“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” — 1 Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, like many children I spent Sunday mornings in Sunday school. We were taught amazing stories about talking serpents, boats with two of every animal on board, kids who survived in fiery furnaces, and a man who was crucified for being a radical and came back from the dead to defy his persecutors. As a kid these stories made sense, just like stories about flying cars, magic nannies and a man who came down the chimney on Christmas Eve made sense.
As I grew older and wiser, I came to understand that the stories of my childhood were really just stories. There was usually a morality tale hidden in the stories, but Mary Poppins didn’t have a bottomless carpetbag, Noah’s Ark was not really about a god killing most life on Earth, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang was awesome, but fiction, and most of the stories in The Bible are not historical in nature.
Still, there’s something about this Jesus guy.
It’s not that his message was new, necessarily, that continues to fascinate me. The teachings credited to him in the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark and Luke (all based on Mark) are really just the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama repackaged for a Jewish audience. Those referenced in the Gospel of John are something else altogether, based on the teachings of Paul of Tarsus, who never actually met Jesus. For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the first three, which are most credibly the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Two Commandments
One of the primary concerns of Jesus seems to have been the Jewish preoccupation with the laws (in particular, Leviticus). He felt they had made faith all about the laws and not about God. For this reason, he told his disciples that he had a new law, one with just two commandments: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (NT Book of Matthew). In essence, if you follow these commandments the Ten from Moses will be under control.
If you love God, for example, you will worship no other gods (Exodus 20:2) or use God’s name in vane (Exodus 20:7). Similarly, if you love your neighbor you won’t steal from him, give false testimony against him or covet his house, his wife, or, you know, his donkey (car?) (Exodus 20: 13-17).
Now let’s bring that to modern times. If you follow these two commandments, will you overlook the poor, the downtrodden, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Will you choose to destroy God’s creation in favor of improving profit margins? Will you label and judge people of other persuasions (racial, religious, political, socio-economic, etc.) “enemy,” or will you see them as brothers and sisters to be embraced and loved? Will you seek to understand that which is different or just fear it? The teachings of Jesus are quite clear on these questions, yet there are Christians all around us taking an opposite approach. How does this reconcile with being a “Christian,” or follower of Jesus?
When you have studied the teachings of Jesus, and in particular what famed theologian Marcus Borg dubbed the “matrix” of Jesus (context on steroids), it can be challenging to identify with many who call themselves Christians. We often see Christianity (and other religions) weaponized against subsets of people, not understanding that the very concept of a subset would be irrelevant to Jesus. Gay? Straight? Black? White? Muslim? Hindi? Republican? Democrat? American? Russian? You get the idea. None of these things would have mattered to Jesus, who was himself a confirmed Jew who was not in any way trying to start a new religion and most especially not in his own name.
One of the core teachings of Jesus was that he was not special. The Kingdom of God lies within all of us (Luke 17:20-21), and it is up to us to establish God’s Kingdom, not up in the sky but right here on Earth (Matthew 6:10). Sound difficult? It’s only difficult if we make it so, and boy, do we work hard at making it difficult. I imagine Jesus looking down from a cloud and rolling his eyes at us. He already gave us “Religion for Dummies,” it was one sentence long, as we still don’t get it. What do we do about LGBTQ+ people? Love them. What about those pesky Muslims? Love them. The red neck asshole next door? Love him. The Russians who are killing thousands of innocent Ukrainians? Love them. People of a different political persuasion? Love them.
Does it really sound that hard?
What if we make it a little more complicated? That girl who was raped and got pregnant and needs to have an abortion? God is clearly against abortion, Bill. It’s murder and murder is one of those Big 10! Hmmm. Well, about that…what did Jesus say? Let me scroll up a second….ummmm….oh yeah…. love her. What does that mean, Jesus, it’s a little vague? No, it’s really not. Sometimes loving someone simply means staying out of their business. Who am I to judge some person I don’t know and their life circumstances? Wait! I know there’s something about judging in the red letters. Let’s see….Google…oh yes! Here it is:
Matthew 7: 1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
Sure, but what about “THOU SHALT NOT KILL?!?!?” Well, you see, that was the Old Testament. If you’re Jewish, you can argue that law still stands (followed by an argument over when life actually begins), but if you claim to follow Christ those laws were wiped away. Jesus was incredibly bright, you see, and somehow he could foresee the issues we raise today that were not points of discussion 2,000 years ago. He gave us an easy law to follow and even provided examples. In John 8:7 Jesus comes upon a crowd preparing to stone a woman who was found guilty of adultery. Clear violation of the Big Ten, right? Definitely time for a nice Saturday afternoon stoning. Grab your fake beard (women), a bag of pebbles and a few nice, sharp stones! Except…wait…two commandments…let me refer back…oh! Love her. Jesus said whoever was without sin could cast the first stone and as if by magic the would-be stoners dispersed.
You may feel abortion is wrong, you may pledge to never have one or be party to one, and that’s admirable. You may even counsel people you know against abortion and even do it in a faith-based way. That’s wonderful! As for people you don’t know or people who choose not to follow your advice, Jesus taught that we should love, not judge, and certainly not persecute. Trust me, anyone involved in an abortion is already persecuted. No need to pile on.
The other big one seems to be the LGBTQ+ community; some Christians just can’t get enough of persecuting them. I even know a young lady who felt she might be leaning the other way who was lectured for a full hour by the pastor at the megachurch about the evils of her ways and how much God would hate her if she didn’t straighten out. I’m sure Jesus loves that pastor, but he also taught precisely the opposite of what that pastor said and would no doubt be quite disappointed in his actions.
But wait, Bill, MAN SHALL NOT LIE DOWN WITH MAN is clearly written in The Bible and The Bible is a fax from God telling us exactly what he demands and he clearly sees LGBTQ+ as a SIN!!!!! Hmmm. Again, if you’re Jewish and the Old Testament is all you have, there is a case to be made, as long as you only read that one part and most especially don’t read the parts about King David’s concubines. But if you’re wearing the Christian label, the contradiction goes away. You love those of other sexual persuasions. Drop your stone and either embrace them or, if you can’t find it in your heart to do that, accept them and leave them alone. That young friend of mine walked out of church that day pledging to never step foot in it again. If that’s who God is, then fuck God, was her attitude. Fortunately, we had a subsequent conversation, I shared my own vision of God (see above) and I believe she’s giving faith another chance.
At a different church, of course.
It’s hard when the church becomes a place where Jesus is misrepresented. I once sat through an Easter service at a different megachurch where the pastor taught that if you don’t believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus, his teachings didn’t matter. It was all I could do to sit through the rest of the service. I wanted to stand up and shout “BLASPHEMER!” and storm out. The teachings don’t matter??? Pardon my French, but What The Actual Fuck??? Imagine if I told one of my college classes that nothing I taught them all semester mattered as long as they believed that I was a college professor.
But Bill, in the New Testament Jesus clearly says that the only way to Heaven if through believing in him! Yes, Yes it does. That brings us to the Gospel of John, which is so different from the original Gospels that one wouldn’t be blamed in thinking there were two different men named Jesus who were labeled “Christ” and whose teachings were diametrically opposed. Many books have been written on this subject and I have read more than a few in my personal quest to reconcile the Jesus of Paul’s teachings and the Jesus whose story is told in Mark and retold in Matthew and Luke. They simply are not the same person. The one thing that is consistent between the two “Christs” is the essence of the Two Commandments.
Christians are called to love at all costs. Love your friend. Love your enemy. Love that immigrant at the border who is desperate for a better life. Love that LGBTQ+ person, love that right-wing Republican (gulp, working on it), love that Jew (Jesus was Jewish, duh), love that girl having an abortion, and leave your own opinion and your judgment at the door. Yes, these are radical ideas, but Jesus was nothing if not a radical. After all, his teachings got him murdered in the most torturous manner ever conceived by Man, and Man has some whoppers. Many people of Jesus’ time were simply not ready to accept his teachings, and I regret to say we aren’t too far long these many years later.
Until we master the art of loving, however, God’s Kingdom will elude us.
*If you would like a few suggestions for books to read on any of the subjects covered above, please don’t hesitate to drop a request in the Comments section below.
2 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Jesus”
Minor typo. The woman was caught in adultery, not abortion. Rob Bell in “What is the Bible?” devotes a short and enlightening chapter (p 25-31) to this story in John 8:3-11.
Thanks, Pop! Fixed it! 🙂