THE ZEN OF JESUS
A Review Of
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS
A New Translation And Guide To His Essential Teachings
For Believers And Unbelievers
Trade Paperback, ISBN 0-06-092321-0
310 pages, $14.00
Christianity can pose more troubling questions than answers. The idea that a Supreme Being sacrificed his own son to forgive our sins seems an incomprehensible non sequitur, while the theory of eternal life only through Christianity, and the casting of sinners and non-believers to Hell, seem the antithesis of Jesus all-encompassing forgiveness of nearly everyone. Perhaps more troubling than these theoretical matters is the practical history of organized religion in most any form as a pattern of repression and control. Consider the stratification of classes among the Hindus, Christian persecution of Jews, wars between Catholics and Protestants, Muslim holy wars against infidels, Christian crusades, Jewish mistreatment of Palestinians, and Islamic terrorism against the world.
You might not dispute basic principles of fairness, honesty, and truth, but even these can leave an unstable foundation for viewing the world in Darwinian terms, where, in the pressure cooker in which we live, humans often seek good choices but make bad ones, and as many or more humans simply take the view that an advantage should be won at most any cost.
A surprising change in perspective can be found in Stephen Mitchell s The Gospel According To Jesus: A New Translation And Guide To His Essential Teachings For Believers And Unbelievers. Jim Harrison has described it as A masterpiece of immense power and permanence. But Mitchell s book is not evangelism, a revival, a play for organized religion, or about being born-again. His book begins with Thomas Jefferson, who said:
In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.
He begins with Jesus as the bastard son of Mary and reaches this conclusion in part because the Bible refers to Jesus as the son of Mary, while in the Aramaic language a man was referred to as the son of his father, not the son of his mother, unless he was a bastard. As Mitchell states, it is impossible to know exactly how crude an insult the Aramaic would have been. He adds:
I don t think that we can fully appreciate who Jesus became unless we realize the overwhelming difficulties he must have had as an illegitimate child in a small provincial town, which one has to assume was fairly harsh and moralistic when it dealt with such matters.
Mitchell argues that Jesus illegitimacy and youthful experience of shame and separation allowed him to understand and bless and take within the folds of his teaching the outcasts of the day beggars, lepers, prostitutes, the prodigal son, an adulteress, sinners of all sorts people who remain outcasts today. While many in these positions might well turn bitter toward the world, Jesus is remarkable in that the core of his teaching is about compassion and forgiveness. Like the Buddhists, he taught that we must open up our own hearts and forgive ourselves first, and then to forgive others and let go of their offenses completely.
Jesus most profound and moving statement on forgiveness is, again, the parable of the Prodigal Son. There is no explicit mention of forgiveness in it. But its point is obvious: the father s heart has always been open. When he runs to embrace the younger son, he is not doing anything; he is simply expressing what he has always felt. And once the son returns, he doesn t have to do a thing to earn his father s forgiveness. Forgiveness is already fully there, in the embrace, before the son can even open his mouth to beg it.
Contrast this with the loyal son s reaction bitterness over his father s open willingness to take the prodigal son back. The parable provides the perfect example of Jesus teaching how one should be and not be. Mitchell argues that lessons in forgiveness were not new to Judaism but that Jesus parable took them to greater clarity and depth. But teaching is one thing, learning and applying are another. Jesus himself could not always apply it well. His own family, when they heard of his teaching, said he is out of his mind. In another part of the Gospels, his mother and brothers come for him but can t reach him because of the size of the crowd and so send a message they want to see him. When he receives it, he says:
Who are my mother and my brothers? And looking at those who sat in a circle around him, he said, These are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.
And when he returns to his hometown
Perhaps the best example of this is the adulteress brought before him to be stoned. As Mitchell explains, this story no longer holds the power it once did, for in Jesus time it may have been considered a crime greater than murder.
But if we are to feel the issue as a first-century Jew would have felt it, it would be more appropriate to imagine the scribes bringing forward a man who has just raped and murdered a six-year-old child. How would we react if in this instance, too, Jesus said, Let whoever of you is sinless be the first to throw a stone at him?
While we may be 2,000 years removed
from Jesus, we have not advanced all that far morally or spiritually (if at
all), for we still have the death penalty, and there s no question what would
happen to the child-rapist and murderer in
Mitchell points out that that this parable is placed in the Gospels just before the trial and crucifixion, as if it is Jesus last teaching, and as if he has finally come to grips with his illegitimacy and has now forgiven his mother.
In the story of the adulteress, Jesus is brought face to face with a woman who symbolically and psychologically stands for his mother. She too has committed adultery, and he is being asked to judge her. Since our attitudes and actions toward people of the opposite sex are a reflection of our unconscious attitudes toward our parent of the opposite sex, I feel that Jesus couldn t have treated the adulteress as he did, with love and absolute nonjudgment, if he hadn t first, somewhere in his depths, forgiven Mary.
Mitchell also argues that this open-hearted ability to forgive was misinterpreted by the early church and has continued to be misinterpreted today. When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, it was taken to mean a promise of heaven in the afterlife, and the early church preached, and still preaches, that Jesus died for our sins; and instead of absolute love and forgiveness, the church preached, and still preaches, that one s soul is condemned to damnation unless saved by a belief in Jesus. Nietzsche considered the concept of Jesus dying for our sins a form of sacrifice he called a ghastly paganism. Thomas Jefferson was more critical:
truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling
themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of
a system of fantasy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in
his genuine words. And the day will come
when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in
the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of
Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we
may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these
Mitchell quotes similar arguments by Emerson and Tolstoy. What he turns to is that heaven and hell are not places of eternal bliss or damnation but states of mind. Hell is the world of torment that humans create for themselves and for one another out of their own greed, hatred, and ignorance, while heaven is here, lived in the present with an open-heart. Mitchell quotes Steindl-Rast as saying:
There is a parallel here to Buddhists striving for enlightenment while at the same time affirming that each of us is enlightened from the beginning.
This gets to the
core of Mitchell s book that Jesus, like all great teachers, including the
Buddha, taught his followers a certain state of being, a way of living at ease
among the joys and sorrows of our world, and that the love we all long
for in our innermost heart is already present. Mitchell is not the first to make this
connection to Buddhism and notes that Thoreau made a similar comparison. Perhaps the best example is when Jesus called
the children to him, recognized their natural trust and intelligence, and said,
Truly I tell you, unless you return and become like children, you can t enter
While children, like adults, hold human flaws so innate that Christianity developed the concept of Original Sin, Mitchell argues that Jesus teaching points to the child s presence, trust, openness, love of play, and capacity for wonder. As the English poet William Blake once said, opening his window to show a guest a group of children at play, That is heaven.