Who was the real Jesus Christ? Although Jesus of Nazareth is undoubtedly the best-known religious leader in history, opinions differ widely about the meaning of his mission and how we should interpret it today.
Last week, in part one of this two-part series on “The Ministry and Teachings of Jesus,” I focused on the themes of charity, healing, and forgiveness. This week, I want to emphasize Jesus’s message of openness and inclusion.
Jesus was born into a society in conflict. On the one hand, there were the leaders of his own people, the Jews, who believed their nation was especially chosen by God; that theirs was the only true religion, and that its laws should be enforced strictly according to the teachings of a priestly caste. On the other hand, there were the occupying Romans, who had conquered the Hebrew people along with the rest of the Mediterranean region. They wished to enforce upon the Jews an imperial government and the worship of many gods, of which the Jewish God was merely one local deity in a vast cosmopolitan empire.
Being the complicated man that he was, Jesus didn’t take either side of this dispute. Instead, he taught that the One True God is much bigger than any one nation or tribe, and that Judaism, despite worshipping the almighty and transcendent God, had made God much smaller and more restricted than God in fact wishes to be.
Because Jesus didn’t toe the party line of either the Jewish or the Roman powers that be in the society in which he lived, he ended up nailed to a cross — and his courage and integrity to teach the truth as he saw it, no matter the personal consequences, is one of the reasons he is so widely remembered and revered today.
Jesus’s free-thinking attitude is well illustrated in his encounter with Nicodemus, one of the chief leaders of the dominant Jewish sect at the time, called the Pharisees. “Rabbi,” says Nicodemus to Jesus, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” [John 3:2]. At least this was Nicodemus’s view, which he expressed to Jesus privately. But the Pharisees were troubled by Jesus’s unwillingness to follow their conservative interpretation of the Jewish religion. Instead of seeking to placate Nicodemus, Jesus challenges him to reconsider the source of spiritual truth — that it comes not from the dead things of the world of flesh, such as laws and traditions, but instead from the Holy Spirit, the living breath of the creative power of God.
“Very truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” [John 3:3]. In other words, we must be open to experience a spiritual rebirth. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit,” says Jesus [vs. 6]. And the Spirit isn’t always predictable; it doesn’t always follow the rules, or adhere to the old traditions of the powerful in this world. “The wind blows wherever it pleases,” Jesus says to Nicodemus. “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” [vs. 8]
The free spirit of Jesus brought him into conflict with most of the Pharisees, who were not as open-minded as Nicodemus. In fact, they were so strict in their religious legalism that we find them in the Gospels repeatedly condemning Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath, the weekly day of rest in Judaism. In the Pharisees’ view, the doctrine of not doing any work on the Sabbath was supposed to take precedence over a prophet’s ministry of healing. So infuriated were they at Jesus’s flouting of their religious rules that they even wanted to kill him [John 5:16-18] — and as we know, they got their wish.
In a famous diatribe against the Pharisees, Jesus calls them out for following the letter of the law but not the spirit:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. …
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. …
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” [Matt. 23:23,25,27-28]
Instead of the legalistic rigidity, narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus was advocating for a religion of universal morality to be followed with pure-hearted integrity. His teachings were simple, yet very challenging:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 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. …
Do not judge, 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.” [Luke 6:27-31,37-38]
In keeping with this all-embracing philosophy, Jesus emphasized openness to all kinds of people — even those who were looked down upon in his own culture. Judaism at the time tended to be a pridefully nationalistic religion, viewing the Hebrews as a special race that God had chosen above all the other peoples of the world. Jesus made a point of standing up against this exclusive attitude and welcoming the scorned, the rejected, and those who were discriminated against. As reported in the Gospels, he did this again and again. In Jesus, all people — no matter how society viewed them — would find a kindhearted friend.
One of the greatest examples of this principle as taught by Jesus can be found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Samaritans were a tribe of people in Israel, living in the region of Samaria, or what today is called the West Bank of the Palestinians. Like the Palestinians, they had a different religion. And also like the Palestinians, the Samaritans were hated by many of the Jews. In fact, the Jews hated them so intensely that they had destroyed the Samaritans’ temple. This was the cultural context in which Jesus told the following story.
As the story goes, an expert in the Jewish law asked Jesus how to get into heaven. Jesus told him that he should “love the Lord your God with all your heart … and love your neighbor as yourself.” [Luke 10:27]. But then the religious conservative followed up by asking a key question: “And who is my neighbor?” [vs. 29]. He wanted to know if there were some people he could justifiably exclude from the scope of his love.
“In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite,’” — a member of one of the higher castes of Judaism — “‘when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two [days’ wages] and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’” said Jesus. “The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” [vss. 30-37] — in other words, follow the example of the Samaritan, the one that you would normally look down upon.
Jesus didn’t only teach that people shouldn’t be prejudiced against people of other races or religions or cultures; he also practiced what he preached. When traveling through Samaria, he met a Samaritan woman at the sacred well of the patriarch Jacob, and struck up a friendly conversation. She was astonished that he would converse with her, “for Jews do not associate with Samaritans,” as the Gospel of John informs us [John 4:9] — and furthermore because Jesus told her that he knew she was living a life that at the time was considered sexually immoral [vss. 17-18].
Jesus tells the woman at the well that he is the Messiah, and she believes him [vs. 26]. She preaches the good news to the people of her town, and some of them believe her testimony — and others invite Jesus to come stay with them. In radical violation of the discriminatory traditions of his culture, Jesus accepts their invitation, and many more Samaritans become believers in his mission [vss. 39-41].
Today, the Samaritan woman at the well is revered as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox churches, who know her as Photina, meaning the “luminous one.” Jesus looked beyond her exterior — her identity as someone he was supposed to hate and avoid with disgust — and instead he saw the light of the Spirit within her, giving her the opportunity to shine with greatness in God’s eyes.
Likewise, Jesus included the hated Roman oppressors and Jews who collaborated with them, reaching out to them in his ministry and giving them a chance to be seen for their spiritual worth as individuals. For example, he healed the servant of a Roman centurion who showed faith in the Jewish God and the work of Jesus. A centurion was a commander of troops of the Roman empire who were occupying the Hebrew nation. It’s hard to imagine an easier reason to hate somebody — a person who was actually using military force to take away the freedom of your own people — and yet Jesus was so filled with the spirit of mercy that when the Roman military officer asked him to heal his servant, Jesus did it without reservation. He even praised the man for a faith that was greater than that of the people of Israel. [Matt. 8:5-13]
Hebrews who worked as tax collectors for the Roman empire were especially hated by their fellow Jews, whom they often financially exploited with the tacit approval of the Romans. They were seen as corrupt, motivated by greed and lacking in patriotism — even as traitors to their country and their religion. But Jesus called tax collectors to support and serve his ministry, despite their offensive occupation. Instead of condemning them as irredeemable, he gave them a second chance. In fact, one of Jesus’s first disciples was a tax collector named Levi. We read in the Gospel of Mark that “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples” — and predictably, this aroused the anger of the Pharisees. But as Jesus explained, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Mark 2:13-17]
It is important to understand that Jesus was not saying it’s okay to be an unrepentant sinner. He associated with unsavory types of people because he wanted to help them. Sometimes they just needed to be loved, and in other cases they also needed to start loving God and their fellow man more than themselves. In the case of Samaritans, the prejudice against them wasn’t their fault. In the case of Roman soldiers, they were oppressing people of a different race and religion, and they needed to learn to admire and respect the people they were ruling, so Jesus served as an example. In the case of the tax collectors, perhaps they had made a mistake in their political allegiance, but if they were willing to see their error and join a better cause and community as Jesus represented, then they should be forgiven.
We today can learn valuable lessons from these stories of the ministry and teachings of Jesus. To begin with, we should reject racism, religious prejudice, xenophobia, and an excessive spirit of nationalism as incompatible with the true Christian faith.
On a deeper level, Jesus’s radical spirit of openness and inclusion should be an example to us all — challenging us, inspiring us to embrace everyone, to give all people a chance, even those we find hard to love. Who, today, is the Samaritan, the Roman soldier, or the tax collector in your own life? Do you perhaps find it difficult to love the Black Lives Matter activist, or the Trump supporter, or the “Deep State” government bureaucrat? Do you hate the Republican or the Democrat? Do you cringe at the sight of the transgender person, or the same-sex couple, or the woman entering the abortion clinic? Or what about the conservative family with the stay-at-home mom and the patriarchal husband with a rifle? If you get to know such a person and they genuinely wish to follow Christ, are you willing to see them as your brother or sister, despite whatever about them offends or annoys you?
I’m not saying that we should ignore and excuse evil — and neither did Christ. For example, in order to win Jesus’s approval, the prominent and very wealthy tax collector Zacchaeus had to promise to give away most of his ill-gotten money to the poor. Jesus gave him a chance to be redeemed, and his spirit was won by kindness and thus he was saved. [Luke 19:1-10]. But maybe in a lot of cases we’re too quick to judge, or too slow to open our hearts to the possibility of positive change.
There is one category of people that the Bible tells us Jesus often criticized harshly: the religious fundamentalists, especially those who were hypocrites. Nevertheless, he did welcome and engage with them respectfully when they came to him with an open mind, as in the case of Nicodemus.
Finally, I would like to mention another important way that Jesus demonstrated the spirit of openness and inclusion in his ministry and teachings: his attitude toward women. Two thousand years ago, in Israel as in most of the world, women were second-class citizens. They were not allowed to participate in political or religious life alongside men. But Jesus began the process of elevating their status toward equality. For example, the Gospel of Luke reports that when a woman named Mary joined the male disciples in listening to Jesus teach, he did not turn her away to do the traditional chores of women with her sister Martha; instead he praised her for having chosen the better path [Luke 10:38-42].
When the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples, the Bible reports that he chose to appear to the women first [Matt. 28:1-10, John 20:11-18]. This was highly significant, indicating that Jesus saw women as equal in the eyes of God and that he wanted his church to include them in roles of honor and authority. And so the early Christian church did. There is much Biblical and historical evidence for the inclusion of women in such roles — not to the degree that progressive Christians would expect today, but a step in the right direction.
In conclusion, there is much to learn from the story of Jesus — a man whose radical ministry and revolutionary teachings challenged the people of his own time and culture, and have challenged people all over the world throughout the past two thousand years. In last week’s sermon and this one, I have summarized the ministry and teachings of Jesus as focused on the key themes of charity, healing, forgiveness, openness and inclusion. There is of course more that we could discuss, but I believe these themes offer us a profound starting point for understanding Jesus and his message.
These days, with hundreds of denominations and competing ideologies and interpretations, it wouldn’t hurt for Christianity to go back to the basics — and to do that, there’s no better place to begin than Jesus Christ himself. Both in our understanding of our faith and its application in our lives, to be a Christian, truly, is to look to Jesus. He is, after all, “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” [Rev. 22:13]
Watch on video (starting at 9:08):