Easter, despite the exuberance of the season, sometimes saddens me. Why? I think entirely too much has been made of the death and resurrection of Jesus and not nearly enough of his life and teachings. Had it not been for his life in the hills of Galilee, there would have been no crucifixion on Golgotha, and there would have been no myths of resurrection, and no Easter.
We have the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and now Thomas, people who never knew Jesus, each writing from his own perspective, each with a not-so-hidden agenda. But what about the gospel - the good news - according to Jesus himself? We really don't - and can't - know. The gospel pictures of Jesus are a bit like Russian dolls, each one tucked inside another. As we pull them out we don't really know which is the final one. That mystery is forever hidden from our eyes.
But it may be useful to attempt a re-creation of that gospel, though it may say more about us than about him. Such an endeavor does serve to highlight the perennial appeal of the prophet from Nazareth, but we must "beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to (us)."
What follows is a mix of the historically accurate, the actual words of Jesus according to the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who seek the historical Jesus; the intriguing work of Norman Mailer in The Gospel According to the Son, which tells the story in the first person singular; and The Gospel According to Jesus, a poetic translation by Stephen Mitchell. Mixed with this will be my own wishful thinking and what I think might have gone on in his mind as he taught. Here then, the gospel according to Jesus according to Gilbert.
I was of the peasant class, son of a carpenter, Joseph of Nazareth. Those stories of my birth are quite beautiful, except it didn't happen that way. Matthew and Luke had my birth in Bethlehem to make me a descendent of King David, but it was not so - Nazareth was my home. Matthew and Luke asked "how could the Messiah be a poor man with a crude accent? God would not allow it." Apparently being a peasant was just not good enough for them. But that is what I was.
Of my early life I will say nothing, only that at the age when people wonder about their mission in life, I heard the voice of one greater than I, calling me to preach and teach. It was this experience that led me to exchange the carpenter's bench for the thankless role of a prophet of God.
Like the prophets of old - Micah, Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah - I felt that God has whispered in my ear - I had no choice but to respond. My mission was not to be a foreteller, predicting the future, but a forthteller - one who would speak the truth, as I understood it, to the powers and principalities of my day. To myself I prayed that I was telling the truth. There was work to do, and it could not be accomplished on my knees. And so I left home, setting out with no more than a staff, a cloak, my sandals and my mother's tears.
I believed that at long last the promised time of triumph - the Kingdom of God - what you would call the Beloved Community - was at hand. The period of testing and trial was momentarily to pass, the new age to dawn. People must begin living now the way they would live in this Beloved Community to come. Convinced myself, I was able to convince others and they gladly harkened. To those in positions of authority and power, both civil and religious, my words were heretical, an outrage and a menace to be suppressed at any cost. It was not hard for them to persuade the resident governor of the necessity for quenching the blaze I set before it was too late.
And what was my message, my gospel, my good news? I came as a prophet not to destroy the law of God, but to fulfill it. I came not to begin a new religion but to reform the old one. My task was to remind the people that while they were confident they were chosen of God, they had failed to live up to the commandments and to the teachings the prophets had set before them.
The common people heard me gladly because I preached primarily for them - thus upsetting the political and religious hierarchy of my time. While Matthew had me deliver the sermon on the mount, and Luke the sermon on the plain, I was not given to preaching long-winded discourses of the kind you are likely to hear. Instead I taught in short sayings, parables and stories to show my simple listeners how I thought one ought live a life.
The Beatitudes were a collected series of individual sayings. Luke had me say "Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth," but Matthew quoted me saying "Blessed are the poor in spirit," thus spiritualizing my social gospel. My words were for the poor and dispossessed, for then as now the rich get richer and the poor poorer. Then, as now, all was vanity. At home, the tables of the rich would be bountiful, while the poor sat in the stinking alleys of the city.
Yet hear the words of Luke again: Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God. There is a biblical bias toward the poor. Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to gain eternal life? I said, "You know the commandments: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother." And the man said, "Rabbi, all these I have kept since I was a boy." And I looked at him and loved him, but I said, "There is one thing that you lack: "Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me." But when he heard this, his face clouded over, and he went away sick at heart, for he was a man who had large estates.
And I looked at my disciples and said, "Children, how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Wealth is an insuperable bar to entrance into the kingdom. I know that is hard to hear but I must say what conscience demands.
But back to my so-called beatitudes - a good summary of my teaching. Blessed are those who grieve, for they will be comforted. Life is hard, but we are each other's keepers. My healing was of the spirit, not the body. This is a healing all can give.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Not one of us has achieved righteousness, none of us is perfect, we are all on the path.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Let us not be too harsh on our neighbors, for we are more like them than not. Remember when the scribes brought before me a woman who had been caught in adultery and said, "Rabbi, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Moses in the Law commanded us to stone such women to death. What do you say?" I wrote on the ground and then said, "Let whoever of you is sinless be the first to throw a stone at her." And when they heard this, they went out one by one and I was left alone with the woman, and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" And she said, "No one, sir." And I said, "I don't condemn you either. Go now, and sin more." None are without sin. We are all more human than otherwise.
And I also said, blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. Humility is the mark of the religious person. They who exalt themselves will be humbled, and they who humble themselves will be exalted. Why do you see the splinter that is in your neighbor's eye, but don't notice the log that is in your own eye? First take the log out of you own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your neighbor's eye. You see, my teachings are simple - but so hard to realize. It is far easier to celebrate a resurrection than to practice my teachings.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Special thanks are due those who work for justice, which is the only road to peace. The very word for peace "Shalom" means wholeness - wholeness of spirit, wholeness of community. That is what I came to bring.
It becomes very difficult. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for your abusers. That goes against human nature, doesn't it? Yet this is the ethic that is demanded of you if you would be good. When someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well. Only a few could follow those hard words - in your time prophets like Ghandi and King, Dorothy Day and Jane Addams. Violence only begets violence. Love begets love - at least so I believe.
And if you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? After all, even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what merit is there in that? After all, even sinners do as much. But love your enemies, and do good, expecting nothing in return. There are not many who can love so universally - who can love the neighbor near and far - but that is what I urge you to do if you would be religious. As I say, these are hard teachings.
And then you all know my central commandment - the so-called golden rule - treat people the way you want them to treat you. It was nothing new, really, only said slightly differently from Rabbi Hillel who said do not do to others what you would not have them do to you. A simple rule, yet difficult. The simple things of life are the hard things.
Once a scribe, one who wrote down the religious law, said to me, "Rabbi - teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life?" And I said to him, "What is written in the law?" And the scribe said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And I said, "You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live." But the scribe was not satisfied with my answer and asked me, "But who is my neighbor?"
And I told a parable of a certain man, who while traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, was set upon by robbers, who stripped him and beat him and left him on the road, half dead. And a priest happened to be going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And a Levite - a priest's assistant - came to that place and saw him and passed by on the other side. You see, hypocrisy is one of the great religious vices. These outwardly religious men felt it would be unclean to touch such an injured man. But a Samaritan who was traveling that way came upon the man, and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion and he went over to him and bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them, and put him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And on the next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and if it costs more than this, I will reimburse you when I come back.'
Which of these three, I asked the scribe, turned out to be a neighbor to that man? And the scribe said, "The one who treated him with mercy." And I said, "Go then, and do as he did."
You know the story well, I presume, but do you know its deeper meaning? The Samaritans were not just another people to us - they were hated people, foreigners. It was not the pious who rendered help where and when it was needed, but those who were outcasts. I suppose the point of the story is something akin to your belief "in the inherent worth and dignity of every person."
The real Easter miracle that is celebrated the world around does not have to do with the atoms of my body transformed into new life. The universe is made of stories, not atoms. It was not a changed Jesus of Nazareth that is the miracle, but changed disciples who took my teachings into the world. That the world made a new religion out of my life and death was not what I had intended. I had a simple Jewish faith - an ethical faith, grounded in a deep spiritual connection with the one greater than I.
Who was I? The Messiah? Son of God? I don't know. I only know I felt a call to be a prophet of God - to preach and teach the gospel - the good news as I understood it. There were those who heard and heeded what I had to say. I did not intend that people worship me, only that they live the gospel as I tried to understand it. I summed it up in these words, "Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, my neighbors, you have done it unto me." (Matt. 25)
Nothing in the universe is ever lost. Every word we speak, every act we perform, has the potential to continue endlessly, for good or for ill, in the lives of others. So has it been for me; so may it be for you.