American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition

Back to the American Unitarian page

The Central Teachings of Jesus and the Church's Failure to Make Them Central


Steve Jones

Atlanta, Georgia


"You tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others." Matt. 23:23

The religious leaders of Jesus' time tithed mints and strained gnats as part of their faith. Odd by modern standards, but there was nothing wrong with their scrupulous performance of such laws. There was, however, something wrong with their inattention to the "weightier matters of the law." Religious as they were, they majored in minors and minored in majors.

Much of Christendom throughout the centuries has been afflicted with the same wrongheaded sense of priorities. We have long been enthusiastic for our own mint-tithing equivalents. But all too often, we miss the heart of our Lord's sayings.

Christ's teaching had a distinct center. It was not about having a dramatic conversion experience, or knowing the Bible, or being justified by faith alone, or having sound theology, or learning how to get into heaven, or any of the things that denominations and movements so underscore.

The emphasis that surpassed all others was the kingdom of God and how we should live in light of its approach. No other theme in his sayings overrides this, particularly in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Scholars have argued about whether Jesus understood the kingdom of God as a Jewish-style messianic reign over the earth or an imperceptible reign of spiritual goodness in human hearts. I will leave that debate to them. Few of us have the letters or the resources to prove one side over the other.

Having said that, there is no ground for debate concerning how Jesus called us to live within the context of that kingdom. We must love God with our whole hearts and our neighbors as ourselves, forgive seventy times seven, esteem ourselves servants of all, humble ourselves as little children, love our enemies, repay evil with good, become peacemakers, turn the other cheek.

The gospels brim over with such sayings. Clearly, they are central to what Jesus was about and what he wanted his disciples to be about. He called us to a dispositional love, humility and innocence.

I am not here talking about the austerity that passes for "holiness" in many traditions. Frequently, that is more about abstaining from certain proscribed things and censuring those who fall short. The way of Jesus is approachable, full of agape and compassion. The earliest church walked this way and turned the world upside down.

Before long, however, the center of Christ's message became increasingly peripheral. As philosophy began to exert its sway over the churches, Christians became primarily concerned with the ontological nature of Jesus Christ and intricate explanations of the Godhead. At the same time, many abandoned the sweetness of the Christian life to become severe ascetics.

The obsession with Plato and Aristotle hung onto the Christian church for more than 1,500 years. Belief become increasingly complex, a maze of conjecture and esoterica. No longer was faith a simple conviction that made someone a follower of the Lord. Now it had entailed the confession of metaphysical propositions hatched in the minds of men with far too much time on their hands.

The Sermon on the Mount, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Paul's Love Chapter spiritual statements rich with beauty and simplicity gave way to such sterile sentiments as this:

"Since Christ has two natures, we hold that he also has two natural wills and two natural energies. But since his two natures have but one hypostasis, we hold that it is one and the same person who wills and energizes naturally in both natures ... and moreover that he wills and energizes without separation but as a united whole." (John of Damascus, Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 3:14)

By this time, the language of calculus had triumphed over poetry and parable. Mercy, grace, compassion, gentleness was ebbing before a Christianity that bore little resemblance to those words that "the common people heard gladly."

Thankfully, there were exceptions. Francis and Clare of Assisi, Thomas Kempis and others kept the light burning, even while the institutional church was preoccupied.

The much-admired Reformation did little to restore an emphasis on Jesus' sayings. Luther did not stand up and thunder about the need for peacemaking or our obligation to overcome evil with good. Far from it. Calvin did not major in gentleness and forbearance, nor did Zwingli exalt mercy. They oozed hatred of their enemies, forged alliances with the state, championed war and persecuted those who dared disagree with them.

And has the modern church regained that which was lost? Some men and women have kept the simple precepts of our Lord central, thank God. But often the ideals expounded from today's pulpits are less than matters of first rank in the teaching of our Lord. When did you last hear a sermon on the hazards of accumulating "treasures on earth"? Or the need to bless those who curse us? Or our obligation to shun ostentatious displays of religion and practice our piety in secret?

When did anyone last hear a preacher declare that unless we forgive others, God will not forgive us? Or that unless we are merciful, we will not find mercy? Likewise, certain stories of Jesus receive meager attention. The Sheep and the Goats is one. It pictures a judgment in which our care of the needy is the final standard (hardly an orthodox idea, but straight from the mouth of Jesus just the same).

Others compromise the sayings of Jesus by espousing a "manly" variety of faith. They snort at gentleness and peaceableness as feminine traits. Many Christians express far more devotion to the American military than to Christ's imperative to be "harmless as doves." On their church signs they post, "Pray for our troops." All well and good. But never do we see, "Pray for our enemies," or, "Pray for the terrorists," yet this radical love is the very thing that Jesus said distinguishes us as "the children of your Father in heaven." (Matt. 5:44-45)

We watch movements and denominations rise up centered upon a truth they deem neglected. Sometimes these are good things, but rarely are they the most critical things. What sect is organized for the purpose of showing mercy? Or turning the other cheek? Or giving a child a cold cup of water in Jesus' name? Or prefering others over ourselves? Or judging not, lest we be judged?

Human nature has not changed. We still tithe mints, dill and cummin while de-emphasizing teachings of the highest order.

So what is the antidote to this condition? For one thing, we ought to restore the primacy of Jesus' sayings in the gospels. If this means taking some of the emphasis off his Passion and placing it instead on his teachings, so be it. The church at times so magnifies the end of Jesus' life that it nearly renders the life itself an addendum.

But Jesus was not just filling up time waiting for his death and resurrection. He came to give us life as much by his words as by his wounds.


2007 American Unitarian Conference