What if Jesus Had Been Accepted as the Messiah?

Various Scriptural passages indicate that Jesus, before his trial and execution, had hoped for a very different outcome of his sojourn on earth:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets, and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling!” (MT 23:37).

St. John Chrystostom paraphrases the Lord’s lament: “Even these murders of yours would not have alienated Me from you, but I would have taken you to Me, not once or twice, but many times.” This passage, and a passage from Luke, “If only you had known, in this day, the things that are to your peace; but now they are hidden from your eyes” (LK 19:42 ) – indicate that there was a “Plan A,” which turned out to be unworkable, because of contingencies, and now had to be replaced by “Plan B.”

Plan A, of course, would have involved acceptance by the Jews of Jesus’ messiahship. One can imagine this taking place, in spite of the distrust and rumblings of the powers-that-be in Jerusalem at that time.  Jesus had secret disciples like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and no doubt a substantial minority of the scribes and Pharisees (probably including the Pharisees who warned Jesus about dangers from Herod (Lk. 13:33) or the ones mentioned in Acts 15:5 as converted after the Resurrection) were seriously considering the claims of this carpenter from Nazareth. It could have happened that one or more of these interested but timid persons may have “gone public” suggesting to their confreres that Jesus might be the Anointed One, and that the authorities should avoid moving precipitously to hostile measures.

 

Eventually a growing majority in the Sanhedrin, heartened by the fact that Jesus was incredibly meek like Moses, who was the “meekest man on earth” (Num. 12:3), and had promised not to abrogate the Mosaic law, but to fulfil it, might have been able to temper the opposition.  They might also have taken to heart his admonitions about misunderstanding the Sabbath, and about the subordination of cleansing rituals, etc. and became attentive to the more substantial elements of the law.

The prophecies of Isaiah and other prophets indicating that the Messiah would be a “suffering servant” and spurned were not irrevocable.  As in the case of the predictions of the prophet Jonah about the destruction of Nineveh, God is always hopeful that a change of heart will take place, so that impending punishments will be called off.  Free will, both for the individual and for peoples, is always of the essence. It was not fated that so many Jews should fail to recognize their Messiah.

So what would have happened if Plan A were implemented, and Jesus was able to gather the children of Jerusalem “under his wings?” St. Cyril of Alexandria interprets “under his wings” as meaning “under the shelter of his power.” The Messianic expectations at the time were well expressed by the crowd that came together at Jesus’ Ascension: They asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Israel at that time was under the hegemony of the Roman Empire, with only a puppet king. Would Jesus somehow bring about the culmination of the Davidic kingship in such an unlikely context?

What would have been the “things that are to your peace” (Lk. 19:42), that Jesus regretfully wishes would have been implemented? St. Theophilus of Antioch interprets Jesus as telling the Jews that he would have freed the Jews from oppression by the Romans: “I came to visit and to save you, which if you had known and believed on Me, you might have been reconciled to the Romans.” How would such a reconciliation take place?  If Jesus, son of David, were honored as king of the Jews, rather than Herod Antipas, appointed by the Romans as Jewish king, certainly a different mode of “kingship” would start to prevail in Israel.

Would the “Star of David” become the prevailing symbol of Christianity?  Certainly the religion that would worship God “in spirit and truth” (Jn. 23-24) would be much more Jewish in appearance than present-day Christianity – not just the candles, the tabernacle, priestly vestments, liturgical borrowings, etc.

Would Jesus remain on earth, maybe something like the Shiva Mahavatar Babaji of Hindu folklore, a divine being who has allegedly been materializing periodically from time immemorial? Probably not, since Jesus told his disciples he had to leave them before the Holy Spirit would come to perfect the Church (Jn. 16:7), and also since he planned from the very beginning of his public life to leave the Eucharist, his flesh and blood, (Jn. 6:54) so that all his followers at all times and in all parts of the world, not just his present disciples, might enjoy his real presence. Thus, he might have remained for a time but ascended into heaven at some point.

The members of that alternative Church today would probably be similar to the Jewish Christians predominating shortly after the Resurrection – the same ones who raised questions about whether the Gentiles shouldn’t be obligated to various Mosaic regulations – questions which led to some final decisions by the Apostles in Acts (15:7-21). Probably circumcision would be abrogated in favor of Baptism; but some of the Mosaic practices regarding diet and prayer practices, and some Jewish feasts might have been retained.  Possibly the devout Pharisee, Saul/Paul, would have been convinced and converted along with other Jews, and received a vocation to focus on the Gentiles.

Presumably, if peace with the Romans had ensued, the Temple in Jerusalem would have been protected under the power of the Messiah from destruction in 70 A.D.  In the Temple unbloody sacrifices might still be offered, after the pattern of the sacrifice of fruits, grain and wine already offered by Jews in addition to the sacrifice of animals; and the Eucharist would remain as a permanent presence to his followers, offered and consumed in the Temple and the synagogues.

Most important, however, we should consider the fact that there was a Plan A as well as a Plan B. This offers us evidence of the continuing sort of dialogue that God carries out with the world – God is desirous of pouring out all manner of benefits, but depends almost rigidly on free-will cooperation and making adaptations in response to both individual and group decisions.

If St. Paul’s prediction in Romans 11:25-26 that the Jews will finally be converted after the Gospel has been preached to the whole world, something like Plan A may eventually be implemented after all, at some time in the future when Jesus’ compatriots proclaim, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The vision of Isaiah 60:1 of Jerusalem as the “light of the world” may then be finally implemented.

Howard Kainz

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Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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