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Words still radical after 2,000 years

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Dec. 24, 2009 at 10:53 am |
December 24, 2009 11:06 am

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

To the world’s hundreds of millions of Christians, Jesus of Nazareth was far more than – like Buddha or Socrates – one of history’s great teachers of ethics. But what a teacher he was.

Christmas – with its odd jumble of colored lights, nativity scenes, Santa Claus, ancient pagan customs and frantic commercialism – pays vague homage to Jesus’ arrival 2,000-odd years ago. Real appreciation requires dusting off the second-hand pieties and looking precisely at his recorded statements.

Consider the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew, a discourse so radical it remains startling today.

In a Roman world obsessed with dominance, wealth and military power, Jesus taught, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst after righteousness . . . the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers.”

Against the deep-rooted human instinct for vengeance, he taught, “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Nor was it just a matter of not hitting back. “Love your enemies,” he said, “and pray for those who persecute you.” Those words have been hanging in the air a very long time, and the idea of loving enemies has yet to catch on.

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” How many times to forgive? His answer comes later in Matthew: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” In other words, human forgiveness must know no limits.

Materialism? “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth . . .but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” One can only imagine what he would have thought of Christmas becoming the biggest buying binge of the year.

There’s his resounding rebuke to self-righteousness: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. . . . Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

And, of course, what’s come to be known as the golden rule: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them, for this is the law and the prophets.”

Even in predominantly Christian societies, these calls to the better angels of our nature often get little more than lip service. They’re a hard stretch for anyone, but a world that stretched harder for them would be a far better home for humanity.

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