What Did Jesus Teach?

Jesus as Teacher

As portrayed in the gospels, Jesus’ ministry was comprised of three parts – signs and wonders, the healings, miracles, exorcisms – hospitality of the open table, the subversive creating of new communities through meals and social celebrations – and teaching, his lessons, parables, and sayings.

In this essay, we’re going to focus on his teaching, in particular it’s content. What was the basic message of Jesus?

Jesus taught and lived the wisdom of what he called the Kingdom of God – the awakening to the the interconnectedness of all life, inherent human dignity, and the universal call to cultivate kenotic love, compassion, and justice toward all beings.

Context matters greatly – Jesus’ kingdom – his social vision – was offered in direct contrast to that of Roman Imperial Rule and the Jewish religious institutions and structures of his day. Jesus’ Kingdom of God was rooted in an inverted values system that opposed both the dehumanizing power structures and violence of the Roman Empire as well as the religious purity codes and legalism of the Jewish authorities centered around the Temple.

The Meaning of Kingdom

Most scholars concur that Jesus’ teachings, while touching on a diverse range of circumstances and issues, fall under the rubric of announcing the arrival-inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. In other words, the central thrust of Jesus’ ministry aimed at demonstrating the reality of a new way of living – a new social order based on a divine vision – grounded in human dignity, nonviolence, freedom, care for the lowly, justice, mercy, and love. 

The Kingdom of God, also referred to as the New Order of Love, or reign or sovereignty or rule of God is a spiritual-social-cultural vision intentionally contrasted with the dehumanizing, abusive powers of worldly empires (Rome, Egypt, et al) and the religious legalism and ceremonialism of various forms of Judaism of the day. 

Intrinsic to the new order is a new understanding of religion. The creation of a church or new religion does not seem to have been Jesus’ aim. Rather, his teaching and example amount to a critique and reform of Judaism. Judaism in the time of Jesus was undergoing significant transition, mostly prompted by Roman occupation and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple system of sacrificial religion. The Pharisees represent the emerging trend (Rabbinic Judaism) toward a Judaism rooted in ethical behavior and observance of Jewish ritual, custom, and law (Halakhah). Jesus rejects the Temple system of animal sacrifice, but also the legalism and literalism of the Pharisees. 

Therefore, the reign of God is a metaphor for a social vision where peace is established through justice (rather than military conquest), where the dignity of all life is affirmed, where compassion reigns and the needy are cared for, where freedom supplants slavery and domination, and where religion, the underlying rationale for the above, is based on mercy and purity of heart and not adherence to custom or law.  

Kingdoms in Conflict

“If concerned about sexist implications, use any modern translation of “Kingdom of God”, but remember it should always have overtones of high treason. Similarly, to say Jesus was Lord meant Caesar was not. Translate “Lord” with any contemporary expression you deem appropriate, as long as it is one that can get you killed.”
– John Dominic Crossan.

The early Christian proclamation of Jesus as Lord was not an academic or emotional theological statement of the divinity of Jesus. It was a subversive statement of allegiance to Jesus and his social and cultural vision – an allegiance seen as treasonous by Roman authorities.

The Biblical vision of worldly empire includes portrayals of the values, political, economic, and social structures that emerge from and are reinforced by oppressive rule. John Dominic Crossan provides a modern summation of the primary traits central to worldly imperial control.  

Materialism/Consumerism is dysfunctional thinking that equates a good life with having more things. This mindset leads to an unending desire for the accumulation of material goods as a means to happiness. Within a consumerist culture, other human goods eventually become subjugated to the pursuit of material gain. As the dysfunction spreads, even the mechanisms of consumerism itself begin to fray – work loses its dignity, wages grow stagnant as the owner-elite skim ever deeper from the gains of productivity. Plutocracy, wealth inequality, cultural bifurcation, and the loss of meaningful creative opportunity tear the social fabric.

Slavery in its strict form, is thankfully rare in developed nations. Yet its overt practice continues in many parts of the world and more subtle forms of slavery exist even in the developed countries. A fundamental precept of justice is that a worker is due their wage and the benefit of their labor. Obviously, others may also benefit from such labor, but only in a system of free and fair cooperative agreements. Many of the industrialized economies are now witnessing deteriorating and exploitive terms for workers and ownership and upper management unfairly benefiting from the work of those deemed below them.

Sexism/Patriarchy is the result of complex attitudes, practices, and biases that allow men to exercise undue control over women, preventing their full participation across society, as well as the oppression of many sexual minorities who serve little interest to the male sexual power elites. The dignity of the individual person is lost as they are treated as an object of sexual gratification, a means to an end of ego sexual fulfillment. The Ego Imperial culture promotes hyper-sexualization. Often, exploitative sexual practices are favored and furthered – including promiscuity, pornography, abusive fetishes, prostitution (the commodification of sex) and subtle (and not so subtle) forms of sexual abuse and control. Marriage, committed relationships, and family life suffer as a result.

Elitism is a fundamental preference for the powerful, the wealthy, and those who sit atop the hierarchies of social and cultural control. Driven by the dictates of rampant, uncontrolled egoism, the elite use those below them to further their own ends. In this sense, the elite become social parasites and create abusive structures that denigrate the poor, the marginalized, the misfits, the elderly, the young, the ill, the undereducated – all those who do not demonstrate social “utility.”

Violence is the natural result of the glorification of the imperial ego. Tensions, divisions, and hostilities are fostered and even manufactured on all societal levels as a way of furthering the control of the political and economic elite. Violence is seen as an acceptable means to social control and permeates all aspects of the culture. On the level of geopolitics, war is used as a tool of empire building and for exploiting weaker and poorer nations.

Ecological Abuse is the unhealthy practice that results from seeing humans as separate from nature and not an inherent part of the ecosystem. There is nothing wrong with harnessing nature’s powers for human betterment; the problem comes when humans dominate and use nature without regard for the long term consequences. Abusing and ruining nature is the not the same as benefiting from nature’s bounty.

The alternative vision of God’s kingdom is rooted in Jewish and Christian claims of human dignity, the value of life, the interconnectedness of all things, the inherent goodness of nature – and stand in sharp contrast to those of worldly empire.

Peace is the radical opposite to the vision of violence and coercion of Empire. The Kingdom rejects violence as a solution, calls for gentleness and reconciliation, and strives for relationship between individuals, communities, and nations based on empathetic reciprocity and generosity.

The Equality of Justice flows from the recognition of the equal dignity and worth of all persons. The recognition of the equal dignity of all human beings in turn calls for equal treatment under civil law, equal treatment within religious communities, and equal treatment and opportunity for all regardless of ability, gender, age, ethnicity, economic status, and so forth. Equality also works against patriarchy and all forms of abuse and degradation. Equality is the antidote to elitism and the skewing of power to the few. Its based in consensus, the valuing of diversity, equality, and rule of law.

Preference for the Lowly is sometimes called a preferential option for the poor. Such a cultural attitude eviscerates elism, plutocracy, and autocracy. In large part, it was the practice of this conviction that fueled the growth and dedication of the early Christian communities. In these communities the lowly, the marginalized, and the destitute found hope, support, and love. For many, there belonging was a matter of life and death.

Authentic Community is understood as rooted in openness, mutual cooperation, and justice. It is the result of the proper affirmation of the intrinsic social nature of the human person. Community is realized through participation, subsidiarity, and inclusion. To strive for genuine community is to resist the urges of isolation, alienation, and unjust discrimination or oppression.

Simplicity is contrary to materialism and consumerism. Simplicity is not the denial of the goodness of the material world, rather it is the refusal to equate the quantity and quality of material good with a life of value and purpose. Simplicity strengthens us so we are not overwhelmed by the consumerist culture.

The Kingdom and Love

Jesus taught that the Kingdom was now – that it was available to all whose chose to make it a reality in their lives and the lives of others – through their actions. The Kingdom didn’t require a military revolution, or a political solution – it required the hearts and minds, and lives of those who embraced it. It was entered and made manifest through compassion, mercy, sharing, hospitality, justice, and kindness.

The radicalism of Jesus is not that he preached love – the Jews of his day believed in love and social justice, but within limits that Jesus breached. The radicalism of the message of Jesus is his argument that a new spiritual reality was breaking forth, was already present and available, one that favored the lowly, the outcast, the unclean, and the unwanted. The radical nature of the message is who is favored and to whom the Kingdom is revealed – a vision that directly threatens and contradicts the social, religious, political, and economic order of Jesus’ day.

The Sermon on the Mount (the new Sinai experience), and Jesus’ parables, present the Kingdom’s vision of holiness and goodness – a vision that calls us beyond the normal understanding  of morality – and one that turns the world upside down. The imperfect and humble are favored over the self righteous and the legalistic. The violent power of Empire is supplanted with the gentle power of generosity of self.

At the heart of the Kingdom is the understanding that kenotic love is vital to our wholeness. Goodness and virtue alone do not “save” in the full sense of the term. This is the mistake of those who value ritual and moral purity more highly than love and mercy – only the process of dying to self and the giving of self to others in love is fully transformative.

Summary of Jesus’ Teachings

The Core Message

1. Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was now – we need not wait for its arrival, rather we can make it a concrete reality today if live a way of life rooted in love, compassion, and justice.

2. The Kingdom of God is embodied by living in subversive, peaceful opposition to the Imperial Rule of Rome and our own forms of empire today. Empire is the metaphor for the dehumanizing power structures and oppressive, violent practices that emerge when humans seek to exploit and control others.

3. We subvert Empire by creating an alternative social order characterized by the affirmation of human dignity, love, justice through peace, care for the lowly, generosity, forgiveness, simplicity, and kindness. Jesus used the central practice of an open table as both a real and symbolic/iconic way to convey this new order.

4. The meaning of life, the way of wholeness, is found in loving your neighbor as yourself –  a fundamental attitude of self giving (kenosis) and a recognition that we become what we give ourselves to.

5. Authentic religion rejects legalism, ceremonialism, moralism, and literalism. For Jesus, this meant a rethinking of Judaism, rejecting the centralized Temple authority, the validity of sacrifices, and moving it away from legalistic understandings of status, tribe, observance, and ritual and toward mercy, transformation of self, and social justice – concepts already present in the Jewish tradition.

Jesus’ Teachings in Relation to the Judaism of his Day

1. The end of the Jewish religious system centered around sacrifice in the Temple.

2. Embracing the message of the prophets that holiness comes from wholeness wrought by love and not following ceremonial or purity laws.

3. Proclaiming open forgiveness and a generous mercy for all.

4. Breaking down the tribal-religious-ethnic barriers. 

5. Teaching the prominence of the Spirit of the Law, not the letter, thus negating literalism, legalism, and moralism.

6. Proclaiming that self-righteousness is a grave error and failing.

7. Radicalizing and focusing on Judaism’s emphasis on love, hospitality, justice, kindness, and care for the poor, lowly, and marginalized.

Jesus’ Teachings in Relation to the Roman Empire 

1. Subversion of dehumanizing and oppressive Empire through the creation of loving, mutual supporting communities outside the Roman power structures of patronage, sacrificial system, and Imperial narrative (the Imperium).

2. Understanding that peace is achieved through justice – inverting Roman teaching and mythos of peace achieved through military domination.

3. Establishing counter-cultural alternative communities of equality and inclusion centered on the open table as opposed to the Imperial sacrificial order.

4. Inverting the Roman value system by preferring the poor, lowly, and marginalized.

5. Countering brutality, coarseness, and cruelty by affirming human dignity.

6. Claiming Jesus as Lord and not Caesar – an audacious, intentionally ironic assertion meant to ruffle feathers and gain attention. 

7. Claiming that love endures beyond death and is greater than Imperial power.

Jesus’ Teachings Today

Understanding Jesus’ context is vital to understanding the meaning of his teaching. But what are we to make of that teaching today? What’s the take-away in our current context?

1. Jesus teaches a way of personal transformation through love and restoring the world with justice and compassion. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the power of kenotic love – the freeing ourselves from the conditioning that keeps us from being a blessing to all the families of the earth, human and otherwise.

2. Jesus did NOT about getting to heaven, being good boys and girls so Santa-god will give us gifts, moral perfectionism, controlling your neighbor, tribalism, anyone’s or any text’s infallibility. He didn’t teach a new religion, rather he seemed to teach the almost absence of religion. Other than the Open Table, he established no new rituals or rites, created no institutions or structures, promulgated no rules, liturgies, or offices. 

3. Rather than a religion, Jesus taught a new social vision.  Jesus calls us to build a new order of love – the Kingdom. The values of this Kingdom are mercy, justice, equality, freedom, and kindness. Its vision is of a world of peace accomplished through justice where the dignity of all is affirmed.

4. Today, we must ask ourselves what empires we struggle with. What are the forces of dehumanization facing us today? One need only reflect on our current cultures’ materialism, spirit of conformity, consumerism, militarism, greed, and selfishness to realize that we too contend with Imperial powers and must live in resistance to such, even if it costs us. 

5. Those of us who belong to organized, structured religions should ask serious and hard questions about the role of ritual, law, rules – the legalisms, literalisms, and ceremonialism of our own communities.  Jesus clearly teaches that holiness is primarily about wholeness and is not found in moralism, legalism, or literalism – that moral purity, theological finesse, or ceremonial perfection are not essential to a meaningful and valid spiritual life.

6. Jesus taught that morality was not imposed by religious authorities, texts, or even God. Rather, morality is an integral part of our natural identity. Right human behavior is predicated on human flourishing and empathetic reciprocity, conveyed in the core truth of love your neighbor as yourselfOur motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.

7. Those who claim to follow Jesus’ teachings must find ways of fostering alternative communities of love and inclusion – built on hospitality, love, and an Open Table – where people can find meaning and purpose for their lives, have their dignity affirmed, glean wisdom for how to live a good and full life, engage in mutual generous support, and embrace a way of life that subverts the dehumanizing cultural and social forces of the Empire of our day.  Ideally, these communities should be open, organic and authentic, and inclusive of all people of good will – not based on legalistic constructs, artificial walls, or rigid expectations.