During the Fall of 2015, I was teaching a class on mysticism, and the question was raised, what are the central teachings of Jesus? Is Jesus a mystic? What are the ingredients for a genuine Christian life? These questions are important because one cannot claim to be Christian and at the same time ignore the examples set by the life of Jesus. It is not enough to proclaim that “Jesus saved me and will save you” in order to be a true Christian, despite the claim that salvation occurs through faith alone.
What are the central teachings of Jesus, and what are the psychological implications of being a follower of Jesus? Here is a very subjective compilation, supported by quotes from the Bible. I will focus on the practical wisdom that creates the spiritual life of Jesus, rather than the theological aspects of his message. This approach requires to generalize from particular stories or similes to the underlying principle for the conduct of life. Conceptual leaps of this kind are very subjective. Much is lost in translation when we only state principles without the stories from which they are abstracted.
I will include the scriptural references for the compiled list of principles that form the message of Jesus, so readers can reflect on it for themselves. The references are from the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, cited as Mt., Mk., Lk., and Jn.) These texts build the New Testament canon; they were approved by the early Catholic Church during the Council of Carthage in 397. The list does not draw on the Gospel of Thomas or other Gnostic gospels, even though they may convey some perspectives more accurately than the big four gospels. Some of the links are not directly relevant to the main point, but they add deeper perspectives to it.
I hope there is some value in this summary, especially for those readers who live in cultures without Christian traditions.
The Central Teaching
- The Divine Spirit exists somewhere, however deeply buried, within each person. One can define the “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven” as a spiritual state of thinking, feeling, and being. You can experience this divine space within yourself and in your relationships during your lifetime here on earth. You have the choice of nurturing and encouraging this outlook, or of ignoring it. (Mt 18, 23-25; Jn 10, 13-34; Lk 17, 20-21)
- Find peace within your mind and heart, and in your relations with others. (Mt 5, 3-12; Mt 5, 38-46; Lk 6, 26-36; Mt 12, 25-7; Jn 14, 27)
- Act with love and kindness toward everyone. Be kind and generous toward all – even strangers, enemies, and those who cannot repay you. (Mt 5, 38-46; Mt 25, 34-46; Lk 6, 26-36; Lk 10, 25-37)
- Do not judge others, and work diligently on letting go of your judgmental tendencies. (Mt 18, 23-25; Lk 6, 37-8; LK 10, 16; Lk 17, 4; Jn 8, 3-10)
- Work diligently to give up self-righteousness, which blinds you to what you do and what is truly going on within you. (Mt 38-46; Lk 6, 29-30; Jn 8, 3-10))
- Be a healer to yourself and others in whatever ways you can. (Lk 10, 25-37 and many healing stories)
- Seek to know yourself. This includes becoming aware of your own self-deceptions and defenses. And do all you can to discover the divine spirit within you. ( Mt 12, 7-8; Mt 12, 36-7; Lk 6, 41-2; Lk 11, 33-6)
- You are fully responsible for the effects of your words and actions on you and on others. When you disown such responsibility by claiming that “God told me to do it” when you act in harmful ways, you are lying to yourself.(Mk 4, 34)
- It is what comes out of us (what we say and do), not what goes into us, (what others call us, what we eat, etc.) that degrades us. (Mk 7, 14-23)
- To live in a joyful, illuminated, and illuminating way requires reducing the number and intensity of your self-centered concerns. In other words, work to become less egocentric, egotistical, and narcissistic. (Mk 14, 3-9)
- What truly counts is what you do now, and tomorrow. What you did in the past is less important. (Lk 16, 10-12; Mk 2, 15-17; Lk 19, 1-10; Mt 21, 28-32)
- Principles have value only if you act on them. A transformation of the heart and mind is a good beginning. Next we need to express it in our words and actions (Lk 16, 10-12; Mt 12, 36-7)
- In giving we receive. Helping others helps you. (Mt 4, 34; Mt 18, 23-35; LK 10-16)
- Avoid violence, and do not cling to anger or a desire for revenge. Do your best to let go of negativity.(Mt 5, 38-46; Lk 6, 26-36; Jn 7 )
- Even those who have acted bad can repent, and act differently. (Just saying that you repent is of very little use unless you stop acting in injurious ways.) (Mt 12, 36-37; Mt 21, 28-32; Lk 9, 23-26; Lk 11, 33-36; Lk 16, 10-12; Mk 2, 16-17; Lk 19, 1-10; Lk 7, 37-47)
- Forgive others to the fullest extent that you can muster, especially when they wrong you or otherwise act badly. (Mt 12, 25-7; Mt 5, 38-46; Lk 6-37; Jn 7-53)
- In conflicts, whenever possible, reach an accommodation with your opponent rather than going to court about it. (Mt. 5, 21-24; Lk 12, 59)
- A gentle spirit is the state of mind we ought to seek. “Blessed are the merciful . . . and the peacemakers.” (Mt 5, 3-10; Jn 7-53)
- Wealth tends to interfere with living a spiritual life. Wealth and power are worse than useless when your soul is dead and your values change towards greed and possession. (Mt 4, 14; Mt 12, 12-13; Mk 11, 11-15; Lk 9, 23-6; Lk 18, 18-26)
- Let go of your anxieties about material security and wealth. Do your very best today, and tomorrow will take care of itself. (Mt 6, 28-34; Mt 10, 8-14; Lk 12, 13-33)
- Service to others without personal benefit is a path to gaining people’s real respect, and even to becoming a great human being. (Mt 10, 42-44; Lk 10, 25-37)
- Be most generous to those who are in greatest need. (Mt 8, 23-25; Mt 14, 3-9; Mt 12, 41-44; Mt 20, 1-14)
- Your actions speak for themselves. Do not boast about or show off what you have done. (Mt 6, 1-5, 16)
- Avoid seeking honors and others’ admiration. (Lk 14, 2-11)
- Avoid all hypocrisy, in which you pretend to be virtuous and selfless but are really looking for other people’s adulation. (Mt 6, 1-5, 16; Mt 23, 1-7, 23-35; Lk 11, 44-52; Lk 20, 45-7; Jn 7-53)
- Humility is one of the most important virtues. Do not imagine that you are better than anyone else, whatever your station in life and their station in life may be. (Mt 18, 2-7; Lk 14, 2-11)
- Spiritual knowledge emerges from an inward search, not from rules and laws. (Mt 23, 1-7 & 23-35; Mk 2, 23-27; Lk 11, 44-32)
- If the spirit and the letter of the law conflict, observe the spirit. Laws are made for people, not people for the law. (Mk 2, 23-27; Lk 13, 15-16)
- Honest people avoid secrecy and are transparent in their actions, while the dishonest try to hide and conceal what they do. (Jn 3, 20-21; Lk 6, 41-2; Lk 11, 33-6)
- Most people cover their ears because they don’t want to hear; they close their eyes because they don’t want to see. Teaching through parables bypasses these ways of distracting and subverts the avoidance of truth. It makes it easier to understand the truth we exclude from our own life.(Mt 13, 10-15; Lk 10, 25-37))
- “Keep me and my teachings in your mind and heart,” Jesus reminded those who heard him.“Peace is my parting gift to you. Set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears.” Jn 14, 20-27)
Anyone who follows these teachings lives a Christian life. Whether Jesus was the “son of God” in a literal or semi-literal sense, or simply a very enlightened spiritual teacher, is less important for the believer than to follow the path itself. It is very hard to live a genuine Christian life, because it is often counter-intuitive to the way we learn to survive in our world. Interestingly, one can argue that the teaching of Jesus aims to restore a child-like state in us. How can we be human and preserve a state of innocence and trust ? In reality, we live in societies that teach us that social status depends on different skill-sets. If we want to succeed in a worldly sense, we have to become competitive, and – in capitalist societies – even greedy to the point of being narcissistic. But this means from a Christian point of view that we don’t truly act in the best interest of ourselves. If one thinks that the choice is between what is good for me and what is good for you, the perspective of Jesus has been lost. Solidarity becomes an after-thought, because people by-pass each other while they engage in self-preservation.
It is hard to imagine what a truly “Christian” society would look like. In theory, it makes sense that societies should be build on a foundation of humanity, solidarity, and peace, but in practice, the implementation of religious states always failed. Today we define humanity as a “bundle of rights” that citizens can demand from their governments, but this seems to be a difficult path as well. What do you think? You are welcome to leave comments below.