Jesus was divine and human at the same time and had not allowed the former (divine) qualities to control the latter personality. He suffered at the hands of his opponents, endured persecution, tolerated hardships, faced false allegations, betrayal, bore the brunt of public humiliation and insult and died as a martyr for the sake of truth at the altar of the cross. On the third day, he rose from the grave conquering death — a fact that is widely contested- but continues to form the core of Christian faith across the world.
He lived a life of hoi polloi bearing the mark of celibacy, charity and simplicity. He was a man of great mission, completed the task of freeing humanity from its eternal damnation by his sufferings. This indeed heralded an era of grace making it possible to obtain salvation by the confession of his name.
Unlike other oriental monks, Jesus was born in an ordinary artisan family in strange circumstances, with just a modicum of access to education and social privilege. Like Buddha and Mahavira, he started his ministry of spiritual activism with a rigorous meditation, overcoming the challenges posed by the tempter. However, he is sui generis in the annals of history as the existing canonical evidence testify to the fact that he was endowed with qualities beyond human comprehension. He was engaged in his ministry for only a little over a thousand days, and at the age of thirty preached his message in the land of Palestine, the Roman colony of 20,000 sq. km. He was involved, according to his biographers, in 31 conversations with 28 persons on 24 occasions, barring special meetings and gatherings. He is also said to have used 33 parables and a corpus of allusions, metaphors, allegories, parallels and analogies to draw the attention of the people.
As a master teacher he had conveyed his ideas and claims without fear and favour and urged the people to repent from their sins to receive eternal life. In spite of stiff opposition, even to the point of death, he did not compromise with the truth that he preached. It was his sacrificial death that became the source of inspiration for his timid followers to proclaim his message with temerity across the world. He did not teach for the sake of propagating his ideas nor was he interested in founding a political institution. As a Messiah sent from God, he was fully sentient of the fact that the absolute truth must be preached to the last man of Israel.
He had clarity of purpose, sense of commitment and the will to accomplish his task within a given time framework. His primary aim was to declare the message of bridging the gap between man and God which resulted on account of cardinal sin. After identifying the core issue, Jesus adopted different teaching techniques to communicate his concern to the people depending upon its circumstances. The teaching method was predicated on the premise of how the taught would respond to the knowledge provided to them through the process of communication. Jesus deployed different techniques to reach out to his audience depending upon its nature and size.
Jesus always addressed the multitude with great compassion, conviction and concern since they were like sheep without a shepherd who needed immediate supervisory care. He also used different language devices to kindle their moral consciousness. Parables, similes and other literary forms were extensively put into use to elicit their response. In this process Jesus was largely successful in conveying the message of the kingdom of God to the diligent crowd. At the same time he did not mind using parables to communicate the recondite truth concerning the kingdom of God to the common masses. In spite of his repetitions, it seemed that even his disciples failed to comprehend the crux of his message very many times. In his endeavour to reach out to a larger society he never diluted the gospel message and had urged his listeners to count the cost before making up their minds to follow him. Time and again Jesus pressed the point of self-denial and counselled his disciples to walk the extra mile to meet his demands.
As a radical teacher he demanded their unflinching loyalty and indomitable courage to follow him in the midst of ever-growing opposition. Jesus was never interested in gathering crowds, rather his focus was to proclaim the purest form of truth to his staunch enemies as it was by his heavenly father. Saint John the apostle, one of his close associates, offers a pellucid account (John chapter 5-7) of his teaching causing the fall of lukewarm believers at the wayside since they were not able to meet the high standards. Conversely, he was successful in galvanising a small band of his disciples to take on the political might of the Roman Empire through the message of Jesus. Besides, the spill over and the cascading ramifications of his teachings are enough to get his followers to embark on moral revolutions through the proclamation of the message of Jesus.
Jesus persistently proclaimed the fundamental truth in order to contain the pervasive influence of evil forces which indeed became the source for unleashing violence in the name of religion. In his endeavour to rescue the ordinary masses from the clutches of pharisaic dictates, he had to confront the spiritual establishment by pointing to their callousness and hypocritical praxis which was indeed responsible for misleading a vast multitude. The stricture of Jesus about the pharisaic misconduct is a bold attempt which for the first time brought to the fore the deep seated religious chicanery practices for public lampooning, through which he was able to vindicate his moral stand. Saint Matthew offers a clinical account about Jesus’ deprecation of pharisaic double standards (Matthew ch. 23) which exposed the real character to the public. Jesus addressed them six times as hypocrites and once as blind guides. He didn’t mince words and boldly depicted them as “white-washed sepulchres”.
His peroration was primarily intended to engage with the religious authority who claimed to have a moral authority over religious affairs. Knowing full well the consequences, Jesus dared to challenge the Pharisees as he wanted to make their stand clear in the public. In this process of forceful teaching Jesus was able to expose their personal misconduct thereby making known to the public that there is one universal moral standard and it can’t be tailored to suit their will.
Jesus relentlessly opposed every form of moral corruption and called for a major cleanup operation as it was indispensible for the promotion of peace, justice and truth. Jesus had to pay a heavy price for his fearless teachings which in due course restored the link between fallen mankind and the heavenly realm, marking the commencement of détente between man and God in history. Though Jesus dealt with a plethora of issues in his teachings, he deliberately abstained from touching upon political issues as it was not his primary concern. Moreover he also insisted that he had come to this earth to teach what his father had told him to do on the earth. He was simply there to fulfil his father’s mission in the given time. Jesus was also very often provoked to touch upon the subjects of political nature to which he didn’t respond as it was not his concern.
Jesus conducted himself in ways worthy of his calling, never meddled with the concerns of the world and concentrated on presenting the plain truth even while hanging on the cross. Though Jesus touched upon a host of social issues having political overtones, he didn’t show political means to achieve it, rather he wanted to address the fundamental corrupt nature of human beings as it was responsible for the proliferation of misdemeanour. More than his polemics, Jesus was known for the substance of his discourses rather than for their soundness and he had preached all his lifetime patience, endurance, forbearance and never to harm anyone at any time. Socrates opined, “I teach my philosophy not my life”. On the contrary, Jesus taught his life and lived it in consonance with his teachings thereby making philosophy of life synonymous to everyday praxis.
Confucius admonished his followers, “not to do the things to others, which they don’t want others to do to them.” But Jesus urged his followers to do good at all times, even to adversaries with a view to create a conducive atmosphere for the proliferation of human goodwill. The Sermon on the Mount is classic in exemplifying the style of his teaching as it continues to function as a fountain of moral force for the genesis of innumerable socio-political movements which had substantially altered the course of human history in the past two millennia. His ‘beatitudes’ touch every aspect of human life, both in the material and spiritual realms, argues for a self restraint particularly by not engaging in ill thought-out actions for better wisdom to prevail. The concept of ‘goodwill’ as a social capital has the power to expunge the traces of enmity thereby clearing the way for peaceful co-existence. It is better to suffer for a just cause, rather than to register success through suave means. Jesus gave the utmost premium to moral force, calling for a violence-free society.
Jesus as a paragon of comprehensive teaching had used a number of simple natural themes, parallels, contrasts, repetitions and analogies to draw the attention of the people. He communicated complex truth in its fragments in order to generate interest in listeners. Besides addressing large multitudes, Jesus had also taken recourse to other forms of teaching– training, discipling, counselling, interacting, dialoguing and engaging in public activities. These methods were largely adopted depending upon their socio-cultural settings and he was creative in setting the ambience for discourse. As a trainer he was extremely successful in equipping his fledgling disciples for life-changing missions. The method of discipling involved training, rebuking, correcting and demonstration by action through which Jesus moulded the character and strengthened their moral fibre to face the realities of the world . Jesus not only relied on descriptive style of teaching but also adopted demonstration modes for imparting inalienable truths: thus he combined action with rhetoric to capture their imagination.
Payment of tax from the money found in the mouth of the fish; symbolic washing of the feet of the disciples; taking part in the table; dining with publicans and touching the skin of lepers were some of the scintillating actions through which Jesus left an indelible impression on the lives of his followers for emulation. As the good shepherd, he took good care of his sheep who came into his fold. Through advance warning, prayer, antidote and many encouraging words, he empowered them to live up to his call.
Jesus was always sensitive to the needs of others. In spite of his pressing commitments he managed to find time to spend with individuals who needed personal teaching. Cutting across class, gender and community, he was there to offer the assistance of counselling. Nicodemus, member of the ruling council, the Samaritan woman, Simon the Pharisee and Zacchaeus the tax collector and a host of his disciples were the beneficiaries of his teachings. Besides this, through interaction, interrogation and dialogue, Jesus had ministered to a concourse ranging from faithful adherents to radical adversaries by responding to their queries pertaining to the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Central to the concern of Jesus’ teaching was to declare God’s provision for human salvation that will come into its logical fruition, at the suffering and subsequent death and resurrection of Christ. The redemption of humanity is possible in the name of Jesus and whoever believes in his name will not perish but have eternal life. Jesus also stressed the salience of prayer in everyday life and he himself set an example. He taught his followers to pray consistently and never to give up. To drive home this point, he used a volley of parables emphasising the need to pray with faith and humility. The Lord’s Prayer was another legacy which Jesus left for his disciples to practise in their everyday faith life. The purpose of prayer, as Jesus demonstrated, is to derive the power from the Father to meet the standards demanded of him. The concept of Christ’s forgiveness is a jewel in the crown which can only be practised with the help of divine wisdom and His grace. Jesus had demonstrated the virtue of forgiveness even to the point of death through his long suffering and persistent prayers.
Jesus was not only a great teacher but also a powerful enabler who can equip anyone to emulate his standards in all walks of life. He was a man and God of grand vision for humanity who came to serve mankind, and teaching was one of his tasks through which heavenly truth was revealed in its entirety.
In sum, it may be observed that the relevance of the teaching of Jesus is ageless. It has inspired humanity for radical action and it will continue to do so in the age to come. Man may come and go, histories may be written and re-written but Christ will continue to be the centre of attraction in all ages to come.
By Dr. A. Gangatharan
Dr. A. Gangatharan currently teaches History at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi
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Brendon Scott, Bernard, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1989.
O’Collins, Gerald, Jesus: A Portrait, Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2008
Russell, Bertrand, Why I Am Not a Christian (2nd revised ed.), Rutledge Press, 2009.
Sanders, E. P., The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin, 1996.