When Jane Austen’s father submitted her first novel to a publisher, she had named it “First Impressions.” The publisher rejected it, but she continued to write — thankfully — and some seventeen years later found a publisher for the book we now know as Pride and Prejudice.
The excellent BBC production of Pride and Prejudice is a time machine trip back to British society and courtship customs in the early 1800’s.
Then as now, men and women sized each other up with a look, gleaned factoids about each other from the gossip mill, and on the basis of those first impressions made judgments about whether to encourage a relationship, or not.
Mark, writer of the New Testament book that bears his name, talks a good deal about people’s first impressions of Jesus. Mark was related to Barnabas, and a close friend of the apostle Peter, which gave him an eye-witness source for everything he wrote.
When Jesus taught in the synagogue in the town of Capernaum, people were “astonished” at the way he taught (Mark 1:22). His self-confidence and authority, especially for one so young, amazed his listeners.
Early in his ministry, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a serious illness (Mark 1:30). News of what he had done spread like wildfire; within hours, sick people from all over town were banging on the door asking for help. Jesus willingly cured many of them.
Still later, Jesus invited Levi, a tax collector, to join his group. Levi threw an impromptu dinner for Jesus (Mark 2:15) and invited all sorts of undesirables — today, the group might include gang bangers, addicts, prostitutes, thieves… maybe even Democrats!
Thus, people formed impressions of this young teacher. He became known as a man imbued with God’s power, a man who spoke with authority on the Scriptures, a skillful debater of the law, a confident and wise teacher, a man who generously gave himself to those in need, and a man who hung out with all the wrong people.
Another unmistakable first impression was that Jesus was someone who could be trusted. The crowds followed him anywhere and everywhere to listen to what he said. They willingly put themselves under his authority. They remade their identities and called themselves his students, his disciples, his followers, all in response to something different, something remarkable about his words, his personality, his bearing.
Our first impressions of Jesus today are hampered by layers and layers of distortion. The Jesus Mark heard about from Peter, the Jesus Peter walked beside in the dust of Israel, is obscured by the distance of time, by tradition and history, by commentary and criticism, by the attitudes of the church and by the very people like me who claim the name “Christian” in modern times.
All of these are like optical diffraction gratings placed between the pure light of Jesus and our eyes. Our impressions of Jesus and his church aren’t always good. The light of his character is dimmed by the centuries and distorted by too many who appropriate Jesus’ name while hiding an agenda in their back pockets.
But if you read Mark for yourself and consider the possibility that it comes to us as an eye-witness account to the “real” Jesus, if you examine the response to Jesus’ life and words in the book of Acts where his followers figure out how to be his church, you will find yourself awed by this man, Jesus. Just like his listeners then, his words are astonishing, his authority is uncompromising, his insights about life are haunting, life-altering.
I’m drawn back to the New Testament Gospels over and over again. In those eye-witness accounts of Jesus I keep discovering someone unlike anyone else I have encountered in my lifetime.
He isn’t mythic. He isn’t super-hero amazing. Jesus in the Gospel narratives seems perfectly human, but filled with the power of something — or Someone — good, wise, loving, generous and pure.
I think it’s worth asking ourselves the question: What are my first impressions of Jesus and how did I come by them? Are they based on rumor and mythology? On a college survey of the world’s great religions? On PBS documentaries and political sloganeers? On Christmas carols and art hanging in the world’s museums?
Jane Austen knew that first impressions can be very wrong. Mr. Wickham, who at first seemed to be a fine young man, turned out to be a manipulative liar; Mr. Darcy, who gave the appearance of being arrogant and aloof, was in fact the most decent and generous of men.
Decades after I first read Mark’s account for myself, I keep going back because I keep finding new insights into this guy Jesus, this deceptively simple teacher and healer who moved human history as a raging flood shifts the course of a river.
What are your first impressions of Jesus, and if you’ve gotten him completely wrong… what then?