Jesus had options.
We know that was the case from the very start of his ministry.
In the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – he exercises his initial options in the wilderness following his baptism, deciding between:
â— Bread for his belly versus food for his soul
â— The glory that accompanies worldly authority versus the satisfaction of submitting to the sovereign God
â— Reckless self-promotion versus honoring a divine parent who provides abundantly without needing to be tested
It’s a pattern that continues in those Synoptic Gospels to the end of his earthly life: foregoing the option of gaining more for himself and choosing to increase the well being of those in need.
The Apostle Paul summarized the options Jesus put in play: “…though being in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” (Philippians 2:6-7)
The Gospel of John is different, not just in having no temptation narrative and leaving some ambiguity about whether Jesus himself was baptized by John the Baptist, but also in the way Jesus begins his ministry.
Instead of having Jesus wandering around for 40 days in the wilderness, the Gospel of John commences Jesus’ public ministry with his attendance at a party – a wedding celebration in Cana.
But there, too, he had options.
As the story goes, somewhere in the middle of the feast the wine runs out. Some commentators have proposed that this deficit was caused by Jesus and his new disciples drinking too much, but there’s little justification for that proposal.
Mother Mary comes to Jesus to report on this deficit situation, hinting that he might want to take some corrective action.
Clearly, he had options.
He could have said, “Tough, we’ll just have to have a ‘dry’ party.” Or he could have said, “Well, I guess everyone will just have to pack up and go home.” Or he could have said, “Just as well, since this party was getting out of hand anyway.”
But, no, he first chose the option of doing nothing, telling his mom that this interruption of the celebration was of no concern to him and that it shouldn’t be to her either.
Mother Mary, however, knew better, and simply tells the servants to do whatever Jesus instructs.
And, sure enough, after reconsidering his options, Jesus pulls off a huge miracle by turning six stone jars of water (which were normally used for the Jewish rite of purification) into exquisite wine so that the party could continue with an abundance of exceptional drink.
That, according to John’s Gospel, is the way Jesus began his miraculous ministry.
And that’s the way he continues his earthly ministry in the Fourth Gospel: overcoming human deficits by opting for acts of amazing generosity – giving people the physical and spiritual bread essential to life, serving people the temporal and eternal water required of life, offering people the human and divine love needed, absolutely needed, for life.
Jesus, in this and the other Gospels, repeatedly opts to overcome the deficits that people face not by austerity but by prodigality.
It is also what Jesus teaches his disciples to do: in the face of deficits always exercise the option of abundant generosity.
Because that is the character, the nature, the essence of the God who is the author and the sustainer and the fulfiller of life itself.
The world now finds itself in a deficit situation. That’s our situation as a nation. And, yes, it’s the situation of states, of counties and cities, of neighborhoods and families.
We, collectively and individually, have options.
The question might just be whether the Good News coming from the testimony of Jesus’ life and ministry has anything to teach us about how to exercise our options today.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.