Learning from the perspectives of the gospel writersPublished 9:05am Friday, June 14, 2013
By the Rev. Tom Biatek
United Methodist Church of Albert Lea
One can read the Christian gospels as the story of a man with integrity working for what is right against those who are either determined to undermine his integrity or are addled by rumor and laziness into ignoring the truth. Jesus preaches wisdom, heals the sick and attracts a following that threatens the order of the world. The temple leaders, known as the Pharisees, react by portraying Jesus as an assault to their authority. They attack Jesus by chipping away at his reputation. Rather than hearing him out and seeking the truth, they largely hold to a blind absolute authority and a lazy integrity. Some of these leaders follow him and point at what they determine are his faults and failings. They make sure that others see that Jesus works on the Sabbath by healing the sick and so fails by implied violation of holy law. They ask him loaded questions to see if he can be trapped in a verbal blunder. They follow him about and try to shift public opinion against the man. When all else fails, they bring inflated accusations against him in order to convince the Roman authorities that Jesus should die.
How would Jesus’ trail have been covered by our modern day media? Given that Jesus was under arrest, one can assume that the media would only have access to one side of the story — that of the accuser Pharisees and their prosecution. Jesus is largely silent at his trial and so the public has access only to the arresting officer’s report (“He is accused of blaspheming God and stirring up trouble. Witnesses say that he said he was God.”) The media would only hear what the trouble-making Pharisees wanted them to hear. (“He stirs up the crowd. He is a false prophet.”) By the time his accusers are done with Jesus and the crowds have abandoned him, most of his friends had run away as well. His closest friend, Peter, even denies knowing Jesus (“Jesus abandoned by best friend” screams the headline).
Our gospel writers were faced with the task of setting the record straight. They have a bias in their writing of course — they believe Jesus is Lord — but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John also try to bring the life of Jesus into a new light with a more truthful telling of the story. They offer the as yet unheard side that was not made public at the trial. Mark writes simply in a straightforward, no nonsense way. Matthew tells the story through the eyes of someone who understands Jewish scripture, law and expectation. Luke writes for the literate Greek. John approaches the story from a spiritual angle. Each investigates, listens and reports what they have learned, gathering information from all sides and perspectives. We hear about Jesus’ life and, astonishingly, they also include the Pharisees’ accusations and the Roman reaction. Our writers report the crowds enthusiasm and report as well as the crowd’s waning commitment. They do not shy from reporting about the fear and doubt in Jesus. We also see Jesus’ zeal and passion. We hear of his good works in God’s name. We see the abject tragedy and presumed failure inherent in the story. Our gospel writers report all of it and we, the readers, are treated to a more complete telling of the tale.
John Pilger, a documentarian and journalist, once wrote, “It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.” Our gospel writers understood this insight. They knew that gossip, one sided arguments and partial truth carry with them a damaging and hurtful spirit that required them to respond. They also knew that the truth is brought to light only when the whole is invited into the dialogue. They knew that the hope of a fair hearing and judgement requires honorable attention offered not just of two opposing sides juxtaposed (or, more lazily and more typically, one side represented without counterpoint) but of a truthful representation of the entirety.
We can gain great understanding from the gospel writer’s perspective. In a world where reputation and integrity are paramount, perhaps we need to better understand our need to listen more carefully and speak with more restraint. We should encourage one another toward intelligence and wisdom, allowing these gifts to guide us to work uncovering and understanding the truth. Such effort is hard and the work requires two great disciplines- faithful effort and maintenance of an open mind- but both are honorable in the best sense of the word. In this way, we become a path through which justice is served and the community is strengthened.