We hear this question often. Sometimes it is asked with a flippancy that presumes the answer is obvious. What Jesus would not do is obvious – he would not be idolatrous, he would not kill, commit adultery, or steal. We know he would not lie.
Discerning what Jesus would do in situations he could never have encountered in his lifetime is challenging.
We can look at what he did, and learn from that.
As an apprentice tradesman Jesus learned what to do from a master – his dad, Joseph. When he switched careers he had many to learn from – patriarchs, lawgivers, poets, prophets – each taught by the one inspiring Master.
Jesus learned from the writings and stories of his tradition. Bits and pieces were passed on about God’s attributes, attitudes and actions. Likewise, he found there the good and bad doings of his ancestors in their relationships with God and with one another.
Jesus looked in the most perceptive way at this religious heritage. It took him to the core of revelation – what God did out of love – and, in turn, what his forebears did or failed to do.
We have a glimpse of Jesus as a keen and perceptive boy of twelve in the Temple asking questions. Perhaps “What would Moses do?” or “What would Elijah do?”
We later see him appropriating sublime texts such as those of Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to bring good news to the poor.” He had imbibed the very best wine from Israel’s vineyard.
So, when challenged to make specific decisions, there was rich inherited wisdom to draw from. Jesus, like no other, drew from the heart of it.
Human need also taught him what to do. There is a snippet of Jesus learning on the spot. From a foreigner, a female foreigner whom he initially seemed to disregard as outside his concern, Jesus heard, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” From a mother’s love, the universal embrace of God’s love was impressed upon him. He knew what he had to do. He knew he must cure her child, and every mother’s child.
He saw with ever greater clarity, tutored by human experience, that the Father is the one source of all; that all are equally treasured children, and that love is the only relationship that should prevail – the only thing to do. Jesus listened, learned, and acted.
To what else would Jesus turn when facing a specific need to act? The gospel accounts are clear – he prayed.
Especially when major challenges presented, Jesus is shown in prayer to his Father. Faced with the biggest crisis – do I or don’t I submit to arrest, trial, torture and execution? – he appealed to the Father. What would Jesus do? He would find through prayer what his love relationship with his Father and with his siblings told him must be done.
The Church, from its birth, has continually asked, “What would Jesus do?” In every era, as new situations and challenges evolve, the question is necessary.
What would Jesus do today about the marginalised, about the environment, about terrorism, about refugees, about exploitation, about discrimination, about persecution, about current family and sexual issues?
To answer, it is crucial to go about it as Jesus did. Seek what is revealed in the scriptures and traditions – now expanded and enriched with those about Jesus himself. Then listen to need and hear what love demands as a true fraternal response. Finally, commune in prayer with the Father for clear vision and courageous resolve.
We rely on the Spirit, the very Spirit of Jesus, to answer us. We don’t always hear the answer clearly and fully. We often get it wrong. Then, hopefully, we strive to listen more attentively.
It is very important, though, to keep on asking that vital question – not in an offhand or nonchalant way, but as a serious and concerted exercise – because, in reality, the answer ultimately being sought is, “What would Jesus have me do?”