Traditionally this is a time to learn from our mistakes and commit ourselves to do differently in the new year.
I wonder what resolutions Jesus would have made?
For some, it may seem shocking to suggest that Jesus had room for self-improvement. But it’s hard to miss his sins if you read the New Testament gospels. The idea that Jesus was perfect came after the gospels were written, as the early church developed its doctrines. By the fourth century, the church had painted itself into a corner. The church declared Jesus to be fully human (though somehow sinless) and fully divine. But the church couldn’t white-out the gospel stories that revealed his very human failings, because it had declared the New Testament to be a sacred text. Theologians have filled libraries arguing the contrary, but it's still obvious that Jesus needed to shape up his act in a number of ways.
If I were Jesus, here would be my list for 2013:
1) Be much nicer to my family.
Let’s face it, Jesus’ “family values” left much to be desired. When he was twelve, he ran away from his parents in Jerusalem so he could hang out with the teachers in the Temple (Luke 2: 42-52). Apparently “honor your father and your mother” wasn’t the lesson being taught there that day. When Mary and Joseph finally caught up with him, and confronted him with his behavior, he gave a smart-ass answer: "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" Disrespect heaped on outrageousness! If I was Jesus’ father, I’d have given him some serious “consequences”.
Then there was the time in his early adulthood when he went to a wedding in Cana with his mother (John 2: 1-10). Upon seeing that the host had run out of wine, she asked him to do something about it. His answer? "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." Is that any way to talk to your mom? There’s no excuse for it. He ended up doing what she asked, but with a bad attitude.
Then there was the day he was preaching, and his mother and brothers sent someone inside to ask him to come out and speak with them (Matthew 12: 47-50). He brushed them off with an insult: "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother." High-falutin’ talk from a guy who treated his family like strangers. Who wants to be brotherly with somebody who treats his own brothers so badly?
What can we learn from his negative example? Charity begins at home. Changing the world begins with showing love and respect to your own family.
2) When I’m in a bad mood, don’t take it out on others – not even if the other is a fig tree.
Jesus was hungry one day, and passed by a fig tree (Matthew 21: 18-22). But the tree had nothing but leaves because it wasn’t fig season. Apparently his hunger affected his attitude in a powerful way. "May no fruit ever come from you again!" he yelled, and the tree withered on the spot.
I’ve seen people wither on the spot, too, when they’ve been yelled at like that. Their faces shrivel like leaves before a fire. We forget how our attitudes affect others. We forget to breathe, to take a hike, to take a break when we are upset, rather than taking it out on other people.
The tree was minding its business, doing what it was supposed to be doing, and Jesus killed it because it didn’t meet his immediate need. He acted like he was the center of the universe, and that everything and everybody ought to give him what he wanted when he wanted it. Two-year-old behavior from a thirty-something guy! He could do better – and so can we. Let us all resolve to honor the seasons of others, even fig trees. Let us make 2013 the year of putting others at the center, instead of ourselves. Let us resolve to be conscious of our bad feelings and deal with them, instead of projecting them onto others.
3) Keep doing compassionate things, but be more humble about how I do it.
A Canaanite woman asked Jesus to free her daughter of possession by a demon (Matthew 15: 22-28). He ignored her because she was a foreigner. She kept asking for help, and he insulted her by saying “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. Groveling, she said: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Finally he relented and healed her daughter. He did a good thing, but the way he did it was pretty disgusting.
Jesus started out believing that anybody who was not a Jew was a dog. But the gospel stories suggest that repeated encounters with faithful gentile people like the Canaanite woman cured him of the antipathy toward foreigners that he had inherited from the culture surrounding him. He didn’t want to serve gentiles. But grudgingly he acquiesced, and was humbled. The Bible reveals that Jesus was a racist in recovery.
We can resolve to follow Jesus’ journey of self-improvement, working ever-greater miracles of kindness while deepening in humility. What makes us most Godlike is to recognize how far from God we are and always will be.
Christianity could use some humbling, too. For Christians to suggest that our religion is somehow superior to others is to make the same mistake Jesus made when he treated the Canaanite woman so rudely. When we look at the mistakes of Jesus, we’re also looking at the big mistake that Christianity made when it tried to turn Jesus into a superman instead of letting him be who he was: one of us regular folks who need to make New Year’s resolutions!
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California