Conventional wisdom over the past few decades has created an image of Jesus as a crusading liberal. He is seen as a rabbi working against the conservative and rigid Pharisees, trying to establish a more tolerant religion which accepts all people, no matter their preferences or practices.
In reaction, many conservatives have created a Jesus in their own image: he was a prophet who advocated a strict morality and did not make any attempt to overthrow the existing government structures.
Depending on whether you think Jesus was a liberal or a conservative will influence which parts of the Gospels you will emphasize.
So, was Jesus a liberal or a conservative?
The answer is neither. And both. Fundamentally, Jesus was a radical. By “radical” I do not mean the common usage of the term which associates it with 1960′s radical politics like the Weathermen. I mean it primarily as an adjective: Jesus was a radical liberal as well as a radical conservative. He was radically liberal when it came to overthrowing the calcified human traditions that had grown around Judaism, and he was radically conservative in preserving the core teachings of the Israeli religion.Whether he was conservative or liberal depended on the specific issue (Divorce laws -> conservative; Sabbath laws -> liberal), but he was always radical.
For what does it mean to be radical? The word comes from the Latin for “root”. A radical, in other words, gets to the root of a matter. And this is exactly what Jesus did. For example, when it came to divorce laws, he went to the root of the issue: what exactly is marriage? This led him all the way to the beginning and Adam and Eve. By going to the root of marriage, he taught that divorce is always wrong, and that the allowances for divorce under the Mosaic law were actually liberalizing deformations of the original meaning of marriage.
Likewise, when it came to Sabbath laws. What is the purpose of Sabbath restrictions? They are to help the individual to draw closer to God and to the people and world around him. All the additional rules added later in order to “conserve” the sacredness of the Sabbath needed to be thrown away in order to get to this root meaning of the Sabbath.
The radicals in the 1960′s would sometimes even resort to planting bombs in an attempt to undermine structures they opposed. Jesus also planted “bombs” within Judea and Galilee by his radical teachings and his radical death and resurrection. These actions lead to the most subversive organization that the world has ever seen: his Church. And this Church is called to be a destabilizing force in all generations, upending existing structures that reject God and His laws, and calling people to the roots of our human experience, which always leads to repentance, conversion, and a return to our original vocation as sons and daughters of God.
Jesus was a radical. Are you?