The Humanism of Jesus   

February 24, 2008



The Humanism of Jesus

© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

February 24, 2008

Reading: In Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam

Many of them work so hard at protocol and at traditional fastidiousness that they think one heaven hardly a suitable reward for their labors; never recalling, however, that the time will come when Christ will demand a reckoning of that which he has prescribed, name charity, and that he will hold their deeds of little account. One monk will then exhibit his belly filled with every kind of fish; another will profess a knowledge of over a hundred hymns. Still another will reveal a countless number of fasts that he has made, and will account for his large belly by explaining that his fasts have always been broken by a single large meal. Another will show a list of church ceremonies over which he has officiated so large that it would fill seven ships, while still another will brag that he hasn’t touched any money in over sixty years unless he wore two pairs of gloves to protect his fingers. Another will take pride in the fact that he has lived a beggarly life as exampled by the filthiness and dirtiness of his hood, which even a sailor would not see fit to wear. Another will take glory in the fact that he has parasitically lived in the same spot over fifty-five years. Another will exhibit his hoarse voice, which is a result of his diligent chanting; another a lethargy contracted from his reclusive living; and still another, muteness as a result of his vow of silence. But Christ, interrupting their otherwise unending pleas will ask to himself, “Where does his new race of Jews come from? I recognize only one commandment that is truly mine and yet I hear nothing of it. Many years ago in the sight of all men I promised in clear language, not through the use of parables, the inheritance of My Father to those who perform works of mercy and charity – not to those who merely wear hoods, chant prayers, or perform fasts.”[1]

As we march toward Easter I find myself compelled by the story of the passion of Christ just as I am repelled by dubious theologies about blood sacrifices necessary to appease the wrath of an alienated deity. In the first place we witness the crucifixion of a man caught in the middle of political and religious intrigue, against whom there is clearly no evidence of capital offense. His offense seems to be the declaration that God is love and those who follow God love their neighbors – all of their neighbors with no exceptions – as themselves. Everything else is a footnote. But that simple and radical message has somehow become the basis for a variety of atonement theories, all of which are biblically based, in conflict with one another, and none of which is intellectually satisfactory to the post-modern mind. These theories include the ransom theory where the death of Jesus is a payoff of Satan who holds human beings in bondage; the satisfaction theory where Jesus ritually appeases God by human sacrifice; the moral theory whereby Jesus’ death is an example for the rest of humanity; the penal or penal-substitution theory where God’s wrath is appeased after the infinite sacrifice of Jesus. There are many others, and as I said, none is very satisfactory.

I would like to propose this morning that we hold on to our humanity and the humanity of Jesus, forsaking the speculative and bizarre. Indeed, I submit to you that a humanist approach to the life and teachings of Jesus fosters greater wisdom than sanctimonious dogma. Humanism and Christianity are not mutually exclusive perspectives. In fact, five important Christian humanists come to my mind: Thomas More and Erasmus of the 16th century; Louis Boyer and Jacques Maritain of the 20th century; and Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of the 21st century. If there is a label that best describes me it would probably be Christian humanist, though I have something of a mystical bent in my nature.

I must also say there are many kinds of humanism and I do not have the time this morning to line them all out. What is common among them is a primary focus on the human. Humanists of every stripe begin with the human condition, its potential and limitations, its promise of free will, and the inescapable reality that human beings are creatures of the earth subject to all of the laws of nature. Humanists claim the individual and community as the primary arbiters of history and destiny. Secular humanists reject the notion that human beings are dependent on an external or supernatural power. To their way of thinking there are no supernatural forces that intervene in the history of the earth or her peoples. Its argument with dogmatic and authoritarian religion is its emphasis on a revealed God. Their critique of religion is that it often places itself above human needs and capabilities and is inherently dehumanizing.

Modern humanism is also called naturalistic humanism, scientific humanism, ethical humanism, and democratic humanism. Corliss Lamont describes modern humanism as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Christian humanism is a philosophy and way of life advocating the fulfillment of human beings within the framework of Christian principles.[2] It must be said that some Christians do not hold to a belief in God but others do, though probably not in any conventional sense of that word. I would be one of those folks. I believe that the Way of Christ is the holy ground of human existence and her values are both deeply personal and transcendent.

I believe that it is at the crossroads of ethical ideals and the human condition that we discover the humanism of Jesus of Nazareth. We must begin by recognizing that Jesus’ worldview retained a strong sense of God’s transcendence. We cannot deny that. But Jesus’ understanding of God was not so transcendent as to be otherworldly or dualistic. That kind of thinking came as a result of Platonic influences on Christian thought. The Jewish tradition in which Jesus was formed would not allow him to separate God from this life. The “Master of the Universe” was an intimate reality woven into the structures of everyday experience. The eyes of God’s presence beheld even the fall of the smallest sparrow, but such a God was always beyond definition and not confined to cultic practices. Jesus announced his concern that we “have life and life more abundantly,” without distinguishing between corporeal and spiritual life. Jesus never denounced his Jewish heritage though he took exception to its culture of shame and exclusion. He never defined himself as a Christian and spoken constantly of fulfilling the Law of Moses. Indeed, there is not a single word attributed to Jesus that cannot be found in Torah, including the great commandment to “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and mind and soul; and love thy neighbor as thy self.”

The context of Jesus’ lessons was most often the world of nature or the human community. His examples included the lilies of the field, the mustard seed, and the lost sheep. He reminded us that the kingdom of God is like the Good Samaritan, a woman who searches for a lost coin, or a sower of seeds. According to the teachings of Jesus, God is more at home in the human heart than all of the skies of heaven. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” he said. In fact Jesus had very little to say about heaven or hell. He seemed more interested in the lives of fishermen, women, whores, tax collectors, and children.

The humanism of Jesus begins to emerge in the central importance he gave to human relationships and to the care, healing, and feeding of the human community. In the mind of Jesus we cannot separate the Kingdom of God from our relationships with one another. The human heart is the primary arena of sacred activity and is evidenced in the life of the community. Jesus violated many of the social taboos of his culture to promote the radical interpretation he gave to his understanding that God is found in just and ethical relationships.

In Jesus’ day, as in our own, there were many people who went to the scriptures for their interpretation of religion and holiness. They defined God out of their reading of the Hebrew Bible and its laws. They prided themselves in their strict adherence to the many rules and demands of the Law of Moses. They were like modern fundamentalists who are always quoting scripture to prove their point. Jesus was not a fundamentalist. The wellbeing of human beings always took precedent over scripture. He believed that the scriptures were meant to serve the wholeness of persons.

I am reminded of the fundamentalist seminary student who was dealing with a very difficult personal problem. He decided he would solve his problem by turning to the Bible. It had been his habit to close his eyes, open the Bible, point to a passage and learn the Bibles response to his needs. On this occasion he closed his eyes, opened the Bible and set his finger on the page. Opening his eyes he read, “And Judas went out and hung himself.” Thinking that was not quite the answer he was looking for he decided to give it another try. He closed his eyes, opened the Bible to a new section, and placed his finger on the page. He was not encouraged when he read, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus was not a fundamentalist who believed that scripture took precedence over human relationships. Recall the story of John’s gospel of the woman who had been caught in adultery. She was brought to Jesus who had been teaching in the temple. The angry mob interrupted his lesson. Out of the dust and noise she was thrown down to the stone floor before him. Her eyes were gorged with fear and panic. Her body ached from the rough handling, the shoving, and pinching. Panting, she fearfully raised her eyes to see the large stones in the hands of her accusers. Their fingers massaged the rocks in white knuckled anticipation of righteous indignation.

A shrill voice called out, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such woman. Now what do you say?”

Jesus knew that she was a pawn to entrap him. Would he rightly interrupt the law or blaspheme? She meant nothing to these men, some of whom she had provided her sexual favors. They would use her one way or another. Jesus squatted down and doodled in the dust of the floor with his finger. He then said quite calmly, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” After a long pause there was a shuffling of feet, muttering, cursing, and then the clatter of rocks dropping to the floor. Soon they were alone – Jesus and the frightened woman.

“Is there anyone left to condemn you?” he asked.

“No one, sir,” she replied.

“Neither do I condemn you,” he responded. “Go home and sin no more.”

You see, at that point scripture had no real function. Jesus certainly did not need to defend it. The woman did not need a Bible lesson. She needed transformation.

The humanism of Jesus placed emphasis on human beings and our relationship with one another. Compassion was the ethical imperative that defined his ministry, even with people who violated the religious and cultural norms of his time. He was about the business of giving people a new image of themselves. His constant attention to the marginalized people of society, the pariahs of culture, give evidence that he believed in them. The fact that he constantly put those people above the purity laws of cleanliness gives added emphasis to that fact. He was not concerned that the disciples always washed their hands; or picked corn on the Sabbath because they were hungry; or the fact that he touched or was touched by hemorrhaging women, madmen, or the dead – all considered unclean.

Humanism for Jesus was not a philosophy to debate on a college campus or with a bombastic television personality. Humanism for Jesus was encountering human beings and engaging their lives in hope that they would recover their dignity and take responsibility for their futures. God is with us, the real meaning of atonement, when we treat one another with justice and compassion. This is the essence of the gospel of Jesus and everything else in the religious life of the Christian church is negotiable.

And that is what our good friend Erasmus was trying to tell his monastic brothers and priests of the church. Everything that Christians do in worship and liturgy, prayer and fasting, solitude and song must serve the basic principle of loving our neighbors. If they fail to do so our religious life is folly and we are fools. Finis

[1] Erasmus of Rotterdam, “In Praise of Folly,” The Essential Erasmus, translated by John P. Dolan (New York: Meridian, 1963), pp. 149-150.

[2] Frederick Edwords, What Is Humanism? (American Humanist Association: 1989).