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The Teachings of Jesus

The “Synoptic” Gospels

The New Testament consists of four Gospels, a series of instructional letters, and finally the book of Revelation, an example of a different kind of literature called apocalyptic, or prophetic revelations of the clash between good and evil and the end of the temporal world.

To understand how the Covenant tradition of the Hebrew Bible continues in the New Testament we will concern ourselves primarily with the life and teachings of Jesus, which are preserved in the Gospels. The letters are important as well but incidental to the main thread of the Covenant we have been tracing, so will not be covered here (but the interested reader can consult the Commentary on Romans available on this web site).

The Gospels describe the life and teachings of Jesus. They are a kind of spiritual biography, tracing Jesus’s life and career from his birth to his death, recounting many of his sayings and teachings, and presenting the significance of his life for the world.

The word “Gospel” itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon god spel, meaning “good news,” a translation of the Greek evangelion, from which we get “evangelist,” and also “angel,” messenger, or bringer of news. The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are similar in content and structure and so are called “synoptic” because they can be “seen together” in a clear and close correspondence. The fourth Gospel, John, has a very different style and will be considered later.

It is widely accepted that Mark is the earliest Gospel and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark, as well as other material, as a source. The Synoptic Gospels portray Jesus doing works of healing and teaching in the form of parables, brief allegories containing a spiritual message.

It is likely that Jesus saw himself in the line of the Hebrew prophets. He quotes from Isaiah during his ministry, and Luke tells us that after his baptism he read a passage from Isaiah in the synagogue and then identified explicitly with the prophet. Isaiah was Jesus’s mentor, in spirit if not in actual fact.

Like Isaiah before him, Jesus strongly condemns religious hypocrisy. Some who read only the New Testament receive the impression that the Pharisees were exceptionally hypocritical, far worse than their predecessors ever were. But Isaiah, from the very first chapter, delivers far more stinging criticism of such hypocrisy than does Jesus. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees not because they are any worse than those who came before or after them, but because they are the religious authorities of his own time, and in his time they represented the abuses and excesses that always beset religion once human beings try to organize it. (How easy it is to overlook these same tendencies in ourselves, by using the Pharisees as a convenient target!)

Jesus also follows in the tradition of Isaiah by reviving Isaiah’s message of healing and reconciliation. It was Isaiah (both first and second), more than any other prophet, who stressed that the Covenant still lives, that God and humanity still exist in close relationship, and that God’s compassion and guidance are available in every human life. Jesus had no greater purpose than to teach the reality and availability of the divine Covenant and to demonstrate it in his own life.

Jesus is careful to emphasize that he does not contradict the law and the teachings already received. Rather, his instruction “fulfills” them. How? By making explicit the intention of those teachings.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew) and the corresponding Sermon on the Plain (Luke), Jesus makes clear just what this intention is. It is easy, he says, to love those in our immediate circle: our family, our friends, those who love us back. Anyone can do that. The real challenge is to love those who are different, who don’t necessarily give us anything in return, those in whom we have no personal stake, and even those whom we may consider enemies. In other words, the challenge is to love even in the absence of self-interest.

The other great teaching of Jesus that comes through in these Gospels has to do with the Covenant itself. At first Jesus conceived his mission as directed only towards his own people. Then one day he meets a Canaanite woman who asks him for healing. He treats her with contempt and sends her away, telling her that his mission is to the Jews only. But she persists, and Jesus cannot help being moved by her faith. She is the “different” one whom Jesus comes to love. This woman appears to be God’s instrument showing him how he must expand the scope of his mission and his own perception of its meaning. And so at the end of Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus telling his disciples to bring the message to all the nations of the earth.

The universality of God’s love is expressed also in the Gospel of Luke. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus teaches his disciples that the “neighbor” whom one is commanded to love may belong to a group different from one’s own, and even to a group of people one may have considered one’s enemy. This is Jesus’s understanding of the Hebrew Bible’s injunction to “love the stranger.” God’s love applies equally to everyone.

The Jews were blessed to have discovered the Covenant in their tortured but persistent search for the one true universal God. It is time now to spread the message to the world. God loves all people equally, and the promises of God belong to all.

We have not touched upon Jesus’s passion and death on the cross, and there is much we could say about it. However one understands it, it is clearly a demonstration that God is present with us even in our most extreme suffering, and that God makes this presence known to all who accept this commitment to love, which Jesus has revealed as the Covenant’s true meaning.

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