The Teachings of Jesus

Early in college, I undertook a project that took several years to complete. I went through all the teachings of Jesus, as recorded not only in the Gospels but the extra-canonical texts as well (most importantly the Gospel of Thomas which might have been a source for Mark, Matthew, and Luke). I read them, wrote them down, and categorized them. I wanted a complete understanding of the most important part of Christianity. I wanted to see how the teachings of Jesus fell into categories, themes, focal points. The moral teachings of Jesus, and this project, changed my life forever, more than any other person living or dead.

We start with what Jesus said was the most important teaching of all: love for God and love for your neighbor.

Love and Forgiveness

[after being asked what the greatest law is.]
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Mt.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. Lk

But 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; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?…And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than other?…Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?…You have judged correctly…Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little. Lk

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word many be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two of three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Mt.

If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him. Lk

Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

Moral Teachings

For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Lk.

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock.

Become haters of hypocrisy and evil thought. For it is thought which gives birth to hypocrisy, but hypocrisy is far from the truth.

But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?…Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

[after being asked what the greatest law is.]
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Mt.

The most important one (commandment) is this: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these. Mk.

Do not be judged, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Lk.

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. Of someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love you enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as you Father is merciful. Lk.

(On being asked if circumcision is profitable):
If it were beneficial, their father would beget them already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become completely profitable.

(On being asked how to receive eternal life, and a scribe answering with the ‘greatest commandment’):
You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.

Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Lk.

[after Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool]
But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God. Lk

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. IF that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also. Lk

That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. Lk

Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. Lk

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The Teachings of Jesus

Did Job Teach God a Lesson?

William Blake portrays God speaking to Job in a whirlwind

The Book of Job is bizarre. It shows God making a bet with the devil, testing the faith of Job, and finally an epic scene where God basically yells at Job: how dare you question me mortal! Oddly, then God gives all Job’s stuff back and sort of implicitly justifies him.

Some people think the lesson is simple: do not question the ways of God. When bad things happen to good people, trust God and never question His ways. He controls the universe, and you are a speck of dust.

True. But instead of God teaching us a lesson, Karl Jung (psychologist) believed that Job also taught God a lesson, a lesson that God could not teach Himself. The lesson was about moral perfection: that to be truly good, one must do the right thing in the face of horrible, unjust suffering. But God cannot suffer. One must have free will, something God might not have. For God to evolve, to become better, to become more loving, God confronts a morally perfect human (Job) and realizes that the limitations inherent in man are actually the most beautiful thing about us. What does God take away? Love, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Jesus, of course, will become for Christians the ultimate confirmation of the Book of Job: God becomes man in order to perfect love. The Trinity is complete.

Personally, this all makes some sense to me, even though this interpretation is controversial at best. (Quick interpretation tip inspired by Augustine: if an interpretation increases your love and understanding, it’s probably right). Imagine God before the universe, before anything existed. God, all by himself, has limitations. God needs creation and creation needs God. Otherwise why would God create to begin with? Everything is a reflection of God and a part of God. Human beings are not all-knowing or all-powerful – we are not even close. But, because of free will, we have the potential to be perfectly good. Job and Jesus are good examples of that.

True Love is Freely Given
Here’s another way to think about it. God could have designed the world in a purely rational way, where good people are blessed and bad people are punished. In a way that makes sense. But is that love? True love, unconditional love, is freely given. It looks beyond circumstances and just is. Perhaps the Book of Job is a justification for why God must allow good people to suffer: it’s the only way to love freely, both the good and the bad.

Did Job Teach God a Lesson?

My Religion

God exists. That is my religion.
Jesus preached the truth about God. That is my Christianity. That is all for me, thank you.

Oh, and in case you forgot what Jesus preached: Love your enemies. That is enough.

I have read so much about religion and theology that, instead of expanding my religion into a full blown systematic theology, I go back to the basics. Simplicity! says Thoreau. The simple religion of God and love is all I need for my life. I prefer it. My mind is full yet empty. Everything else, all the doctrine and creeds; that’s all extra. Sure, I believe the soul lives on. Sure, I believe reincarnation is better than hell. I am not against beliefs or people having them. But these are all fancy additions to a firm foundation. God exists. God is good. God is love. Act accordingly. This alone lights up my world, always has. When you focus on what really matters, you begin to take it more seriously. For example, I believe in loving my enemies. Really? Really. And when Jesus teaches to turn the other cheek and not to resist evil, I believe it. Literally, he really meant that? Yes, of course he did! Having enough love and understanding to actually love your enemies–that’s the pinnacle of religion, the mountaintop, the goal.

Modern Western people tend to think of religion as a set of beliefs that you agree to, like filling out an application for church. No. Religion is life. Your religion is your life. As Karen Armstrong says in her books, the point of belief is action. Faith without action is dead. And, God forbid, you find yourself doing something stupid because of a belief, perhaps you should rethink it?

  • Other Religions: I left for college a Christian and came back a “religious pluralist,” or enlightened Christian (sounding arrogant). Religious pluralism allows space for other religions. It means all religions are valid paths to the same transcendent Reality. If God is beyond our comprehension, it makes sense. We look at the night sky and say “did you see that?”…”See what?” Religion begins. We experience the spiritual world differently. It’s okay. Sure, some doctrines differ drastically among and within religions, but at the end of the day all religions share the same basic moral code (love and compassion). See John Hick.
  • Prayer: sadly, I don’t pray anymore. But I do believe in prayer as meditation on God, on yourself, on other people, and on your life. I believe it can have many psychological benefits, as some studies show. It makes you slow down and think, which is really important. I am against petitionary prayer; that is, asking for stuff. It’s not that God doesn’t care about you, He just thinks your silly little requests are silly. God works through the beautiful laws of nature that he created–deal with it. The best way to pray for healing is to become healthy. I know this is hard when it comes to accidents, cancer, and when bad things happen to good people. For that, we rely on faith alone, not prayers for God to “fix it.” Again, religion is life. Live out your religion instead of relegating it to a sleepy Sunday night prayer session.
  • Jesus: he was a mystic, a great man, a true spokesman for God, and my hero. In fact, the greatest hero in my life. He has opened my heart to love enemies more than anyone else, living or dead. That’s an incredible thing. I do not think he was God (judging by what he says in the Gospels), but I am open to the fact that his death might mean something greater. If you ask me “did Jesus die for my sins?” I must admit I don’t really understand the question. What really matters to me about Jesus is his teachings; diamonds in the ruff, life changing and world healing teachings.
  • The Bible: experience is primary (you and God), scripture is secondary. Scripture, however, is special because it describes the original experiences that brought about the religion in the first place: Jesus preaching the gospel, Buddha sitting under the tree. It is crucial. Is the Bible the Word of God? Well, sure, the good parts are. But not the bad parts (and there are many).  Even Jesus criticized or reinterpreted many of the bad parts of the Bible. St. Augustine and many great Christian thinkers have taught us to interpret the Bible through the lens of love. They also taught us not to interpret the Bible against scientific fact. The truth, like God, is much too big for one book. As for reading the Bible, I stick to the Gospels, Proverbs, and Psalms–all beautiful books that have a direct impact on my life.

As I look back on my religious life, I must be honest with myself. My passion has lessened. As a high school kid who would wake up at six in the morning to read the Bible, when Christianity was fresh and new and God was opening my mind, I was much more zealous, excited, passionate. I was much more willing to go out of my way to help a perfect stranger (that’s the sad part). I have tempered. In the Case for Faith, I remember reading that this is normal. We all become moderate with age I suppose. But my faith in the God of love has never been more rock solid. And the religious life never ends. I expect to have different views in 20 years.

My Religion

How I learned to love drivers that text

My latest pet peeve is (was) texting and driving. Nobody likes it, of course, but for some reason I was taking it to the next level. I would walk around town yelling at cars. “Fucking idiot is going to kill someone,” I would say with disdain and self-righteousness. It was taking up way too much head space. Aristotle says the only life worth living is to contemplate virtue daily. I agree. So finally one day I stopped myself and asked the wonderful and enlightening question why. Why was I doing this? Why was I pissed off about texting and driving, among all things? Well, turns out I was being the typical, self-righteous, judgmental asshole that we all are.

And here’s how it works. First, you make a change in your life that separates you from a certain group of people. For me, this was drivers and people with smart phones. Because I am fortunate enough to live close to work–partly a choice, partly luck–I rarely have to drive. And I don’t have a smart phone (even though I want one, which is relevant here). Next, you witness those people doing something stupid, like texting and driving. Then, you judge the shit out of them and make a big deal of it, a much bigger deal than it warrants. And there is nobody around to call you out, because the people around you are likely not part of the group you are hating.

Everyone does this. This is simply how judgement works all the time. The further away you are from the person or group of people, the more you will hate them. The holocaust worked through a long chain of command system. Skin color; nationality; life style; status. The old man who can’t get it up will judge sexual immorality. The ugly woman will judge the superficiality of society; the person who starts working out slowly finds himself judging fat people. And so on with thousands of possibilities to become an asshole.

So back to the amazingly simple and amazingly powerful words of Christ: “judge ye not.” That means, in plain English: do not judge. What a wonderful way to live. So, of course texting and driving is stupid. But I understand, and it’s all good. And if I had a smart phone and was driving, hell yes I would be tempted–I would be on the other side of the window with some asshole yelling at me.

How I learned to love drivers that text

How saying "they" might kill you

If you’ve worked in a factory, you’ve heard “they” a lot. They. Them. Those in power. Upper management, the government, the scientific establishment, etc. What will “they” do next to make my life miserable?

Sadly, from what I’ve read so far it turns out that this sort of worldview is a slow death. It’s because the people who silently worry what they will do next are constantly under stress, animals in the wild. They have no control. It’s a slow, lurking, chronic stress, barely detectable yet always there. The stress-response system (“fight or flight”) is constantly running, which means the higher parts of the brain are not running properly, like calm reasoning, deliberation, judgement. It pains me to think of it. We all know these people.

I actually had the opposite opinion for a long time. Previously I thought that the rich people at the top were the most unhealthy, stressful, unhappy people in the world. Based partly on my religious views and partly because I wasn’t rich, I would say “I never want to be rich…they are miserable.” But then I read about the major studies that were conducted in England and other places, which clearly conclude that the lower you are on the social ladder, the more stressed you are, and the higher you are, the less stressed and more happy and healthy you are. It turns out Jesus was right when he said “Woe unto the rich, for they have their reward.” In other words, they might have problems in the next world (due to love of money), but in this world they do pretty damn well. The book Born For Love comes to mind too.

Solutions

It’s human nature to fear and this is one example of it. Yet, as all great religions and moral philosophers say: it’s human nature for us to transcend human nature. First, will power. Stop saying “they.” Catch yourself. Start there. I’ve done it. In my job, I always say “we” made a decision, whether I agree or not (it’s pretty easy, the library is one of the best places to work). We passed Obama Care. We went to the moon. We cloned a sheep. Get it? It feels great and sounds right.

Second, go read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. If you don’t think ideas can change your life, keep reading–eventually you will find what’s meant for you. Stoicism is perhaps the best philosophy to deal with the unpredictability of life, which says: (1) never worry about things outside your control (because that’s stupid), and only worry about things within your control (that’s smart); (2) now conquer and overcome those things within your control; (3) now your life is, by definition, free from worry. Everything else is accepted with grace and all things are seen as a beautiful play of events, a gift from God or Destiny or Chance. The events that led to meeting my wife were random, sad, beautiful, and ended in one of the best decisions in my life. I took them all with stoic grace.

Third, if things get really bad–and sometimes they do–try faith. Religion, as Jesus said so poetically in the Sermon is the Mount, is really for the lowly, the down trodden, the poor. When the world shits on you, when you don’t have a family to love you, when your greedy employer downsizes you, when you become ill and your luck runs out–only God is left to love you. Or despair. Both are understandable. This is why Aristotle thought that the good life required a little bit of luck.

How saying "they" might kill you

Jesus

We are what we read. Of course “we are what we ____” is a truism. We are what we eat, what genes we have, what parents we had. But I am proud to say that I am what I read, and the more I read the more I am, the larger I get, the more multitudes I contain. My heroes are the list of dead people that live through me, that have inspired me, stayed with me, changed my behavior. They provoke and inspire me. Jesus, Plato, Emerson, Whitman, Aurelius, Descartes, Berkeley, Kant, Jung, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., just to name a few. They feel like people to me, like friends.

May as well start with the first. In high school I had a real conversation to Christianity; that is, self-propelled, self-discovery, the only real way to do anything. To discover something yourself, to own it, chew it up, digest it, spit some out, internalize it. I would wake up at 6AM and go to the coffee shop. I would acquaint myself with Jesus by reading the gospels, slowly, gradually, from small to big. When your friend introduces you to someone, do they say “this is Jim, he is perfect and saved your life”? That’s the most ridiculous introduction ever, yet that is still the way preachers present the man Jesus to little children. It’s all absurd and, in the end, sadly exaggerated and ineffective. Jesus to me was a silly idea represented by the Trinity, another silly and absurd idea to present to children.

Finally, he was turning into a person, one that I could read about. By dropping the dogmatic belief that he somehow, mysteriously “saved my soul” by dying on a cross, I allowed him to really save my soul by showing the path to become a good person in the eyes of God. Quickly he became a hero in my life, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has simply read the gospels and met the Jesus found there. He stands for nothing more than love and forgiveness and everything that entails. He is a simple, tragic man that is horribly easy to understand and follow. He is as simple as Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., with the same beautiful message.

Soon after reading the gospels I became obsessed with doing anonymous good deeds for other people. Secretly shovel a driveway, leave a dollar, write a warm letter. I was thrilled to think about it, plan it. I was thrilled to know that only God, the searcher of our hearts–if God exists–was the only other witness. After all, it’s the only way to test whether a deed is truly moral (and Kant says we can still doubt).

I must say, looking back at my life, in proportion to the amount I have been reading the gospels there has been a correlation with good, selfless deeds on my part. That is not a coincidence. But neither do I claim that “the gospels” are somehow the only way to do this, or more special than the book that Martin Luther King Jr wrote on love, which also blew my mind and changed my life forever.

Jesus became a close friend, a fundamental hero, an archetype for pure love, principled and enlightened love, theistic-based love, never failing love in the face of the greatest hatred. When he said “love your enemies” it resonated in my soul as the most true thing I have ever heard and will ever hear in my life.

Jesus