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Christ's Mission

General Audience — April 20, 1988

Today we begin the final phase of our reflections on Jesus Christ. Until now we have sought to show who Jesus Christ is. We have done so, first in the light of Sacred Scripture, especially of the Gospels. Then, in recent reflections, we have examined and illustrated the Church's response of faith to Jesus' revelation and to the witness and preaching of the apostles in the course of the first centuries, during the elaboration of the Christological definitions of the early Councils (between the fourth and seventh centuries).

Jesus Christ is true God and true man, of one Being with the Father (and with the Holy Spirit) as regards his divinity, and of one being with us as regards his humanity: Son of God and born of the Virgin Mary. This is the central dogma of the Christian faith in which the mystery of Christ is expressed.

Jesus Christ's mission also pertains to this mystery. The creed links this mission with the truth about the being of the God-Man (Theandrikos), Christ, when it states concisely that "For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven...and was made man." In our reflections we shall seek to develop the content of these words of the creed, meditating in turn on the various aspects of Jesus Christ's mission.

From the beginning of his messianic activity Jesus manifested first of all his prophetic mission. Jesus announced the Good News. He himself said that "he has come" from the Father (cf. Mk 1:38), "that he has been sent" to "proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God" (cf. Lk 4:43).

Jesus acted in a different way from that of his precursor John the Baptist. At the Jordan, in the desert, John taught those who came to him from various places. Instead, Jesus went out to meet those to whom he had to proclaim the Good News. This going out to the people reflects the dynamism proper to the mystery of the Incarnation: God's going toward humanity. Thus the evangelists tell us that Jesus "went around all of Galilee teaching in their synagogues" (Mt 4:23), and that "he journeyed from one town and village to another" (Lk 8:1). From the Gospel texts it is evident that Jesus' preaching took place almost exclusively in Palestine, that is, between Galilee and Judea, with visits to Samaria which links the two principal regions. However, the Gospel also mentions the "region of Tyre and Sidon," that is Phoenicia (cf. Mk 7:31; Mt 15:21), and also Decapolis, "the region of the Gerasenes" on the "other shore of the Sea of Galilee" (cf. Mk 5:1; also 7:31). These references prove that Jesus at times went beyond the confines of Israel (in the ethnic sense), even though he repeatedly emphasized that his mission was principally to "the house of Israel" (Mt 15:24). When he sent the disciples on a first trial journey of missionary apostolate, he explicitly enjoined: "Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Mt 10:5-6). At the same time, however, one of the more important messianic conversations took place in Samaria, at the well of Sychar (cf. Jn 4:1-26).

Moreover, the evangelists themselves attest to the fact that the crowds which followed Jesus comprised people not only from Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem, but also "from Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon" (Mk 3:7-8; cf. also Mt 4:12-15).

Even though Jesus clearly stated that his mission was restricted to the "house of Israel," at the same time he made it understood that the doctrine he preached—the Good News—is destined for the whole human race. For example, in reference to the Roman centurion's profession of faith, he foretold: "Many will come from the east and the west and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven..." (Mt 8:11). However, only after the resurrection will he command his apostles, "Go, therefore, and teach all nations" (Mt 28:19).

What is the essential content of Jesus' teaching? One can put it in a word: the Gospel, that is, the Good News. He began his preaching with the invitation: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Good News" (Mk 1:15).

The very term "Good News" indicates the fundamental character of Christ's message. God wishes to respond to the desire for good and happiness deeply rooted in the human being. It can be said that the Gospel, which is the divine response, has an optimistic character. This, however, is not a purely temporal optimism, a superficial rational happiness. It is not the announcement of an "earthly paradise." Christ's "Good News" makes essential moral demands on the hearer; it calls for self-denial and sacrifice. Ultimately it is linked to the redemptive mystery of the cross. At the heart of the "Good News" there is the program of the beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3-11), which makes absolutely clear the kind of happiness Christ has come to announce and reveal to humanity still on its earthly journey toward its ultimate and eternal destiny. He said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Each of the eight beatitudes has a similar structure. In the same spirit Jesus called "blessed" the servant whom the master "will find vigilant—or busy—on his arrival" (cf. Lk 12:37). Here one can discern also the eschatological and eternal perspective of the happiness revealed and announced by the Gospel.

The beatitude about the poor in spirit brings us back to the beginning of Jesus' messianic activity. Speaking in the synagogue of Nazareth he said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor" (Lk 4:18). He means not only the materially poor, but all those who are spiritually open to God's gift of truth and grace as the gift of his love, a gratuitous gift (gratis datum), because they are interiorly detached from material things and are willing to use and share them with others according to the demands of justice and charity. For this condition of God's poor (anawim) Jesus "gives praise to the Father," because "he has hidden these things (that is, the great things of God) from the wise and the learned and revealed them to the childlike" (cf. Lk 10:21). Therefore it is not said that Jesus dismisses from his company those who are better off financially, like the publican Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to see him (cf. Lk 19:2-9), or those other friends of Jesus whose names we know from the Gospels. According to Jesus' words, it is the poor in spirit (cf. Mt 5:3) and those who hear the word of God and observe it (cf. Lk 11:28), who are blessed.

Another characteristic of Jesus' preaching is that he sought to convey the Gospel message in a way suited to the mentality and culture of his hearers. He grew up and lived among them during the years of his hidden life at Nazareth (when "he advanced in wisdom," Lk 2:52). He knew the mentality, culture and tradition of his people, deeply rooted in the heritage of the Old Testament.

For this very reason he often used parables in proclaiming the truth, as is evident from the Gospels. For example, Matthew wrote, "All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: 'I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world'" (Mt 13:34-35).

Using images from daily life that everyone could understand, his parables made it much easier to establish contact with those who had little education (cf. Summa Theol., III, q. 42, a. 2). "The mystery of God's kingdom," hidden in parables, needed further explanation, sometimes requested even by the apostles (e.g., cf. Mk 4:11-12). An adequate understanding could not be attained except with the aid of an interior light from the Holy Spirit, and Jesus promised and gave this light.

We must further note a third characteristic of Jesus' preaching, emphasized in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, published by Paul VI after the 1974 Synod on evangelization. There we read: "Jesus himself, the Good News of God, was the very first and greatest evangelizer; he was so through and through: to perfection and to the point of the sacrifice of his earthly life" (EN 7).

Jesus not only proclaimed the Good News, but he himself was the Good News. Those who believed in him followed what he preached, but still more they followed the preacher. They followed Jesus because he offered "words of life," as Peter confessed after the Master's discourse in the synagogue of Capernaum: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6:68). This identification of word and life, of the preacher and what he preaches, is perfectly realized only in Jesus. That is why we too believe in him and follow him when he is manifested to us as the "one Master" (cf. Mt 23:8, 10).