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Updated: April 1, 2010 20:02 IST

Lessons from the Nazarene

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This is a famous and unusual portrait of Christ by Rembrandt. Photo: Special Arrangement
This is a famous and unusual portrait of Christ by Rembrandt. Photo: Special Arrangement

Jesus’s life is a call to action, asking for a change in our attitude and behaviour.

“But who do you say that I am?”

(Luke 9:20)

In the third century AD, 70 translators worked for 70 days to translocate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek for a population of Jews who lived in Egypt and could read only Greek. In so doing, they favoured the Latin word, ‘testament’ to render the Hebrew word ‘covenant’ (berith). The binding force of a covenant is not a piece of paper. This translatorial choice shifted emphasis away from the emotional agreement to the document, making words more important than the events they described in the Old Testament, and continued to, in the story we see in the first four books of the New Testament.

What a story!

Imagine the depth and quality of the character, and the unity and design in the life of the man before and after whom Time itself is divided. Jesus of Nazareth brought with him into the world of his time, more originality than anyone else. What we need to remember is that Jesus was a Jew. He was not a Christian. His primary work was to remind his own people of the true faith which they seemed to have forgotten or misunderstood.

The land of the Jews was completely under Roman might and the practice of the Jewish religion had decayed into externals, the Living God forgotten in the stench of sacrifices in the Temple. The religious patriotism of the Jews had run so low that whatever was grand and living in the scriptures had been by-passed and the ceremonial elevated to the same rank as the moral.

The synagogue, one of the most efficient spaces of instruction ever devised, had entirely forgotten its true role and become a dry space controlled by men who used their positions for self-aggrandisement, scorning those to whom they gave stones instead of bread. The public conscience was loaded with thousands of interpretations and commentaries.

The Easter message which is usually read as that of life renewed /new beginnings is a silent but vivid example of the grandeur and intensity of the silent and obscure life Jesus led in Nazareth before he opened his ministry. His long years of reticence serve as a model for this impatient age, persuading us to have faith, to prepare ourselves and to recognise the moment when it arrives.

Jesus taught, traveling all over Judaea and Galilee, delivering his good news personally, never bothering to write things down. Occasionally he asked questions, “Have you understood all these things?” “What is written in the Law?” His questions pierce our arrogance and complacency. “What do you want me to do for you?” obliges us to identify our problems ourselves and not flounder in a sea of self-pity, amidst feelings of victimisation, grievances and helplessness.

His disciples and their behaviour too are a lesson for us all. To have been in close contact with such a majestic man for three years, to have received the teaching over and over again and yet to have suffered a breakdown in faith in the last 48 hours of their master’s life is a clear indication that mere contact with the Divine will not bring release moksha/nirvana.

A touch or a look will not ensure union with the Divine. Nor can we be “saved” thus. We have to work on ourselves to improve morally and spiritually and reflect on the messages of the great teachers in order to experience in ourselves the goal of all the revelations. And then live it. Above all, Jesus’ life is a call to action, asking for a change in our attitude and behaviour. His statement, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) bears this out

Twenty centuries is a long time to find out if something has worked. Or is working. Has Christianity been able to save the world from itself? Considering that the worst forms of war and weaponry have come from "Christian" civilisations, not to mention the cruellest theories of racial prejudice based on colour and facial features, there is something very wrong about the way Jesus's teaching has been understood.

The challenge before Christianity today is whether its followers are prepared to honour Jesus. Not merely by praising him and showing up in Church every Sunday thereby claiming they are his followers but by acting out the instructions Jesus left us with. Jesus is the hardest person to follow. His teachings only look and sound simple. Just one of his injunctions -- to bless those that persecute you, would throw thousands out of business because if they blessed and forgave those that had persecuted them and continue to, it would end a whole lot of careers. If you are of an extremely worldly bent of mind, find it hard to acknowledge another's achievement, or indeed what they have done for you, then being a “Christian” is to know lifelong incompatibility with one’s way of life

To go back to the testament and the covenant : Paul of Tarsus, the most successful bearer of Jesus’s message, writing before any New Testament existed, said in his usual forceful way that the new covenant existed in peoples’ hearts, not in written records (2 Corinthians 3:3-6). The Church in Paul’s time had no gospels nor did Paul feel he needed a written record of Jesus’s ministry.

To us in India the inheritors of a powerful oral tradition, the doctrine of the Kingdom of God is peculiarly significant and easy to understand because it is so close to the mahavakya of the Veda: Aham Brahmasmi.

(The writer is Editor-Translations, Oxford University Press (India) and committed to interfaith dialogue)

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