I wonder if we tend to outsmart ourselves.
Enamored of intellect, we rejoice in following convoluted logical threads that lead to convenient results. The conclusions are all the more appealing because they confirm our smarts.
I thought about this recently when a friend told me of listening to the parents of a child who believes he went to heaven during surgery. The boy said he had seen Jesus, but struggled to identify him in the usual portraits. It was not until he saw a painting by another child who also believed she had seen Jesus that he could put a face to his vision. The portrait, by Akiane Kramarik, is all over the Internet.
I’m too cynical to accept the story at face value. I began calculating likely profits for the parents, wondering about ulterior motives. But I did Google the painting. I looked at it a long time. I’m looking at it as I write.
Akiane’s Jesus is a bit whiter than the historical Jesus probably was, with lighter pupils than seem likely. But there is an emotion about the portrait that rings true. This is a direct and no-nonsense Jesus, an in-your-face Jesus. He looks a little angry and a lot impatient.
Akiane’s depiction reminds me of my grandfather. The physical image is entirely different, but the eyes hold the same disdain for human artifice.
I’m not sure my grandpa was smart in the conventional sense, but he was wise. When he heard family members — my dad and me, usually — proudly winding through brilliant arguments, he would guffaw. He was wise enough to know intelligence is overrated. He was wary of logic that reached convenient conclusions.
Akiane’s Jesus, to my mind, holds that same contempt. This is a Jesus who recognizes our shallow hubris. He sees through our petty intellectual games and scoffs.
I’m no theologian, but it seems to me Jesus kept things simple.
“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” he said, “and you will be blessed.”
“Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.”
Jesus gave food to the hungry and healed the sick. He identified with the poor, and blessed those who helped the downtrodden: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
What Jesus did not do is outline the reasons that giving to the poor is counterproductive, creating dependency. He did not tell the rich to keep their possessions, as the economic effect of accumulated capital would indirectly benefit the poor. He did not caution the disciples that the sick and the poor often were suffering from their own bad decisions. He did not quiz the recipients of his grace to see if they were worthy. He did not give them drug tests or check their papers. He did not examine the macroeconomic effects of generosity.
He just gave them what they needed, and demanded that we do the same.
A smart fellow from the Christian Coalition called me the other day. He was complaining about my support for a Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act, both of which hinge on the coming federal election. The programs would lead to “over-utilization” of our health care system, he said. The long-term effects, he said, would damage the economy. The problem in Alabama is not that 816,000 are uninsured, he said, but that “a subgroup of our population persists in unhealthy lifestyles. Do you really want your tax dollars to validate their bad decisions?”
He said the U.S. health system is the best in the world.
I asked, “For whom?”
As my grandfather would have told you, I too often rejoice in intellect. Haunted by Akiane’s portrait, though, I can’t help but think we are performing clever mental gymnastics to avoid simple imperatives.
Feed the hungry. Heal the sick.
It’s not complicated.