The Gospel According to Jesus (1) - Stephen Mitchell


What is the gospel according to Jesus? Simply this that the love we all long for in our innermost heart is already present, beyond longing. Most of us can remember a time (it may have been just a moment) when we felt that everything in the world was exactly as it should be. Or we can think of a joy (it happened when we were children perhaps, or the first time we fell in love) so vast that it was no longer inside us, but we were inside it. What we intuited then, and what we later thought was too good to be true, isn't an illusion. It is real. It is realer than the real, more intimate than anything we can see or touch, "unreachable," as the Upanishads say, "yet nearer than breath, than heartbeat." The more we deeply we receive it, the more real it becomes.

Like all great spiritual Masters, Jesus taught one thing only: presence. Ultimate reality, the luminous, compassionate intelligence of the universe, is not somewhere else, in some heaven light years away. ... It is always right here, right now.

There is such thing as nostalgia for the future. Both Judaism and Christianity ache with it. ... I don't mean to make fun of the messianic vision. In many ways it is admirable, and it has inspired political and religious leaders from Isaiah to Martin Luther King, Jr. But it is a kind of benign insanity. And if we take it seriously enough, if we live it twenty-four hours a day, we will spend all our time working in anticipation, and will never enter the Sabbath of the heart.

When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he was not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday appear. Hew was talking about a state of being, a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows of our world. It is possible, he said, to be as simple and beautiful as the birds of the sky or the lilies of the field, who are always within the eternal Now. This state of being is not something alien or mystical. We don't need to earn it. It is already ours. ... The rich especially have a hard time reentering this state of being; they are so possessed by their possessions, so entrenched in their social power, that it is almost impossible for them to let go. Not that it is easy for any of us.

The portrait of Jesus that emerges from the authentic passages of the Gospels is of a man who has emptied himself of desires, doctrines, rules - all the mental claptrap and spiritual baggage that separate us from true life - and has been filled with the vivid reality of the Unnamable. Because he has let go of the merely personal, his personality is like a magnetic field. Those who are drawn to him have a hunger for the real; the closer they approach, the more they can feel the purity of his heart.

What is purity of heart? If we compare God to sunlight, we can say that the heart is like a window. Cravings, aversions, fixed judgments, concepts, beliefs - all forms of selfishness or self-protection - are, when we cling to them, like dirt on the windowpane. The thicker the dirt, the more opaque the window. When there is no dirt, the window is by its own nature perfectly transparent, and the light can stream through it without hindrance.

... People can feel Jesus' radiance whether or not he is teaching or healing; they can feel it in proportion to their own openness. There is a deep sense of peace in his presence, and a sense of respect for him that exceeds what they have felt for any other human being. Even his silence is eloquent. He is immediately recognizable by the quality of his aliveness, by his disinterestedness and compassion. He is like a mirror for us all, showing us who we essentially are.

... "Is it not time," Emerson asked, "to present this matter of Christianity exactly as it is, to take away all false reverence for Jesus, and not mistake the stream for the source." We can't begin to see who Jesus was until we remove the layers of interpretation which the centuries have interposed between us and him, and which obscure his true face, like coat after coat of lacquer upon the vibrant colors of a masterpiece. ... I understand how difficult even the thought of this may be for some Christians. It is always difficult to let go of our pieties, those small, familiar, comfortable alcoves which we enter when we need to be consoled or reassured that the world is safe.

The focal point of a great spiritual Master, the point from which his teachings begin, tells us something important about him. Lao-tzu, like his fraternal twin Spinoza, begins with the vision of wholeness, the current of perfection that flows through all things, the God beyond God. The Buddha begins with the mind; he shows us, with infinite compassion, how to see through our neuroses, into the face we had before our parents were born. Jesus begins with the kingdom of God in the heart. His teaching have such a deep moral resonance that they take us beyond the realm of the moral and make righteousness seem like the most beautiful thing on earth. What is required of us is to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Not "behind": "with."

But few people are ready to enter the kingdom of God. So Jesus has a second focal point: forgiveness. If Lao-tzu's teaching is a circle, Jesus' is an ellipse.

People who are familiar only with Christianity among the great world religions don't realize how surprising this emphasis is. Other great Masters teach forgiveness, to be sure. But for them it is a secondary matter. When we center ourselves in the Tao, surrendering our own will to the will of God-or-Nature, when we purify our mind of the desires and aversions that arise from primal ignorance, then eventually, without any intention or effort on our part, we become the kind of person who finds it easy to forgive personal wrongs.

When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.

Why did Jesus place such emphasis on forgiveness? Perhaps partly because he felt that this was the most important lesson the people of his time and place needed to learn. But I think there was another reason. An insightful psychologist will notice that many of her patients are confronting, at a more acute stage, issues that she is currently confronting in herself. They are drawn to her as to a relatively clear mirror, and the mirroring is mutual: in them too she can see herself. Even a great Master teaches what he needs, or once needed, to learn.


The Gospel According to Jesus (2) - Stephen Mitchell


The emotion that informs Jesus' teaching about forgiveness is so intense, so filled with the exhilaration of forgiving and being forgiven, that it must have come from a profound personal experience. I would like to feel my way into this experience by examining some hints that the Gospels give about his position in the original holy trinty: the father, the son, and the mother.

The first thing we ought to realize about Jesus' life is that he grew up as an illegitimate child. On this point traditional Christians and non-Christians can fully agree, because even those who believe in the virginal conception don't believe that the angel Gabriel appeared to everyone else in Nazareth, to assure them that Mary's child had been fathered by God. ... In English, "the son of Mary" gives no idea of the phrase's connotation in Aramaic or Hebrew. In Semitic usage, a man was normally called "[name] son of [father's name]"; if he was called "[name] son of [mother's name]," it indicated that his father was unknown and that he was illegitimate. ... That is why in my version of the Gospel I have translated ho huios tes Marias - "the son of Mary" as "Mary's bastard" (it is impossible to know exactly how crude an insult the Aramaic would have been). ... If someone wished to choose the most difficult starting point for a human life, short of being born diseased or deformed, he might well choose to be born illegitimate. In the ancient world, both Jewish and Roman, illegitimacy was considered one of the most shameful of human conditions. ... For people living in the first century, then, whether they were Jews, pagans, or Christians, it was inconceivable that an illegitimate child could grow up to be a decent man, much less a prophet or a great spiritual teacher. ... Mary may have been the most loving of mothers, and Jesus himself was no doubt an unusually gifted and joyful child; but even so, the atmosphere of public contempt and erosion must have felt like an attack on his soul. When we imagine such a beginning, our admiration for him can only increase.

It is remarkable what an opposite and complementary shape the life of the Buddha had. He was born the son of a king, and in order to become himself, he had to overcome the difficulties that arise from being rich, all the temptations of luxury and power, the camel-and-the-eye of the needle syndrome. We can see the respective beginnings of these two great men as opposite ends of the spectrum that is the human condition. Together, their meaning is that no life is so sheltered or so shamed that it can't be transformed into a vehicle of God's grace, a vessel filled with the deepest charity and wisdom. ...

We can use different metaphors to describe the experience that changed Jesus. It is the kind of experience that all the great spiritual Masters have had, and want us to have as well. Jesus called this experience entering the kingdom of God." We can also call it "rebirth" or "enlightenment" or "awakening." ... Awakening doesn't necessarily mean arriving at full consciousness: the dreams are gone, but we may still be sleepy, and not truly alert. Or, to return to the image of sunlight passing through a window: the area that has been suddenly wiped clean of selfishness and self-protection - desires, fears, rules, concepts - may be the whole windowpane, or it may be a spot the size of a dime. The sunlight that shines through the small transparent spot is the same light that can shine through a whole windowpane, but there is much less of it, and if someone stands with his nose pressed to one of the other, opaque spots, he will hardly see any light at all.

Two examples. First, Paul of Tarsus, the greatest and yet the most misleading of the earliest Christian writers. It is obvious that Paul's experience on the road to Damascus was a genuine and powerful one. Who can deny the sunlight streaming through his famous praise of love in First Corinthians? And there are a number of other passages where his mind and heart are transparent. But Paul came to his experience with a particularly difficult character: arrogant, self-righteous, filled with murderous hatred of his opponents, terrified of God, oppressed by what he felt as a burden of the Law, overwhelmed by his sense of sin. In terms of the metaphor, his windowpane was caked with grime.

There are things I admire about Paul: his courage, his passion, his loving concern for the Gentiles, his great eloquence, the incredible energy with which he whirled around the Mediterranean for, as he thought, the glory of God. But in a spiritual sense, he was very unripe. The narrow-minded, fire-breathing, self-tormenting Saul was still alive and kicking inside him. He didn't understand Jesus at all. He wasn't even interested in Jesus; just in his own idea of the Christ.

Forgiveness is a sign pointing us toward that kingdom. We asked Jesus, How shall we live? He says, Love God, love your neighbor. We ask, What is that like? He says Let Go. Letting go of an offense means letting go of the self that is offended.

... Jesus doesn't mean that if you do condemn, God will condemn you; or that if you don't forgive, God won't forgive you. He is pointing to the spiritual fact: when we condemn, we create a world of condemnation for ourselves, and we attract the condemnation of others; when we cling to an offense, we are clinging to precisely what separates us from our own fulfillment. Letting go means not only releasing the person who has wronged us, but releasing ourselves. A place opens up inside us where that person is always welcome, and where we can always meet her again, face to face. ....

... This is the vivid experience of everyone who lives in harmony with the way things are. What does it mean to say that when we are at one with the Tao we are forgiven? As soon as we make a mistake, we become aware of it, we admit it, and we correct it, on the spot. Thus there is no residue.

... 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 nonjudgement, if he hadn't first, somewhere in his depths, forgiven Mary.

... If this story gives us no historical information, it can nevertheless serve as a symbolic reminder of how we must come to peace with parents, lovers, friends, and enemies, and with the most difficult, unlovable parts of ourselves. The more fully we accept them and thus let them go, the more light we allow into our hearts.