Christmas is a time for remembering what Christian faith is all about, and not simply that a child, the Son of God, was born in a stable at Bethlehem. Our focus cannot only be on the infant in the proverbial swaddling clothes, but also on the adult whom that child became.
It is Jesus the adult who made lasting demands upon us. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2, “because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Then he added, “Today this Scripture passage has been fulfilled in your hearing.” His meaning was so obvious to his fellow Nazarenes that they expelled him from the town, and even attempted to hurl him over the edge of a hill.
More often, however, Jesus’ preaching was couched in parables in which he subtly inverted his listeners’ whole worldview. Thus, the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) was not presented simply as an example of neighborliness. If it were, Jesus could have made the Samaritan the injured party and the Israelite the one who came to his aid.
Given their contemporary mentality, no Jew would have expected such compassionate concern from a despised Samaritan (see Luke 9:52-56). Rather, the parable challenged his Jewish audience to conceive the inconceivable: the hated Samaritan is “good.” Jesus’ listeners’ basic attitudes were turned on their head.
Such a turning is what conversion involves. It consists of a change of mind, a rejection of one’s former outlook and a striking out in a wholly new direction
Jesus drove home his point with many other parables, such as that of the prodigal son (Luke 15:25-30). The Lord was so committed to the forgiveness of sinners and the embrace of the repentant that he befriended those, like the publicans, tax collectors and prostitutes, whom society considered outcasts, and he rejoiced over their conversion (Luke 15:7-10; Matthew 18:13).
For Jesus, the antithesis of a repentant attitude was one of self-righteousness. Thus, he repudiated the proud Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14), the elder brother who resented his father’s benevolent reaction to the prodigal son’s return and the discontented laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15).
To those who arrogantly set themselves above others, Jesus declared that those “others” would enter the Kingdom of God before they would (Matthew 21:31-32). He pointed out that God will exalt the humble and bring down the proud (Luke 14:11; 18:14).
He urged the rich young man to sell all that he had, give the money to the poor and then follow him (Mark 10:21). He also warned, hyperbolically to be sure, that it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a person of great wealth to enter the Kingdom (Mark 10:25).
His disciples were to act as Jesus himself: with compassion, humility, generosity and in service of others, even at great personal sacrifice (Mark 9:33-50; 10:42-45). The disciple was always to be marked by love (John 13:34-35), particularly love for one another.
Indeed, all of Jesus’ moral teachings were concentrated in the one commandment of love: love of God and love of neighbor, the latter being an expression of the former (Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28).
He said that we cannot offer sacrifice to God until we have been reconciled with our brother or our sister (Matthew 5:23-24), and that we cannot ask God for forgiveness unless we are ready to forgive those who have sinned against us (6:12).
Jesus’ dramatic portrayal of the Last Judgment in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) offers one of the classic illustrations of this principle.
It is not enough, however, to love our family, our friends and our benefactors. We also are required to love our enemies (Luke 6:27-28), and to avoid judging and condemning them (6:37). We must not dwell on the speck in our neighbor’s eye while missing the plank in our own (6:41-42).
These and many other sayings represent the moral demands that Jesus placed upon his disciples and those who would become his disciples.
At Christmas, we are inclined to focus on the innocent — and silent — baby in Bethlehem rather than on the adult Jesus who deeply disturbed so many of his contemporaries, especially some of his fellow Jews.
He upset them so much, in fact, that, with the cooperation of the civil authorities, they nailed him to a cross.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.