Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com
In my last post, I discussed Jesus as he was described in the Gospel of John. That account focused on the more supernatural aspects of his teaching, such as his claims to have divine authority as a son of God, and his assertion that he would save people from their sins. The Jesus of John was “the bread of life”, “the way, the truth, and the life” and a mediator between God and humanity.
The Gospel of Matthew paints a slightly different picture. We are introduced to Jesus through his famous Sermon on the Mount. In this, he does not outline a set of beliefs in order for people to have access to God, but rather a series of actions and attitudes.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. / Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. / Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. / Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. / Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. / Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. / Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. / Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” -Matthew 5:3-10
Here, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the humble, or the “poor in spirit”. He says the children of God will be those who are “peacemakers”. He praises virtues like purity, mercy, longsuffering, and a “thirst for righteousness.” As the sermon goes on, he commands his listeners to forgive others- to never return evil for evil, to be charitable, welcoming, and kind. He warns them not to pass judgment on others, because they would be held to the same standard.
This theme follows all throughout the gospel of Matthew. When Jesus is approached by a rich young ruler who wants to know how to enter into the kingdom of heaven, Jesus asks if he has kept all of the commandments- not stealing, not committing adultery, not killing, etc. When the man affirms that he has, Jesus tells him that he is lacking one thing; he is to sell everything that he has and give it to the poor. As the story goes, this young man goes away sorrowful for “he had many possessions.” That’s when Jesus says that it’s almost impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is following his theme from an earlier passage where he admonishes his followers not to “store their treasures on earth.”
Jesus also lambasted the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy. He called them out for their pride and constant seeking of human approval, instead of focusing on seeking approval from God. He accuses them of “binding on men heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, but not lifting them with even one of their fingers”. He criticized them for paying attention to tithing spices and herbs, but leaving off the “weightier matters of the law” like judgment, mercy, and faith.
Towards the end of the gospel, Jesus is discussing the judgment at the end of time. He is presented with two groups- the sheep, who stand on his right, and the goats, who are placed on his left. He blesses and praises the sheep, and welcomes them into the kingdom of heaven.
“For I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: / Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.” -Matthew 25:35-36
When the sheep ask him when they ever saw him and did any of these things, he replies, “If you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me”. He criticizes the group on his left, and commands them to go “into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”, because they have failed him where the first group succeeded. They did not give him food when he was hungry, or water when he was thirsty. They did not take him in, give him clothing, or visit him in prison- all because they did not do it to their fellow man.
Maybe this was what Jesus was talking about when he said this;
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. / Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? / And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.” -Matthew 7:21-23
It’s easy to see how when people read the Gospel of Matthew they see “Jesus the moral teacher.” Yes, even though there are some supernatural accounts of him doing miracles interspersed throughout the text- and he three times prophesies his own death and resurrection- we don’t see the same emphasis on his divinity that we see in the Gospel of John. The kingdom of heaven is described less as something you enter through believing on an object- that is Jesus- and more something that you enter by simply living your life in a way that is pleasing to God. Jesus emphasized private devotion, telling his followers to “pray to your Father who is seen in secret, that your Father who sees in secret may reward you.”
The question is whether or not we can separate Jesus from the supernatural claims about his life and death, and the fantastical stories of miracles that he is said to have done. If we do, what is it that we have left? As I said before, I have no doubt that a man named Jesus lived- and died- some 2000 years ago. I’m not so sure if that man was a worker of miracles and the carrier of my sins. I’m not so sure if he resurrected and ascended to be with God, where he waits for the opportunity to return. After all, most early Christians were convinced that Jesus was going to return in their lifetime, and that has been the case with almost every generation since then. At what point do we just move on?
I am attempting- very methodically- to puzzle out the truths about who Jesus was, and who he is to me now- what role he plays in my life. I’m now open to not only reviewing these things by comparing Biblical texts, but also comparing texts written by early Christians, and doctrines debated in the early Christian councils. Maybe that will give me some clue as to how we go from the early A.D. to where we are now. It’s very clear to me that there isn’t one way to be a Christian- as is evidenced by the many denominations within Christendom- but there also isn’t just one way to live outside of it.
Evangelical Christians tend to lump all non-Christians into one big group they call “the world”- something to be feared or conquered, something to be separate from. In reading the book of Matthew, though, it’s clear to me that many people of other faiths would qualify to “enter the kingdom of heaven” above some Christians who carry the name of Jesus on their lips. In fact, in Matthew, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a “net, which drew in a great multitude of fish”. The good were accepted, but the bad were thrown away, and Jesus clearly outlined earlier in the text what bad and good meant. “Good” includes people who exercise mercy, forgiveness, non-judgment and charity. “Bad” includes the selfish, the proud, and the unmerciful.