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Peeking inside the mind of Jesus


By Raymund Schwager
Crossroad, 198 pages, $14.95, paperback


Teenagers wear bracelets that ask “What would Jesus do?” Jesuit Fr. Raymund Schwager, professor of dogmatics at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, asks a more nuanced historical question: What did Jesus think?

While clearly acknowledging that he is writing fiction, Schwager tries to capture all the inner thoughts of Jesus with a tissue of quotes from the Hebrew scriptures. Besides displaying considerable erudition, this device underscores Jesus’ Jewish roots. He came to fulfill the law because he believed utterly in its purpose and spirit.

Schwager is aware of the literal meanings of the texts, but he feels no constraint to follow them. His poetic license serves his purpose well. In the hands of one unlettered, this would be fundamentalism, but Schwager is no more arbitrary than Matthew’s frequent insertion, “This was done to fulfill the scriptures.”

For Schwager, the tension of Jesus is how to be a pious Jew while being true to his own mystical religious experiences. His tension is increased to the breaking point by self-serving authorities who interpret the Torah in ways Jesus finds discordant. Jesus, in turn, interprets the scriptures in ways that are outrageous to the authorities and shocking to the unlettered who had never heard anyone with his exegetical prowess come to far different conclusions than their legal professors.

Here’s a sample of how Schwager weaves texts to illustrate the tension between Jesus’ way and the official way of spiritual exegesis. Jesus is talking to the disciples at Emmaus after the resurrection, explaining that God is patient and will not destroy the people even when the Messiah comes. One of the disciples breaks in: “The preachers in the synagogues always preach that ‘Mercy is with God, but also wrath’ ” [Sirach 5:6]. “Will not the wrath of God be poured out on all transgressors of Torah in the days of the Messiah, and his mercy on the holy remnant of Israel?”

Jesus jumps on the word wrath.

“Yes, there is wrath. But the Holy One of Israel is God and not man [Hosea 11:9]. Because he bears with all creation in great patience, human beings can become possessed by the evil impulse of their hearts and see everything only from the standpoint of their own suffering. That is why the world becomes darkened for them, and the sky over their heads becomes brass [Deuteronomy 28:23]. A veil is laid over the peoples and a covering over the nations [Isaiah 25:7]. Even for Israel the luminous countenance of the Lord will disappear, and it can hear his words only as stammering [Isaiah 28:13]. In their suffering the wicked torture and persecute one another until their violent deeds fall back on them [Psalms 7:12-15]. Thus, they exist under wrath. Yet God’s judgment is light for the world [Isaiah 26:9].”

This text illustrates both Schwager’s tissue technique and a central point of his theology. One of the important quarrels Jesus had with the official scriptural teaching concerned sacrifice. The priests and other temple employees had a vested interest in emphasizing the importance of sacrifice. Their job security flowed directly out of a theology that emphasized sacrifice.

But there is an internal tension between Jesus’ experience of his Father and the internal logic of sacrifice. Jesus knew himself to be the beloved Son at his baptism in the Jordan. A sacrificial mentality tends to try to placate a God whose wrath lurks somewhere around a devout corner. The more Jesus preached total forgiveness of sins, the less important sacrifice seemed to be. Sacrifice fits better with a strong merit system than it does unconditional love. Jesus’ opinion was that God desired mercy, not sacrifice.

Schwager’s earlier writings dealt with themes developed by Stanford anthropologist Rene Girard. One central theme is that Jesus understood himself to be a scapegoat, not a sacrifice. In this understanding Jesus died because of the sinful violence of the establishment who needed an enemy to rally the people round. (Remember Grenada? Same old strategy.) Jesus did not die because the Father needed a sacrifice, perfect or not.

The dramatic substructure of Schwager’s narrative rests on this development of Jesus’ consciousness. He sees himself as suffering at the hands of evil people, not a bloodthirsty God.

The shifting of Jesus’ (and the evangelists’) understanding of the crucifixion is not only historically important. If you think we have a benign God in our consciousness, I appeal to the ultimate exegete of a capitalist society: money. If the wind is mild, the sun sweet and the water refreshing, that is called nature. If the winds howl, the waters flood and the sun grows dark, that is an act of God, and insurance companies compensate you. That’s what we think of God.

Schwager’s fiction is superb theology and good healthy piety.

Clarence Thomson is former director of Creedence Cassettes and an internationally recognized authority on the enneagram. E-mail him at enneageduc@aol.com.

National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 1998