Have you ever read a book and just fallen in love with a character?
Did you ever come across people talking or writing about that character and what they say just completely over-simplifies the character and fails to do the character justice?
That’s how I feel about Jesus quite often, except he’s not just a character in a book – he’s a person.
As a young adult, I went through the RCIA process to receive Confirmation. I was still filled with doubt and misunderstanding, but an openness and desire for Truth that was met with compassion and equal openness to my seeking. When I read the Gospel of St. Luke, then the Acts of the Apostles, and then the remaining Gospels in order (and so on), I encountered Jesus for what felt like the first time.
Growing up, I got the “God is love” message and “the Catholic Church is just full of outdated and irrelevant rules with no basis” message. So what I came to believe was that it really didn’t matter much what I did as long as I was a “good person”. Jesus was kind and forgiving and accepting of all and the Catholic Church was full of a bunch of man-made rules that didn’t seem to matter. Plus, if I did something wrong, God was just going to forgive me anyway, right?
As I devoured St. Luke’s Gospel, I encountered the Jesus who loves compassionately and also leaves no one unchanged or stuck in their sin. I saw love in action that says “I forgive you” and “sin no more”. My life was radically changed from that time on.
Too often, Christians and secular individuals alike talk about what Jesus would or wouldn’t do as if he were just a static moral code source (or a benevolent and wise teacher). They use him to justify their opinion about a political or social matter like a college student referencing a thesaurus to find the right words to support their
opinion argument premise.
To be certain, we can and should turn to Jesus in scripture and in prayer to guide and accompany us in this life, particularly as we search for what is True and Just in the world. Jesus is the Word, but he is the Word made flesh. Rather than a fixed document to cite in a persuasive essay, the Word is living and dynamic and complex.
Complexity doesn’t mean unknowable nor does it mean inconsistent nor relative.
It means that Jesus is both loving and steadfast in Truth. It means he cuts through the false piety of the Pharisees and demonstrates a deeply held personal prayer life plus a commitment to communal faith expressions (aka organized religion). It means Jesus welcomes back the sinner when they are ready to accept God’s mercy, which includes turning one’s back on sin and changing how one lives their life. It also means that following Jesus is as much about giving up sin and deepening a personal relationship with God as it is about living the beatitudes, the corporal works of mercy, and proactively participating in the building of the Kingdom of God for the common good.
The world will tell you life is “either-or” – either you are this or your are that. If you aren’t for us, you’re against us. The Catholic faith, on the other hand, is a faith of “both-and” because Jesus, in all his complexity and simplicity, is “both-and”. We both love people and challenge them to be who God created them to be. We both have a prayerful and personal relationship with God and we recognize our commitment to the community we are a part of and actively build the Kingdom through serving others.
So I invite you to start with The Gospel According to St. Luke or whichever Gospel might be your favorite, and reconnect with the complex Jesus. Don’t just rely on someone else’s Cliff Notes version.