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Jesus in Our Time in Our Place

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Jesus in Our Time in Our Place

A ‘Lenten Talks’ paper presented by Professor Ranga Zinyemba, Vice Chancellor and Rector, Catholic University of Zimbabwe, at Arrupe College, 2 March, 2016

Not to ever be found wanting in his priestly responsibilities, Fr. O’Brien approaches three boys playing on the quiet suburban street and says, “Boys, I will give $2 to whoever among you gives me the correct answer to this question: ‘Who is the greatest man that ever lived on earth?’”

The boys think for a minute.

“It is Martin Luther because he led the revolution in the church,” says the boy from the Protestant Church down the road.

“No,” says the Catholic boy from Fr. O’Brien’s own parish, “it is St. Patrick because he brought Christianity to England.”

“You are both wrong,” says the Jewish boy from the Synagogue across the road, “it was Jesus.”

Fr. O’Brien takes out the $2 and before he gives it to Isaac, the Jewish boy, he asks him “Isaac, surely someone from your faith doesn’t believe that?”

“Oh, no, Father,” replies Isaac, “I know Moses was the greatest, but business is business.”

My talk this evening is divided into three broad parts.

The first part challenges the limitations implied in my topic “Jesus in Our Time in Our Place” and argues instead that Jesus belongs to all times, all places, all religions, and that the Jesus who emerges from all this is a colossal towering figure who cannot be confined to a place to a time or to a religion.

The second part tries to account for Jesus’ global and universal appeal and argues that the appeal comes from the fact that Jesus charted, built and practised models of behaviour and approaches that have influenced cultures, business and religious practices through the ages.

The third part argues that because Jesus is for all time and for all places, he certainly is also for our time and for our place. The question is then posed: what would Jesus do in our time in our place?

The conclusion expresses how different our world would be if we all lived out the models that Jesus charted, built and practised and commanded his disciples to do likewise.

Part 1 challenges the limitations implied in my topic “Jesus in Our Time in Our Place” and argues instead that Jesus belongs to all times, all places, all religions, and that the Jesus who emerges from all this is a colossal and towering figure who cannot be confined to a place to a time or to a religion.

The subject of my talk this evening is “Jesus in Our Time in Our Place.” As I thought and researched on this subject, it did not take me very long to realize that the topic is a misnomer.

For 4 years from the beginning of 2009 to the end of 2012, I lived and worked in the war-torn Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Inevitably, I made friends with work colleagues not only from Afghanistan itself, but from several countries in that part of the Asian sub-continent that included Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, China, Nepal, Thailand and India. Adding to that list colleagues from Germany, the Netherlands, the United States of America, Australia, Africa, Russia, Israel and Canada, I always felt that I lived in a melting pot not only of different colours – brown-yellow being the most dominant but also white, black, pink – but also a melting pot of cultures and, most of all, religions. These included Islam, of course, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. In the various discussions that we discreetly held across religions once we became familiar and comfortable with each other, one common figure that featured in all religions was Jesus.

Islamic tradition has it that when the Prophet Mohammed arrived in Mecca to make it the home and holy city of Islam in the year 630 A.D, and as he went about destroying all artefacts of different religions such as the Buddha, he stopped when he came to the image of the Virgin and Child, a Christian icon, covered it with his cloak and ordered that only this one be preserved. It is said he recognized in the child the person of Jesus, the same Jesus who features prominently in Islamic tradition and religion as the harbinger of the Prophet Mohammed.

“Jesus reinterpreted in the Qur’an,” writes Tarif Khalidi, “is singled out, again and again, as a prophet of very special significance. Uniquely among prophets he is described as a miracle of God, an aya; he is the word and spirit of God; he is the prophet of peace par excellence; and, finally it is he who predicts the coming of Muhammad and thus, one might say, is the harbinger of Islam” (Tarif Khalidi,2009).

Celebrated to this day in the Islamic world is Jesus the healer of man and of nature and Jesus the sacrificial lamb. Let me quote directly from Khalidi:

“As we approach our own days [2009], we observe that many of his [Jesus’] earlier manifestations continue to dominate the spiritual horizons of Islam…To encounter Jesus the healer…take a trip to the Monastery of Sidnaya north of Damascus or to the Iranian City of Shiraz…To the Monastery of Sidnaya travels an endless stream of men and women seeking the blessings of our Lady and her infant son. The vast majority of visitors are Muslim, who come to this Christian shrine as did their ancestors for a thousand years.”

Turning his attention to admonishing what he calls the dangerous and narrow-minded, Khalidi concludes his article, “Jesus in Muslim Eyes” as follows:

“So: I think it can safely be shown that Islamic culture presents us with what in quantity and quality are the richest images of Jesus in any non-Christian culture. No other world religion known to me has devoted so much loving attention to both the Jesus of History and to the Christ of eternity. This tradition is one that we need to highlight in these dangerous and narrow-minded days…that one religion will often act as the hinterland of another, will lean upon another to complement its own witness. There can be no more salient example of this interdependence than the case of Islam and Jesus Christ. And for the Christian in particular, a love of Jesus may also mean, I think, an interest in how and why he was loved and cherished by another religion” (Tarif Khalidi, 2009).

Writing in an article entitled, “Saint Jesus in Hinduism,” Shaunaka Rishi Das, a Hindu Priest, says:

“You see, in a sense, Hindus don’t really see Jesus as a Christian (of course, Jesus didn’t either because the term wasn’t used during his lifetime). In Hindu thought, church or temple membership or belief is not as significant as spiritual practice, which in Sanskrit is called Sadhana.

As there is no church of Hinduism, everyone holds their own spiritual and philosophical opinions. It is difficult then to understand someone’s spirituality simply by looking at their religious trappings. So, in India, it is more common to hear someone ask, “what is your sadhana (practice)’ than, ‘what do you believe?’

Then when we ask how we can see spirituality in Hindus, the answer comes: by behaviour and practice. We can ask, are we humble, are we tolerant and are we non - violent? Can we control our senses and our mind? Are we aware of others’ suffering and are we willing to give up our comfort to help them? Looking at these criteria Jesus measures up as a Sadhu, a holy man. He preached a universal message, love of God and love of brother, which was beyond any sectarianism or selfishness. Jesus was one of those people who appealed from heart to heart, and that’s what makes him such a good Hindu Saint…

The Sanskrit word Acharya means ‘one who teaches by example’. For Hindus, Christ is an Acharya. His example is a light to any of us in this world who want to take up the serious practice of spiritual life. His message is no different from the message preached in another time and place by Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya. It would be a great shame if we allowed our Hinduism, our Islam, our Judaism or indeed our Christianity to stand in the way of being able to follow the teachings and example of such a great soul as Lord Jesus Christ (Shaunaka Rishi Das, 2009).

About Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi said:

“What …does Jesus mean to me? To me, He was one of the greatest teachers humanity has ever had. To His believers, He was God’s only begotten son. Could the fact that I do or do not accept this belief make Jesus have any more or less influence in my life? Is all the grandeur of His teaching and of His doctrine to be forbidden to me? I cannot believe so…” (Mahatma Gandhi, 1995).

In her article, “Jesus through Buddhist Eyes,” Ajahn Candasiri, a Buddhist nun, says, “Jesus and the Buddha are friends and teachers. They can show us the way…”

Nikki Singh, in her article “Jesus through Sikh Eyes, says this about Jesus:

“So, who is Jesus to me, a Sikh? In my mind he is an enlightener… who continues to play a very significant role in my life as a Sikh…He opened me up to another mode of spirituality at a very young age. He did not take anything away from my being a Sikh. In fact, Jesus concretised the message of Guru Nanak: ‘Countless are the ways of meditation, and countless are the avenues of love.’ Jesus has been a wonderful mirror who in his unique form and vocabulary has promoted my self-understanding” (Nikki Singh, 2009).

Clive Lawton, writing in “Jesus through Jewish Eyes,” says:

“So, who then, do I, a practising Jew, think Jesus was?...It’s fairly easy to see Jesus as a Pharisee from the liberal wing.” Lawton takes a number of events in the four Gospels, including the Last Supper, and says he recognizes them as being very Jewish and contemporary to the tradition during Jesus’ historicity.

Jesus’ historicity is strongly underlined by Pope Benedict XV1 in his Trilogy on Jesus. He asserts that the narrative in the Gospels is historical, laced, of course, with the literary artistry of the day.

If we cast our minds back to the year 630 A.D., the year the Prophet Mohammed gave recognition to Jesus in the City of Mecca, through the centuries and over the vast expanse of all regions and all religions as we have briefly discussed here, it becomes abundantly clear why my topic this evening, “Jesus in Our Time in Our Place,” is a misnomer. It is a misnomer because Jesus is a colossal and towering presence in all times in all places. While different religious traditions assign to Jesus different and various roles and status, what they all have in common is their acknowledgement of his historicity and the fact that he was no ordinary man. Yes, they all agree, Jesus was a man in history, but they also all agree that he was much, much more than that; he was also Jesus Christ of eternity.

Part 2 tries to account for Jesus’ global and universal appeal and argues that the appeal comes from the fact that Jesus charted, built and practised models of behaviour and approaches that have influenced cultures, business and religious practice through the ages.

What is it about Jesus that has made him such a colossal and towering presence in all religious traditions and in all times?

It would appear to me that the answer lies in the fact that Jesus accepted God’s injunction that man must be a leader and Jesus took that injunction to perfection. “Let us make man in our image,” says God in Genesis Chapter 1 verses 26 to 29, “according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over all cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on earth. So God created man in His own image: in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Man’s call to leadership by God was not a call, let me use the word mentioned in verse 28, to ‘subdue’ either members of the opposite sex or other human beings, but to subdue the earth and the creatures in it, in the air and in the waters of the seas. This is a message which resonates well in the minds of many today who are oppressed by other human beings, ranging from women, children and men who are regularly, let me use that word again, ‘subdued’ by others in the home, at work, at church, at the social club, in the political party, etc. to whole nations that are ‘subdued’ by dictatorships and to whole continents that are ‘subdued’ by international corporations and international capital.

Jesus’ type of leadership was the type of leadership bequeathed to man by God at the beginning of man’s history. When the Jews of Jesus’ time expected him to prove that he was the Messiah by subduing Rome and thus deliver them from Rome’s rule over them, he told them that his kingdom was not of this world, or to put it in terms of God’s original call for man to take leadership of the earth, not to subdue other people, even if such people were oppressors. Instead, Jesus taught that he who wished to be regarded as leader should serve others and be servant to all. He amply demonstrated this when he washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. In teaching and practising his brand of leadership, which we have in our day christened ‘servant leadership,’ Jesus revolutionised our concept of leadership, turning it upside down, so to speak.

In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell argues that an effective leader lives out the following ‘laws,’ among others:

1. The Law of Navigation: “Anyone can steer a ship, argues Maxwell, but it takes a leader to chart the course.” Good leaders, he argues further, take their followers through a process to give them the best chance for success before they embark on a journey.

2. The Law of the Picture: Closely linked to the Law of Navigation as defined above is the Law of the Picture in which Maxwell argues that people do what they see. An effective leader will therefore help his followers have a vivid sense of purpose answering to why (Mission), a vivid sense of where they are heading (Vision) and a vivid plan of how they will get there (Strategy).

3. The Law of Connection: the need to connect genuinely with people, “touching their hearts before touching their hand,” showing that you care.

4. The Law of Addition: adding value to other people, changing lives

5. The Law Empowerment: giving power to others

6. The Law of Sacrifice: giving up what one has for the good of those he leads, including the supreme sacrifice

7. The Law of Legacy: According to Maxwell, and I quote, “A leader’s lasting value is measured by succession. Our ability as leaders will not be measured by the buildings we build, or institutions established. We will be judged by how the people we invested in carried on after we are gone.”

Maxwell talks about 14 other ‘laws’ that make for an effective leader, attributes that make a leader leave behind him a legacy that cannot be wished or washed away. While it could be argued that Jesus’ legacy in all religions can be analysed against all the 21 traits that Maxwell discusses in his book, I have confined my discussion this evening to these 7 which best illustrate Jesus’ universal and lasting appeal.

When he embarks on his ministry, Jesus choses the 12 to be his disciples. He takes them to different places, to retreats and he charts the direction of his ministry. Remember statements like “The kingdom of Heaven is like…?” Remember the Sermon on the Mount? Who among the disciples would not wish to be among those mentioned in the Beatitudes as “Blessed are they that….?” Through teachings, examples, individual interrogations, Jesus trains and mentors his disciples. Such training and mentoring does not take place in a day, in a month, or in a year; it happens continuously until he gives them the great Commission to go out into the whole world to teach the world all the things Jesus had taught them. Maxwell would call this the leadership law of navigation and the leadership law of the picture. By the time Jesus sent his disciples into the world, none of them had any wrong notions about the vision, mission and strategy to be used for the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” he told them, “No one comes to the father but through me.” He admonishes and reprimands them as necessary. He allows them to share their anxieties, their dreams and their aspirations. He assesses them and affirms them, as he did with Peter. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Maxwell would call this the leadership law of value addition, of changing lives, as it is also the leadership law of empowerment.

That Jesus touched the hearts of the many who followed him including his disciples is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. He cared for their welfare by feeding the hungry, by healing the sick, by weeping for their sufferings, by teaching them how to resolve conflicts among themselves before they would seek to receive forgiveness from God the Father, by accepting them through all their weaknesses and failings and by building up their spiritual lives and showing them how to get eternal life. Maxwell would call this the leadership law of connection.

By getting to know his disciples as intimately as he did, Jesus knew who among them would be capable of doing what after he was gone from them and he prepared them for this eventuality. As indicated earlier, the burden of leading the universal church was placed upon the shoulders of Peter, the same Peter who had denied Jesus three times on the night that Jesus was handed into the hands of his enemies, the same Peter who had shown impetuosity on many occasions and the same Peter whom Jesus had groomed and prepared for the big task of being his first representative on earth. This is what Maxwell calls the great leadership law of legacy, the great law of succession against which one’s legacy is measured.

The other disciple who was groomed for the leadership of the church, among others, was Paul. Jesus saw the zeal and energy Paul exhibited in persecuting his followers and set out to convert that same energy into building his church on earth. After Jesus encountered him on the way to Damascus, Paul gladly and enthusiastically took on the legacy of building the church not only in Jerusalem, in Judea, but in all parts of the world.

The story of Jesus and his disciples as narrated in this discussion has become the prototype, or blueprint for organizations all over the world and across all cultures that seek to be successful in whatever areas of business they wish to engage. How many times have we heard successful CEOs or heads of organizations talk about the importance of recruiting the right people into the right positions to do the jobs that are the right jobs for them? How many times have we heard them talk about the need for training, for more training and for even more training? How many times have we seen them take out their teams for retreats to chart out the direction their organization should take, to articulate their vision, their mission and their strategy for reaching their goals? How many times have we heard them talk about succession planning and lining up the right persons to take over from them when their time at the helm of the organization comes to an end?

This still is a relevant question to all those in leadership positions in our time in our place (and according to the Book of Genesis that is all of us) who fail or refuse to select the right people for any enterprise that is entrusted to them, to train, mentor and groom them, to connect with them through their hearts, to, together with them, identify and nurture their talents to enable the hand-over of power, responsibilities and authority in a clearly defined manner. This is what Jesus did. This is what is being emulated by progressive systems and individuals throughout the world. This is why Jesus is at the heart of the world’s cultures and the world’s religions.

He modelled a system that has over the years inspired democratic processes in teaching, coaching, mentoring, teambuilding, teamworking, empowerment, leadership and governance.

Part 3 argues that because Jesus is for all time and for all places, he certainly is also for our time and for our place. The question is then posed: what would Jesus do in our time in our place?

When our children were growing up, a regular question we would ask them when they seemed to face problems of moral choice was, “What would Jesus do?”

If, as we noted at the beginning of this discussion, Jesus is for all time and for all places, he surely is for our time and for our place too. What would Jesus do in the face of the myriad problems our world faces today?

What would he say to the many dictators in our day that continue to stifle people’s freedoms, to thwart people’s aspirations, to enrich themselves at the expense of a whole nation, to load it over fellow human beings and to refuse to accept that their day in authority will surely come to an end one day and that they need to empower others to take over from them? Jesus would say to them, ‘Look at the model I set with my disciples, from recruitment through training, mentoring, coaching, empowerment to succession; go and do likewise.’

He would, however, say to those who have been inspired by the model he set, those who groom others to take over from them at all levels of leadership from the home level, church, clubs, societies all the way to government, he would say to these, ‘Well done, good and faithful servants, you have been faithful over little, I will make you responsible over much.’

What would Jesus do about the immigration crisis engulfing our world today? What would he say to Donald Trump, the frontrunner Republican candidate for president in the US who has proposed that America builds a whole on its border with Mexico to keep Mexican immigrants out? Would Jesus join Pope Francis in condemning Trump and risk Trump’s sharp rebuttal as Pope Francis found out? Again, Jesus would point to the model he himself set. Yes, he was a refugee, whose immigrant parents were accepted in Egypt to save his life when King Herod ordered that all Jewish boy infants be murdered in the hope that the future King of the Jews, Jesus, would also be killed. If Egypt had built a Trump Wall, Jesus would have been killed in infancy.

Writing in the Catholic Herald on 20 November, 2015, Cindy Wooden summarises Pope Francis’ view of how Jesus looks at our world today. The title of the article is “Jesus Weeps for a World at War, says Pope Francis.”

“‘Jesus wept.’ Pope Francis opened his morning homily with these words as he spoke about the wars and violence engulfing numerous parts of the world,” writes Cindy Wooden. “The Gospel reading for Thursday began, ‘As Jesus drew near Jerusalem, he saw the city and wept over it, saying: ‘If this day you only knew what makes for peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.’”

‘Jesus is weeping today, too, because we have preferred the path of war, the path of hatred, the path of enmity,…God weeps, Jesus weeps’” Pope Francis said.

This discussion tonight on Jesus is well-timed in the liturgical calendar of the church. Lent is a time for sacrifice through fasting, prayer and almsgiving. “Greater love has no man than this,” Jesus said, “that a man laid down his life for his friends.” By submitting himself to die for his disciples and for all humanity, Jesus set yet again another model, the model of sacrifice, the great leadership law of sacrifice as defined by Maxwell, the leadership attribute where one gives up what he has, sometimes all that one has, including one’s very life, for the sake of others.

Conclusion

How different would our world today be if we all - leaders by creation that we all are - were to follow the various models Jesus charted, built and practised?

“Do this in memory of me,” he commanded his disciples at the Last Supper.

“Go and do likewise,” he also said.

He says the same to us today in our time in our place in all that we do.

What would Jesus do?

Thank you

Bibliography

Candasiri, Ajahn. “Jesus Through Buddhist Eyes,” BBC Religions, 2009

Das Shaunaka Rishi. “Jesus in Hinduism,” BBC Religions, 2009

Gandhi, Mahatma. “Christ,” in Sri. Meghshyam T. Ajgaonkar et.al (eds) Mahatma. A Golden Treasury of Wisdom – Thoughts and Glimpses of Life, Mumbai, 1995

Khalidi, Tarif. “Jesus through Muslim Eyes,” BBC Religions, 2009

Lawton, Clive. “Jesus through Jewish Eyes,” BBC Religions, 2009

Maxwell, John C. “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”

Pope Benedict XVI. Trilogy on Jesus

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