What Jesus taught and why

Jesus taught for the best part of three years in southeast Galilee and Jerusalem. His early ministry centered on Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, with visits to Jerusalem and parts of Samaria. During his central ministry he made a first tour of Galilee, visiting Nazareth and other towns. Then followed trips to the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee and a second tour of Galilee villages. A third tour of Galilee also included visits beyond it to Tyre and Sidon, Decapolis, Caesarea, and Philippi. In his late ministry, he was in Peraea, parts of Judaea, and Galilee again, until his triumphal entry into Jerusalem that led to his arrest and Crucifixion.

The ministry was continual. Even when he traveled, Jesus taught by the wayside. There is no evidence he preached formal sermons, let alone regular, repeated ones. Indeed, the word “preached” should not be used about him. “Taught” is more accurate. He taught as the Holy Spirit moved him, often in response to what he saw or heard, or to questions. He used synagogues where those in charge of them were friendly, or he taught in the open. Jesus was not thus overburdened by a program of specific appointments to teach. While always at work, he gives the impression of finding time to chat, albeit not about trivialities. There is never a sense of hurry. Of course, Jesus, who was God as well as man, was partly outside the structure of time and space anyway. He could, and did, make time stand still, and he could annihilate the constraints of space. This was particularly true when he wished to pray, as he often did, outside time or upon a hill or mountain, beyond space. But when not praying, he was teaching, even at mealtimes, for Jesus was convivial and loved to teach when people were relaxed and enjoying their food and companionship. I calculate that Jesus, in his three-year ministry, must have taught on perhaps as many as four hundred occasions when crowds gathered, as well as scores of other times when an informal opportunity arose. His few rest days were spent fishing on the great lake around which his ministry revolved. The disciples fished, as they well knew how, while Jesus reclined in the stern and sometimes slept.

What did Jesus teach? He had no system, no summa, no code. God forbid! The only way to grasp his teaching is to read all the Gospels repeatedly, until its essence permeates the mind. In the ancient Near East, centuries before the birth of Christ, when societies were just emerging from savagery, religious awe and belief served to civilize by producing elaborate codes of law to preserve order, because there were no civil parliaments or constitutional bodies to perform this function. These religious codes were elaborated by layers of commentaries produced by professional priests, scribes, and ecclesiastical lawyers. This process was particularly intense among the Jews, who could trace their religious-legal roots back to Moses or even Abraham, and who had, by Jesus’s time, already enjoyed a continuity and a progressive elaboration of legal duties stretching back two millennia. In the process, God had become a very distant and frightening figure, but the law was an ever-present and weighty reality.

Jesus was a revolutionary who transformed the entire Judaic religious scheme into something quite different. It ceased to be a penal system of law and punishment — that could be left to Caesar and his soldiers — and became an affair of the heart and an adventure of the spirit. Jesus did not exactly repudiate the law. What he did was to extract its moral code and ignore the rest. Instead of the law he spoke of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. A faithful soul was not one who obeyed the law but one who, by transforming his spirit, “entered” the Kingdom. God was not a distant, terrifying Yahweh but “the Father.”

Essentially, in Jesus’s teaching, the entire human race was “the children of God.” He used the term “Father” or “Holy Father” more often than any other. According to Luke 11:2-4, when a disciple asked him how to pray, Jesus taught him the words of the Our Father, or Lord’s Prayer, an admirably succinct and intimate address to God, who is treated as the father of a close family rather than an invisible deity on a mountain. Later, on the eve of his Passion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed directly to God in an extended and transcendental version of the Our Father, which is given at full length in the seventeenth chapter of John. Jesus always taught that the present world, though created by God and good and beautiful in many respects, to be enjoyed and made use of within reason, was totally different from the Kingdom of God. It was alien, and human beings could never be fully at home in it. It was as though something in them, some vital part, was missing.

They needed to be “made whole.” This process could not be achieved by obeying endless laws, or even by doing good works, meritorious though they were. It depended entirely on the mercy of God, whose son was the symbol and instrument by his sacrifice. Life on earth was to be devoted to a self-transformation in which each human soul strove to become as like God as possible, a process made easier by the existence of his son made man, thus facilitating imitation.

The essence of Jesus’s teaching is the search for oneness. What matters is not the world, a mere episode in time and space, but the people in it: their sojourn in the world is temporary, and their object is to emerge from it and become one with God. About to depart the world, Jesus prayed to God for his faithful followers: “And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are” (Jn 17:11).

In Jesus’s eyes, the faithful are alien to the world: “[T]hey are not of the world, even as I am not of the world,” a sentence so important he repeats it (Jn 17:14, 16). He adds (17:20-26):

Neither pray I for these [followers] alone, but for them also which shall believe on me. . . . That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us. . . . And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one… O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou has sent me. And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.

Jesus said this magnificent and intimate prayer while kneeling. Moses had taught the Hebrews to pray standing, and aloud, with arms outstretched as though contemplating an implacable deity at a Himalayan distance. Jesus adopted the posture of a child kneeling at a parent’s thigh or lap: prayer should be silent, secret, private. The way in which a prayer was said was characteristic of Jesus’s teaching, which was to reverse all the assumptions. He turned the world, which was wrong and false, upside down and set it upright. When he taught his disciples, and the people as a whole, how to behave, there was a stunning reversal of values, which must have caused astonishment. He produced a series of precepts, known as the Beatitudes, which are part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:3-12 and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-23. These should be taken in conjunction with other admonitions of Jesus’s scattered through the Gospels, which he taught as a guide through life and its material problems. The world was reversed, and poverty and humility were substituted for pride, ambitions, hierarchies, and pursuit of power, money, and pleasure.

We must bear in mind that the land where Jesus preached was a place of contrasts, often savage ones. The long and economically successful reign of Herod the Great had produced prosperity for many, and great wealth for a few. The end of piracy, the expansion of trade, and the stability of the new Roman Empire had made it possible for traders to make rapid fortunes and careful farmers to do well year after year. But as Jesus said, “The poor always ye have with you” (Jn 12:8), and prosperity had attracted countless immigrants from the north and east who formed pockets of poverty everywhere. The Jews looked after their own poor — they were more conscientious in this respect than any other people — but beggars, cripples, lepers, the demented, and the confused were ubiquitous. Moreover, charity itself was a source of pride. Jesus always stressed not the action, however virtuous in appearance, but the feeling behind it. He saw that the successful man turned philanthropist could be a monster of arrogance, just as poverty bred meanness, violence, and cruelty. What he looked for was the “poor in spirit,” a new term he added to the human language, meaning someone whose thoughts were above material things and whose mind simply did not calculate in terms of possessions.

Hence “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” is the first of the Beatitudes Jesus lists in the fifth chapter of Matthew. Those who sorrow will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth, those who hunger and thirst after justice will be filled, the merciful will be shown pity, the pure in heart will see the beatific vision, the peacemakers will be treated as God’s children, and those who are persecuted because they do right will go straight to God. Luke repeats the gist of this teaching but adds a series of warnings aimed at those who are ambitious to do well in the world (6:24-26). Many of them will prosper, but only in this world, not the next. “[W]oe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.” Jesus said they should be particularly worried “when all men shall speak well of you!” It meant there was something fundamentally false about what they were doing, or saying, or thinking.

This was tough teaching, hard to follow, and entirely new. It had no equivalent in the Old Testament or any of the pious wisdom literature of the ancient Near East. And Jesus, according to Luke, followed it with still more difficult maxims (6:27-29): “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.” Above all, he told them, hesitate to criticize other people: “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (6:37).

In all this teaching, Jesus was stressing that it was not so much the outer actions but the inner sentiments which mattered. In an important passage in Matthew (5:21-48; 6:1-34), Jesus stressed that evil feelings allowed to develop unrestrained led to major sins. It had always been obvious that killing was wrong, he argued. “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause” was sinful, too. It was wrong to abuse or swear at another man, and “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” So compose quarrels, “be reconciled to thy brother,” and “[a]gree with thine adversary quickly, whilst thou art in the way with him.” Of course, adultery was wrong — everyone knew that — “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Swearing was wrong, and he gave examples to avoid. Speech should be simple and direct: “[L]et your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” The old saying “Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy” was wrong: “I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” He begged his listeners to do these things “[t]hat ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” He continued, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Alms should be given secretly, not publicly: “[L]et not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.” Do not make a parade of praying in the street, but “enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut the door pray to thy Father.” When fasting, don’t go about with a woeful face but carry on normally—make sacrifices, like prayers, secret.

The transience and pointlessness of the world, when contrasted with the solidity and the permanence of heaven, was a theme to which he turned repeatedly. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . . . For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Don’t fuss about food or drink or clothes: “Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” The Father knows what you need, and he will provide. “[S]eek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow… Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

Many of Jesus’s sayings, thus recorded in Matthew and Luke, have become maxims familiar to us from childhood. But they were startlingly new in his day. They provoked thought, astonishment, often anger, fear, and doubt — and excitement. When Jesus preached in the fields, he set men and women arguing and thinking. Mark tells us that when Jesus was asked what was the Great Commandment, he cited the book of Deuteronomy: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” He added an injunction from Leviticus: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” It was Jesus who first drew these two Old Testament commands together, making them the center of the good life — “There is none other commandment greater than these.” The scribe who had asked him the question noticed the innovation and commented in admiration that Jesus’s answer “is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” To which Jesus replied, “Thou art not far from the Kingdom of God” (12 : 28-34). For not all scribes were blind and foolish, and Jesus could always recognize the decent ones.

When Jesus was asked “[W]ho is my neighbour?” (Lk 10:29), his answer was: everyone. He turned compassion, which all of us feel from time to time for a particular person, into a huge, overarching gospel of love. He taught the love of mankind as a whole. The Greek word for this is philanthrōpia, “philanthropy,” which has since become threadbare with use and stained by misuse. It did not exist in Jesus’s day as a concept. The idea of loving all humanity did not occur to anyone, Greek or barbarian, Jew or Gentile. Everyone’s compassion — love — was selective. The Greeks were taught to hate the barbarians, just as Jews were taught to hate Gentiles and Samaritans. The Romans despised the peoples they conquered. All free men and women hated and feared slaves. Aristotle, perhaps the most sophisticated and enlightened man of his age, dismissed slaves as mere “animated machines.” The intellectual, social, and racial climate of Jesus’s day was implacably hostile to his message in this respect. The society he entered was one in which pious Jews taught and were taught that Gentiles without the law were accursed. What he tried to show was that compassion had, quite literally, no limits. Otherwise it was false. Benevolence was meaningless if it failed to be universal. Here was a new commandment as important as any in the Decalogue, or all of them together. God was the model. He loved all human beings. And anyone who drew distinctions and made exceptions on grounds of nationality or race or religious beliefs or opinions or age or sex or profession or past record of sinfulness was not heading for the Kingdom of God. On the contrary, he would find its gates shut.

One principal reason Christianity later spread all over the world was that Jesus himself was a universalist. “I . . . will draw all men unto me,” he said in John 12:32. He insisted, “God so loved the world . . . that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” God had sent him to earth not to condemn the world, or any part of it, “but that the world through him might be saved” (Jn 3 : 16-17). There are no restrictions or qualifications in this universal mission. When he gave his apostles their final instructions about their missionary tasks ahead, he set no geographical, social, national, or racial limits. They were to “go . . . into all the world” and “teach all nations” (Mk 16:15; Mt 28:19).

This universalism of Jesus stretched from his Incarnation to the Crucifixion. His mother was Jewish by birth but his Father was God, soaring above all personal distinctions. He had no home, no country, no race, no characteristics tying him to a tribe or a nation or a locality. He belonged to the Kingdom, outside time and space. But he was united to all men by love. He was philanthropy — the love of man — incarnate, and his sacrifice on the cross was the supreme philanthropic act in his life on earth and for all time: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). But by friends he meant all without exception. There was nothing exclusive about Jesus and his teaching. His message was the most inclusive of all such communications. No one before had, and no one since has, so confidently and warmly and indeed naturally opened his arms to the entire human race.

(Jesus: A Biography From a Believer, 2010)

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