The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


March 27, 2024

How Can I Know?

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I have often questioned the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?” First, he had an advantage: walking on water, curing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and raising the dead. As well, it is difficult to predict with certainty what Jesus would do. We look for a tight pattern and we are often surprised. Sometimes he responds to crowds but then gets away from them. Sometimes he heals directly and other times uses mud on the eyes or even a second touch. He is what we could call inconsistent or unpredictable and trying to pin him down to one response for every situation and person is impossible.

But one thing is constant—the people come to him in droves from everywhere. Crowds generally form around a few motivations—anxiety, fear, anger, or hope. The crowds in the early days formed around hope. They came because he spoke with authority unlike their leaders. They came for the miracles, the stories and the way he was able to tweak and confound the elites.  For a time, the scribes, lawyers, Pharisees, and Sadducees sat by but it was not long before they mounted their own campaigns to turn the crowds against Jesus. 

Perhaps we are too hard on the leaders. After all, when we consider the claims Jesus was making about himself it is likely our response would be the same. I remember as a freshman in college asking my somewhat staid English literature professor why she so admired scoundrels and rogues like Byron, Shelley and Keats. Had they been her contemporaries she would have been one of their sharpest critics but 150 years later she had made them her career. She told me that time had eroded away their character flaws and left only their genius standing. The Pharisees did not have that option. They had to deal in real time with easily influenced people who were drawn to charisma, entertained by the stories and wound up tight by the miracles. 

Had Jesus kept himself to the stories and miracles things might have worked out in the end but he didn’t. He went one step further in the healing of the paralytic and that was too much.

“When Jesus saw their faith he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” 

Of course, the question in the minds of the Pharisees was: “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” After thousands of years I think the question is the same. How do we respond to people making blasphemous claims that are counter to all we believe to be true and have been taught since childhood? For us, it may be the inerrancy of Scripture; the way to God is through Jesus alone; the marriage of one man and one woman; or fixed gender. Where is the balance between unquestioning tradition and flirting with outright heresy? While it is not as inhuman as Abraham’s test of offering Isaac, it is asking for a sacrifice that, even today, is wrenching. Turn your back on what you know to be true about God and follow Jesus?

What responsibility do we have to protect gullible followers from such lunacy? I can understand why the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's “The Brothers Karamazov” argued that the responsibility of the Church had become one of protecting the masses from Christ and the chaos caused by the freedom he offered. “We corrected and improved Thy teaching. And men rejoiced at finding themselves led once more like a herd of cattle, and at finding their hearts at last delivered of the terrible burden laid upon them by Thee, which caused them so much suffering.” 

By forgiving sins, Jesus was not only threatening the way things had been and the people in charge but claiming for himself the most important power that God held—the power of forgiveness. How can anyone be expected to adapt to that? Surely. That is blasphemy and not simply replacing an outworn tradition.

The religious leaders had a lock on forgiveness and once we have created a monopoly we are reluctant to let it go. We resist when someone breaks up our hold on things—and that is what Jesus was doing. He was saying the monopoly on forgiveness was over. The new order is going to challenge everything you have been taught. Step out of the boat against all logic. Rise up and walk. Open your eyes. Your daughter lives. In spite of all you hold sacred trust me in this.

This year you and I are going to be distressed by changes in the world. Some of them will ask us to stretch. Some of them will ask us for sacrifice. Not all of them are true. Not all of them are blasphemy. In the end, Abraham’s question is ours as well, isn’t it? “Sovereign Lord, how can I know?”

Art by Michele Paris

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