Is Jesus Predictable?

In other words, can we know What Jesus Would Do?

A couple of weeks ago I posted a quote from Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines in which he questions the What Would Jesus Do approach to discipleship. His main concern was that it overlooked the fact that Jesus’ choices in an given “on the spot” situation were “the natural outflow of the life he lived when not on the spot”.

A couple days ago Justin at Radical Congruency linked to a New York Times op-ed by Gary Willis (here are some “bug me nots” to sign in with if you need them, thanks to Justin. Try username: bugmenot213213 and password: 213213, which worked for me). In the article Willis discusses the co-opting of Jesus for political purposes by the American right and left. It’s an interesting op-ed that attempts to (for once) remove Jesus from political partisanship of any kind. But that’s not what this post is about (I may quote the op-ed more later).
Within the op-ed, however, Willis has this to say about What Would Jesus Do?:

Some may think that removing Jesus from politics would mean removing morality from politics. They think we would all be better off if we took up the slogan “What would Jesus do?”

That is not a question his disciples ask in the Gospels. They never knew what Jesus was going to do next. He could round on Peter and call him “Satan.” He could refuse to receive his mother when she asked to see him. He might tell his followers that they are unworthy of him if they do not hate their mother and their father. He might kill pigs by the hundreds. He might whip people out of church precincts.

The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father’s judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs ”? accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.

If Willis is right—and he’s certainly on to something here, I think—the only thing we can be certain that Jesus would do is love. But even ‘love’ as a motivator in any action is often vague, because what does “love” really mean these days? For the most part it’s either sex or “being nice”, both of which are far off the mark. Jesus wasn’t always nice, was he, even though he always loved? And what does “love” mean in the context of correction and discipline, for instance? By some definitions, “love” wouldn’t correct or discipline. If I were to turn the tables on the bingo parlour in a church’s basement or accused someone of being a (unwitting?) tool of Satan, that wouldn’t be considered “loving” by today’s standards, would it?

6 thoughts on “Is Jesus Predictable?

  1. Andrew

    Interesting article. I like the last paragraph of the portion you quote, but I disagree with Wills’ assessment that “Jesus brought no political message or program.” John Howard Yoder is turning in his grave…

    Starting with this premise and to claim as Wills’ does that “his religion was an internal matter of the heart”, is to do what the gnostics did–insist that religion is something inward and introspective, rather than engaging the world, my neighbour. It’s a dualistic religion that has little time for the particularities and messiness of every day life, and sees spiritual value only in contemplation and withdrawal from the world.

    Jesus’ message was very much political — and his followers understood this (eventually). The New Testament authors make implicit connections between Caesar and Jesus (which are typically lost on modern readers removed from the political realities of the 1st century CE), and used phrases and terms that were co-opted from Roman political culture. The christians were subjects of a new Kingdom, under a new Caesar (“Lord”); a kingdom that turned the rules of mainstream social engagement upside down.

  2. Marc

    I’ll have to read the article again. I missed the part about the “internal matter of the heart”. I was mainly interested in the part I quote—which is why I read the article in the first place—and read over the rest of the article a little too quickly perhaps.

  3. Simon

    To comment on a couple things, I think you’re right in that the only thing that Jesus can be predicted of doing is to love. And in that regard he is eminently predictable. The catch is that no one of us is as capable of loving – or at least choose either consciously or subconsciously not to love – in the same manner as The Man. So we could predict him (what would Jesus do?) only if we were more like him.

    Aargh!

    And I disagree with how you phrased what “love” means today. I don’t think that love means anything different than it ever has; it is eternal and immutable. So from that point of view, sex and “being nice” aren’t incarnations of love in and of themselves though they certainly can be related in certain contexts.

    If you can truly define what capital “L” Love means to you in the quiet parts of your soul, and then consciously act from that same place, well then hot damn! You’re on to something!

  4. Toni

    “His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs ”? accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.”

    His miracles were frequently both, without contradiction, as were those of His disciples. You can’t separate Jesus the compassionate from Jesus the double-edged sword. Once again a political viewpoint tries to polarise and box Him in it’s own neat summary.

  5. Marc

    Simon: By what love means today I didn’t mean that love actually means that, but that’s how many people define it, I think, and it’s certainly the message we often get from, say, TV and film.

    Toni: I’m not sure if the guy was trying to box Jesus. I got the impression that he was trying to remove him from political partisanship, which I think is a fair enough point to make, even if there are problems with his overall viewpoint.

  6. Simon

    Yeah, I didn’t figger that’s what you actually meant by love, but that the perception has been skewed. Or that the word is synonymous with definitions that it shouldn’t be.

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