Every time I read the Gospels I’m surprised.
It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read them, or how often I’ve even picked apart the original language text for exegesis papers — I am surprised by the figure of Jesus.
This has been going on for some time, but only ever since the Gospels have truly begun to shape my understanding of two quite important things: 1) who “God” is, and 2) just what the hell is going on here (in this world).
For the first few years of my life discovering Jesus, the particular 21st-century-evangelical flavor of Christianity that was given to me at 17 years old was a hindrance to this. But thankfully, I managed to become curious or pious or thirsty enough (or a combination of the three) so that I read the Gospels in their entirety for what each author had to say about Jesus, not just as a collection of illustrations to support our shortsighted, simplified, and skewed understanding of a smaller version of Paul than even what the New Testament gives us. (This is the hearing of the biblical witness which tries so hard to convince us that what was really only important about Jesus’s life is that it ended.)
If you’re like me, you have human memory and simply forget, and Jesus as we think of him is viewed through how the world presently is instead of seeing the way the world should be through Jesus. I’m sure the usual suspects are culprits in this, too: cultural Jesus and pop-Jesus and even, churchy Jesus.
But, the darker side to this at work perhaps even more than my bad memory or the warping power of culture is that I make Jesus in my own image. Jesus in my image is a Jesus I understand fully, a Jesus that comforts me and doesn’t challenge me, a Jesus that likes what I like and hates what I hate.
The Gospels confront and correct my understanding of who Jesus is, and leave me captured by the person, persona, personality of Jesus (to take full advantage of some Latin roots there). It’s not doctrine, as much as character. And not necessarily character in the sense of virtue (though it is certainly a part of it), but more in the literary sort of sense — who this person is.
Although the Gospels and each New Testament document presents him differently in all the details, it is this — the character of Jesus — that is the consistent core throughout the early Christian witness.
Now this guy is interesting. Sometimes I wish we had more material about him. There probably are some statements in the Gospel of Thomas and maybe some stories in a few others like the Gospel of the Hebrews that presents us with some accurate testimony about what Jesus did and said, but overall it’s our four canonical ones.
Only four. Yes they’re long for ancient biographies, but we only have a few of them for our entire life. I’ve been caring about Jesus for only a decade now, but I can go ahead and tell you some things that Matthew is concerned about or how John is just so weird or talk about the structure of each one. I’ve read them before. Multiple times.
But I still don’t get them, really.
Because the most surprising thing about Jesus, at least for me, is himself.
And since God is a God of surprises anyway, perhaps Jesus himself is the most important, urgent, and most characteristic surprise of all.