Matthew, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.” (11:28-29)
Many people love this passage of scripture, myself included. We are weary and burdened. The Greek words translated here literally mean “those tired from hard toil” and those who are “loaded down.” We know what this feels like, don’t we? We experience the pressures of the job, or of not having a job. We know the relentless demands of caregiving for small children or elderly parents. We are burdened by the grief and the suffering that life brings—to ourselves and to others. We deal with loss, with chronic illness, with disappointments and betrayals.
And Jesus offers us comfort, grace, presence and peace—in short, rest for our weary souls. The picture in Greek is of refreshment, of calm. In my mind I imagine an oasis of crystal clear blue water, amid lush green vegetation. At the oasis there is no rush; it is not crowded. I can linger and drink and be filled by the calm, refreshing water and idyllic landscape.
When was the last time you found rest for your soul? I’m not talking about a time when you caught up on your sleep and awoke feeling physically better, but an occasion when you felt refreshed from the inside out? This kind of rest has a spiritual dimension to it. It is captured by the Biblical word, “Shalom” or “peace.” It is not only a state where there is no conflict, but a state of well-being with our creator.
When we come to Jesus and become his disciples, we experience “peace with God.” (Romans 5:1) Then, as we learn from him and live with him, we experience the second stage which is “the peace of God” (Philippians 4:6-8). Do you need that kind of peace? Do you long for it? That can of soul rest, this kind of peace with God, cannot be experienced through anyone else but Jesus.
Clearly, there are some aspects of Gentle Jesus that we desperately need and want. But as with Super Human Jesus and Social Revolutionary Jesus, the problem comes when we focus on this perspective of Jesus without the counterweight of other perspectives. The view of Jesus as gentle needs to be balanced with Jesus’ assertiveness and strength: Jesus standing in the boat rebuking the storm, Jesus casting out demons, Jesus in the temple driving out the money changers.
The word translated as “meek” in scripture is a Greek word used of a wild horse once it is broken. It conveys not an absence of strength, but strength under control. That’s the meekness, or gentleness, of Jesus.
The Gentle Jesus view also needs to be balanced with Jesus as the judge of humanity. Jesus will be the one to separate the sheep from the goats. In the Gospel of John Jesus puts it this way: “The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (5:22-24).
Finally, the Gentle Jesus image needs to be balanced with Christ’s present and future glorified state. In the book of Revelation, John’s visions reveal God’s eternal plan of salvation as God’s reign is fully realized. What is interesting is the paradoxical portrayal of Jesus in this vision. The images are striking in their power and contrast. Jesus is pictured as a lamb bearing the scars of wounds from the past, and he is also called the Lion of Judah in the same chapter. This Jesus is as gentle as a lamb and simultaneously as powerful as a lion.
As he enters Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd on Palm Sunday, Jesus is portrayed as a non-violent, non-warlike king of salvation and peace—he’s riding a donkey, for goodness sake. In Revelation, Jesus is the conquering King, and there are no donkeys in sight. Our task is to hold these two images together, not to dilute one to the detriment of the other. As a way to articulate the balance between the gentleness and the power of Jesus, an article written that appeared in the Wall Street Journal several years ago offers some helpful language. Joel Belz wrote that “people want to be lightly governed by strong governments.”
That’s what we’ve all wanted and needed since we were small children—to be lightly governed by strength. You wanted your dad to be big and strong, able to fix things, and catch you if you fell, and throw you up on his shoulders. But when it came to dealing with you, you wanted it to be with tenderness and a light touch. Lots of muscle, balanced by lots of restraint. There’s an innate yearning in us for that rare combination. When evil situations arise, we want a government with the clout to back the evil down, but we never want that clout turned on us.
In the final analysis, we want to be lightly governed by strength because that’s how God governs. The omnipotent ruler of the universe is also the one who invites us tenderly: “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Thanks be to God. Amen.