One of the most significant concepts presented in Peter Jennings' excellent ABC program, "The Search for Jesus," was the scholars' belief that the historical Jesus didn't die for the whole world.

According to them, Jesus of Nazareth died for His small group of followers; He gave His life for a handful of disciples: people whose names He knew, whose children and spouses He recognized, whose weaknesses He daily experienced.

Of course, after reflecting on Jesus' death and resurrection, His followers eventually came to understand that His dying and rising affected all people, not just those who had been part of His Passover pilgrimage group. The author of Sunday's second reading (Heb 2: 9-11) proclaims that later insight: "By the grace of God, Jesus (did) taste death for everyone." That's why Jesus is "not ashamed" to call us His brothers and sisters.

Dying for friends

No Christian denies the universal effects of Jesus' dying and resurrection. Yet, it means a lot to many of Jesus' modern imitators to discover that He had specific faces in mind as He breathed His last on Golgotha that Friday afternoon, faces He mostly had to recall from memory. Those who owned them weren't within His physical field of vision.

One of the reasons scholars presume Jesus gave Himself for specific individuals was because He was a Jew. Biblical Jews aren't very excited about "universal concepts." If they don't experience God in the concrete, they don't experience God. From Abraham on, Yahweh's followers believed that one's love of God was proved by one's love of particular people. This belief fuels the earliest Genesis narrative: the "Yahwistic" creation myth (Gen 2: 18-24).

According to this author, in the process of creating, Yahweh discovers that the human created as a helpmate for God also needs a helpmate for himself. "It's not good," Yahweh reflects, "for the man to be alone."

After an attempt at animal partners fails to excite the man, Yahweh takes something of the man's own "stuff" and forms a woman. The fact that this new creature contains part of him, leads the man to commit himself to her. He "leaves his father and mother, and clings to (has intercourse with) his wife, and the two of them become one flesh."

Thirty centuries ago, this extremely insightful biblical theologian taught that God's plan of creation is rooted in people forming close-knit, one-one-one relationships.

Back to basics

As a reformer, Jesus always demands His followers return to Yahweh's original plan. Asked about the legality of Jewish divorce laws, He says such procedures were permitted only because people were too hard-hearted to carry out God's plan. His disciples should never hesitate to commit themselves for life to a specific person.

It's no accident that immediately after Jesus' command to form lasting, intimate ties, Mark has Him demonstrate His belief by embracing and blessing a group of children, individuals whom His disciples had originally tried to stop from approaching Him (Mk 10: 2-16).

Jesus "does windows;" He actually takes the time and makes the effort to engage those whom others look at as an aggravation. In the process, He reminds His followers never to lose the openness and confidence in others which children profess.

We belong to a Church whose leaders are forbidden to make a commitment to one specific individual so they can better commit to all people. Yet, we should never forget that, according to some very reliable Scripture scholars, the historical Jesus was able to die for everyone only because "at a distance," He could see the faces of several specific women -- friends for whom He was actually dying.

(10-05-00)