The Teacher of Nazareth

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is from the Christian scriptures, the gospel attributed to Matthew, chapter 5, verses 38-42:

“38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. [NRSV]

[Additional readings, not included here due to copyright restrictions, were two poems by Derek Walcott titled “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, Part II.”]

SERMON — “The Teacher of Nazareth”

When I was about four years old, I remember asking my mother who Jesus was. Who knows what had started me thinking about Jesus. In my generation, most Unitarian Universalist four year olds didn’t hear about Jesus in Sunday school, because the educational theory current at the time held that four year olds really couldn’t understand Jesus except as some kind of mythical figure like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. Maybe I had heard about Jesus from one of the other kids in preschool.

In any case, I have this vivid memory of standing in the kitchen asking my mother who Jesus was, and she gave me what I now realize was the quintessential Unitarian Universalist answer to that question, for that generation. She said, Jesus was a great teacher, perhaps the greatest teacher who had ever lived. I remember finding that answer quite satisfying. Being a Unitarian Universalist kid, I had absorbed the fact that Jesus wasn’t God, but I needed to know what kind of human he was. And since I knew my mother had been a teacher for a dozen years before she married, and her sister had also been a teacher, I felt comfortable with the idea that Jesus was a human beings somehow like my mother and my aunt.

I still think of Jesus primarily as a teacher; but my views are not widely shared in American culture today. Many Americans claim he was a part of God, and while some of those people might admit that Jesus was a teacher, they understand him to be an authoritarian teacher who was teaching us how to worship him as a part of God. Many Americans dismiss Jesus out of hand, and while they might admit that Jesus was a teacher of sorts, they would say that he was too authoritarian and his teachings are no longer relevant to us here and now. I believe it would be very helpful in today’s America for us religious liberals to reclaim Jesus as a human teacher whose teachings were not authoritarian but were designed to make us think for ourselves; that might be one of the biggest contributions

And what better place to start than some of the best-known of Jesus’s sayings, the ones we heard in this morning’s readings. Supposedly, these sayings came from a longer sermon called “The Sermon on the Mount.” The story goes like this:

When Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested, he left Nazareth, his home town, and went to live by the Sea of Galilee. There, he began to attract followers, fishermen at first. He traveled around teaching in synagogues, and performing faith healing. Crowds began to follow him, although perhaps most of them were following him because of the rumors that he was a faith healer. In any case, at one point the crowds became so large, Jesus went up on a mountain and sat down, and those following him came up and sat down, too. And, so the story goes, he began to speak at length, giving what later became known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”

Did it really take place in exactly this way? Probably not. Scholars think the Sermon on the Mount is more likely to be a collection of material — some sayings of Jesus that were passed down by word of mouth, along with other material that later writers added in. Therefore, when we read what purports to be the Sermon on the Mount, we are probably getting a few things Jesus said, along with lots of others things that later people thought he should have said, or even things that later people wished he had said or wanted him to have said. But of all the things he was reported to have said in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, there are a few things that he probably actually did say; and what we heard in the reading today is quite likely to have been things Jesus actually said [according to the Jesus Seminar and others].

So let’s look at this morning’s reading, bit by bit, and see what kind of teacher Jesus was.

First of all, in this passage Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” What a crazy thing to say! What on earth does Jesus mean, “Do not resist an evildoer”? Of course we are going to resist evildoers! Evil is, well, evil, and we have to resist evil if we’re not going to let it get the upper hand. In fact, that’s one of the things I like best about the whole Jewish tradition. Unlike, say, Buddhism, which has a millennia-long tradition of ignoring tyrants and despots and such-like evildoers, the greatest figures in the Jewish tradition all resist evildoers: Moses stood up to Pharoah, all the prophets stood up to the injustices of their times. What is Jesus saying here? Is he saying that Moses was wrong? This is crazy talk.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s see what he says next: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” Sounds like more crazy talk, doesn’t it? Imagine if someone came up to you and struck you on your right cheek: you are not going to stand there and make your left cheek available to your assailant; you are either going to fight back, or run away. But Jesus is saying, do neither of those things. Do not run away. Do not strike back. Stand your ground, and present your left cheek for your assailant to strike. It’s really a pretty provocative act. An utterly crazy thing to do, and I’d never do it. But maybe one way to deal with violence is not to turn away, not to hit back, but to witness it with open eyes, because violence thrives on secrecy and deception.

Let’s look at what crazy thing Jesus says next. He says: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Think about this for just a minute. Most of the people Jesus was speaking to would be wearing two pieces of clothing: a coat over a cloak. If Jesus were living here today, he would have said something like this: “If anyone wants to take your shirt and trousers, give him your underclothing as well.” In other words, Jesus is saying, don’t just give one article of clothing, give all your clothing so you are standing there naked.

This I consider to be an example of a joke told by Jesus. Bible scholars call this kind of joke a “case parody.” It’s a parody of a familiar scenario leading to a ridiculous conclusion. It’s exactly the kind of thing that really good teachers use all the time. It’s funny, and it makes you think. It breaks through your regular categories of understanding, and helps you to see the world in an entirely new way. Of course, it’s also ridiculous, like something out of a Woody Allen movie. It’s crazy-talk.

The talk doesn’t get any less crazy as Jesus continues: “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” In those days, the Roman soldiers could force you to carry their gear for a mile, when they needed a break. It was a kind of political oppression that made people hate the Roman Empire. Jesus is saying, when you are forced to go one mile by one of the hated Roman soldiers, don’t stop at one mile. Keep walking, until you have gone two miles. More crazy-talk; crazy, that is, until you start thinking about it. If you go that extra mile with that Roman soldier, maybe he will begin to see you as a person with volition of your own, instead of just a faceless person to be ordered around. And if you walk that extra mile with the Roman soldier, maybe you’d start to see him as another person instead of as the embodiment of an oppressive government. Maybe it’s a kind of joke, but maybe the joke shows you that you can take charge of your own destiny, maybe even when you feel disempowered and humiliated.

Next Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” We lived outside Chicago last year, and I’d head in to the city once a week to go to museums or just get a shot of culture. There were homeless people everywhere, and Chicago being Chicago they weren’t at all shy about asking for money. I’d see homeless people on every block. No way could I have given them all some money, there were just too many of them. Well, I mean, yes, I suppose I could have given them all money, but as it was I limited myself to giving at least a dollar to one person every time I went in to Chicago.

Crazy-talk. Obviously, Jesus was making a joke. Only this time, maybe the joke doesn’t sound so funny, because you know what, I should have given something to every person who begged from me when I went in to Chicago. I should do the same thing whenever someone begs from me here in downtown New Bedford. It makes me realize that no one should have to beg for money, ever.

We could give money to everyone who asks for it. We could cooperate with the Roman soldier — or, in our time when fractious hate-filled partisan politics fill the air, we could think of our political opponents as people just like us, instead of demonizing them. We could parody unreasonable requests, turning them into a joke by stripping down to the buff. We could stand in unblinking witness of violence, refusing to let it escalate or to let it be hidden away.

We could do all those things, but we’re not going to. I especially want to say that if someone is indeed hitting you, please get help — call the cops, talk to a doctor or a minister, call a hotline — remember, Jesus did not know about domestic violence or rape hotlines, and remember that Jesus was a fallible human being who was probably not aware of domestic violence as he should have been. Nor are we going to do any of the things that Jesus tells us to do. However, while we are not going to turn the other cheek, just by saying that Jesus has made us think.

Dr. Martin Luther King was one of the people who got to thinking about Jesus’s teachings. He re-interpreted the idea of turning the other cheek so that it became non-violent action. It wouldn’t be such a bad world if everyone thought more like Dr. King. And that’s kind of the way Derek Walcott thinks in the two poems by him we heard this morning [“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, Part II”]. Calling Newark, New Jersey, a holy place, as Derek Walcott does, that’s crazy-talk; but it makes you think, and maybe you wind up thinking that it’s true. That down-and-out guy on Sixth St., wearing the black overcoat and carrying methylated spirits? — he’s one of the Magi, he’s one of the sacred people. Not literally true, but poetically true.

Jesus taught by using some crazy examples, but he did not necessarily mean for us to take his examples literally. He didn’t give us literal precise answers to cover every eventuality. If we let him, Jesus can lead us to some deep understandings about the world, about what it means to be fully human.

The problem in today’s world is that people try to take Jesus literally. They try to reduce the teachings of Jesus to the lowest, simplest, easiest-to-understand set of rules and regulations. I am speaking here of fundamentalism in all its guises: the fundamentalism of the religious right that allows hate back into the religion of Jesus; the fundamentalism of a pope who claims that Jesus was against abortion even though abortion is never mentioned in the Bible; the fundamentalism of those who would dismiss the significance of Jesus’s teachings because they don’t approve of the teachings of fundamentalist Christians.

One of Jesus’s basic, fundamental, and most important teachings was, I believe, quite simple: and that was that nothing he had to teach was simple; that you can’t reduce truth to a few easy sentences, or to a short creedal statement. Jesus was teaching us that we have to think more deeply, feel more deeply, we have to become more fully human. He was a teacher who used poetic truth to make us think. That’s what we tell our four-year-old Unitarian Universalist kids about Jesus. Let’s tell the rest of the world, too.