Learning from the relationships of Jesus: Part 1

By Chris Pain 21 Sep 2006

Image credit: WikiCommons, CC0

As regular readers will know, part of the bedrock of the Jubilee Centre’s research and activity over the last 23 years has been our understanding of Matthew 22:34–40, where Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment. Instead, he picks two and then goes further. He does not merely say ‘these are the two greatest commandments’, but ‘all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.

In saying this, he provides us with a crucial insight. We can look at any part of the law and the prophets and interpret and apply it in the light of this summary, which, fundamentally, is about relationships. The result of taking Jesus’ statement seriously and studying the Old Testament in this light, alongside other careful scholarship, has been very fruitful in deepening our understanding of what God’s social vision for Israel was and how that can be creatively applied into modern societies.

A New Project

But what about Jesus? He highlights the importance of relationships in his summary of the law and the prophets; how did he conduct relationships in his life?

If Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17), then the way in which he conducts his relationships must fulfil them too. And if Jesus teaches that right relationships of love are of supreme importance, then surely study of his relationships will help us understand what this looks like in practice.

It is for this reason that we are excited to have started a four-month study of Jesus and his relationships.

What We Are Looking For

Our approach has three main components. First, we are seeking to understand how the values governing interpersonal relationships that we find in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus’ relationships and in his teaching. These include the requirements for loyal-love or loving kindness, righteousness, justice, holiness and shalom.

Second, we will use the five indicators of relational proximity, developed by the Relationships Foundation, to see what insights they reveal about the way Jesus conducted his relationships. These indicators, which have their roots in reflection upon the Old Testament, are a way of describing the necessary preconditions for good relationships. They are:

  • Directness – the type and quality of communication in a relationship.
  • Continuity – the amount and quality of time invested in a relationship.
  • Multiplexity – the breadth of knowledge in a relationship. This means it helps to spend time with a person in different contexts, such as at work, in their home, on the squash court, etc.
  • Parity – the limitation of power differentials and maximising of fairness in a relationship. This includes issues of commitment, contribution to decision-making and a fair distribution of risk and reward.
  • Commonality – the level of shared values in a relationship.

Third, we will also try to take account of the fact that any relationship takes place in the context of other relationships: ‘Reality is composed of nested relationships… Isolate anything from the web of relationships, and it ceases to exist. “Existence is co-existence” is how Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel put it.’ [1]

Fruitful Questions

Jesus tends to conduct his prayer relationship with the Father in private (Luke 5:16) but occasionally he prays in public and the language of his prayer seems to be influenced by the presence of the disciples (see Luke 10:21–22). What does this tell us about his relational priorities?

When Jesus heals the paralysed man in Mark 2 he relates to the man, his friends, the disciples, the crowd and the teachers of the law in one short, concentrated incident – what are the dynamics in that complicated web of relationships?

We also see Jesus giving time to people in ways that are surprising – the haemorrhaging woman in Luke 8:40–56 is an obvious example. The woman has been healed and Jairus’ daughter is in desperate need of attention. Why does Jesus take the (probably considerable) time to hear her story of suffering? What are the relational implications of that decision?

We also see Jesus differentiating between his relationships with Peter, James and John, the 12, the 72, and a wider circle of followers. How did Jesus make the difficult decisions about which relationships to develop?

We trust that studying the relationships of Jesus in the way outlined here will deepen our understanding of how we should conduct our own relationships. For now, we have plenty of questions! We hope to share some of our conclusions in the next issue of Engage.

[1] L. Sweet, Jesus Drives Me Crazy: Lose Your Mind, Find Your Soul, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003, p.105

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