Seldom has a great master come into the world with such an outwardly commanding and heroic role as Jesus. His mission was not only to deliver new statements of eternal truth around which he had to create a new tradition. It was also virtually to wrench old traditions (both practices and attitudes) in a completely new direction.
A bold and powerful self-affirmation
Jesus Christ, even among great masters, was exceptional in his mission, and in his need to affirm his own importance to that mission. Sometimes he spoke in terms that, from anyone who had attained a union with God less perfect than his, must surely have seemed almost embarrassingly boastful and arrogant. He said, for example, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” *
Jesus’ self-affirmation did not indicate any lack of humility. He had no ego of which to be either proud or humble. Jesus came, however, with a particular expression of the eternal truths, and it was necessary for him to focus people’s high spiritual aspirations in himself as an instrument of divine grace. Otherwise, the many schools of thought that were rampant in his day would have diluted his message and made it seem merely another “school of philosophy,” from whose teachings people could select as they chose.
Reading his words in the Bible, one is nonetheless surprised at how powerfully he affirmed the importance of his own mission on earth. Repeatedly through the New Testament we find Jesus referring, without the slightest hesitation or reticence, to himself. Sometimes he spoke of himself as the “son of man;” sometimes, as the “Son of God.” It was, however, necessary for him to speak in that way. Very little valid spiritual tradition remained among the Jews of his time. Few would have been accepted his new expressions of eternal truth had he declared them self-effacingly.
A way-shower and conqueror of unknown territories
The age Jesus lived in was a hard one. He had to survive a public mission in a rough, dogmatic, and intolerant society. Never did he hesitate to “thunder” when the occasion called for a divine rumble. To those who like their saints “soft and cuddly,” Jesus would have been—shall we say?—an embarrassment. Indeed, to some people he must have seemed glaringly offensive!
It is, indeed, perfectly understandable that the self-assertiveness with which Jesus so often spoke would have seemed offensive to the unenlightened rabbis of his day. They were, in their own opinion, the supreme authorities in Judaism. If Jesus were to appear and teach in the same way on earth today in any country in Christendom—not as himself, but as someone unknown—I venture to say that almost every priest, pastor, minister of religion, and every other sort of prelate would probably consider his bold self-assertion quite as outrageous as did the Pharisees.
To those at the top of any social ladder, Jesus might well have seemed “pushy” and “a bit over the top.” In fact, he was “pushy.” It wasn’t himself he was pushing, of course, but divine Truth and God. He had come as a way-shower, a road builder, and conqueror of unknown territories. The more restrained and socially approved way of expressing oneself, always with tactful care, was not at all what was needed in his times.
One wonders, even, how the expression — “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” — ever got started. Jesus fitted perfectly the Vedic description of the man of God, as Paramhansa Yogananda quoted it in Autobiography of a Yogi: “Softer than the flower, where kindness is concerned; stronger than the thunder, where principles are at stake.”
A “firebrand revolutionary”?
Certain modern writers have claimed that Jesus Christ was a firebrand revolutionary, citing, among other things, his statement, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace, but a sword.”
Viewed literally, it would be easy to take Jesus’ words as bellicose. Viewed in the broader context of his life mission, we quickly see that he was not issuing an inflammatory call to arms, but speaking thus only to light a fire of divine courage in the hearts of devotees. The conflagration Jesus sought to ignite was a fire of pure love for God, underscored by renunciation of every lesser attraction and attachment.
Jesus’ reference to “sword” was a reference to the “sword” of discrimination, essential for slicing through the chains of outward attachment. He also meant “sword” symbolically, referring to the determination one needs to find God.
As for revolutionary zeal, the only “uprising” he encouraged was to urge people to “revolutionize” their inner, spiritual outlook. Jesus Christ came on earth to inspire people to seek union with God. “My kingdom,” he said, “is not of this world.” Constantly he urged them to seek God-consciousness: “He that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” Christ’s message was that the spiritual path is not for armchair devotees but for spiritual warriors, for those who would embrace death itself, rather than abandon their divine search.
Fiery power, conviction, and courage
Nor did Jesus comport himself like a rabble-rousing firebrand—a suggestion that a few modern commentators have also made. He spoke with magnetic courage, joy, and unshakable faith, but it is very evident from the Gospels (Yogananda, too, corroborated this statement), that Jesus never spoke with personal anger. He could, however, when the occasion demanded it, speak with fiery power and conviction, reflecting the wrath of God, as when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple!
Jesus, as a human being, was joy-filled, loving, and, to an amazing degree, courageous. On the occasion the Jews accused him of blasphemy and were about to stone him, he replied (I paraphrase), “I’ve done all these good works among you. For which of them do you intend to stone me?”
There could be no other explanation than courageous openness to anything, based on perfect non-attachment, in the way he replied. Only such supreme detachment could have made possible his good humor. Think of it: There he was, threatened with disaster by a hostile mob. Could what he said have been due to self-pity? (“Just look at all the favors I’ve done you. Is this your way—sniff!—of showing gratitude?”) Absurd! He challenged them, almost with a laugh!
Small wonder the orthodox Pharisees rejected him as fiercely as they did. One might almost say that Jesus, by his outspokenness, virtually invited their rage, causing it to erupt, finally, in the Crucifixion!
The Sermon on the Mount: “a revolutionary teaching”
Though Jesus himself was no “firebrand revolutionary,” his Sermon on the Mount has been described as “a revolutionary teaching.” And indeed so it was: its summons to live for God alone was uncompromising. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” he declared, “and His righteousness; and all these things [the requirements, in other words, for human fulfillment] shall be added unto you.”
The sermon is the longest single statement by Jesus in the New Testament. It includes some of his most important teachings, including the Beatitudes. Tradition depicts Jesus as delivering this sermon to the multitudes. It is more likely that he was addressing his disciples. The orthodox rabbis of the day were accustomed to the spiritual compromises demanded by worldly people. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount challenged their lukewarm devotion.
That Jesus was speaking to a more intimate group is implied at the very outset of the Beatitudes: “And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him. And he opened his mouth, and taught them.” His statement, “Ye are the light of the world,” would hardly have been directed at everybody. Jesus was addressing devotees whose deep desire was to dwell constantly in the consciousness of God.
Personal sincerity is what Jesus demanded. Jesus wanted to inspire all to seek God with the same ardor he showed, the ardor of dedication to the divine search. His mission was to help those refined souls whose egos were still trapped in limitation, but who desired earnestly to get out of their egos and to know God.
Why Jesus scolded his disciples
If Jesus sometimes scolded his disciples, it was to urge them to deepen their spiritual insight. Thus, when Peter asked him why it isn’t what goes into the mouth, but what comes out of it that defiles a person, Jesus answered, “Are you still unable to grasp these things? Don’t you see that whatever goes into a man’s mouth passes into the stomach and then out of the body altogether? But the things that come out of his mouth come from his heart and mind.”
Peter’s request for an explanation on a question that should have been clear to someone as spiritually developed as he showed how powerful prior conditioning can be. His thoughts wavered between the orthodox Jewish teachings on which he’d been raised and the new statements of eternal truth that were being taught by Jesus Christ.
Jesus seldom, if ever, explained his meanings either to the Pharisees or to the spiritual wanderers. The people of his times, and to some extent even his own disciples, were not ready for teachings that were too far ahead of the general knowledge of their day. It was to his disciples that he clarified them, even when their understanding fell short of his expectations of them.
“The truth shall make you free”
Jesus issued a stirring summons to the highest adventure there is: the quest for truth. By his self-affirmation and example, he challenged everyone to deepen his experience of life until he stands face-to-face with Truth itself. Thus, to Nicodemus he said, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen.”
The challenge Jesus gave us was to make truth our own. “Ye shall know the truth,” he said, “and the truth shall make you free.” By “truth” he meant the intuitive perception of our essential nature, which is one with God.