In a letter to his friend Arthur Greaves written early in 1930, C.S. Lewis, recently converted to theism but not yet to Christianity, had this to say:
‘In spite of all my recent changes of view, I am still inclined to think that you can only get what you call ‘Christ’ out of the gospels by picking & choosing, & slurring over a good deal’.
In the context, Lewis was talking about hard passages about fire and brimstone in old writers, and the question of whether or not they are contrary to the spirit of Christ; ‘They are certainly not contrary to the letter’, he commented, and proceeded to quote chapter and verse to make his point.
I often think of this passage from Lewis. I think we’re all inclined to have our favourite imaginary Jesus, and since the gospels say what they say and can’t really be added to (as Lewis says in ‘The Screwtape Letters’), all those favourite imaginary figures of Jesus are constructed by overemphasizing some aspects of his life and teaching and neglecting (or completely leaving out) some others.
I think of this when I hear people bring out that old saw that ‘The Old Testament God is a God of judgement and the New Testament God is a God of love’. Haven’t they read the gospels, I ask myself? It’s Jesus, not the Old Testament writers, who says that if a slave knows what his master wants and doesn’t do it, he’ll get a worse beating than the one who genuinely didn’t know (in other words, to quote Lewis again, ‘Christians are playing for higher stakes’!). It’s Jesus, and not the Old Testament writers, who says that it’s not enough just to call him ‘Lord, Lord’; we have to actually do the will of his Father in heaven. It’s Jesus who warns us about being cast into the outer darkness ‘where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’. Most terrifying of all, it’s Jesus who tells us the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where those who refuse to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and prisoners and welcome the stranger are consigned to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Where did this ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ come from, I wonder? If Jesus is truly the image of the God of compassion (and I believe he is), then it is clear that the compassion of God is not an easy going ‘let everyone do whatever they like and don’t make a big fuss about it’ sort of God. It’s clear from the teaching and example of Jesus that God’s compassion causes him quite a lot of worry about the sort of lives we choose to live, and that at times he has some very stern things to say to us about the inevitable consequences of those choices.
I suppose every age and every theological point of view has its favourite picture of Jesus. So I’d better end by saying, ‘Enough finger pointing, Tim. Which bits of the gospels do I avoid because they don’t fit into my preconceived notions of “Christ”? And how can I do my best to keep my ears open to the rich and varied portrait that the four gospel writers give us, in all its complexity and with all its challenge?’ ‘Open our eyes, Lord – we want to see Jesus’. ‘Aye, there’s the rub’ – do we?