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The Jesus Meme

by Tim O'Hearn

A number of memes are going around the internet properly chastising Republican extremists for opposing programs to help the poor, feed the hungry, and provide medical care to those who need it. Several of these point out that Jesus advocated for just such activities. (At least, that is, he did so on an individual basis, not necessarily favoring government programs that take away personal responsibility.) Some of these memes end with a statement like “Jesus was a long-haired, brown-skinned, homeless, radical Jew.” Is this an accurate portrayal of Jesus?

Whether he was long-haired or not is pure speculation. His hair was probably no longer than any other Jew of his time, and maybe shorter than many of the Pharisees he often opposed. The Roman style of the day could hardly be called long, even by today’s standards. Most extant busts of the caesars show men with a full head of hair, but of a style similar to the shorter styles of today. They did not wear their hair even shoulder length. Most were clean-shaven, as well, although Nero may have had sideburns that were jaw- or neck-length. The Jews, who were forbidden to use razors to cut their hair in mourning (Lev 19:27), possibly wore their hair longer than their Roman invaders, but the typical below-the-shoulders look common to images of Jesus today may beDoes it matter what Jesus looked like? Obviously to some people it does. inaccurate. Most portraits of Jews from the time either indicate hair in the Roman style, but with a beard, or show the men wearing headgear that concealed the hair style. The Renaissance depictions of a long-haired Jesus (and the images on tortillas or toast, on water-stained walls, or in the clouds) are probably incorrect.

Appearance

The concept of a long-haired Jesus probably appeals to the anti-establishment mentality of those claiming that he had that attribute. In the 1960s, it was common to hear the rebellious young “hippies” justify looking different by saying, “Well, Jesus had long hair.” That attitude, it seems, is still prevalent

Whether he was brown-skinned or Jewish is not in question. He spent a lot of time outdoors, and so even if he were naturally fair he would probably have developed a tanned complexion. This is probably not the intent of mentioning his skin color. Possibly it is mentioned in these memes because of some perceived antisemitism or racial prejudice in the people they are supposed to be ridiculing.

The whole point of Jewish history is that the Messiah would be one of them, so his Jewishness was never in doubt. Paul even points out that Jesus had to be Jewish in order to save the Jews. “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” (Gal 4:4-5) Even if this were not true, the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 conclusively establish that Jesus was Jewish.

Does it matter what Jesus looked like? Obviously to the people who are writing or spreading these memes it does. They clearly want to establish that he was not a typical American Young Republican. But if Jesus were alive today there is a good chance that he would be indistinguishable from the man on the street. The most noticeable thing about him might be his appearance as an Orthodox Jew. Whether he would conform to modern Orthodox appearance might even be in doubt. According to some interpretations, Isaiah said the Messiah would be no different than anyone else. “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isa 53:2) (Others take that to mean that he might be uglier than the average person, but beyond that he would not stand out.) Unlike John the Baptizer, who was distinguished by his unusual dress, Jesus dressed, looked, and acted like anyone else of his time.

Radical

Was Jesus a radical? Yes and no. Radicalism, like conservatism or liberalism, is defined in relation to the person using the term. While Jesus taught things that the Jewish scholars might consider extreme in a few cases, most of his teaching was fairly orthodox. His “radical” views of Judaism were actually leaning more to the conservative view. His major objection to the Pharisees was that they took a liberal view of the Law, adding to it rather than keeping to the letter.

Politically, he was anything but radical. He did not advocate the overthrow of the government. He associated with both those who did and those who staunchly supported the status quo (Simon and Matthew). The most radical thing he did was to talk figuratively about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. (Jn 6:53-56)

Homeless

Perhaps the most objectionable thing about these memes, however, is their portrayal of Jesus as “homeless.” The common definition of homelessness is a lack of permanent residence or an individual who lacks housing. The first of those definitions would include those people of means who travel the country in motor homes, or the woman who lives from cruise to cruise on a ship. Those hardly meet the picture of homelessness intended by these memes. The real question, though, was whether Jesus met either of these definitions.

Jesus was an itinerant rabbi, one of many. He spent a lot of time traveling from town to town, much like the circuit preachers of mid-19th century America. How often did he spend the night without a roof over his head? It is hard to tell. Certainly on some of his travels from Galilee to Jerusalem he may have had to camp out occasionally. Most nights, however, he probably found lodging like most other travelers, in an inn or a private home. Unlike a homeless person, though, he had a permanent base of operations that he called home. “And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum.” (Matt 4:13) Apparently he had a house where he regularly stayed while in that town (Mk 2:1); some say he stayed in Peter’s house. Even when he traveled he could find a place to stay, such as the houses of Simon the Leper, of Zacchaeus, or of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

When we think of homelessness today, we often picture someone begging on a street corner. Jesus, on the other hand, did not have to beg. He and his disciples were supported in their ministry by a number of possibly wealthy women. (Lk 8:1-3) The disciples had enough money that Judas could make a pretty tidy living skimming off the top of the purse. (Jn 12:6) Some might question why he had Peter catch a fish to get a coin to pay taxes if he had money (Matt 17:24-27), but that was probably just to make a point.

Some would point to what Jesus said to a man who would follow him. At first, without looking at the context, this seems to indicate that Jesus thought of himself as homeless.

And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. (Lk 9:58-62)

As one looks at all the incidents Luke records together, it is obvious that Jesus is addressing specific situations. Some people say they will follow him, and he seems to push them away; others he invites to follow, and they reject him. Luke’s point (and Matthew’s in the same context) is that Jesus wanted committed followers. That he did not have a place to lay his head may have less to do with a permanent address than with the work required.

This is not to say that Jesus did not care for the homeless. He did. The biggest class of homeless in his day would have been widows and orphans (of which he was neither). As one who followed the Law of Moses perfectly, he would have kept its injunctions to care for these people. “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.” (Ex 22:20)

When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for theHow often did Jesus spend the night without a roof over his head? It is hard to tell. fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands. When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing. (Deut 24:19-22)

The other common class of beggars, though not necessarily homeless, were the physically handicapped (which, for purposes of this analysis, would include the demon-possessed). These people may have had a place to live and even family to help them, but were unable to earn a steady income because of their disability. We rarely see Jesus handing out money to these people. Instead, he did what he could that we cannot today; he healed them. He “taught them to fish” in the manner of the current proverb. By healing them, he made it so they could learn or practice a trade and so give up begging. This is the ultimate way to help the homeless and the beggars.

Those, though, who would call Jesus homeless have a political agenda (of which he may or may not have approved), one which requires that they misrepresent Jesus for their own political ends. Misrepresenting Jesus by choice may not be an enviable position to be in.