I grew up with the whitest Jesus you have ever seen. A vitamin D-deficient, sickly-looking Jesus. A Don Knotts meets Gary Busey kind of Jesus. And he was always pictured in the same way: standing in a field, holding a tiny lamb (also pasty white). Not surprisingly, our entire congregation was the same shade as that vitamin D-deficient Gary Busey Jesus. In short, we had created a Mini-Me Jesus.
Of course, my church can't claim full credit for creating Mini-Me Jesus. Hollywood helped us out by casting numerous lily-white actors as Jesus, such as Jeffrey Hunter in "King of Kings" and Max von Sydow (a 6-foot-4 Swedish actor) in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." And then there's my personal favorite: Willem Dafoe as Jesus in "The Last Temptation of Christ," even though Dafoe is from Appleton, Wisconsin.
So, what's wrong with a pasty white Gary Busey Mini-Me Jesus? Why not just let people imagine Jesus in the way that they want — in the image that makes them feel the most comfortable?
Reason 1: It's just wrong.
One of the greatest ironies from my early church years was to be found in the art hanging in my Sunday school room. Over the toy cabinet hung two images side by side: The Mini-Me Jesus that we've talked about, and a map of the Holy Land with Bethlehem prominently starred.
News flash: Gary Busey Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania maybe.
But definitely not in the Bethlehem of Palestine. The real Jesus was a dark-haired, dark-skinned Palestinian Jew. As comedian Amer Zahr speculated in Time Magazine, if the historical Jesus came back today, he would probably be on the "No Fly List."
Reason 2: Jesus wasn't sent to make us feel comfortable.
He didn't come here to encourage us to nestle into a comfy little Tempur-Pedic spiritual practice. He came here to jar us into recognizing the suffering in the world and following his lead in doing something about it.
He was on a mission: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed" (Luke 4:18).
Throughout his ministry, Jesus didn't just talk about fighting oppression. He stood in the middle of it. He embodied it, and when he was nailed to that cross, he became the symbol for all who are oppressed. He taught, "What you do to the least of them, you do also to me" (Matthew 25:40).
It comes down to one question: Do you want a Jesus that makes you feel better about yourself, or a Jesus that makes you a better person?
Sure, we can worship a Mini-Me Jesus, a Jesus who is one of us, a Jesus who makes us comfortable and allows us to nestle into the status quo. However, that dishonors the true legacy of the Christ.
Jesus didn't come to Earth to make us comfortable; neither did he come to force us to bow down in shame. He came to empower us to fight for equality for all our brothers and sisters and to inspire us to refuse to be satisfied until all are free.
Take time this week to think about how you see Jesus and in what way that might affect your perspective of others who are different than that image. If we are true to his teachings, then we should strive to imagine a Jesus who reflects those he came to serve. We should see in his face "the least of them." Remember, there is no faster way to flush out the prejudice in our hearts than to put the object of that prejudice on the face of the savior to whom we pray.
A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. The author of “Laugh Your Way to Grace” and “Preaching Punchlines,” Susan is a nationally known speaker on the healing power of humor. Contact her through her email at email@example.com or visit SusanSparks.com.