When I learned that Pope Benedict XVI was writing a book on Jesus in the Gospels, I couldn’t wait to read it. Having read it, I can’t wait to read it again. Benedict’s latest book, Jesus of Nazareth, is a theological and pastoral work that effectively reintroduces the faithful to the Jesus of the Gospels. From Jesus’ baptism to the Transfiguration, the Holy Father provides a biblical portrait of Our Lord based on a coherent canonical reading of Scripture.
In this beautiful book, Benedict writes as theologian, pastor, teacher, and spiritual father. However, as he explains in the foreword, "this book is in no way an exercise of the Magisterium but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps. 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me." Throughout the book, Benedict attempts to demonstrate the reliability and reasonableness of the Gospels, simultaneously arguing that the Jesus of history is indeed the Christ of faith. His hermeneutical approach to the biblical texts is clearly one of continuity between the Old and New Testaments and trust in the honesty and integrity of the Gospel writers.
The central question around which the book is based is this: What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? The simple answer is, according to Pope Benedict, God, and with God, the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. Upon seeing God’s face in Christ, man is called to conversion-dying to self and turning to a new life centered in Christ. It is here that Benedict the evangelist proclaims the Good News.
He sets forth in the foreword a "most urgent priority" to present the figure and message of Jesus to help draw the faithful into a living relationship with Him. This urgency, I believe, is likely a response to some of the toxic consequences of a reductive Christology that has infected Catholic theology, catechesis, and activism during the past century. Rather than the Incarnation of God Himself, Jesus is often seen primarily as a wise philosopher, social reformer, or political revolutionary. Such models of Jesus, found in some strands of liberation theology, turn the Gospel on its head by making human action the source and center of salvation. In a discussion of the temptation narratives, Benedict explains what is at the heart of all temptations: "pushing God aside because we perceive Him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives." He then comments on some of the practical consequences this approach has had on our society, especially surrounding issues of social justice such as alleviating poverty and oppression and promoting world peace. He insists that peace and justice are not realized simply through man’s actions; rather, they are intimately connected with men abiding in God’s eudokia, or good pleasure. As Jesus explains to His disciples, "I am the vine, you are the branches. . . . for apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5). There cannot be peace on earth unless there is peace with God.
As an example, Benedict turns to the aid offered by the West to developing countries. With aid limited to the material and technological, God has been driven from the picture. Benedict believes that this kind of "aid" is itself what turned the "third world" into what we mean by that term today. When the proper ordering of goods (i.e. the primacy of God) is neglected, the result is not justice or compassion but ruin and destruction. He goes on to describe Chernobyl as a "shocking expression of creation’s enslavement in the darkness of God’s absence."
In a chapter on the Gospel of the kingdom of God, Benedict hearkens back to the famous lament associated with the Catholic modernist Alfred Loisy: "Jesus preached the Kingdom of God and what came instead was the Church." In marked contrast to Loisy’s disappointment, Benedict explains that the kingdom is present in the person of Jesus; communion with Him is the pearl of great price. Jesus’ authority, His claim to divine sonship, is the basis for the universalization of Israel’s faith. For only Jesus can properly call God "my Father." There can be no new faith community or definitive interpretation of the Torah without this divine authority. Anything less leads to mere sectarianism. In a subsequent expounding of the Our Father, Benedict further explains that it is only as part of the community of God’s people, the Church, that we are able to call God "our Father."
Many readers without a theology background may find themselves having to look up words like "pneuma" and "kenosis." The publisher has included a handy glossary as an appendix. In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict shows how Our Lord comes to life in the Gospels when they are read as they are supposed to be-with faith, hope, and love, and a hermeneutic of continuity. This book is a great read, a beautiful expounding of the Gospels, and an excellent tool for prayer and meditation. Read it prayerfully, with your Bible in hand, and you will fall in love with Jesus of Nazareth.
- Pete Balbirnie (from Lay Witness magazine www.cuf.org)
You can purchase this title here.