This is the first in a series of posts I will be writing regarding my thoughts about the Jesus of the Gospels, covering such topics as the things he is alleged to have said, the deeds he is alleged to have done, how his personality in the Gospels is different from how he is represented in movies, art, and so forth.
For the first installment of my Jesus project, I read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and highlighted in green the sayings of Jesus that I consider to be meaningful moral teachings. As an atheist, I wanted to re-examine the teachings of Jesus and see whether I could find anything in his teachings that was relevant to me. Specifically, what I was looking for were things that Jesus said that if practiced in real life made one a better person and/or promoted decency and justice in society.
To my surprise, I did not find very much that I considered worth highlighting. And much of what I did deem worthy is repeated in at least one other Gospel. The version of the Bible I relied upon is the New International Version. Here is what did make the cut:
1. “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them” and “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets to be honored by men.” (portions of Matthew 6:1-2). Of course, I do not believe that one’s charitable works or good deeds should always be kept a secret, because by making good deeds known, the doer can serve as an example to inspire others. But we all know where Jesus is coming from here. He is talking about people who publicize their good deeds because they are really just trying to draw attention to themselves. For example, if Paris Hilton publicly donated $100,000 to an AIDS charity and then proceeded to go on a spending binge, buying a new Ferrari, expensive jewelry and other pricey and useless baubles, she would be a hypocrite.
2. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you will judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2). Former Congressman Mark Foley is probably a good current example of the wisdom of this teaching.
3. “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” (Matthew 12:25). Now the context of this quotation is Jesus responding to the accusation that he is casting out demons because Satan, or Beelzebub, is giving him the authority to do so. But from a practical real life perspective, this quote is valid when people who should be united in a single purpose undermine or turn on each other. There are many examples from history wherein a person who aspires to rule a particular kingdom starts a civil war that ends up weakening the kingdom and making it vulnerable to invasion from outside powers.
4. “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean” (Matthew 15:11) and “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man unclean; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him unclean.” (Matthew 15:17-20).
5. In response to a man’s question about what he must do to lead a good life and get into heaven, Jesus answers “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:19). Now of course, I do not believe in the existence of heaven, but if everyone did as was spoken above, the world would indeed be a better place. Jesus also says in Luke 6:31 “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:20-37 is an example of putting this teaching into action.
6. “Watch out! Be on your guard against al kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15). Pretty much speaks for itself.
But I would also add that these teachings are not original to Jesus. In an upcoming post, I will compare the teachings of Jesus that have validity for me and compare them to the teachings of other religious leaders or philosophers who said the same things either before Jesus or afterwards by those who lived in cultures that were not aware of Christianity at the time. The purpose of the comparison is to emphasize that there are certain universal moral truths that existed in many disparate cultures and that it is these truths that are important in and of themselves, regardless of whether they were spoken by Jesus, Buddha or Confucius. At the same time, as an atheist, I should not discount the teachings of Jesus that have validity for me that also appear in the texts of other religions simply because I do not accept Jesus as some divine savior.