He said, “How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? It’s like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow.” Mark 4:30–32
Jesus of Nazareth wrote nothing, and the records of his life and teaching are fragmentary, repetitious and heavily edited by the early Christian church. The historical Jesus after whom researchers have quested is in truth very nearly lost to sight, and indeed would seem to be of only marginal interest if Jesus was not what St Paul claimed him to be – the Son of God, sacrificed for our salvation and uniquely raised from the dead. As an historical character, he may be of some little interest because he seems to have been so much of an outsider to power structures yet challenged those structures in a particular way. But so what? Seeing him as such an interesting historical character would not make him matter to us in anything remotely like the way he matters to followers of
’s Christian religion; we certainly could not worship him. But perhaps there are other ways in which he might really matter to us, ways in which he can be of genuine significance in our lives. Perhaps to live a life informed and perhaps transformed by Jesus you don’t need to be a Christian. St Paul
The central claim of Pauline Christianity is that salvation is uniquely available though faith in Jesus Christ. Any evaluation of Jesus that does not turn on his unique status as Son of God, the once-and-for-all nature of his sacrificial death, and his Resurrection cannot regard the historical Jesus and his teaching as being indispensable for salvation. Others, and not only religious teachers let alone Christians, have taught in a similar vein and have led courageous lives; we did not need someone to rise from the dead to be able to hear similar teaching and heed similar examples. If we can’t take notice of such teaching and example from whichever direction it might come, we are unlikely to learn much from the Christian Jesus. It’s not calling him ‘Our Lord’ that matters but whether we learn what matters in life, whether from him or from others. Jesus may not be indispensable but he may yet have a transformative role in our lives.
In the Christian account, the transformation available in Jesus Christ depends on two elements: first, on the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Son of God, and second on our believing that that death and resurrection is able to save us from eternally miserable lives of sin. And to that account the Pauline tradition adds that while this faith will change how believers look at life and how they behave, merely changing your outlook and behaviour, even if it could be done without this faith, would not transform, would not redeem, the essential ‘you’. And it is this transformation of the essential ‘me’ that so many of us long for, not necessarily because we are miserable sinners but because our lives do not seem to us to flourish as they could. We sense that there is something more to life than what we have hitherto been able to enjoy, and we may already have discovered that some of the more obvious ways of seeking that something more – money, maybe, or power or luxury or whatever – don’t in the end satisfy.
The teaching of Jesus as it is recorded in the gospels – especially the Beatitudes, the parables, and the Our Father prayer – is not an exhaustive guide to how to discover the means of transformation, but it certainly sets out some of the main principles. Although it is in the line of the prophetic tradition of the Jews, it is more clearly directed at individual flourishing, and is not concerned with the survival of the Jewish nation as such. Over the course of almost two thousand years, that seed of teaching has grown vastly through the experiences and reflections of innumerable people, by-no-means all of them Christian. Not infrequently of course this has resulted in ideas and actions that pretty obviously run counter to some of the more reliably transmitted sayings of Jesus, but the tradition rooted in the Jesus teaching has nevertheless helped many individual lives to flourish and through them has enriched humanity at large, and it continues to do so. This great growth of the tradition cannot be imagined away; we can’t get back to the original gospel in all its supposed simplicity, and even if we could we’d surely find it was not immediately helpful in dealing with many of the issues that face us. No doubt Jesus himself would have been astonished by many even of the most precious ideas that have grown out of his teaching; I rather think he would have been less astonished to discover that as individuals grow through their experiences and reflections they have come to understand flourishing in different ways. But whatever he himself might or might not think about the tradition, if that tradition has positively shaped or transformed our lives, I don’t think it’s too much to say that we owe our flourishing in considerable part to him.
We can’t know whether the life of the world would have taken a radically different turn had Jesus not provided the seed that grew into the tradition that has informed so many of the finer aspects of our modern life. But facts are facts: thanks to Paul, who neither met Jesus nor knew his teaching, and who projected onto him ideas that he would certainly have found strange, it was the Jesus teaching as it was collected and edited largely by Paul’s converts that provided this valuable and prolific seed. You don’t have to think Jesus was God to see the truth of this, and not believing that Jesus was God is certainly not a good reason for rejecting out-of-hand the tradition that has grown from the seed of his teaching. What would be a good reason would be finding a different tradition that, for you, offered a more accessible route to transformation, flourishing and fulfilment. And the man who said that ‘the Sabbath was made for humanity not humanity for the Sabbath’ would no doubt have rejoiced that you had found such a path, without worrying very much about which map you were using. Which is probably why Jesus has come to be honoured not only by two billion Christians, but also by a billion-and-a-half Muslims, and many of the world’s billion Hindus, as well as by many others too.