Tuesday, October 25, 2011

M is for Message

“The lives of Jesus or Moses or the Buddha don’t really matter, it doesn’t really matter whether they lived or not, what matters is their message. That’s what makes them important. Theirs are words we can live by.” (This statement was uttered in my presence by a friend.)

What was the message of Jesus? If you read the New Testament you’ll soon discover that Jesus sent many different kinds of messages. One message is contained in the things he did. Another is in what he said. And there’s a third message—what he didn’t say and what he didn’t do. (I am assuming here that the Gospel writers reported all the important things Jesus said and did and left out the minor stuff.)

Lets’ begin with the many silences of Jesus; those issues on which never said or did anything that would indicate what his views were:

       birth control          the environment           slavery
       abortion                women’s rights            drug use
       homosexuality             euthanasia
       capital punishment      purgatory

But he did speak clearly on these subjects:

       public prayer
       heaven and hell

He acted in ways that clearly indicate he disapproved of

       claims of group superiority
       social snobbery

Since Jesus said more than once that he came “not to change the Law or the Prophets” we must assume that, like most Jews of his time, he disapproved of homosexuality, equal rights for women and euthanasia. And like his contemporaries, he approved slavery and capital punishment—including death by stoning in some cases. Since he spoke often of heaven and hell and the day of judgment, but never once mentioned purgatory or any other “in-between” destination, we can only conclude that he didn’t believe in any “third place.” The Church of Rome recognizes this “omission” and claims to have added purgatory after receiving a long-delayed Divine Revelation in the Middle Ages. (Most Protestants, who believe the Bible is complete unto itself, don’t believe in purgatory.)

When anti-Roman Jewish “militants” confronted Jesus and asked whether they should pay taxes to Caesar, he gave his famous reply: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” The bottom line is that you should pay your taxes since the things of this world, like money, don’t matter very much in the long-range scheme of things. (One wonders what Jesus would have advised had he been around in the 1770’s when American rebels refused to pay taxes imposed by George III’s parliament.)

On the subject of divorce Jesus is adamant. A man may divorce his wife solely on the grounds of “unchastity.” The idea of a woman divorcing her husband seems never to have come up. One supposes that male “unchastity” is okay.

On the issue of public prayer, and other such open displays of religiosity, Jesus was crystal clear. In Matthew Chapter 6, Verse 1, he says: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” In Verse 5 he adds: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say unto you, they have their reward.” He goes on to urge that alms be given anonymously and praying take place in strict privacy. It is not difficult to imagine what Jesus would think of those who advocate prayer in public schools and before football games, those who wear religious jewelry, those who display bumper stickers extolling their Christian beliefs, and other overt acts calling attention to one’s self-proclaimed piety.

So what would Jesus think if he came back today? Would his views on slavery, homosexuality, and divorce have evolved or would he stick by his original positions? Liberal Christians like to imagine Jesus evolving. Conservatives insist on the “old time religion.” But they undercut their position by their actions on divorce. If Jesus was God, or the Son of God, or even a mere “divinely inspired prophet” it would he hard to imagine him evolving. One would expect God to get it right the first time and to be “out ahead” of mere human opinion. And there are some subjects on which Jesus was out ahead. In the story of the Good Samaritan he rejects the idea that Samaritans (i. e., people “unlike us”) should be judged inferior. And, by being seen in the company of prostitutes, tax collectors and other disreputable types, he was an egalitarian in an age of rigid social stratification.

The 19th Century Danish Christian thinker, SØren Kierkegaard, gave much thought to this topic. He concluded that true Christians do not pick and chose which commandments to follow and which ones to ignore—they embrace Jesus’ entire message. Otherwise Kierkegaard said you end end up treating God’s Word like an “aesthetic critic” following your own judgments and preferences instead of His. Kierkegaard scorned “cafeteria Christians” who pick and choose which doctrines to follow and which ones to ignore.

Go and do likewise.

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