How Christianity Lost Jesus
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
It is one of the conundrums of religious history: How did Christianity – a religion based on the teachings of a pacifist who said ‘love your enemy’ and who defended the poor, the outcast, and the most vulnerable – become so twisted into nearly its opposite? Why did dominant Christian institutions, such as the Vatican for example, amass obscene wealth and immense power? How could US presidents – the likes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who claim to be devout followers of Jesus, unleash the fearsome might of modern American military technologies and firepower to slaughter people in faraway lands who were likely innocent? This latest commentary of mine traces this Christian mystery to the chronology of when the books of the New Testament were committed to writing.
We call Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew’s gospel the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. It is without question one of Jesus’ finest public teachings. While the Gospels are filled with the stories that Jesus told and about what he did, the Sermon on the Mount is different because it’s a summary of his teachings, Spiritual advice or short sayings. Under the critical analysis of our best Bible scholars, the Sermon on the Mount stands as authentic Jesus material. I have concluded that if people want to follow Jesus, they need to do three things; accept Christ as your Savior, turn away from your sins, and read and digest the Sermon on the Mount (but don’t stop there!). Near the end of chapter five, one of the greatest challenges of Jesus is laid down.
“You have heard the saying ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth;’ but I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other side. And if someone sues you and takes your coat, let him have your cloak as well. You have also heard it said ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy;’ but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Nothing was more basic to the society in which Jesus lived and taught than the declaration “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The saying is a clear expression of the understanding of sin as a debt to be paid. Break one of God’s rules and God will repay you. In the prevailing understanding of Judaism in Jesus’ day, sin was a debt that must be paid. Jews traveled long distances to Jerusalem to make blood sacrifices to pay God the price of their sins against him. Yet Jesus argued against the prevailing system. Jesus did not believe that punishment cured the problem of sin. Instead, he taught passionately that the antidotes for sin were repentance, unconditional love and acts of kindness. And he gave the ultimate example of exactly that by being crucified on a cross and dying for all our sins, from our biggest and most egregious right on down to the little accidental ones. Jesus paid for it all.
It has been my observation that in the 21st century the vast majority of Christians have embraced “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” once again. Not only have Christians embraced what Jesus forbade, the western world has adopted the Biblical standard that “a debt must be paid” and applied it to our finances. This is what capitalism has done to our souls and our society. Everything revolves around money, interest and usury, and Christ has been left behind by the majority of people, most of whom are professing Christians. Yet in Exodus chapter 22, verses 25-27 it says, “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear him, for I am compassionate.” Penalties are imposed to fit the crime, and an offender must “pay his/her debt to society” like a debtor to a moneylender. In the process of acquiring our economic sophistication and all the trappings of comfort, Christians have become what Jesus despised and rejected. It’s a lot easier to say, “Pay what you owe!”, than it is to forgive and move on. It’s easier to worry about ourselves than it is others.
How did this happen? Look no further than modern main stream Christianity, and the interpretation of the New Testament in particular. The man who became the apostle Paul had a supernatural experience with Jesus (a few years after His death and resurrection) as Paul traveled on the road to Damascus. Paul’s experience with Jesus took place decades before any of the parables, teachings and stories about Jesus were put in written form. They existed only as oral traditions at that time. Moreover, Paul was Jewish by birth, training and conviction. He was steeped in the tradition of sin as being debt that had to be repaid with the shedding of blood, like the Old Testament verse I quoted above. The problem with the modern application of this tradition is that Jesus’ death on the cross was the lump sum payment for the transgressions of all. The debt has already been paid in full. There is a passage in the ninth chapter of the Book of Hebrews that explains it perfectly, and I quote: “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to cover the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9, verses 24-28, NIV) The Biblical concept of Jesus’ crucifixion as the payment of the debt of all of humankind’s sins is the central focal point of Christian belief, whether in Catholicism or Protestantism. Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been many ardent followers who have advocated a return to these basic teachings of Jesus, but without all the trappings of denominational theology. Unfortunately, there are those who insist on doing this with a conservative political bias, despite the fact that the Bible is noticeably anti-capitalist.
Human beings have a long history of behaving badly. They lie; they cheat; they steal; and when pressed, they kill one another with abandon. They actually believe they can fight and kill with honor and dignity, but that’s really just a myth. There is no evidence that the practice of “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” ever produced an honorable result, made people more whole with lives that are more satisfying, or produced a society that is equitable for all. The blood that Jesus shed 2,000 years ago has already paid the price for all of it. It’s way past time for humankind to put our weapons of war down. Better yet, let’s recycle all the scrap from those weapons of war into housing for the homeless, widows and orphans all over the world. The good news is that Jesus is still looking for those kinds of followers, the ones who want to go on a different kind of a journey. Jesus is actively seeking “sermon on the mount” folks to get the world ready for His return. He is seeking men who, when their coats are taken from them, will give up their sport coats as well. And, he seeks those who will help “beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks”. Will you help get the world ready for the return of the Prince of Peace?