What would Jesus do?

You hear a lot of WWJD theology today, ie. “What would Jesus do?” unfortunately, this type of thinking usually relies on a person’s own picture of the kind of person Jesus was, eg. a welcoming person who never had a bad word to say about anyone.

But is this picture accurate? A case in point would be yesterday’s Gospel.

Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”

I was rather surprised recently to find these verses listed in N.T. Wright’s “Jesus and the Victory of God” in a list of “judgement” texts from Jesus’ preaching. Essentially, he saw it as addressed to the nation of Israel, who had been called to be “salt of the earth” but had “lost its saltiness” and who had been made a “light to the nations” but had “hidden its light under a bushel”.

But I doubt if many of us heard sermons yesterday that took this passage as a word of judgement. Rather we hear it as a word addressed to Christians to be salt and light in the world. And yes, it is that, but if you miss the threat of judgement (“is thrown out and trampled under foot”) you perhaps miss a dimension of Jesus’ preaching in its original context. Tied up with this is, of course, that Jesus was in a way pointing to himself as the true and faithful Israelite who was indeed “the Light of the World”.

So when we ask “What would Jesus do?” (or say) we need to ask ourselves, what picture of Jesus am I working with? Is it accurate? (cf. a blast from the past here!)

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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6 Responses to What would Jesus do?

  1. Tony says:

    But Jesus also says other things about judgement, doesn’t he? He also says ‘judge not lest you be judged’ and ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ and that splinter thing.

    Jesus may be posing a very direct question to us about our ‘salt’ or our ‘light’, something for us to reflect on and judge and, if necessary, toss out, but it’s not for others to judge unless of course they meet his criteria!

    • Schütz says:

      My point is, before you jump in and ask “What does this mean for us today?” ask the question, “What did it mean in its original context?” That will help you better understand what he is saying to our context today.

      • Tony says:

        And I guess I’m saying that the notion of ‘judgement’ needs to be tempered by other texts lest it becomes an excuse for us to judge others.

        I see it more as an invitation (shine our light) and rather than a ‘threat’ he is telling us that there are consequences if we don’t take up that invitation.

        • Schütz says:

          Wright’s point is that Jesus was called, even by his contemporaries, a “prophet”. (Argument: the Church saw Jesus as much more than a prophet; the Apostolic epistles never call him a “prophet”; those passages in the Gospels that preserve this way of speaking of Jesus must therefore be original to the time of his ministry). Among the things prophets were expected to do were to announce the coming of YHWH to judge his people. Since this is what they expected a prophet to do, the common identification of Jesus as a prophet means that this is at least one aspect that we know historically characterised his ministry.

  2. Stephen K says:

    I agree that the question “What would Jesus do?” is probably unanswerable. (What would anyone do? We might know what they have done; what they say; what they think, but hypotheticals are just that.) Yet we often frame our moral values by such a question. If you’ve inherited the Christian religious background, it’s natural to ask it.

    The issue is, as Tony suggests, it often becomes, not a personal meditation, but a knock’em out blow. Both believers and non-believers, conservatives and progressives, use the question as an argumentative tool.

    All together – probably – unworthy of an “agape” Christian.

    Jesus never wrote anything for posterity and if we accept the Gospel accounts, he said an eclectic mixture of things, which have alternately perplexed, astonished or inspired 2000 years of belief.

    Nevertheless, he didn’t say so much that a lot of things we, here today, dispute about, are unambiguously resolvable by asserting confidently what he might have thought about them or what he would have done had he done so.

    So, why don’t we forget about what wondering what Jesus would have done and simply ask ourselves, what, on the basis of all the more reliable or definite information and priorities which seem most compelling to us, ought we to do?

  3. matthias says:

    my experience of what would Jesus do goers back to when Iw as a boy ,I would hear sermons on this topic and then the preacher-this was in a strict Fundamentalist proddy church- would then give what was tantamount to a checklist of what not to do,in their belief that this is what Jesus Would do We were judged if we erred from that checklist.
    i think tony’s point is a poignant reminder that we should shine our light,and look at ourselves rather than judge others. I was reminded of this when reading the book THE ORTHODOX CHURCH , by Bishop Kalistos Ware,where he tells the story of a young man beign excommunciated by the clergy of his local Orthodox church,because he was gay..There was also there a Monk or an abbott who began walking out of the church with the young man. When asked where he was going he said “we are all sinners here”.

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