This piece is part of an ongoing series that I have been writing called An Atheist Reads the Bible. The title explains the concept. I, an atheist, attempt to read the Bible and then I write about it. Everything that I write as part of this series will be collected here.
Common throughout the Gospels is a sense that something new and radical is happening as Jesus begins to preach. Running through the most famous speeches of these texts is the notion that Jesus is overthrowing an old order and bringing new wisdom that is to henceforth be taken as truth. The man himself asserts the “newness” of his philosophy most forcefully in the Sermon on the Mount, the constant refrain of which is, “Ye have heard that it hath been said…”
The rest is quite familiar even to those who have never read the text. Though we have heard to take an eye for an eye, we are now to turn the other cheek. Just as we have heard that we are to hate our enemies, now we must love them. The rules and commandments of the ages before the Gospels, at least according to their authors, are for the most part no longer in play. Jesus’ commandments now reign supreme and according to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (Mark, 14:6).”
It’s certainly not new for a religious text to claim that it holds a monopoly on truth and the way to salvation. This is and forever has been the domain of supposed prophets. Indeed, these sections of the text, those in which angels descend to foretell of a coming messiah and in which authors go to painstaking lengths to trace Jesus’ genealogy to Old Testament prophets – I am looking at you, Matthew – feel tedious and empty, perhaps because I lack any inclination to a belief in the supernatural.
I wrote previously of how seemingly irrational the tenets of Jesus’ teaching can seem, namely his abandon in embracing the sick and those deemed dangerous outcasts. This theme strikes me again and again as I work my way through the Gospels. The demands that Jesus makes of individuals, the things he asks them to sacrifice, are shocking. This is the real fruit of the Gospels.
One of the most ass-backwards facets of our culture is an obsession with labels and the need to attach such labels to our moral worth. It runs from frivilous pursuits like fashion and being spotted in the right place to sometimes dangerous tribal chest-thumping. I am better than you because I was born in a certain country or because I went to a certain university. We have no shortage today and throughout history of the same dynamic playing out not only between different faiths but within them as well.
In its most extreme form, this obsession with carrying certain labels can lead us to letting ourselves off the hook for our own actions. I don’t have to run through the numerous ways in which many have felt that a certain label is enough for them to claim superiority without having any real accomplishments of their own.
In the Gospels, there is no church, at least not one with Jesus at its centre, nor are there sacraments that are meant to guarantee entry into heaven, again at least not as part of any church that Jesus started. Rather, there is just a teacher, or madman depending on who you asked at the time, wandering from town to town performing miracles and imparting his philosophy to anyone who would listen. The actual ideas that started Christianity, at least as the Gospels report them, are laid bare in these texts.
In the early chapters of Luke, everything about Jesus’ message focuses on the individual. The flourishing of this good news he claims to bring does not occur in any particular place or through any kind of ritual, but through action. Not just action, but action which may or may not be acknowledged by others and which has no immediate reward for the one performing them.
This is exactly what has made me think of the Gospels as radical. They do not ask for simple allegiance to a church, but for complete sacrifice as the foundation of one’s day to day life.
Chapters six and seven called out to me most. It is in these sections that Jesus establishes the roots of his teachings not as a religious commitment, but as work. Titles, social status, or appearance hold no privilege. To pledge allegiance to a faith similarly means nothing, as Jesus explicitly states, “…he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built a house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great (Luke, 6:49).” It is of course earlier in this same chapter that Jesus is chastised for healing on the sabbath, to which he defiantly replies that the Sabbath does not exempt one from aiding their fellow human being.
It’s not a stretch to say that to those in power, Jesus was essentially blaspheming, mocking those who claim to preach virtue but have days in which such actions are not permitted and who also cast out those who are in the greatest need of help – in the scene in question, the Pharisees in the temple were trying to prevent Jesus from healing a man with a withered hand.
In chapter seven, the same point is driven home. In the house of a Pharisee, a woman washes the feet of Jesus with her tears and dries them with her hair. The image is powerful. The Pharisee reminds Jesus that she is a sinner. Jesus, again defiantly, replies, “I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my geet; but she hath washed them with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head (Luke, 7:44).” He continues, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little (Luke, 7:47).”
The message is striking because it is radical even today. In the Gospels, there is no quick-fix, the type of which we so crave. What is demanded is sacrifice and giving with every ounce of our ability to do so. The standard for goodness is beyond anything that can be attained with material or social wealth and also beyond anything that is merely convenient for ourselves. To omit sacrifice and love for even a day is a failure to meet the standards that Jesus is setting in his teachings.
It’s an incredibly radical set of teachings because it invites us to look back on ourselves and ask how often we really truly went to the ends of sacrifice and in turn how often we were satisfied to say we did enough or “did our part.” That woman, the supposed sinner in the house of the Pharisee, is cast out, left with nothing compared to the wealthy temple official, yet she is hospitable, making the Pharisee look foolish and hypocritical in comparison.
To love, as I have been contemplating throughout these readings, is infinitely more demanding than adopting a label. The Pharisee has done so, but when truly put to the test he fails to love that supposed sinner and opts for upholding a convention over taking real action when a fellow man is in need. Love, as Jesus continues to define it here, cannot be done from a distance or through sacraments and rituals.
As events unfold in the Gospels, it becomes clear that we are asked to render ourselves and our own reputation subordinate to others at all times. It is not an occasional commitment or a matter of keeping up appearances, but a willingness to love directly even when no one is looking and there is nothing to gain.
I can’t say whether or not these teachings are right. They stand out to me because when presented in their raw form, they ask for something that is equally noble and irrational by modern standards. In my readings, I could not help but wonder if any modern reader, even the most devout Christian, could find these ideas palatable or true to their own lives. There is nothing here about church or sacraments, only action.
These passages could easily be frustrating for the modern reader, not just because they set standards so high that we ultimately feel that we fall short, but because there is really no easy way out of adhering to these teachings. They cannot be brought from without into an individual by attending church or writing a massive cheque, but rather have to be brought to the world from the individual in their every action.
Love will not plateau. It is an ongoing commitment that constantly asks more and more of us. For someone, who surely like so many, abhors the hypocrisy of those who claim a commitment to love and sacrifice but live opulently and in judgement of others, these words are refreshing. For someone who lives in our modern world, they are daunting and humbling. For a cynic at heart, it’s also easy to feel that they’re not all that widely read or followed.