I’ll wager that my essay title will strike many readers, especially older, traditional Catholics like myself, as a bit odd, even as sounding Protestant. If you play association of ideas (as I have) with a group of Catholics and ask their first response to the word “Catholic,” most will say words like “church,” or “Pope,” or “sacraments”—but rarely “Jesus.” Talking about Jesus is for the evangelical preachers on Sunday morning TV. Oh, if we unite the historical Jesus to the Christ of faith—as in Jesus Christ—then we do a little better (more on that below), but the carpenter from Nazareth who walked the roads of Galilee gets scant attention from traditional Catholics.
Now there is a long-winded story as to why we don’t center more on the historical Jesus as the “heart” of Catholic faith; let me cite two major causes. First, the old catechisms (Baltimore, Maynooth, etc.) based their doctrinal section on the Apostles Creed, taking each article and catechizing it in a question-and-answer format. But recall that the Apostles Creed goes from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” As a result, those old catechisms (and their legacy dies slowly) teach next-to-nothing about the historical Jesus—the vision he posed, the stories he told, the miracles he worked. Because the Creed does confess that Jesus “rose from the dead,” “ascended into heaven,” and “will come to judge the living and the dead,” the old catechisms were far stronger on the Christ of faith than the Jesus of history. The rub is that we badly need both for a whole Christian faith.
A second reason for overlooking the historical Jesus is that from the Council of Trent (1545–63) up to Vatican II (1962–65), the lectionary at Sunday Mass was a very limited one-year cycle of texts, and in most traditional cultures the Gospel was read in Latin—which very few (maybe not even the priest) could understand. Add to this the fact that Catholics generally were not reading the Bible in their homes or in parish adult education; personal Bible study was considered “Protestant,” maybe even dangerous to our faith—we could so easily misinterpret it.
Now, of course, we are doing better since Vatican II. Indeed, many theologians would claim that a core agenda of Vatican II was the recentering of Jesus the Christ at the heart of our Catholic faith. To this end we now have a three-year cycle of lectionary readings to be preached upon, and Catholics are slowly learning to study the Bible. As Vatican II insisted, “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful” (Dei Verbum 22). But it will take a while for us to catch up and to honor both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.
Indeed, we seem to be catching up a little. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997) makes abundantly clear that our faith is constituted by great creeds and commandments, scriptures and sacraments, dogmas and doctrines, and yet in a powerful summary statement it declares, “At the heart . . . we find a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son from the Father” (426). Note well how the Catechism emphasizes both Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of faith—and as one person. As the great dogmas of our faith well teach, Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and yet the two natures, united in one person, did not compromise or diminish each other. Of course, we need both; however, my contention is that Catholics especially need remedial work to place the historical Jesus at the “heart” of our faith! Such is my focus in this essay.
Here I make a parenthetical comment. For some 250 years now, a great debate has raged among Scripture scholars as to how much we can say reliably of the historical Jesus, of what we can be confident that he did and taught. Instead of being unbiased history, the Gospels reflect the faith of the first Christian communities and of the early disciples who had known Jesus personally. Yet some Gospel texts attribute strange statements to Jesus like, “I came not to bring peace but a sword” (Matt 10:34). Did Jesus really say that, or was Matthew just trying to justify the divisions that were emerging in his faith community? With this complex controversy well beyond the scope of this essay (or author), I accept the position proposed by the great Scripture scholar José Pagola, who argues convincingly that from contemporary critical New Testament scholarship, we can have at least a “historical approximation” of what Jesus said and did. In that light, let us turn to four central themes from the public life and teaching of the historical Jesus, all verified by God’s raising him from the dead as our Christ of faith.
I. God’s Reign as the Heart of Jesus’s Gospel
At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel (always taken to be the earliest and most historically reliable), Jesus launched his public ministry by “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled and the reign of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14-15). Thereafter Jesus speaks of the “reign of God” almost one hundred times in the Synoptics, including Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew, being a good Jew, was reluctant to use the divine name). And what Jesus meant by the “reign of God” in the Synoptics is echoed deeply in John’s Gospel by the metaphors of “fullness of life” (10:10) and embracing the “light of life” (8:12).
Thereafter, the “reign of God” was the central theme of Jesus’s teaching. He used it to pose God’s great utopian vision for all humankind, the best of everything for every person, shalom for every people, and the well-being of God’s creation. Jesus’s portrayal of the reign of God echoes the deepest longings of the human heart, the best personal and social values to which we can aspire. It was captured well by the poet William Butler Yeats as “the land of heart’s desire,” or by what John in his Gospel called “life in abundance” (10:10)—and this for all humankind and for all of God’s creation. And though God’s reign is realized fully only in God’s eternal time, Jesus taught that it is to begin here and now, with its deeply humanizing values being done “on earth . . . as in heaven.”
Jesus invites all Christians to live our lives into this “transcendent horizon” (to use Karl Rahner’s phrase), with the reign of God shaping our whole way of being in the world. Its greatest commandment, of course, is to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves—even our enemies. As taught and modeled by Jesus, to live for the reign of God can lend our lives an extraordinary sense of meaning and purpose, and shape a most life-giving ethic toward self and others along the way.
II. Deep Compassion and Justice for All
Following logically from the summation of his Gospel as the reign of God, Jesus modeled extraordinary compassion for all in need of any kind and championed the rights and dignity of all people. Jesus worked miracles to feed the hungry, heal the sick, console the bereaved, and drive out evil. Only two miracles are reported six times in the Gospels: the miracle of Jesus’s resurrection and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (in all four Gospels, then twice in Matthew and twice in Mark). Feeding the hungry must have been a central feature of Jesus’s public ministry. So often his miracles, especially of healing, not only cured people’s diseases but restored their dignity and erased their social shame. Further, Jesus made clear that we will all be judged for whether or not we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, and so on (see Matt 25:31-46). For Jesus, compassion and justice were two sides of the same coin.
This is particularly evident in Jesus’s amazing claim in Luke 4:16-21 to be the fulfillment of the most radical of all messianic prophecies, as found in Isaiah 61:1-2a. Luke locates this in the synagogue at Nazareth on a Sabbath day, with Jesus present “as was his custom” (meaning that he was an observant Jew). Whether called upon or by his own initiative, Jesus stood up to read. Luke says that Jesus “unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written”—in other words, he looked for this particular messianic text. It states that the “anointed one” (the Messiah) would bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and proclaim God’s year of jubilee. Then Jesus, claiming God’s intentions as his own, said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The rest of Luke’s Gospel (indeed, of all four Gospels) is the story of how Jesus lived up to this messianic promise throughout his public ministry. It calls disciples ever after to live likewise.
III. Jesus Welcomed All to the Table
In the culture of Jesus’s time and place, to be invited to “the table” was a profound symbol of welcome and inclusion. Indeed, from very early in his ministry, the scribes and Pharisees complained about Jesus welcoming to the table “the sinners and tax collectors” (Mark 2:15-17). For Jesus, all were to be included in his community, the rich and poor, young and old, tax collectors and taxpayers, the list goes on. Most amazing of all was his welcoming of children and his full inclusion of women in his core group of disciples.
In the world of the time, children did not even have the status of “property” in Roman law. Jesus, by contrast, welcomed children, upbraided his disciples for trying to exclude them, and told the adults that they should become more childlike in order to belong to the reign of God (Matt 19:13-15). It is very clear that he fully included women within his inner circle of disciples (Luke 8:1-3), and all three Synoptics state that the women at the foot of cross “had followed him from Galilee” (Luke 23:49). If we take John’s chronology of Jesus’s life, this would mean that he included women as core disciples for some three years. And, of course, a woman—his beloved Mary Magdalene—was the first witnesses to his resurrection (Mark 16:9).
To emulate the inclusivity of the historical Jesus in our own faith life and communities today demands that we root out each and every semblance of exclusion or discrimination from our teachings, from our practices, and from our faith communities. Every form of social discrimination—sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, etc.—is contrary to the passions and commitments of the historical Jesus. Stated positively, every person is to be welcomed and fully included in Jesus’s community of disciples. Nothing less than full inclusion and deep respect for the full rights of all would be faithful to the practice of the historical Jesus.
IV. Jesus Affirmed the Great Potential of Every Human Person
When Jesus invited someone to discipleship, he typically called them to actively participate in his mission of teaching for the reign of God. And he did this from the beginning; see his call of the first disciples, the brothers Simon (renamed Peter) and Andrew. His invitation was that they go with him “to fish for people” (Mark 1:16-20). All disciples are to become “agents” of God’s reign and not just passive recipients.
Jesus saw such agency for good even in the poorest peasants. In his Sermon on the Mount, delivered “to the multitude” (Matt 7:28), Jesus could say to poor peasant people: “you are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world” (Matt 5:13-16). Note how often when he has cured someone, he credits not himself but their own faith. A good example is his cure of the woman with a hemorrhage after 12 years of suffering. Note first that he addresses her as “daughter,” fully including her as family and rejecting her exclusion because of her bleeding. Then, when healed, he tells her, “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:24-34). Not his power before God but her own faith is what cured her. And Jesus says likewise to the Samaritan cured of leprosy who comes back to give thanks (one of ten; see Luke 17:12-19), to the blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), and so on.
As a good Jew, and one who clearly was well schooled in his tradition at the synagogue of Nazareth (he quoted many Scripture texts by heart) as well as in his home by his parents, Mary and Joseph, Jesus was steeped in and loved his Jewish tradition of faith. As such, he most likely would have studied the Genesis texts regarding human creation: that we, male and female, are all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27) and that we are alive by the very “breath” (life) of God (Gen 2:7). He certainly reflected such a positive sense of our human potential and so could well challenge us to live for the reign of God.
Conclusion: Walk in His Ways
The values and commitments reflected in the life of Jesus (and this essay is far from exhaustive) can surely inspire a most humanizing way of life for ourselves, others, and “for the life of the world” (John 6:51). And even as we continue to reclaim the historical Jesus, let us also remember that that same Jesus was the fullness of the divine presence in human history, the Christ of faith, the son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity. We firmly believe that through his paschal mystery—his death, resurrection, and ascension—Jesus Christ was a catalyst in human history toward liberating salvation for all people and for all of God’s creation. As St. Paul repeats often, Christ’s paschal mystery catalyzed an “abundance of God’s grace” (Rom 5:17, 1 Tim 14), which ever prompts and empowers us to live “the way” of Jesus. Though never perfectly, by God’s grace through the Risen Christ we can at least approximate what it means to place Jesus at the heart of our Catholic faith and follow in his footsteps. ♦
Thomas Groome is Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College and Director of BC’s Ph.D. in Theology and Education. His most recent book, What Makes Education Catholic: Spiritual Values (Orbis, 2021), begins with Jesus!