“Reading time, like writing time, is precious. Don’t waste it on mediocre books,” wrote Kate Southwood in a recent blog. Seems like I am always finding books that leave me thinking – books that I don’t consider mediocre – and the most recent of these is What Jesus Meant (Viking Penguin, 2006) by Garry Wills, emeritus professor of history, Northwestern University, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
The book discusses various ways that we have complicated Jesus’ message or tried to not hear what the Gospels report that he said. “More than any other teacher of nonviolence … he was absolute and inclusive in what he forbade,” writes Wills. Referring to the passage of specific instructions in Luke 6:27-38, Wills adds, “Tremendous ingenuity has been expended to compromise these uncompromising words. Jesus is too much for us. The churches’ later treatment of the gospels is one long effort to rescue Jesus from his ‘extremism.'”
Many people associate Jesus and religion as inseparable from each other, but Wills points out: “The most striking, resented, and dangerous of Jesus’ activities was his opposition to religion as that was understood in his time. This is what led to his death. Religion killed him.” Wills writes of Jesus’ active opposition to all formalism in worship, and as to what Jesus might think of religion today: “it would probably look all too familiar, perpetuating the very things he criticized in the cleanliness code, the Sabbath rules, the sacrifices, and the Temple.”
Wills declares at the outset that the book is not meant to be scholarly but to be devotional: a profession of faith. Jesus came to “instill a religion of the heart.” The test of whether we have lived our lives in accordance with what Jesus meant is simple: “Did you treat everyone, high and low, as if dealing with Jesus himself, with his own inclusive and gratuitous love, the revelation of the Father’s love, whose sunshine is shed on all.”