Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Spirituality of Jesus of Nazareth

Moments for the Word – a live presentation to the American Bible Society staff in New York City on November 3, 2008.

To speak of the spirituality of Jesus of Nazareth entails a heuristic, exegetical and hermeneutical work, which consist of coming closer to the biblical sources. These sources speak of his person, his ministry, his life projects, his Gospel, his announcements, his denunciations, and his conflicts; as well as of his passion, death and resurrection. Among the biblical sources, especially, we should study the texts of the New Testament; more specifically, the works and words of Jesus as they were seen and heard, kept in memory and in oral tradition, to later be written down by the primitive Christian communities who authored the Gospels that have come to us today. Besides having been lived and interpreted by the millenary tradition of Christianity and the history of the church.

The hermeneutical work, specifically, will consist of being able to perform an “intelligent” and detailed reading of the Bible; as well as being capable of noting the “historical data” found in the confessions of faith made by Christians –in the light of the Passion-- about the person and works of Jesus of Nazareth.

The exegetical work that seeks to search for clues about Jesus’ spirituality must keep in mind that, among other things, not all texts written about Jesus reached our present day; and that not all that Jesus said and did was preserved in writing (John 21.35).

After these preliminary points are clear –in reference to the way we should approach the neo-testamentary sources-- it is of utmost importance to know that the original term “spirituality” has being loosing its original content. It has lost its full sense and its value is corrupted. So much so, that it’s meaning refers to something “Light.” The term has been used –and often enough handled— from astrology to Zen Buddhism, from the Hindu “mantra” to the diverse religious markets of “New Age.” Spirituality then, these days, refers to a subject far from reality or something that –in the worse case— helps us escape from it and its commonality. Spirituality is now something venal, of no use; especially when we live immersed in a society that maximizes and gives privilege to what is tangible, what is pragmatic, what is useful and what is “material.”

Also, spirituality –lately and wrongly-- is tied to a pertinent subject handled only by religious groups or institutions, or by those who follow and practice religion. In fact, the word “spirituality” has come to mean something oppose to the institutionalized religious practice. This to such an extent that there are people who call themselves religious --while not belonging to any religious institution-- but who are deeply “spiritual.”

I would like that here, in the most simple and direct manner, we could understand for “spirituality” the deepest motivation of a human that brings the whole to be, to do and to work in the world. Spirituality is therefore, the peregrination that each human being does –or has to do-- to his own inside looking for his own essence, his reason for being and for existing. This journey and walk generates an encounter with “good”; in other words, a face-to-face with the divine tendencies in us because we are God’s creatures. This encounter brings together our whole being and gives sense and direction to our works, our words and our every day living in the world. It inaugurates and gives a new significance to the relationship we establish with others and with the Transcendent. Spirituality is, therefore, a taking of consciousness, a “Cosmo vision” that manifests itself in a style of being and behaving in the world. It is an attitude, a style of living that shows --and gives fruit-- in acts and words.

“Spirituality” gives man a responsibility as the main character in the story and the builder of a better world according to a new criteria and a specific set of values. When man chooses to dispense of the spirituality which inspires him, or chooses to abandon his search for his own spirituality, then life looses its reason for being.

The biblical recount of the Baptism of Jesus –as well as that of the Transfiguration-- makes everything very clear to us if we try to find the clues or the basis for Jesus’ spirituality. In both cases, the voice from the clouds says “this is my own dear Son.” (Mt. 3.17; Mk. 9.7).

If in the Old Testament God reveals himself as the “I Am” (Ex. 3.14, 15; Is.43.11; 45.5; 48.12); in the New Testament of Jesus, God comes out of himself (ad extra) and goes to the saving encounter with man to reveal himself as Father. Therefore, God’s revelation is before anything “Good News” (Mt. 4.23); a happy and hopeful news that gives human beings confidence, trust and hope; an eternal, complete and abundant life full of happiness: “I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest.” (Mt. 10.10).

Then the most original and new, but at the same time the most proper and regular in the life and teaching of Jesus, is that he calls God “Abba” (Gal 4.6). So, if God exists for Jesus and for every man as a “merciful” Father (Lk. 6.36) --“He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people” (Mt. 5.45)-- then Jesus dedicates himself faithfully and unconditionally to live for God as Son: This man really was the Son of God! (Mk. 15.39). He always did God’s will (Lk. 3.49; Mt. 26.39), which was to love and serve all people as brothers and sisters: “I am giving you a new command. You must love each other . . . “The Son of Man did not come to be a master, but a slave.” (Jn. 13.34; Mt. 20.28)

Therefore, Jesus’ spirituality does not come from, nor is it being sustained by, the religious structure of his people, nor the Scriptures, traditions or worship traditions of his time, which he often criticized: “You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your garden, such as mint, dill, and cumin. Yet you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Mt. 23.23) “Don’t make my Father’s house a market place.” (Jn. 2.16) The spirituality of Jesus is based on a new type of experience: the knowledge that God is “his” Father and “our” Father” (Jn. 20.17; Mt. 6.9), the assurance of knowing that without paying a price He is “the very loved Son of God” (Jn. 15.16; Mt. 10.8; 17.26) without the requirement of other precepts, or previous rites, and without the need for sacrifices or holocausts. Later, during the exercise of his ministry, Jesus would explain his independence, his audacity and prophetic freedom when facing the traditions, precepts, laws, and cult practices; and when facing those who hold social and religious power: “Go tell that fox . . .” (Lk. 13.32) “My kingdom doesn’t belong to this world” (Jn. 18.36).

Then, Jesus’ spirituality, his most intimate understanding, the breath of his whole existence, project and ministry originates from his experience of God. I highlight and expose here the word “experience” to a knowledge of God strictly gnoseological, nemotechnical, conceptual, and rational. Jesus’ ancestry, in the Old Testament, declared features of God according to the different and individual experiences they had in their history as a people. So that, during the time of the exodus they declared him as the “Liberator”; and in times of kings, they confessed him as “The King”. In the time of the priests they confessed him as “Holy”; and in times of battle he was “the God of battle”. In good times he was “Our God” and in bad times they claimed he had “forgotten their pact”, etc. . . .

In other words, the known and confessed traits of God in the Old Testament are born and based on a concrete historical experience. Jesus, just as his ancestors, construes God as a very personal experience. He discovers and confesses of God –the same God of the Old Testament-- the traits of a merciful and compassionate Father (Cf. Lk. 15; Mt. 18.33; 20.15)

The experience of God as “father” and the understood “affiliation,” marks the temperament, the personality, the attitude, the postures, the options, the acts, the words; the risks taken, the passion, the death and the resurrection of Jesus. From then on, starting with the acceptance of God as Father, Jesus dedicates himself to live as the Son: to love and serve all peoples as brothers and sisters, children of the same Father, because “The greatest way to show love for friends is to die for them.”(Jn. 15.13)

This experience integrates all known angles of what we call the “public ministry” of Jesus of Nazareth. The knowledge that God is the Father is the breath of his life, the reason for being and working in the world. In other words, God’s paternity is the clue and foundation of his spirituality taken to the ultimate consequence. (Mt. 27.46)

An elementary reading of the New Testament makes very clear that, in Jesus, God is never a concept, but a historical and every day experience. Therefore, Jesus does not preach a doctrine or philosophy about being God in one’s inside (ad intra), or about the way of conceiving God. On the other hand, he proposes “Good News” about a new way of existing in the world, starting with the certainty that God is Father of all, and that “humans” are loved by God as “sons and daughters”: “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” (Lk. 15.31) From this can be derived the commitment to build a world based on love. In other words, create a world with freedom, solidarity for justice, and reconciliation for forgiveness and peace.

The certainty that God is his Father gives Jesus a style of life as “Son” which manifests joy, happiness, hope, humility, obedience and trust in the Father’s love. God’s loving paternity is in Jesus’ life a permanent and daily presence, which “encourages” him to live as Son. (Lk. 5.16; Mk. 6.46)

Even if Jesus assumes and respects the previous confessions of faith and discoveries made about God, he distances himself from his ancestors by not proposing or following a “religious system”. Instead he preached a new and profound manner of being and staying in the world; a new style of life, the style of the children of God: for now we are not servants or slaves but children, with the freedom of Sons. (Jn. 15.15; Ro. 8.21; Mt. 17.26) This life as children responds to the ancestral question and constant search for happiness in each human being: What must I do to have eternal life? (Lk. 10.25; 18.18)

So, while the “religious system” in the time of Jesus and among the people tries to give glory to God through the strict and external adherence to the Law, precepts and rites, Jesus seeks to associate the life of man to God and in that way bring closer the life of man to the life of God. The first and fundamental preoccupation of Jesus is man and his well-being, from a divine perspective: the horizon of cosmo-vision and understanding of a God who is Father, close and kind: “Go and learn what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘Instead of offering sacrifices to me, I want you to be merciful to others.’” (Mt. 9.13; 12.7)

Reading the Gospels it is clear that this “Good News” is easier and sooner understood and followed –yesterday and today—by those who need God’s mercy: by sinners, by those marginalized by the established socio-religious system, by the publicans, the ill, the women, the children, the poor and impoverished by various circumstances . . . Those are the ones who come closer to “listen” to Jesus (Lk. 15.1) and to find benefit in the mercy of God, manifested in the words and the works of the Son.

A second group presented by the New Testament as listening to Jesus is made up by the High Priests, Scribes, Pharisees, elders, authorities of the people, and holders of social power –who at the time were identified with cultural and religious power in the Temple. They came close to Jesus “to test him” (Mt. 22.15 ff) or to find reasons to “take him out.” And the reason is that Jesus, in his time and among the people, became a threat against the status quo which identified the political-legal with the sacred-cultural.

Jesus calls the men of his day and to every man and woman of good will, to a dignified and happy life; the life as children of God. Jesus presents God as a Father, worried about the fate of his children, especially the ones with most need. A good Father, who comes to meet his children; and who emotionally moved by them, hugs and kisses them and gives them goods and blessings. (Cf. Lk. 15.20; 10.30) So Jesus, brakes the rules, even sacred laws –like the ones for the Sabbath—in order to favor man (Mt. 12.1ff)

We can say that Jesus’ spirituality is Anthropology enlightened by a Theology; or a Theology made specific by Anthropology. Even better, Jesus’ spirituality is Theological Anthropology. In Jesus’ spirituality, the love given daily by God should manifest itself in the love we have one for the other, because “God will treat you exactly as you treat others” (Mt. 7.2); and the worship we give God is the offrend of our lives to service –with works— to our brothers and sisters, especially the needy. “Leave your gift there in front of the altar. Make peace with that person, then come back and offer your gift to God.” (Mt. 5.24) Even more, this criterion, this lifestyle, this spirituality as a child of God and brother to all men defines our salvation or condemnation: “When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. . . . Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.” (Mt. 25. 35, 40) We must understand as salvation our happiness in the here and now which will continue in the beyond of history.

Even more, according to Jesus, human relationships and the forming of the world as a possible space for happiness for man, for all human kind, “as the new heaven and the new earth” (Is. 66.22) are the measure of our relationship with God. Therefore, the place for the worship of God is no longer the Temple, but each human being. No longer is it the stone Temple, but the the temple of live stones: “You surely know that you are God’s temple.”(1 Co. 3.16; 1 P 2.5)

Everything said before explains clearly why Luke, together with the first Christians, applied to Jesus and his mission the words of Isaiah, when he reads the passage that says:
“The Lord’s Spirit has come to me,
because he has chosen me
to tell the good news to the poor.
The Lord has sent me
to announce freedom for prisoners,
to give sight to the blind,
to free everyone who suffers,
and to say, ‘this is the year the Lord has chosen.’” (Lk. 4.18, 19)

Therefore, Jesus does not invite us to seek God as an intellectual, intimate and pious search, but he invites us to work in the construction of the Kingdom of God: But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants.” (Mt. 6.33) In other words, put God’s Sovereignty in history first. To seek God’s kingdom is to build spaces of life in a world, where God would be the Sovereign king to the measure of how humans love each other as brothers and sisters; recognizing that all are children of God, and that he is a Kind Father, compassionate and merciful (Lk. 11.13). These spaces are profoundly “divine” when they are truly “human.” In other words, they are divine if they contribute to a happy and dignified life for every man that comes to this world. All this takes for granted justice, solidarity, freedom, peace and bread.

Also because of this, when he invites to conversion --that is, to the “return” to God’s house-- shockingly, for the people of his time, Jesus invites the brothers to return and to “construct” just conditions: “Lord, ‘I will give half of my property to the poor. And I will now pay back four times as much to everyone I have ever cheated.’ ” (Lk. 19.8). So, according to Jesus the “sanctification” of the world happens when “humanizing” occurs.

To this spiritual experience is where Jesus invites us and invites his disciples of all times. Moreover, the novelty of our Christian life becomes authentic --as the first Christians understood and lived it, celebrated it, confessed it, and wrote it down (Ac. 2.42; 4.32)-- when we are capable to call God: Father (Ga. 4.6) then we are capable to love each other as brothers and sisters, because “Our love for each other proves that we have gone from death to life.” (1 Jn. 3.14 ff). In other words, we are capable of living in and by the same spirituality of Jesus.

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