by David Cartwright
In my book on the paradoxical teachings of Jesus, there are three questions that prompted my quest for answers and shaped the course of all fifteen meditations on the sayings of Jesus. “What did Jesus say?”, “What did Jesus mean?”, and “What would Jesus do?” Although, that’s the most helpful order to deal with the questions, most often that is not the way these questions are experienced. Usually, I find that most of us proceed the other way around. We begin with “What would Jesus do?” Then turn to “What did Jesus mean?”
And finally arrive at the most basic one, “What did Jesus say?” Maybe, because the most common approach appears to begin with the most obvious and least difficult. For my part, there’s enough obscurity and difficulty all along the way. However, in these three posts, I have decided to begin with the usual experience of the action question, “What would Jesus do?”
Not too long ago, it was very popular in many Christian circles to wear a little wrist band with the initials, WWJD. As a pastor, I remember seeing many young people in my congregation with these bracelets. Also, around the same time, there were visible yellow wrists bands with the words, LIVE STRONG, a promotion of Lance Armstrong, when he was at his best and highest in popularity. These are two approaches to living the good life. One, a call to reflection, and the other, an admonition to perfection. Neither of these approaches provides a concrete answer or program on how exactly one is to go about this. The best thing about both of these approaches is that they leave the specific outcome up to the person wearing the bracelet. We all know what happened to Lance Armstrong, and I haven’t seen many of those bracelets around recently. For that matter, I haven’t seen a WWJD wrist band in a long while either. Still as a Christian pastor, I think that these approaches are not altogether off the beaten track to good ethical living.
But looking for a definitive answer from Jesus can be quite challenging. For many times, it’s not all that clear what Jesus would do, and often times it gets down to “it all depends.” Take for instance, the matter of the response to Jesus’ healings. One time Jesus tells a man cured of leprosy not to tell anyone about what has happened (Mark 4) However, at another time, Jesus seems perfectly content to let another cured man go and spread the good news (Mark 5). What are we to make of this? It just so happens that the first man is a Jew in Jewish territory, and it is early in Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus is trying to be on good terms with the authorities. To the other cured man, a Gentile in “the Gerasenes”, Jesus seems to be saying that the man can speak his piece, because at the moment the environment is receptive to what Jesus is about.
What would Jesus do? And what would Jesus do today in the 21st century? It all depends. But one thing is clear. There is always an appropriate response, but it may differ under specific circumstances.
Next time: What did Jesus mean?