Jesus is the greatest paradox in history. He appears in a region of minor importance in the Roman Empire, in a nation that its conquerors describe as “a contemptible collection of slaves” (Tacitus). Not once in His life does He emerge from among this people, not once does He evince any desire to know the world of the learned, the politicians, and the warriors who control the civil society of His day. In His own region, He spends at least nine-tenths of His life in a humble little village, proverbial for its worthlessness. There He is simply a carpenter. For thirty years no one knows who He is except for two or three people who are as silent as He.
Suddenly, when He is past thirty, He emerges into public life and begins a new activity. He has no human means of any kind at His disposal, no weapons, no money, no academic knowledge, no political support. He spends almost all His time among poor folk, fishermen and peasants; with particular solicitude He seeks out publicans, harlots, and others rejected by good society. Among these He works miracles in great number and variety. He joins to Himself a little group of fishermen who follow Him constantly as His particular disciples.
His activity lasts less than three years. He preaches a doctrine that is neither philosophical nor political, but religious and moral exclusively. It seems to be composed of everything that all the various philosophies have rejected, of all that the entire world has cast as far from it as it could. What is evil for the world is for Jesus a good; what the world deems good, for Jesus is an evil. Poverty, humility, submission, the silent sufferance of insult and injury, withdrawing oneself to give way to others—these are the greatest of evils in the world and the greatest goods to Jesus. Conversely, wealth, honors, dominion over others, and all the other many things that spell happiness for the world represent a total loss for Jesus, or at least a serious danger.
The world, in fact, sees only the visible and the tangible; Jesus declares that He sees the unseen. The world fixes its gaze on nothing but the earth, and it sees it from below. Jesus fixes His graze on Heaven especially, and He contemplates the earth from Heaven. For Jesus, the earth takes its meaning only from Heaven. The present life has value only as preparation for a future life; it is a toilsome and impermanent dwelling, but it has value as a runway, from which to take off for the flight toward a permanent joy-filled home. The tenants of the impermanent dwelling who place their hopes in it alone, and refuse to leave it, comprise the kingdom of the world. Those who remain in
it only through obedience, but aspire constantly to their permanent home, constitute the Kingdom of God.
Between the two kingdoms there is, and will be, relentless warfare, which will go on until one or the other is utterly defeated. The respective strengths of both kingdoms derive from love, but for different objects. The subjects of the kingdom of the world love only themselves or what is useful or pleasing to themselves. The subjects of the Kingdom of God love God, first of all, and then the whole hierarchy of beings down to those who are useless and who do evil, and for these they have a particular love, and they seek to do good to those who do evil or do not know how to do good. For them, to give is to acquire, and therefore they know no hatred, which is the peak of avarice. Of this Kingdom of God, the strength of which is the love of God and of men, Jesus is the founder.
The Kingdom of God is the kingdom foretold by the ancient prophets of Israel, who predicted that its founder would be the Messiah promised the chosen people. In preaching His anti-world doctrine Jesus is conscious of His identity as the Messiah, but He does not declare Himself in the beginning in order that the crowds, throbbing with politico-messianic hopes, may not interpret His doctrine as a political proclamation and acclaim Him as a national leader. His personal mission is directed solely to the chosen people, the depositary of God’s ancient promises; when those promises have been fulfilled, however, the effects of His mission will pour over all the peoples of the earth.
To this end, He institutes a permanent society, the Church. But the majority of the chosen people do not accept His preaching, and those most hostile to Him are precisely the leaders of that people—the chief priests from the Temple and the Pharisees from the synagogues. These leaders are convinced of His miraculous power, and they would not take issue with Him on many points of His teaching. But they do not forgive His outspoken denunciation of the hypocrisy of the ruling classes and His unflinching condemnation of the empty formalism that is withering their religious life. After having unwillingly tolerated Him for a time, they arrest Him through treachery, condemn Him in the tribunal of their nation on religious charges, and have Him condemned a second time in the tribunal of the representative of Rome on political charges.
Jesus dies on the Cross. After three days, those who have condemned Him are convinced that He has risen. His disciples, at first unconvinced, yield later to the evidence of their senses, for they see Him and touch Him with their hands a number of times, and speak with Him just as they did before His death.
But the paradox of Jesus continues, unchanged, even after His death. Just as in His first life He was the antithesis of the world, so the institution that He founded continues in the most incredible manner to be a negation of the world. He left no echo of Himself in the upper circles of the society of His time. In the whole Roman Empire the historians ignore Him, the learned are unaware of His teachings, the civil authorities have at the most noted His death in their records. The very leaders of His nation, satisfied at His disappearance from the scene, are more than ready to forget Him altogether. His institution seems to have been reduced to the agony of His own tortured body on the Cross. The world gloats over its agony, just as the chief priests stood gloating at the foot of His Cross.
And instead, this institution shuddering in agony suddenly rises up again to gather into its arms the entire world. There are three centuries of persecution and slaughter, three centuries that seem to prolong the agony of the Cross and reecho the three days in the sepulcher, but after the third century civil society becomes officially the disciple of Jesus. The kingdom of the world is not overthrown, however, and the war goes on in different forms but with the same obdurate tenacity as before. Jesus, or His institution, becomes increasingly the “sign of contradiction” in the history of human civilization. His paradoxical and burdensome doctrine has been accepted by infinite numbers of men and practiced with intense love, even to the supreme sacrifice. Infinite numbers of others reject it and hate it rabidly. It might be said that the efforts of the most civilized portion of humanity have all been concentrated on this “sign of contradiction,” either to exalt it or to trample it underfoot.
Certain it is that Jesus is today more alive than ever among men. All have need of Him, either to love Him or to curse Him, but they cannot do without Him. Many men in the past have been loved intensely—Socrates by his disciples, Julius Caesar by his legionaries, Napoleon by his soldiers. But today these men belong irrevocably to the past; not a heart beats at their memory. And when their ideals are opposed (for they are still being advocated), no one thinks of cursing Socrates or Julius Caesar or Napoleon, because their personalities no longer have any influence; they are bygones. But not Jesus; Jesus is still loved, and He is still cursed; men still renounce their possessions and even their lives both for love of Him and out of hatred for Him. No living being is as alive as Jesus.
Editor’s note: The above excerpt is taken from Life of Christ, available now from Sophia Institute Press.
Image: Christ Carrying His Cross, Titian