Here’s something I’ll bet you’ve never considered: if you were around when Jesus lived on the earth, would you even like him?
I’m guessing that you have always assumed that you would, since, you know, he’s Jesus. I know I have. All my life I have heard about how much he loves me, how he died for me, how he healed people, stood up for the little guy against the bullies, and told some really heart-warming stories like the Prodigal Son. From my youngest years I was taught songs about Jesus loving the world. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Right? And “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.” Jesus was like all my childhood heroes: Mighty Mouse, Roy Rogers, and Brooks Robinson—he was great, and of course you liked him. It just wasn’t an issue. And if you had been an Israelite living in Galilee when Jesus was around, how could you not like him? C’mon, he’s Jesus! Nobody dislikes Jesus. People may not believe he was the Son of God, they may not believe that he did all the miracles the Bible claims he did, they may not believe he rose from the dead, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like him. In 1972 the Doobie Brothers recorded a gospel song written by gospel singer Arthur Reid Reynolds, “Jesus is Just Alright,” and the song made it up to #35 on the Billboard Charts, because everyone likes Jesus, even if you’re a rock band named for a marijuana joint.
What’s not to like? Well, plenty, apparently. Jesus was popular in his day, but not universally. He attracted crowds because he was a great teacher and speaker, but also because of his ability to heal, and people like a good show. But when they listened to what he had to say—I mean, really listened to what he was saying, well, they didn’t like him so much. The crowds started dwindling when he said that they should love their enemies the Romans who beat them into submission, taxed them into poverty, and crucified their would-be liberators. Love them and pray for them, Jesus said.
They wanted Jesus to raise up an army—who isn’t for the right of a nation to defend itself and to use force if need be? No one, except, it seems, Jesus. That’s a pretty unpopular position to take. Jesus wouldn’t make it through the primaries today. He certainly didn’t make it out of Jerusalem.
“Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” “Let the dead bury their dead.” “Hate your father, mother, sister, brother, your wife and kids, and your own life, or you can’t be my disciple.” Seriously, that sounds like the nut-job leader of a cult, someone like Charles Manson, Jim Jones, or David Koresh. If I heard someone talking like that, I’d be heading for the exit, with a lot of people with me. By the time Jesus got to Jerusalem there were little more than the original 12 left with him, and we know how loyal at least one of them was.
Among the respectable people—the people you and I would seek out if we were to travel back in time to 1st century Israel—Jesus was scandalous. He claimed the right to contradict their sacred writings, and thumbed his nose at their religious practices. He didn’t just ignore some biblical laws, he seemingly went out of his way to break them, just to prove a point and stir things up. He said that traitors and whores would enter the Kingdom of God ahead of those who took their faith seriously, and then to back it up he put his arms around them and went to supper. Whatever popularity Jesus had at the beginning of his ministry he squandered by the things he said and did.
And he didn’t care. He didn’t care if people liked him or respected him, he just cared that they followed him. In this way he was firmly in the line of the prophets, who said what needed to be said even if it ticked people off and made people despise them. No prophet cares if they are liked, they just care that people listen and obey.
You know that time after the resurrection when he was with the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias (Galilee) and he said to Peter, “Peter, do you love me more than these?” And when Peter said, “Yes, Lord,” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep”? I have a feeling that if Peter had said, “No, Jesus, I don’t,” Jesus would have said, “Whatever. Feed my sheep anyway.”
He didn’t need Peter to like him, and I’m not sure he needed Peter to love him, but he needed Peter to follow him, because that’s what a disciple does. A disciple learns from his teacher and does what his teacher tells him to do. It may be nice if he likes him, and touching if he loves him, but the only necessary thing is that he follow him—that he says what he says and does what he does.
Somehow we got it all turned around. We have lots of Jesus admirers, and lots of Jesus lovers—nowadays it’s fashionable not just to love Jesus but to be in love with Jesus—and we think that’s enough. Just love Jesus. And then we treat his teachings as optional learning, as advanced training for those who are really serious about loving Jesus, extra credit for Christian over-achievers. But Jesus never asked anyone to simply love him; he calls us to follow him on the only path that leads to life.
Don’t get me wrong, I do love Jesus, I just don’t think that’s enough. I know lots of people who genuinely say they love Jesus, but they never get around to following him, to actually doing what he said to do; but I daresay that no one can follow Jesus for long without coming to love him, in the same way that a thirsty man comes to love the one who leads him to an oasis spring.