In his first ever book written in 2007 as Pope, Benedict XVI takes on a topic that is at the core of Christianity: Jesus of Nazareth who is both a historical person and is revealed as mankind’s saviour. This article is written for the benefit of those who cannot have access to the book itself. In this book describing his personal search for the face of Jesus, the Pope bases himself on the Gospels as the most reliable source to work with. He says: "I wanted to portray the Jesus of the Gospels as the real, ‘historical’ Jesus in the strict sense of the word. I am convinced, and I hope the reader will be, too, that this figure is much more logical and, historically speaking, much more intelligible than the reconstructions we have been presented with in the last decades. I believe that this Jesus – the Jesus of the Gospels – is a historically plausible and convincing figure."( p.xxii). He does take into account the contribution of the so-called historical-critical method of biblical research as indispensable, not however failing to point out its limits and lacunae. The Pope appreciates the recent approach taken by American exegetes, the so-called "canonical exegesis" which aims at reading individual texts in the light of the totality of the one Scripture, which then sheds new light on all the individual texts (pp.xviii-xix). Much later in the same vein, one reads: "True to the nature of God’s written word, we read the Bible and specially the Gospels, as an overall unity expressing an intrinsically coherent message, notwithstanding their multiple historical layers" (p.191). He insists on attention to be paid to the tradition of the Church or the believing community as well, since it is the living subject of scripture that receives, listens daily and acts on its truths (pp. xx-xxi).
The Pope’s wish is that his portrayal of the figure and public ministry of Jesus be a help for the reader to foster the growth of a living relationship with the Savior. Emphasizing the Gospels alone, the Pope says: Jesus must be seen as the New Moses who sees God face to face and in prayer experiencing him as his Father. Thus He as the Son is able to reveal the Father and in this intimacy are rooted his authoritative teaching and works. The Pope is convinced that all search for Jesus’ identity must begin from this fact of unity (p.6).
The present work is only the first part of this title covering all the essential events of Jesus’ life from his Baptism in the Jordan to Peter’s Confession of Faith and the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor. In the second part still to be written, the Pope hopes to treat the narratives about the Infancy of Jesus, found only in Matthew and Luke. The chain of topics treated in this first part beginning with the Baptism include the story of the triple temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, the nature of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, followed by the epoch-making sermon on the mount, the contents of the Lord’s Prayer, the call of the disciples, the messages conveyed through the so-called parables of the Kingdom, special symbols and images in St. John’s Gospel and finally, what He calls: "Two milestones on Jesus’ Way: the confession of Peter and the Transfiguration event. He ends this present work by looking into two titles that Jesus used to refer to himself such as "Son of Man" and the "Son" and then probing into the so-called "I am" sayings which at once conceal and reveal the mystery of his person (p. 354).
Scanning through the contents we notice that Baptism, the temptations and the Transfiguration are constitutive of the personal revelations we have of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of the Kingdom is eventually identified with Jesus, since the Pope observes that Jesus is the kingdom-in-person. He is the personification of the Kingdom. The chapters on the Sermon on the Mount are doctrinal as is the explanation on the prayer "Our Father". However, once again, the sermon on the mount is nothing else but the life-style of Jesus himself, his spirituality and personal qualities to be emulated. The Our Father is a reflection too of the prayer of Jesus in which he addresses God as his own loving Father and through which the believer can speak and listen to God (p.128).
The story of the temptations is preceded by the appearance and activity of John the Baptist at the Jordan river and Jesus’ baptism. Jesus does it to accomplish righteousness, which the Pope says is "an unrestricted Yes to God’s will, as an obedient acceptance of his yoke. His descent into the water signifies solidarity with all who have incurred guilt and yearn for righteousness. This baptism takes on its full meaning in the event of the Cross and Resurrection." Also, the exegete, Joachim Jeremias has shown how Baptist’s words referring to Jesus and the lamb of God allude to his being the suffering servant foreseen by prophet Isaiah and the lamb taken to the slaughter to expiate and wipe away the sins of the world.
The three temptations show how Jesus’ universal mission is severely tested. At the heart of all temptations is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. This is very relevant since the trend today is to construct a world on our own lights and foundations, setting God as an illusion and refusing to acknowledge anything beyond the political and material. First temptation relates to bread. The Pope says that: "It is in this world that we are obliged to resist the delusion of false philosophies and to recognize that we do not live by bread alone, but first and foremost by obedience to God’s word. Only when this obedience is put into practice does the attitude develop that is also capable of providing bread for all"(p.34). Even the so-called aid from the west to the third-world is materially based with God completely left out of the picture. What really has happened is now instead turning stones into bread, we have given stones instead! In the second temptation, the devil quotes scripture (Ps. 91:11f) to lure Christ into the trap. The Pope gives a salutary warning that even Scriptural Exegesis can become a tool of the Antichrist with the alleged findings of scholarly exegesis being used to come up with the most dreadful books that destroy the figure of Christ and dismantle the faith (p.35). The morale for the secular world is that God should not be tested as products are. We cannot ask Him to submit to conditions that are said to be necessary to reach certainty. One here denies God placing oneself above him. This implies making oneself God and the Pope says: "to do that is to abase not only God, but the world and oneself, too". Let us remember that this temptation is located in no other place than the pinnacle of the temple! The third is from a top of a mountain from where the grandeur and all the glory of the kingdoms are seen and kingship is offered to him. This temptation has constantly taken on new forms throughout history. But the struggle for the freedom of the Church, to avoid identifying the kingdom of Jesus with any political or other power structure has to be fought always. The faith will not need to become the servant of power and bow to its criteria. The alternative that is at stake here appears in the narrative of the Lord’s passion, the reaction of Peter to such a submission by Jesus. The pope observes that the Christian empire or the secular power of the papacy is no more a temptation. But instead, there is the tendency to interpret Christianity as a recipe for progress and that the universal prosperity is the real goal of all religions! So what did Jesus bring after all? The answer is simple: he brought God, the God of the patriarchs and the prophets whose face is now seen and with it the truth of our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love (p.44). To the tempter’s lying divinization of power and prosperity, to his lying promise of a future that offers all things to all men through power and through wealth – Jesus responds with the fact that God is God, that God is man’s true Good.
The third element strewn right through the Gospels is Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom of God. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is quite simply proclaiming God, and him as living and who is able to act concretely in the world and in history even as he does at present. The Pope refers to the alleged gulf between the preaching of Jesus and that of the Apostles. The truth is that the Kingdom of God and the Church are related in different ways and brought into more or less close proximity. There is no evolutionism regarding the Kingdom of God according to liberal theology as from a church-centeredness to a Christ-centeredness; from there to a God-centerednes and finally to a Kingdom-centeredness (p.53). Here the author raises the question of the evangelization of other religions. He points out that in concrete, faith and religions may end up with the so-called kingdom-building work and be directed even to political goals! He condemns the secular-utopian idea of the Kingdom which pushes God off the stage. The gospel witness is clear: when Jesus proclaims the Kingdom, he is quite simply proclaiming God: him to be the living God, acting in history and even as he does now. This goes back to the kingship of Yahweh in the Old Testament, found in the Psalms, the book of Daniel and in the "shema" faith of Israel (Deut. 6:4-5). The Pope keenly observes that: "The reality of what Jesus names the ‘Kingdom of God, lordship of God’ is extremely complex, and only by accepting it in its entirety can we gain access to, and let ourselves be guided by his message" (p.59). One has to accept the interior nature of the Kingdom, also its manifestation at the end-time, but also in the present because God is acting and ruling here and now in the actions of Jesus. That rule is by way of the cross. The sermon on the mount assembles several strands coming together: freedom from the Law, the gift of grace and the ‘greater righteousness’, that is, the ‘surplus’ of righteousness, that Jesus demands of his disciples. Herein, ethics is not denied, but freed from the constraint of moralism and set in the context of a relationship of love --- of relationship to God.
One of the core-elements of Jesus’ preaching is the sermon on the mount. This sermon is the new messianic Torah brought by Jesus. The Pope is swift to remark that: "The Beatitudes are not infrequently presented as the New Testament counterpart to the Ten Commandments, as an example of the Christian ethics that is supposedly superior to the commands of the Old Testament. This approach totally misconstrues these words of Jesus" (p.70). The Beatitudes spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes – the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in the right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It deals with the transformation of values. These are to be the qualities of a disciple and St. Paul is one of the best examples of this. Matthew shows the beatitudes as a veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure.
Part II on Tuesday