October 19, 2020

Another Look: Willimon on Jesus – Vagabond, Peacemaker, Storyteller


Note from CM: This week we are focusing on Jesus-shaped spirituality. One thing I am doing is going back and taking a look at some of my favorite authors and books that have helped me know Christ and his way better. Here is one part of a review I did in 2011 of Will Willimon’s fine volume about Jesus.

* * *

Will Willimon’s excellent book, Why Jesus?, is an extended meditation on the person and work of Jesus Christ as revealed to us in the Gospels.

Taken together, allowed to speak with their delightful peculiarities, these earliest witnesses to Jesus give us a trustworthy, irreplaceable rendition of him, the most interesting person in the world. We must meet Jesus as presented by his first followers, or we meet him not at all. (WJ, xii)

The author invites us, as Jesus himself did, to “come and see — to take a contemplative journey along the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea with the One who came proclaiming God’s Kingdom and demonstrating its power by his words and actions.

Tonight, let’s consider him whom Willimon calls “Vagabond,” “Peacemaker,” and “Storyteller.”

Jesus the Vagabond
The first characteristic of Jesus that impresses Will Willimon is his activity. Jesus is God in motion, ever on a journey, a Man on a mission. Except for a few chapters in Matthew and Luke, we would know little of the birth and childhood of Jesus. However, all the Gospels are united in presenting “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1) as commencing with his appearance and baptism under John the Baptizer. That’s when Jesus hit the road. And he never stopped until he sat down at the right hand of his Father.

What the gospels deem important about Jesus is not his family or his youth but rather his embarkation on his ministry, his forward movement, his mission. Breaking like a wave across dusty Galilee, he thunders forth into a captive land — God at highest momentum. God immediately. Anybody who wants to meet Jesus, to understand or be with Jesus, must be willing to relocate. (WJ, 2)

The Gospels portray Jesus as a man on a missional journey, and we are fellow travelers with him. Willimon reminds his readers that this Jesus will not let us sit down in a classroom, thinking that we can know God by memorizing definitions and accepting explanations. He is the Way, and knowing him means following him, learning like breathless children shouting out questions while attempting to keep up with their father’s adult stride.

Also, Jesus was a “vagabond” wanderer — while on his mission he put little stock in the things that make for comfort, and he encouraged us to take a similar view of settling down. He had nowhere to lay his head, and he invites us to roll out our sleeping bags and join him in sleeping under the stars. We travel light. We learn to depend on the kindness and hospitality of others. We practice living with open hands and non-grasping hearts. In Willimon’s memorable words, traveling with the vagabond Jesus teaches us that we have been “created for more than merely present arrangements” (WJ, 9).

Jesus is God on the move. He moves into the world, and toward us in constantly surprising, bewildering ways that pull back the curtains on God’s Realm and give us glimpses of its reality and re-creative power. “Fear not!” he calls to us, and “Follow me!” Like Jesus’ first followers, we “get to know Jesus only by catching some enigmatic whiff of his glory and stumbling after” (WJ, 11)

Jesus the Peacemaker
Jesus is commonly known as “The Prince of Peace.” But Will Willimon reminds us that the peace he brought, announced by the angels to the shepherds, came at the expense of a lot of trouble.

Jesus brings peace, but his peace often begins as disruption and despair before it is sensed as peace. It is not peace as the world gives, his peace. Prince of Peace Jesus was a threat to world peace. (WJ, 13)

Not that Jesus initiated the trouble he and his followers experienced by their own violent attitudes or actions. Jesus remained firmly committed to “turning the other cheek,” “going the extra mile,” and refusing to resort to the sword when opposition arose. All the way to the cross.

Nor did Jesus rely on political power or the world’s system of justice to bring peace. Nor did he have the kind of clout that comes from having a lot of material possessions or money to throw around. He didn’t deify the state or rely on any of the human machinations we depend on to change the world.

This must have been hard for his more “practical” followers. He had a Zealot in his company, for heaven’s sake, a living, breathing revolutionary who had been actively involved with those who called for the violent overthrow of Israel’s Roman oppressors. He had James and John, “Sons of Thunder,” who wanted to go all prophetic on a group of Samaritans who rejected them, and call down fiery judgment from heaven. He had Peter, who revealed his inner warrior when he swung the sword that fateful night in Gethsemane. I don’t think he was aiming for anyone’s ear. The guy ducked.

Ultimately, it was through violence perpetrated against Jesus that true peace was purchased. “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). Then he committed to his followers the ministry of reconciliation and called us to be peacemakers by walking in his steps of humility, love, service, and suffering.

Jesus said, “Peace I give to you, but not as the world gives peace.”

I’ll say. (WJ, 24)

Jesus the Storyteller
. . . he did not speak to them except in parables. (Mark 4:34)

Parables, these pithy, strange little stories from everyday life, are the most distinctive — and peculiar — aspect of the teaching of Jesus. . . .

Why, Jesus? Why do you explain God with unexplained stories, most of which lack neat endings or immediately apparent points? It’s as if Jesus says that God is not met through generalities and abstractions; God is met amid the stuff of daily life, in the tug and pull of the ordinary. Yet God is usually encountered, if the parables have it right, in ways that are rarely self-evident, obvious, or with uncontested meaning. In parables, the joke is on us. (WJ, 26)

In his meditation on Jesus’ parabolic teaching ministry, Will Willimon vividly describes the disorientation we feel when we truly hear these stories.

  • What? A businessman did what? He commended a servant who cheated him? God is like that?
  • What? A widow constantly haranguing a wicked judge? — that’s what prayer is all about?
  • What? People who work only one hour get paid the same as those who worked all day? How is that fair?
  • What? A guy finds out some land is valuable, containing buried treasure. He goes to the owner and slyly pays a discount price for it? That’s what embracing the Kingdom is like?
  • What? A Samaritan is the good guy? What are you saying, Jesus?

In my Christian experience, the funny, shocking, surprising, subversive teaching of Jesus has often been quenched by analysis and exposition. We’re not good listeners. It’s hard for us to stay in the moment with Jesus the Storyteller. We want the explanation, the moral, the lesson. We want the punchline to be clear, the message to be practical and edifying. We resist being left hanging. We don’t want Jesus to respond to our questions with even harder questions. We’re impatient. We want the answers so that we can pass the test. Now.

Aside to Jesus: Some people buy books like this one hoping that the book will explain you, make the complicated simple and the mysterious comprehensible, and thereby make you easier to swallow without choking. I guess you aren’t going to let us get away with that, are you? (WJ, 29)


  1. What? No blood-up-to-the-saddle warrior Jesus?

    It does give a different perspective on the “ordinary” God: perhaps it’s a matter of expected
    vs. unexpected. Everyone expects the judgmental God, but God arriving as a baby to grow up and die to forgive is, well, unexpected, rather extra-ordinary. For all his foibles, that is why I still love Luther, because he had the audacity to search for a gracious God in a world of judgement and wrath.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      What? No blood-up-to-the-saddle warrior Jesus?

      For TurboJesus filing the Valley of Jezreel with blood and bodies in lip-smacking detail, you’ll have to go to Tim LaHaye or Hal Lindsay.

  2. Ooooooh! Blood! Bodies! Buzzards munching on entrails! Makes me feel so macho!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Especially when after fulfilling your Revenge Fantasy, TurboJesus makes you His Personal Court Favorites. (op cit LB Vols 12 & 13)

  3. Many of those “What’s?” are answered when the parable or event is seen in the context of a first-century Hebrew villager mentality and in the historic context of the time. Jesus would then become a bit less of a mystery and his teachings ever more powerful.

    It is no wonder that we Greek-thinking westerners are so easily befuddled in our study, and our pastors (and authors) ill equipped to teach these things.

    • Jim, I would submit that the line for us westerners is not between “Hebrew” thought and “Greek” thought, but rather between pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought. I wonder if you have read Athanasius. or Basil the Great? They and the other Greek fathers, though wrongly sometimes disparaging of Jews themselves, actually retain much of “Hebrew thought” while giving us words – that the Hebrew language just doesn’t have – that have enabled us to talk about God (insofar as we can talk about God) and to keep clarifying who Jesus is in the face of the questions that inevitably came up as Christianity made its way from those C1 Hebrew villages to the rest of the world.

      Yes, contextual studies are important, and it’s extremely important to remember the C1 “Hebrew villager” context. Everything comes down to hermeneutics, and we can’t interpret correctly without understanding the context. And – questions are going to be asked. The difficulty that we have nowadays is with approaching the current post-Enlightenment questions in the post-Enlightenment context in which we all swim. Enlightenment-based explanations, arising from western philosophy that posits the strict separation of “spiritual” and “material” – owing much more to Aristotle than Plato – are simply inadequate. But we’re stuck in them.

      Something to think about.