A Man Worth Emulating

In our society, who best reflects Jesus’ compassion and sense of justice?

In recent years, courtesy of the Culture Wars, complaints about the absence of Jesus, or Christianity more generally, from the gusto-filled way Australians celebrate Christmas have crowded our newspapers and clogged the airways. This year, In contrast, has been quieter. A pointed indicator, perhaps, of the emphatic eviction of John Howard from the Lodge, and the promise made by the new tenant of a kindler, gentler approach to the demands of multi-cultural and multi-religious Australia.

So what better time for a secular Jew to talk about Jesus? To draw a clear line under the terrible decade of narrow-mindedness, intolerance and absolutism of the past decade by recalling who the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth was and what he sought to achieve. And, in so doing, clear a space at everyone’s holiday celebrations – religious, secular or otherwise – to commemorate this justice-seeking defender of the dispossessed.

A potted history of the life and time of Jesus would include the fact that he was an outsider. Illegitimate and poor in a culture where a man’s standing and status among his fellows was entirely dependent on his relationship with God. But the privilege of being seen in the eyes of God as an Israelite, a member of the chosen people, was not available to everyone. Certain people were ruled out on the basis of characteristics they neither controlled nor could change – gender for instance – while others, the sick and those involved in unclean occupations like fishing or tanning, required purification to earn God’s forgiveness, and so be welcomed back into the community of upright citizens.

But the cost of forgiveness was high, and controlled by the Priestly caste of Jews who ran the Temple in Jerusalem. Not only did all Jews at that time pay a tithe to the Temple, they were also required to fork out for individual rituals – incense- burning, the offering of loaves and the sacrifice of animals – ordered to alleviate sin and guilt. But while the Priests and their families were the sole beneficiaries of the resulting largess, the penitent had no guarantees his offering would achieve the desired ends. In fact, the failure of a sacrifice to cure an infirmity might make matters worse, confirming God’s continued judgement of the sick person as beyond redemption.

That the Temple was corrupt was a widely held view at the time. Jesus’s contribution was to imply that it was also unjust. As he criss-crossed the Galilee offering forgiveness and healing to the unclean – those literally cast outside the gates of their villages and towns to cleanse spiritual pollution – his implicit claim was clear. A relationship with God, and access to the Kingdom of Heaven, was open to all. That this included women and others deemed inherently “unclean” is evidenced not just by his many female disciples and benefactors, but by Jesus’s explicit rejection of notions of immutable male supremacy to which many of his followers were attached. When, in the Gospel of Thomas, Simon Peter calls for Jesus to dismiss Mary as disciple because she is “not worthy of life,” Jesus replies that he will “guide her to make her male…for every female who makes herself male will enter heaven’s kingdom”.

While clearly lacking a contemporary feminist sensibility, such remarks were radical for the time, entertaining the possibility that those the privileged and powerful deemed less than fully human (deservedly marginalised and dispossessed, in other words) were capable of being seen by God and of reaping all the social status and privileges this entailed.

So who among our moral leaders is most like Jesus of Nazareth? Is it President of Liberty Victoria’s Julian Burnside QC who battles for the rights of the poor to legal representation and for formal justice for two of the most reviled groups in western societies: prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and asylum seekers? Or Cardinal George Pell, who leads the fight against the ordination of women and in a recent book of essays accused Catholics who allowed their consciences to shape their values – , rather than dictates from the Church hierarchy – of “Donald Duck heresy”? Is Dr Jo Wainer, a woman who has dedicated much of her life to fighting for legal and social recognition of women’s full humanity, a true disciple of Jesus? Or it is Danny Nalliah, President of Catch the Fire Ministries and one-time Family First candidate, who asks his parishioners to pray that God will “pull down” what he calls Satan’s strongholds brothels, gambling places, bottle shops, mosques and Freemasons, Buddhist, Hindu and other Temples?

Knowledge of the history of Jesus the man makes the answers clear.

Jesus of Nazareth was a spiritual activist and political radical who made enormous personal sacrifices to bring his vision of a more compassionate, inclusive and just world to fruition. It is those who behave as Christians – a sometimes different group to those claiming to be them – who keep Jesus’s radical, truth-seeking, cage-rattling, spirit alive

So, as we head off to the beach this summer for a well-earned rest, let us remember to honour our modern day Jesus of Nazarereths: the men and women who find inequity offensive, and fight for justice for the most benighted in our community, often at great personal, professional and financial costs. And let us find time to consider how, when 2008 rolls around, we might engage in a bit of radical, truth-seeking cage-rattling of our own. The sort of cage-rattling designed to make a real difference for one of the oppressed, marginalised, forgotten or dispossessed groups in the Australian community who quietly thirst for justice.

The sort of cage-rattling that might just turn 2008 into a year to make Jesus proud.

Publication history

A Man Worth Emulating  The Age