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How Christianity shaped Western Thought (Part 3)

Let’s continue our historical journey for a moment. We know that Jesus was put to death by the Roman Governor of the Province of Judea, Pontius Pilate, between 27–33 AD. We know that after his death, rather than scatter and hide forever, Jesus’ followers spread the message of Christianity across the Middle East, into western Asia in the country now known as Turkey (or Turkei) and then into Europe. The essential Christian message, that we are all equal under God and therefore equally deserving of justice and love, so shaped Western thought that, according to the historian Tom Holland, Western thought is inextricably linked to Christian principles. 

But how do we know what Jesus taught? What’s the historical process of a wandering Jewish teacher on the very edge of the Roman Empire, now having his teaching available across the other side of the planet, 2 millennia later? In other words, how is it that we can read what Jesus taught?  

The process is actually relatively straightforward. Jesus was a master story-teller. He told stories, which captured the imagination. After his death, the first disciples began to re-tell those stories. The oral tradition – the tradition of telling stories, usually with a life-meaning built into them – was particularly strong in the ancient world; pretty much all cultures did it. Fairly quickly Jesus’ stories (his parables) and his sayings started to be written down. St Paul was the first to do so. He wanted to pass on Jesus’ key ideas. His first letter was written about 20 years after Jesus’ death. The other person to start writing soon after Jesus’ death was Mark, as in the Gospel of Mark. Mark wrote his Gospel about 30 years after Jesus’ death, probably using some older written material. Matthew, Luke and John followed later. Matthew and Luke, in particular, copied, as in plagiarised, some of Mark’s work, but also added other parables and sayings of Jesus, which they had come across. If they were doing SACE, both Matthew and Luke would be facing some kind of academic discipline! 

Therefore there are several parables and sayings which appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John had his own sources of Jesus’ stories, so there is actually less overlap with John.  

The saying I want to focus on this fortnight, though, is one of the sayings common to all four Gospels. Even John, with his separate sources of information about Jesus, records the same saying: 

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  

Down through the years, this saying was repeated, probably written down well before Mark then included it in his Gospel, copied by Matthew and Luke, but finding its way into John’s Gospel independently. We have this pearl of wisdom reaching us from the mouth of Jesus, originally spoken in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, translated into the Greek of the New Testament, and then in the 1500s into English. If all these scholars, some of them linguistic geniuses, bothered to write this saying down and translate it, we might find some value in it! What was this wandering Jewish teacher, speaking to us from the first century, trying to tell us? 

One friend of mine, a brilliant New Testament scholar with PhD from Murdoch University in WA, paraphrased this particular saying as follows:  

“Those who want to save their lives for themselves will lose their lives, but those who spend their lives in love will find eternal life.” 

Jesus’ basic message, or one of them at least, was about not being selfish, but dedicating one’s life to others, with love as the guiding principle. It is about being present in the moment and looking at everything and everyone with the lens of love. It is also about being true to yourself – but not in the selfish way, that we so often see on display. Being true to yourself is actually the opposite of being selfish. Self-awareness is the key to all of this: aware of what you are feeling, in the moment, so that you can respond to other people with love. 

There are actually some simple and very practical steps you can take. I think “being present to other people” along with “self-awareness” is the key to all of it. If I think about the people I truly admire, they are those who “present” when you talk to them. When you talk to them and when they talk to you, they are focussed on you. They really listen. They value your contribution. 

That’s how you spend your life in love, by being present to other people. It doesn’t mean you can’t take time-out – actually having regular quiet time is crucial to being able to be present for other people – but it does mean setting aside distractions, so that you can truly live the life that you deserve to live. 

So, my practical examples: I have two for today. The first is particularly relevant for young people: 

  1. Don’t let your addiction to IT rule your life. In my early twenties, I missed out on several opportunities for meaningful engagement with other people, particularly at family events, because I was off playing the latest game I was obsessed with.
  2. Listen to other people as if what they are saying is the most important thing in the world at that moment. Be present to them in the moment. 

If you do that, if you spend your life in love, you will find eternal life. The greatest literary minds of the generations have pondered this ancient saying of a wandering preacher, living on the edge of a long-extinct empire. Somehow, his wisdom survived long after the empire in which he lived fell into dust and ashes. Extraordinary! 

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain