‘What did Jesus Teach?’
If we are honest, many of us know very little about what Jesus taught beyond the fact that he told people to ‘love their neighbour’, and if we were asked to compile a list of his parables and sayings, we would probably struggle to recall more than a small handful. But if we read the gospels, which of course are our primary source of knowledge about what he taught, a number of important themes can clearly be discerned:
A Loving, Purposive Creator:
Jesus taught that the universe and everything in it is the work of a purposive, loving God. Amongst the many images of God that he employed, perhaps the best known is the one he used when teaching his disciples to pray (Matthew 6:9), the image of a ‘father’, a good and caring parent, who is committed to the welfare of his ‘children’ even when the latter goes off the rails (as in the case of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32), and who is ready to respond to their deepest needs (Matthew 7:7-12).
As a twelve year old boy he spoke of being about his ‘Father’s business’ (Luke 2:49), and at the heart of that business was the establishment of what he called ‘the kingdom ’. It was the first thing he spoke about when he began his public ministry (Mark 1:15). Jews at that time used to talk in terms of there being two Ages, the Present Age marred by sin and evil, and an Age to Come when everything would be as God intended. The latter was what Jesus meant by the ‘kingdom’. It was not so much a place as a situation in which God’s rule held sway and all was in perfect harmony and peace. Jesus proclaimed repeatedly during the course of his ministry that the kingdom, this ‘Age to Come’, was breaking into the Present Age and the two were beginning to overlap (eg Matthew 11:2-6; Luke 11:20). His healing miracles and his work amongst the poor and outcast were all signs of this dawning kingdom.
A Social Vision:
Many people talk of the Christian life as if it were a purely private spiritual journey. Jesus’ vision of God’s coming kingdom, however, contains within it a clear social dimension, the establishment of right relationships: with God, fellow human beings, other creatures and oneself. It is significant to note how the Book of Revelation employs the social image of a ‘city’ to describe heaven.
Jesus clearly understood the social nature of human beings. He did not work alone. He gathered around him a group of twelve disciples (Mark 3:13-19) to represent the twelve tribes of Israel (the People of God), to provide fellowship and support, to learn from him, and to assist him with his mission. When he sent them out, he sent them in pairs (Mark 6:7-13), so that they could work as a team and support each other.
The Early Church adopted a similar strategy. St. Paul in a number of his letters famously spoke of the followers of Jesus as being like the limbs of Christ’s body, a community of faith working together with a common purpose (Romans 12:4-8;
1 Corinthians 12:12-30).
An Inclusive Vision:
The Lord was radically inclusive. He repeatedly reached out to those on the fringes of society to affirm their value and dignity in the eyes of God. He ministered to lepers, touching them and thus contravening the Levitical laws on ritual cleanliness (eg Luke 5:12-13); he allowed a woman with a flow of blood to come into physical contact with him, a similar breach of Levitical Law (Mark 5:25-34); he ate with tax collectors who were not only suspected of corrupt practices but were also ritually unclean because of their association with the occupying Romans (Mark 2:13-17); he offered help to foreigners like the centurion (Matthew 8:5-13) and a Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30); and despite the efforts of the disciples to send them away, he allowed mothers to interrupt his work to bring their young children for him to bless (Matthew 19:13-15). Children in those days were not regarded as having the same importance as adults, yet Jesus affirmed their value and dignity (Matthew 18:1-6, Luke 9:46-48) blessed them and said that to enter the Kingdom of God, people must become in some ways like a child. At the very start of his public ministry he announced that he had come to bring ‘good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18), and it is significant to note perhaps that, in St Luke’s gospel, the first recorded witnesses to the birth of the Christ are a group poor shepherds (Luke 2:8-20).
The Law of Moses spoke of loving your neighbour, of caring for others in need. But exactly how far this circle of compassion was supposed to extend, was a matter of fierce debate. Some supposed that they only had a duty to care for their immediate neighbours, whilst others saw themselves as having responsibility towards all their fellow countrymen. Jesus however went further: people were to show God’s love and mercy even towards their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). His famous story about the Good Samaritan is not only a story about offering practical help to an injured traveller, but of a Samaritan showing compassion for a Jewish enemy. For complex historical and religious reasons, there had been tension and animosity between Samaritans and Jews for centuries.
No-one was ever a complete write-off in Jesus’ eyes. If they had made a mess of their lives, there could always the chance to repent and make a fresh start. The gospels are littered to examples of people who availed themselves of the opportunity: Zacchaeus the tax collector, the woman of ill-repute who anointed Jesus’ feet, the paralysed man lowered through the roof, and so on. According to Jesus, these ‘sinners’ were actually entering the Kingdom of God ahead of many of the so-called ‘righteous! At the Last Supper, he took a cup of wine and passed it around, describing the contents of the cup as a symbol of the ‘blood of the new covenant, shed for … the forgiveness of sins.’
Jesus’ radical inclusiveness aroused a predictably hostile reaction from the Pharisees and the religious authorities, who saw it as a challenge to their beliefs and traditions. They nicknamed him the ‘friend of publicans and sinners’, intending it to be an insult, though Christians quickly came to see it as a positive reminder of his all-embracing love.
Our society often sets great store by people’s position and status within society, and it was the same in Jesus’ day. People believed in a natural hierarchy with the nobility at the top, then the other men, then the women and children in that order, and finally the servants or slaves at the bottom. Jesus repeatedly challenged this hierarchical order and turned it on its head. First he warned against the dangers of material wealth (Mark 10:17-23; Luke 12:13-21; 16:19-31); it was not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing as many supposed it to be. Secondly he declared that the greatest in the Kingdom of God must be as the least, the servant of all (Matthew 20:25-28). At the Last Supper, just prior to his arrest, he took upon himself the servant’s role of washing his disciples’ feet and told them he was setting an example (John 13:3-15).
When he was baptised by John in the river Jordan, the heavenly voice declared, “You are my Son with whom I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11). ‘You are my Son …’ is a quotation from a coronation psalm (Psalm 2:7) where the newly crowned king is proclaimed to be God’s Son – someone intimately close to him, aware of his Mind and Purpose. ‘… With whom I am well-pleased’ alludes to a description of God’s suffering servant in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1). From the very beginning of his ministry, therefore, Jesus was seen to be both king and servant, the suffering servant-king.
In the Book of Daniel, the Son of Man represents the persecuted remnant of God’s People who remain his faithful and obedient servants even unto death (Daniel 7:13-18). In the gospels Jesus frequently referred to himself as the Son of Man.
“The Son of Man,” he said, “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
His humble sacrificial obedience was seen by Paul in his letter to the Philippians as reversing Adam’s arrogant, status-grabbing disobedience. His service was the key to his exaltation (Philippians 2:5-11).
Following in Jesus’ footsteps, the apostle regularly introduced himself at the beginning of his letters as the ‘servant’ of God or the ‘servant’ of Christ (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1), and indeed the primitive office of ‘deacon’ within the early Church literally meant ‘servant’. Spiritual gifts and talents were seen by Paul as given by God in order to equip Christians to serve one another and to be a blessing to others (1 Corinthians 12:7).
People talk of freedom in two main ways: freedom from certain constraints upon their lives which hinder or prevent them from being their ‘true selves’; and freedom to do what they believe to be natural, important or right. Jesus’ ministry recognised both these types of freedom.
When he healed people of their diseases, for example, he was described by the gospel writers as freeing them from the power of Satan and the manifestations of this Present Age: Sin, Evil and Death.
But when he freed them, he did not do so simply so that they could live as they pleased, fashioning their own values and priorities. Many of those he helped responded either by worshipping and thanking God or else by amending their lives and even becoming disciples. Jesus clearly welcomed this. Living in a positive relationship with a purposive, loving Creator is from a Christian perspective part and parcel of what it means to be truly human and truly ‘free’.
“I have come,” said Jesus, “that you may have life in its fullness”. (John 10:10)
He welcomed a response, but (and this is important) he never demanded it. He respected people’s freedom. After his baptism and before he began his public ministry, he spent 40 days in the desert thinking and praying about how he should set about the work God had given him to do. He was tempted to force people to submit to God by the use of military, political, or miraculous power. But he rejected these tactics because he wanted people to respond to what was good and right of their own free will. It is significant to note, in relation to this, that when he healed someone, he almost always sought a response of faith (though not necessarily from the individual who was sick), a sign that they were open to God and wanted him to work in their lives.
Many people, in common with the Pharisees and the religious authorities of Jesus’ day, see the moral life as governed by a set of rigidly fixed rules. But Jesus adopted a far more flexible approach. Whilst living within the framework provided by the Ten Commandments and wider Law of Moses, he never conformed to them in a slavish or legalistic manner. If he encountered a man who needed healing, or of he saw that his disciples were hungry, he was prepared, for example, to set aside the law about the Sabbath rest (or at least people’s interpretation of what it meant to ‘rest’).
“The Sabbath,” he said, “is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
He also set to one side the laws about ritual cleanliness when he needed to touch and heal some lepers and share a meal with a group of ‘tax collectors and sinners’.
Flexible principles rather than rigid rules were the order of the day. His priority, illustrated by his two-fold summary of the Law, ‘Love God and love your neighbour’, was to see people flourish and become as God intended them to be.
The dynamic, unfolding relationship with God meant that what was right in terms of God’s ultimate purpose, was not necessarily right always and everywhere regardless of the circumstances. To quote Ecclesiastes, there is ‘a time for every purpose under heaven’. When he launched his ministry, for example, he declared that ‘the time had come’; the right moment had arrived in which to act. And when he was deciding what to do about the shortage of wine at a wedding reception in Cana, he was at first reluctant to intervene and told his mother that his time had ‘not yet come’. In the New Testament there are two words for ‘time’, ‘kairos’ and ‘chronos’. ‘Chronos’ refers to the simple passage of time (cf ‘chronology’), kairos to ‘the significant moment’. Jesus believed that it was important, not only to do the right thing for the right reasons, but also to do it at the right time.
For further reading:
‘Jesus’ by Humphrey Carpenter
‘Imitating Jesus’ by Richard Burridge
‘Who is this Jesus?’ by Michael Green
‘The Founder of Christianity’ by CH Dodd
‘On Being a Christian’ by Hans Küng
Commentaries on the gospels by William Barclay or more recently Tom Wright