Say It Ain't So, Joe: The Real Message of Jesus
I can't imagine a bigger fan of the morning television show "Morning Joe" than myself. Though I don't get to watch every day, I do try to watch at least a few of the clips of the show. Though most of MSNBC's politics are too left-wing for my taste, Morning Joe provides a terrific forum for an open discussion of issues. At least when the conservative Joe Scarborough is on set. Joe, a former Republican congressman from Florida, is conservative at a table typically surrounded by moderates and liberals. This is refreshing TV, because it provides an instructive back-and-forth battle of ideas. If you can abide the sometimes sanctimonious lecturing by his co-host, Mika, Morning Joe is one cable news show that actually makes you feel smarter when you are finished watching it.
That's why it pains me to have to write a response post to a blog by Joe Scarborough posted on Easter. But while Joe got a few things right about Jesus, he seemed to offer half a loaf, with the chopped-off section more central to Jesus' real mission than the part Joe included.
First, the half-loaf Joe got right. Right off the bat, I was heartened to hear that Joe affirmed Jesus' resurrection from the dead as historical fact. And I agree with him that Jesus' message has gotten "twisted around by politicians and televangelists." Most pastors lament the use and abuse of Jesus' likeness to advance political or religiously commercial ends. It's also true that Jesus cares less about "your favorite politician" and more about you "putting yourself last." Jesus does want you, as Joe says, to "read his words and learn the truth." Part of this truth Joe gets right:
Then he told us we should love others more than we love ourselves, that we should love our enemies, that we must turn the other cheek, that the peacemakers are blessed and that we must focus more on our own sins instead of judging the faults of others.
But it's Joe's very next line that prompted this article:
And when Jesus' disciples asked what they needed to do to get to Heaven, his answer was simple: care for the poor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, visit those in prison and bring hope to the hopeless.
Ahh, this is where the train gets off the tracks. Jesus most certainly did not say that to get to Heaven, we need to do more good works like clothing the naked and feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty, etc. Those are all benefits of Jesus' Kingdom coming, the outworking of the gospel regeneration inside of those who'd repented of their sin and come to Jesus in faith. But to get into the Kingdom, to gain entrance into Heaven? Jesus said, to Nicodemus, the most religiously pious man of his day, a man everyone thought had the best shot of getting in through the pearly gates:
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. John 3:5 (ESV)
Getting to Heaven is not a matter of how many times we feed the poor, etc., though those deeds are commendable. No, getting to Heaven is something we can only do because of Jesus' death for us on the cross. Jesus fulfilled the righteous demands of a Holy God so we could be reconciled to our Father. And once reconciled, we're regenerated; once regenerated, we're empowered to those Kingdom things Joe describes.
But if simple good works were the ticket to Heaven, Jesus would not have needed to come to earth. Plenty of adherents to other religions do those kinds of charitable things without regard to Jesus or His message. Jesus didn't come simply to show us a better way, to be an inspirational teacher with a good message. Jesus came "that we might have life." Jesus came because in our sins we are dead, incapable of saving ourselves (Ephesians 2).
If Jesus did indeed rise from the grave, then his message is far more than simply to feed the poor. His message is one of repentance and faith. His mission is more than just creating a band of inspired relief workers, but to one day return to restore all things as they should be, like the world He himself created.
The Jesus Joe describes is the Jesus the popular culture wants, a Jesus both left and right desperately desire, one who isn't radical, who appeals to our sensibilities, who shares a few nice homilies about those less fortunate. But the problem with this Jesus is that it isn't the same Jesus we see in the gospels. If you actually read what Jesus said, He didn't offer Himself as another moralistic do-gooder, but as the incarnate Son of God, the only Savior of the world, the exclusive way for men to have peace with God. He died, not so we might be inspired by His sacrifice, but that we might escape the eternal punishment of God against our sin.
I'm guessing the real Jesus wouldn't be invited to appear on Morning Joe. The real Jesus was controversial, offending all the wrong constituencies. His bold claims didn't earn him the applause of the religious establishment or the secular authorities. It earned him a splintered cross and cruel execution by the Romans.
And today, Jesus' real message is no less radioactive. Which is why many reject it, few believe it, and most massage it to fit their own ends.
I believe Joe is sincere in his beliefs about Jesus. And many things He affirms about Jesus are true. I just hope he discovers the rest of what Jesus said.