Jesus: “Unrepentant Bum”

Jesus is something of an unrepentant bum. He is never shown doing any physical labor and only one Gospel refers to him as a "carpenter." He eats when he's hungry, sleeps when he's tired, and leaves the routine work to his friends while he runs off to a quiet place and prays. He instructs his followers not to worry about what they will wear or where the next meal will come from (Luke 12:22-31), and to party with him while they still have the chance : "for the poor will always be with you"(Mark 14:7). He praises Mary for sitting with him and listening, and mildly chastises Martha for waiting on them hand and foot (Luke 10:38-42). Mary, Jesus says, has the "better portion." That's a Gospel pun that Jesus might have said with a mouthful of food.

One might conclude from all this that Jesus was a hedonist : simply out for all the pleasures of life with none of the accompanying responsibilities. After all, he "ate with sinners and tax-collectors" and acquired the reputation as a "glutton and drunkard" (Luke 7:34). When followers of John the Baptizer complained that Jesus did not fast as they did, Jesus acknowledged that he and John were not cut from the same cloth. Where John required sackcloth, Jesus required a wedding garment. Where John required ashes, Jesus required perfume and oil.

However, had Jesus been merely a hedonist, he would not have gotten into so much trouble. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, he called his community to account for its lack of compassion; and the meal, more than words, was his vehicle for doing so. Jesus did not invent the meal as a symbol of solidarity. Eating together, symbolized by the ritual toast, is a pledge to shed your blood, to give your life if necessary, for those at your table. Normal people of Jesus' time made out their table guest lists carefully. Jesus often ate with the "nobodies" left over.

The author Albert Nolan in Jesus Before Christianity speculates that Jesus told the parable of the uninvited guests (Luke 14) about himself. The Gospels several times said that Jesus "entertained" his friends, implying a residence somewhere, perhaps in Capernaum. Hybrid that he was, Jesus first invited both Pharisees and the "nobodies" of his time. One quickly imagines the reaction of the sophisticated and cultured guests to the names of the fishing folk, tax collectors and public women on the same list. "Did the respectable guests begin to make excuses when invited to his table?" asks Nolan; they certainly absented themselves. So the Master goes out into the streets and collars the lame and the blind, the beggars and the lepers : anyone willing to come and party. The tale could be told by Rodney Dangerfield: "A god should get more respect!"

Rodney Dangerfield as Christ is not so far-fetched. Jesus is the last guy you'd expect to be god." You don't expect God to hang around with bums and sinners, to share meals with society's outcasts. You don't expect God to die as a derelict, abandoned even by his closest friends. You expect his friends at least to recognize his face, for pete's sake, on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. "A god should get more respect!" But this is what incarnation is all about. What makes Jesus God is not his great teaching, storytelling or even his wonderworking, but his passionate concern for and identification with the "nobodies," the very people you'd least expect to be religious.

Of course Jesus was compassionate; but his compassion was laced with sensuality and the joy of living, not with asceticism. His symbol was the wedding feast, not the soup line. Where is the risk in doling out food to a "bum"? But eating with the "bum," pledging your life to him over a bit of bread and wine, is something else. For Jesus, the pledge given at the table finally came due: he died as one of them.

Share:Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someonePrint this page