This splendid cartoon is from “Jesus and Mo” a weekly cartoon which brings a healthy scepticism to all religious beliefs and practices. It suffers just a little from what I call “Dawkinsitis” which overestimates the truth of science, but it is otherwise shrewd and funny about both Islam and Christianity. The cartoon above ridicules Mohammed but it could as easily have been put the other way round, as you can see from the quotation from the Gospel of John in today’s title.
I have no doubt at all that the words quoted were invented by the Gospel writer or his community and put into the mouth of Jesus, although the record of Jesus’teaching in all the gospels leaves little doubt that he wanted his followers to obey the commandments he gave. But I do not think he saw himself as the perfect, sinless example of how human beings ought to live.
“Why do you call me good? Only One is good.” That’s a crucial saying of Jesus which his followers are unlikely to have invented. He pointed people towards God, but nevertheless encouraged people to see the goodness of God in his own ministry.
There is a problem here. If Christians believe that the unseen God is revealed in Jesus, how can we doubt the perfection of Jesus’ life and example? But if we make his perfection an article of faith, how can we avoid falling into the circular moral reasoning that the cartoon exposes so well?
if we start from the beginning we should admit that we choose to be Christian believers, or continue as believers, because we like, admire, love, the character, actions and sufferings of Jesus. To put it at its simplest, we think he was right most of the time. That doesn’t mean he appeals to our moral prejudices, but rather that he contradicts our prejudices and confirms our better insights in ways that we trust. The figure of Jesus represents the best we know. That doesn’t mean we have to think of him as sinless or that everything he did has to be taken as an example to humanity. We also have to admit that a very large percentage of what he actually did and said is unknown to us, because it is not recorded, and that some of what is recorded was never done or said by him.
But doesn’t that expose our faith to so much uncertainty, that it would be better to forget the human character of Jesus altogether and see him only as the human sign of God’s forgiveness of our sins, as some theologies have done? I don’t think so. If we give up the human person Jesus we give up everything that distinguishes our faith from a mere myth of salvation.
We don’t need to make Jesus sinless; we can follow scripture and admit that underwent a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1). We can also see in the gospel record, instances of Jesus’harshness towards his own mother and his anger against his religious opponents, whom he threatened with hell. But if he was the son of God, how could he ever go wrong? We should remember that “son of God” is just a Jewish way of talking about relationship with God, and that neither the nation of Israel nor its kings who are called sons of God in the bible, were sinless.
The reticence of the Christian tradition with regard to Jesus’possible imperfection is due to a ridiculous anxiety about salvation: how can we be absolutely certain of our faith unless it is guaranteed by an absolutely sinless saviour? To which I am happy to reply, “why do we need to be absolutely certain?” I may be odd, but a strong likelihood is good enough for me. I don’t need Jesus to be perfect; I am happy to revere him as the extraordinary man whose story is told in the bible, as a passionate, loving, wise, humourous, just and ferociously good person who points me to the One he called Father.
Let’s take an example from Mark chapter 7.
24 Next, Yeshua left that district and went off to the vicinity of Tzor and Tzidon. There he found a house to stay in and wanted to remain unrecognized, but keeping hidden proved impossible. 25 Instead, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit in her came to him and fell down at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, by birth a Syro-phoenician, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and toss it to their pet dogs.” 28 She answered him, “That is true, sir; but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s leftovers.” 29 Then he said to her, “For such an answer you may go on home; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 She went back home and found the child lying on the couch, the demon gone.
This is taken from the Complete Jewish Bible version.
This story has been the subject of weasely interpretations by commentators who are incapable of admitting that Jesus’ initial behaviour is appalling. They say that Jesus was just “testing the woman’s faith.” Would they say that if he’d been faced by a black woman and called her nigger? No, Jesus compares the foreign woman and her child to “dogs” which is an expression of racist abuse. Jesus expresses his view that God wants to feed Jewish people first and foremost, and that it would not be right to divert his provision to Gentiles. In this he was expressing the carefully nurtured belief of his people.
But look at what happens in this story! The needy person, the woman who is a foreigner, conquers the prejudice by adopting its terms as her own. Out of love for her child, she plays the part of the dog, and by her own wit, shows Jesus that she is a human person whose daughter is in need of help. She forgives the prejudice and thereby liberates Jesus to learn from her love and to answer her request.
So what about Jesus’ perfection and sinlessness?
The perfection we see here is not that of a man who cannot go wrong, but rather the goodness of a man who when he has gone wrong, is always prepared to learn. He could doubtless have done himself no harm in the eyes of his prejudiced disciples if he’d maintained his racial arrogance, but he chose to acknowledge his fault and respond to the human need. For Jesus, God speaks through this resourceful woman.
That’ll do for me. Absolute perfection would not speak to me so meaningfully as Jesus’ human imperfection and readiness to learn. The gospels present Jesus as a person who was forever challenging prejudice within his own society, so when I judge him to have been prejudiced in this instance I am judging him by his own standard. But I am not placing him on the same level as myself, for when I am caught in my own prejudices I respond with anger and bluster. He on the other hand, learns his lesson and mends his fault. The artist Rembrandt is incomparable in his depiction of this story, where he puts the woman on her knees, miming a dog.
Jesus incarnates the goodness of God, of the One who is beyond all worlds. His historical example is always with me, but it does not become a religious law for me. If I trust in him, I do not become a Jesusite, but rather a child of God like him, with my own responsibilty for living in the goodness of the Father.
Genuine Islam sees Mohammed not as a perfect example of morality, but as the Prophet who transmits the truth of Allah. The criticism made by the cartoon is shrewd but it does not touch genuine Islam or Christianity.