One of the things that frustrated me during the recent general election campaign was the simplistic viewpoints of the different parties and candidates, both in placing the blame for our economic and social problems and the solutions they offered. It’s all the fault of Gordon Brown, the EU, Migrants, the bankers, the English, the Scots, etc.; all we have to do is increase public spending, decrease welfare spending, shut the doors to foreigners, come out of the EU, get rid of the English, get rid of the Scots, etc.
I would have been willing to vote for any candidate who had said, “Actually it’s very complicated. There was no one cause for our problems and there is certainly no simple solution.” But no candidate was ever going to stand up and say that. Generally people do not like complicated. We want simple solutions and certainties, even though we know they are a lie.
Back at the start of the so-called War on Terror, George W Bush had the very simple yardstick for judging people, “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” Simple as this statement is it did not do justice to the complexities of international politics. And look where his simplistic partitioning has got us today. Things are never that clear cut. The days of being able to judge whether a cowboy is a goodie or a baddie by the colour of his hat have long gone. People are complex, like economics, and subtle complexities make life awkward. No one is 100% wrong or 100% right. Not even me!
Of course we do like to categorise people as Good or Bad. The general consensus about Adolf Hitler is that he was bad, very BAD. However, I have no doubt that he must have had some positive qualities. Martin Luther King Jr is rightly regarded as one of the greatest ‘Good’ people of the 21 Century. However, researching for my recent sermon on him I discovered that he cheated in writing his PhD thesis. And, thinking of British politics, Margaret Thatcher is for some a saint who did no wrong but for others a villain who did no right. The truth is she got some things right and some things wrong. We are all sometimes right and sometimes wrong, sometimes good and sometimes bad.
This idea raises an awkward question. Was Jesus always right? If we accept that even the best of people are sometimes wrong and make mistakes, where does that leave our thinking about Jesus? Underlying the way Christians read the Bible stories about Jesus and the way preachers preach about Jesus is the idea that he was always right. But was he? And is the idea that he was always right a sign of faith in Jesus or, a sign of our desire for over simplistic judgements about people?
Now, granted, the stories we have about Jesus were not written by him. We have no direct record of what he said and thought, only the words of his followers, and it is most likely that Mark is the only Gospel writer who actually met Jesus the man, and he was just a small child at the time. So, how accurate are the words and stories we have? But even given that these writers wanted to show Jesus in the best possible light there are some striking problems in the words attributed to him.
There is a story about Jesus talking with his followers when his family came to visit (Matt.12:46-50). Jesus dismisses them by saying those who do what he says are his true family. Nice for those who try to do what he said but a bit harsh on his mother and brothers. In another story he curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit (Mark 11:12-14). It seems to me to be a bit out of proportion, especially when you realise the time of year this incident took place was not the season for figs. When talking about the faith of children Jesus said “if someone causes a child to lose faith it would be better for that person to have a millstone tied round their neck and they be drowned in the sea” (Matt.18:6). That seems a bit extreme by any standard. And then there’s his statement about coming back in the clouds (Mark 13:24-27). Has the world not got bad enough yet? Is this simply a metaphor? Or was Jesus just plain wrong?
It is comforting to live in a world of certainties and simplicities. It is comforting to believe that Jesus was always right. It is uncomfortable to accept that reality is complex. For me one of the great challenges of being a follower of Jesus is to try and work out when the words of Jesus are good to follow and when they might be less than good advice. This can be hard work, but a faith that accepts the complexities of life, and the inadequacies of simple solutions, even ones put into the mouth of Jesus, seems to me to be much more relevant in our complex world than a faith that says, ‘believe this and don’t think about it.’ What do you think?
This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of Look-In, our monthly church magazine. To download the full issue, please click here: Look-In June 2015