How to Understand Jesus
The figure and teachings of Jesus are too often broken down, adapted, and then shaped to fit people’s own particular needs and desires. Who was the real, walking, talking, preaching Jesus and what lessons can we take from him today?
Almost all spiritual leaders of history are different than what most of us have come to think of them, be it Abraham, Jesus, Mohammad, or Buddha. In the case of Jesus, for instance, it’s known that many cultures have their own version of how he looked. In Africa, for example, he is often portrayed as having African features, whereas in North America he typically has North American features, and so forth. In most cultures his physical visage is made to look like the people of that country.
In truth, his teachings, as with his appearance, are often misunderstood.
To understand Jesus, it is important to understand the environment from which Jesus came. As Alfred Edersheim writes in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, “The Galileans are said to have inclined towards mystical (Kabbalistic) pursuits. Among such people, and in that country, Jesus spent by far the longest part of his life upon earth.”
Jesus descended from a long line of spiritual teachers. Therefore, the focus of his teachings was not so much on the physical practices of religion but more on the inner spiritual aspects. That is why he rejected rote observance of religion. He felt that in his time many who were practicing religion were coming from a place of just that—practice, not a process of inner change. This wrought all kinds of corruption and negative interpretations of religion, spirituality, and the understanding of God’s purpose for putting man on earth.
When you look at it from this view, one of Jesus’ important messages was don’t get stuck in the ritual. If you are authentic in your spiritual work, then you are constantly growing and improving on the inside. Never practice religion simply as an external action. The purpose of it all is to bring internal change to become a better person.
In line with this, therefore, was his great focus on the teaching of love and compassion. It is impossible for a person to call himself spiritual and yet have anger and animosity towards another human being. The core of spirituality is non-judgmental love.
Unfortunately, some take religious teachings, and even Jesus’ teachings, and use it as a platform for separation, looking down on people, or instilling fear and self-loathing. Clearly, one of his overriding messages was the Old Testament concept of “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself.” There is nothing a person seeking spirituality can be doing in their lives that leads to anything different than or opposite from this message. Jesus wanted us to understand that religious practice is here to bring us back to this goal.
If this is truly understood, then love and compassion must lead to tolerance. Through his experience as one who went against the status quo, he was both marginalized and persecuted. As a result, he clearly gained a great appreciation for the importance of holding a space for others who have opposing views. He spent his “Light” railing against intolerance and lack of human dignity for those who are different and to those with whom we very much disagree.
What he taught us is that underlying all our spiritual pursuits must be an understanding of human dignity and tolerance for all people. As Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
During this holiday season, we all have so much we can learn from the life and teachings of Jesus. To be religious or spiritual means a constant process of growing and changing, consistently becoming a better and better person, knowing that none of our beliefs can—nor should they—bring us anything but a growing sense of love, compassion, and tolerance for those whom we love, and, more importantly, for those with whom we disagree.
May all these teachings enable us to experience the great Light and power of this holiday season.