The World According to Jesus
A précis of an address by the Rev Dr Lorraine Parkinson to the Melbourne group of SoFiA on the subject of her book The World According to Jesus: His Blueprint for the Best Possible World.
Early in the history of the church Jesus’ teachings were set aside in favour of emphasising something else. Yet those teachings were what drew people to him in the first place. He was doubtless a compelling teacher. The scholar class (Pharisees) obviously thought his ideas worth debating; otherwise they would have ignored him. Debate and exchange of ideas about the Torah was accepted methodology among teachers and students of the Law of Moses in those days, as it is now. Jesus did not want to change the Law or abolish the Law. He interpreted it so as to draw out its implications for life to their ultimate possibilities. Observance of Torah in this way would result in what he called in Matthew’s Gospel, “the Kingdom of heaven” (on earth). Another way to say it is that Jesus imagined and taught about building ‘the best possible world’. He developed his teaching in a society in which brutality, injustice and oppression were the norm. Because of that he taught non-violent resistance to injustice. This is the basic thesis of my book, The World According to Jesus: his blueprint for the best possible world. (Spectrum Publications, Melbourne, 2011).
The gospel depiction of rivalry between Jesus and the Pharisees is the result of circumstances in which the gospel writers lived, following the Jewish War against the Romans (66-70 CE) when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. By the time the gospels were written, the Pharisees were developing a reformed Judaism without the Temple, founded on the observance of Torah in synagogue-based communities. After the disastrous war, the Pharisees did not want to see any Jewish group expressing belief in a Messiah figure (albeit crucified), who would return to earth to initiate the overthrow of the Romans. That kind of messianic thinking had previously led to catastrophic violence and the deaths of countless innocent people. At this stage, in accordance with the teachings of the Apostle Paul, the Christ movement as described in the gospels had become eschatological as well as messianic, as they waited for Jesus the Christ to return triumphantly from heaven.
Over the following three centuries, Christian doctrine about Jesus developed until it reached its Trinitarian climax in the fourth century. Ideas about Jesus as Messiah (in Greek, Christ) now included belief that Jesus was not only fully human, but also fully divine. The early church’s beliefs had transformed the teacher from the Galilee into the all-conquering Christ. That was also congruent with the imperial power structures of the Roman Empire, which adopted Christianity under the emperor Constantine. When Constantine gathered together the bishops of the church at his palace in Nicaea in 325, the creed of the church that they wrote included not one of Jesus’ teachings. Why? Quite simply because they are socially subversive, utterly opposed to the norms of a totalitarian, oppressive empire. Jesus’ teachings are designed first to create the best type of human being, who can then create the best possible world, in which the basic value is compassion. His teachings are summed up by the so-called Beatitudes (Matthew 5), where the characteristics of creators of the best possible world are: humble-minded, strong in adversity, non-violent, fair-minded, compassionate, committed to following Jesus, forgiving, courageous. Those characteristics would require leaders of the best possible world (Jesus’ ‘kingdom of heaven’ on earth) to turn upside down the taken-for-granted hierarchical, oppressive and privilege-oriented leadership structures of kingdoms and empires.
For that reason Jesus’ teachings were necessarily sidelined when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. In their place was developed the religion of an imperial Christ, the divine Son of God, represented by the images ‘Christus Victor’ and ‘Christ Pantocrator’. In total opposition to Jesus’ teachings about non-violence, the cross then became the sign under which Christian empires slaughtered and conquered, in the name of ‘Christ’.
This state of affairs resulted from the unholy alliance with the state which the fourth century church chose to enter. Christians have ever since been the inheritors of that choice. The teachings of Jesus have rarely been followed seriously by Christian nations. In that sense they have been ‘forgotten’.