Two thousand years ago, in Israel, there lived a very special man. Jesus of Nazareth, the son of a carpenter, was put to death for claiming to be the Son of God, the Jewish messiah. He was one of many men at the time who made such a claim and died for it. But he is the only one who became the founder of a great world religion. Today, Jesus is remembered not only for his bloody death on the cross, but for what he said and did before the crucifixion — and the Christian religion he founded is a source of moral and spiritual guidance for over 2.4 billion people, nearly one-third of the world’s population.
Indeed, Jesus Christ is so widely admired that it seems nearly everyone wants to claim him as one of their own. The Muslims, the world’s second-largest religion after Christianity, consider him a mighty prophet. Many Hindus and Buddhists regard him as a saint or an avatar of the Divine, alongside the gods and gurus of their own religious traditions. Humanist thinkers have looked to the teachings of Jesus as the basis of an ethical philosophy that transcends faith and religion entirely.
Among Christians, the Jesus we envision often takes on the personality and priorities of whoever is worshipping him. Liberals may prefer to see him as a hippie who was all about “peace and love, man” — a groovy dude with long hair, or maybe an Afro, who would share bong hits in a drum circle while reciting from a dog-eared copy of The Communist Manifesto. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more likely to see Jesus as a fierce opponent of loose morals — especially when it comes to sex and reproduction — and a man whose passion for low taxes could only be exceeded by his love of guns, the Nordic race, and the good-old American flag.
But who is the real Jesus? To find out, we must turn to scripture, where his life and teachings were recorded by those who actually knew him and learned from him. In the pages of the Gospels, we find a Jesus who indeed preached a great deal about love and tolerance and nonviolence [e.g. Matt. 26:52], but who also said that he had “not come to bring peace, but a sword” [Matt. 10:34] — who unabashedly admitted that his teachings would be so divisive that “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” [vs. 36]. The real Jesus freely forgave those who committed adultery [John 8:1-11], yet he encouraged the stern discipline of chastity [Matt. 19:12]. He told people to pay their taxes to an oppressive government [Mark 12:13-17], yet he was so infuriated by corruption that he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple [11:15-18]. Needless to say, Jesus was a complicated man, and his views cannot be neatly classified according to any ideology of our time — or his own time, for that matter.
Perhaps this is why, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” — except by a small number of very sincere and devoted souls. Jesus, it seems, had something to say that would annoy just about everyone, and his challenging philosophy tests all our assumptions and the simple formulas we so often resort to when we seek to explain our world, and to justify the lives we would wish to lead.
In my sermon this week, I’m going to talk about three major themes in the ministry and teachings of Jesus: charity, healing, and forgiveness. In all three, we tend to resist the radical message that the Lord wanted us to understand and accept — and that’s why it’s so important that we examine what Jesus really said and did.
Perhaps the clearest summary can be found in the story of Jesus’s visit to his hometown at the very beginning of his ministry. As the story goes,
“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ [paraphrase of Isa. 61:1-2]
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” [Luke 4:16-21]
This was basically Jesus’s elevator pitch, his mission statement or executive summary of how he understood his own calling and the purpose of his ministry. He believed that God had “anointed,” or chosen him, to teach that the poor should be lifted out of poverty, lest the rich be brought into bondage to an even worse fate; that people who are suffering in captivity to sickness and delusion should be set free from their afflictions and limitations and the influences that seek to destroy them; and that our God is a merciful God, a forgiving God, who shows favor upon us by canceling our debts and reconciling our accounts in the cosmic scheme of things and with one another. And not only would Jesus teach this; he would show forth, in his ministry and the community he established, the reality of these teachings.
First, let’s consider what Jesus said about the importance of charity. When a rich young man came to Jesus and asked how he could get into heaven, Jesus told him to follow the Ten Commandments of the Torah. When the man said that he had always kept the commandments, Jesus said to him, “‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ [But] When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” [Luke 18:18-25]
Early Christians took this teaching so seriously that in the Book of Acts, we find them “shar[ing] everything they had,” and the wealthy among them selling their property and giving all the proceeds to the church, for distribution to the poor. As a result, “there were no needy persons among them.” [Acts 4:32-35]
Rich Christians in those days wanted to pass through the eye of the needle, because they valued the promise of heaven rather than the alternative. And the alternative was terrible, according to Jesus. As he illustrated to his disciples in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus,
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.’” [Luke 16:19-25]
Some forms of Buddhism and Chinese folk religions teach that people who live lives of greed or excessive desire can linger on earth after they die as what are called “hungry ghosts” — demonic spirits, essentially, who continue to crave the things they indulged in on earth. For example, they might crave luxurious food, sex, power, or vengeance. Whatever appetites we developed during our physical lives can carry over into the afterlife, so we’d better be careful not to indulge in harmful addictions.
This idea, or something like it, could be the reason why Jesus was so focused on casting out demons. And this brings us to the second point I’d like to emphasize: Jesus’s ministry of healing.
Anyone who reads the Gospels will quickly realize that a big part of what Jesus did was not just intellectual discourse; he was a reportedly a miracle worker and faith healer. The colorful portrayal of the supernatural side of Jesus can be inconvenient for liberal Christians or humanists who would prefer to think of him as just an enlightened philosopher — but I don’t think this aspect of Christianity should be dismissed or ignored.
Yes, the stories of Jesus healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and exorcising demons from troubled souls are at least to some degree symbolic, representing his powerful ability to help people recover from whatever was afflicting them in a metaphorical sense. Blindness, for example, could mean a spiritual condition of lack of understanding. Demon possession could refer to mental illness, and Jesus’s ability to lift people out of such conditions as anxiety and depression through his inspirational teachings and presence.
Beyond this, I believe we should be open to the possibility that something metaphysical may have also been going on when Jesus healed people of their afflictions — especially the stories about his power to liberate people from negative spiritual influences that were tormenting the mind. What if, in fact, the world is filled with such influences that cannot be visibly seen?
We live in a world in which many people seem to take great pleasure in the suffering of others. That kind of mentality is incompatible with heaven. It seems unlikely that it would just automatically go away upon death of the physical body. This means there could be large numbers of souls all around us who are here to watch us endure chaos, competition, and destruction, addicted to the reality TV show of planet Earth, and not yet willing to try to kick the habit and return back to God. Perhaps they try to provoke people to make things worse in our lives or the lives of others, to make the show more interesting — just like they already did when they were alive in the flesh.
If spiritual trolls are among us, exerting the subtle power of thought, and living their sick fantasies vicariously through human predators and whomever they can victimize, then the Biblical emphasis on Jesus as an exorcist would make a lot more sense. Spiritual healing requires that we free and protect ourselves from such negative influences if they exist. The best way to do this is not to give them anything to be interested in. Live a life of decency and integrity rather than moral corruption; be proactive in working for truth and goodness, rather than constantly reacting to the provocations of evil; and don’t allow negative emotions to consume you.
Jesus, as a healer, gave people hope for a better tomorrow. He took out of them the thoughts of hopelessness, anger, and despair, and thus he was a mighty warrior of Light against the darkness. Whether you interpret it literally or symbolically, Jesus freed people from their demons, and that was a big part of his mission — a mission we would do well to continue today, through our own work of spiritual guidance, loving-kindness and fellowship to heal people of psychological torment and its terrible effects in our world.
One of the most significant ways the dark side can influence people is through the belief in infinite guilt and condemnation. And this is why the third point I want to emphasize about the ministry and teachings of Jesus is so important: the great principle of forgiveness.
This principle is perhaps best illustrated by the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus tells the story of two brothers, one of whom asks his father to give him his inheritance in advance. He takes the money and leaves to go live on his own, and squanders all his money on wild and irresponsible living. His situation becomes so hopeless that he’s starving. The young man says to himself,
“‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” [Luke 15:11-24]
So the father, representing God, welcomes his wayward son back into the family and forgives him for his sins. But the young man’s older brother becomes angry at their father’s merciful nature, and considers it unfair that he, who has always been obedient, isn’t the only recipient of his kindness [vss. 28-30]. Perhaps he feels that his brother deserves to be condemned forever — but as the Father explains, “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” [vs. 32]
We should take this teaching to heart when we consider how to relate to people who have made serious mistakes in their life. Jesus reveals to us that God, our Heavenly Father, will always forgive His children — our brothers and sisters in the human family — when they stray from what is right but later repent.
The older brother in the story represents the spirit of wrath and vengeance. This spirit would seek to perpetuate the suffering caused by sin, extending its effects beyond the natural consequences endured by the sinner, to an eternal and permanent condemnation. When people listen to this spirit that is always shouting or whispering thoughts of a guilt that can never be redeemed, it creates wounds that are difficult to heal. People begin to doubt their own worthiness and suspect that God doesn’t love them. We may view others as so stained by their sins as to be disposable. This makes our world more like hell and less like heaven.
That’s why when “Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” [Matt. 18:21-22]. Forgiveness, after appropriately just but limited consequences for the sinner, enables the fires of sin to be put out; whereas vengeance is like throwing gasoline on the fire.
When somebody does wrong and realizes it, and seeks to make amends, our responsibility as Christians is to give them a chance to correct their error — not casting them aside as unworthy of redemption. If people believe there is no mercy, no hope of forgiveness and reconciliation, then they have no incentive to change their ways, for they are condemned already. This is why God always keeps the door of hope open, and why we should do the same in our lives and our society.
Next week, we’ll continue exploring the ministry and teachings of Jesus — there’s a lot more ground to cover! Until then, I hope you’ll join me in reflecting on the themes of charity, healing, and forgiveness, and how what Jesus revealed to us on these important topics can help us manifest into reality the Lord’s prayer to our Heavenly Father: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” [Matt. 6:10]
Watch on video (starting at 7:53):