What Am I?

The very fact that we are alive leads each of us upon a quest for meaning. Each of us tries to “make sense” out of life — our own personal life and the world in which we live. We seek some understanding of life so we can have an overall framework through which we can evaluate our life experiences and respond in some appropriate way.

The “ups and downs” in life — in our own personal life and in the world around us — can cause feelings of uncertainty. Without some overall view of “what life is all about,” we have no way of dealing with our experiences, especially those sad and tragic experiences we see all around us every day and which occasionally occur to us as individuals.

Without some overall framework or “world view” to help us deal with our experiences and observations in life, we may feel like a little boat, on a large ocean, without a compass to give us a sense of direction.

One day, I watched my five-year-old grandson put a jigsaw puzzle together. First, he found the pieces that went around the edges of the puzzle, forming a frame on four sides. Then he used the frame to help him put the other pieces in their proper places until finally the whole picture emerged.

I believe that a person’s religion or “philosophy of life” is something like a frame that helps a person put the “pieces” of life together in some meaningful way.

In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School. Emerson challenged the young ministers to help people find the answers to two questions: “What am I?” and “What is?”

Emerson’s first question, “What am I?” deals with the very essence of individual existence. Emerson’s second question, “What is?” deals with the meaning of the overall reality in which we exist or “what we are a part of.” The answer that we accept to the second question (that is, how we view the meaning of “what we are a part of”) depends on how we answer the first question, “What am I?”

For example, some people believe that a human being is only a physical organism which originates accidentally and ceases to exist at the time of physical death. If this is the answer that a person accepts to the question “What am I?” then the answer to the second question “What is the meaning of the overall reality of which we are a part?” is simple. There is no meaning.

If the world and human life were never intended to exist, then there is no loss if people destroy each other and destroy the world in which we live. It would not matter how a person lives his or her own life.

Fortunately, most of us realize that we, as individuals, are more than a physical organism. As individuals, we are aware of an “inner self” or “personal consciousness” that exists in our physical body. This is what we refer to when we say “I” or “me.”

This “inner self” or “personal consciousness” has been given many different names. Emerson called it the “infinite soul.” Ancient Greek philosophers called it the “logos” (the literal meaning of “logos” is “word” but Greek philosophers used the term “logos” to mean “mind”). In the New Testament, the Greek word “pneuma” (spirit) is used. Whatever you call it — soul, spirit, or mind — the reality of one’s own personal essence can be perceived or recognized by oneself.

Ralph Waldo Emerson told the young divinity students, in 1838, that churches were failing to help people recognize that the answer to the question “What am I?” is “an infinite soul.” Emerson asked, “In how many churches, and by how many prophets (preachers), tell me, is man made sensible (aware) that he is an infinite soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; and that he is drinking forever the soul of God?”

Jesus, too, had an awareness that the spirit within himself and all human beings is of divine origin. One day, Jesus made the statement, “I and the Father (God) are one” (John 10:30) so the people picked up stones to kill Jesus “because (they said) you being a man make yourself God.” But Jesus replied, “Is it not written in your law (religious scriptures), ‘I said, You are gods’?” Here, Jesus was referring to Psalms 82:6, “I say, ‘You are gods, all of you are sons of the Most High’.” Jesus believed that his spirit came from God in the same way that the spirit comes to everyone. Jesus said, “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and “it is the spirit that gives life” (John 6:63).

Jesus prayed that his disciples “may be one; even as Thou, Father, are in me, and I in Thee, that they may be in us (John 17:22-23).” Whatever unity Jesus had with God, we can have with God and each other, according to Jesus. When we recognize that the spirit that comes from God gives life to everyone, we have a basis for living in unity, or harmony, with each other. Jesus called this unity — “love.”

Recognition of our “oneness” with each other enables us to overcome whatever divides us, whether race, nationality, religion, customs, economics, or anything else. The yearning for a “better world in which to live” seems to be universal among humankind. As a Jew in his day, Jesus believed that this better world, which he called the “kingdom of God,” was “at hand” and becomes a reality wherever God’s law of love reigns in individuals and in human society.

It is important to recognize that the answer to the question “What am I?” is “an infinite soul.” It is the spirit that gives life to everyone and the spirit comes from God.

 

 

What Is Natural Theology?

The word “theology” comes from two Greek words, “theos” meaning “god,” and “logos” meaning “word.” Taken together we have the concept of “words about God” or “knowledge about God.”

Some organized religions claim to have special knowledge about God that has been revealed only to a specific individual or exclusive group in some supernatural way. On the other hand, “natural theology” refers to what we can know about God from natural sources that are available to everyone.

Actually, natural theology does not begin with a study of God but begins with a study of yourself. You are aware of your own individual existence; so you wonder “Where did my life come from?” It is obvious that you did not make any decision or take any action that brought your life into existence. This clearly implies that your life came from a source beyond yourself. We may give this source a name, “God.”

This leads us to the question, “Is the source of life, or God, some unintelligent force that accidentally brought human life into existence?” The answer to this question is “no.” You can find this answer by thinking about what you are and where you are.

First, look at yourself. Your physical body is a complex “machine” consisting of many complicated and interrelated parts and organs that function together in an amazing way. The human body is designed to be as it is. Even more amazing is the presence of your “personal consciousness” (or “individual self”) within your physical body. You are perceiving the world around you from within your particular body. Of approximately six billion human bodies on the earth today, you are in only one of them. Why did your particular “personal consciousness” come into existence at this time in the history of the world? Why are “you” in the body you have, instead of being in another human body? Certainly, you had no part in deciding these matters.

As you think about “what you are,” you will begin to realize that the “source of life” is capable of “designing” a complex and intelligent being — you! It is not logical that an intelligent being (you) could have been designed by an unintelligent and accidental force. We cannot comprehend all that “God” is, but we can certainly believe that God is more that what we are.

Now, think about where you are. At this moment, you are literally standing on the side of a large round rock –called the “Earth” — that is molten on the inside and having a thin crust on the outside. If you were standing on the equator around the middle of the Earth, you would be spinning at 1,000 miles per hour (but slower on other parts of the earth). Also, you are now zooming through space at 67,000 miles per hour in an orbit around the Sun. What keeps you from being hurled off of the Earth and into space as you fly along? Something called gravity. What keeps the Earth in its orbit around the Sun so we are not too close to the Sun (where we would burn up) and not too far from the Sun (where we would freeze)? My conclusion is that this is all designed to be this way. I call the designer “God.”

When Jesus said that the first and greatest “commandment” is for us to love God, I believe that Jesus was talking about “appreciating” God as our Creator. As we think about our own personal existence and the universe around us, it is not difficult to recognize and “appreciate” the reality and power of God. This is the first basic principle in natural theology.

Jesus said that the second “commandment ” of God is that we should love our “neighbor” (whom Jesus defined as everyone). Is it possible for us to discover this “law” of God in ourselves and the world around us? The answer is “yes.” Is there anyone who does not know that it is better to love others than to hate others? I have never met anyone who does not know this. Regardless of nationality, race, gender, age, religion, or anything else, human beings know that love is better than hate.

Knowledge of this “law” of love for others can come from our experience and observation. When I was a university graduate student in a school of social work, we studied human pschopathology and psycho-social development. It is well known that infants who are deprived of love and personal care can be damaged psychologically and even die. It is also well known that anger and hate can cause high blood pressure, headaches, ulcers and mental problems. We can easily observe that love has a positive effect on us and the experience of hatred has a negative effect. Human experience affirms the validity of the law of “love for others.” This is simply the way that God designed us. This is the second basic principle in natural theology.

From natural theology, we can conclude that God has the power to give life, and we have the responsibility to live life as we are designed to live it. Jesus illustrated these natural truths in his parables of the “talents (money)” and the “good Samaritan.” (See essays on “How Can You Love God?” and “Love Your Neighbor.”)

 

The Natural Religion of Jesus

Each of us came into existence through no decision or action of our own. So each of us may wonder, “Why do I exist?” and “How shall I live the life I have?” These are the questions that “religions” attempt to answer.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin word “religio” which has a meaning influenced by the verb “religare” to bind, in the sense of “place an obligation on” (World Book Dictionary).

The World Book Dictionary defines “obligation” as “duty” which, in turn, is defined as “a thing which a person ought to do; a thing which is right to do.”

In other words, religion deals with “how a person ought to live” or what is “right to do.” What duties or obligations do we, as individuals, have in living our lives?

When we look around us, we see many different “organized religions” such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and others. In their attempts to say “how a person ought to live” or “what is right to do,” these organized religions place many different “obligations” on their members. Since these organized religions began at various times and in various geographical locations, none of these religions have been known by all human beings in all places and at all times on earth.

Is there any “religion” which is known by all humankind? The answer is “yes.” It is a natural religion that “places some obligations (duties) on” everyone. How is this natural religion known to everyone, and what are the obligations (duties) that are placed on everyone?

This natural religion has had many proponents through the centuries. The proponent who is best known to me was an intinerant Jewish rabbi (teacher) named Jesus. An “organized religion,” called “Christianity,” has developed over the centuries based on theological theories “about Jesus” but this organized religion has very little to do with the natural religion “of Jesus.” By disregarding the theological theories “about Jesus,” we can discover the basic principles of natural religion in the teachings “of Jesus.”

Jesus was considered a religious heretic by the leaders of the organized religion in his time and place. Jesus was a Jew and his cultural religion was the traditional Jewish religion (an ancient form of what we now call “Judaism”). In his day, Judaism had accumulated a complex structure of religious “obligations” that were placed on Jews. The natural religion of Jesus reduced these obligations to two: love for God and love for neighbor.

Jesus referred to these two obligations as God’s “commandments” (laws) or God’s “word” (truth). Jesus taught that these two obligations are known by everyone because they are planted like a seed sown “in the heart” (Matthew 13:18-23).

Natural religion, as taught by Jesus, is based on these two natural laws that are inherent in human nature. Violation of these two laws by anyone is life-destructive. Obedience of these two laws is life-creative. This is known through human experience.

What Jesus meant by “love for God” and “love for neighbor” is defined by Jesus in his stories called “parables.” Jesus believed that it was his mission, and ours, to establish the “kingdom of God” on earth. Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” to refer to the rule of God’s laws in the lives of individuals and in human society.

We should note that the “gospel” that Jesus preached was, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). In his “gospel,” Jesus said nothing about “saving” anyone by Jesus’ death (the “gospel” which is preached today in trinitarian churches). Obviously, Jesus’ death had not occurred at the time he asked people to “believe in the gospel.” Jesus’ “gospel” (good news) was about the “kingdom of God” on earth. This was the only “gospel” that Jesus knew.

The so-called “gospel” heard in trinitarian churches today was developed by church councils over a period of four centuries. These councils modified the theology of Paul, a man who never claimed to have seen or heard Jesus except in an alleged “vision” after the lifetime of Jesus. Paul was a Jew who interpreted Jesus’ crucifixion as a human sacrifice to God to atone for the sins of humankind. At the time when Jesus and Paul lived, a “ram without blemish” was sacrificed in the Jewish temple as a “guilt offering” to God as an atonement for sins. Paul used this as an analogy to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrifice to atone for sins. (Romans 5:6-10; Ephesians 5:2).

Jesus taught that God required no sacrifices to atone for sins. Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’.” (Matthew 9:13). Here, Jesus is quoting the Hebrew prophet Hosea who claimed to be quoting God: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).

The theological theory that Jesus sacrificed his life, as a substitute for us, to atone for (pay for) the sins of humankind is called the “substitutionary theory of the atonement.” This theory, which was adopted in trinitarian Christianity, is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus made it very clear that God forgives us if we repent of our sins and we are willing to forgive others who sin against us (Matthew 18:23-35; Luke 11:4; Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 6:14-15; Luke 15:11-24).

It is important to know what Jesus meant by love for God, love for neighbor, repentance, forgiveness, and the kingdom of God on earth. These are key concepts in the natural religion of Jesus. Jesus explained the meanings of these concepts which I will present in this Web Page. In my view, life becomes more understandable from what we can learn from these teachings.

Love Your Neighbor

The way that God, our Creator, intends for us to live is known by every human being. How God intends for us to live is called God’s “will” or God’s “law.” Jesus referred to God’s law as God’s “commandment” or “word.” Jesus taught that it is God’s will or intention for us to love our “neighbor.”

When asked which is the “greatest” of God’s commandments, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

What does it mean to “love your neighbor.” Love means “to value” or “to appreciate.” We love whatever we believe is valuable or has “worth.” Our love for other persons is shown by our respect or appreciation for their “value” or “worth.” According to Jesus, respect for others is demonstrated by doing to others as you wish others would do to you (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31). This is known as the “Golden Rule.”

Jesus taught that it is God’s will, or law, for us to love our “neighbor.” In response to the question, “Who is my neighbor,” Jesus told the parable we call “The Good Samaritan,” as follows:

“A man was going down from Jeruslem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half-dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he (the priest) saw him (the wounded man) he (the priest) passed by on the other side (of the road). So likewise a Levite, when he saw him (the wounded man) he (the Levite) passed by on the other side (of the road).

“But a Samaritan, as he jouneyed, came to where he (the wounded man) was; and when he saw him, he (the Samaritan) had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him (the wounded man) to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day, he (the Samaritan) took out two denaii (money) and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”

“(Then Jesus asked,) ‘Which of these three proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He (a lawyer) said, ‘The one who showed mercy on him.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’ (Luke 10:30-37).

In this parable, the man who was robbed and beaten was traveling “from Jerusalem to Jericho” (two cities in Judea). The implication of this geographical location is that the man was a Jew (from Judea). The man who showed compassion on him was a Samaritan. This is significant because Samaritans and Jews generally did not like each other because of racial and religious differences. Each considered the other to be an “enemy.”

The fact that a Samaritan had compassion on an “enemy” suggests that we should have compassion on anyone who is suffering, even those we consider our “enemies.” This seems to be supported by Jesus’ teaching, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

To “love your enemies” has always been a teaching that is hard to accept. We usually consider our “enemies” to be those persons who have done something wrong to us or to someone else. To “love your enemies” does not mean that we should accept their wrong behavior. On the other hand, we sometimes consider others to be our “enemies” simply because they are “different” from us. This is a mistake. But regardless of why we consider others to be our “enemies,” we must always be ready “to do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). We must always be ready to have compassion on anyone who suffers, even our enemies. We must not respond with hatred toward those who hate us.

Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Of course, one of the “neighbors” in the story was the man who was suffering and needed help. But the primary example of a “neighbor” in the story was the Samaritan who had compassion and helped the suffering man. Anyone who demonstrates compassion by helping others is a “neighbor” whom we should love. The race and religion of that “neighbor,” or other identifying characteristics, do not matter. Persons are to be judged solely on how they treat others.

Jesus taught that it is God’s will, or law, for people to love each other. Any failure to love others is disobedience to God’s will or “law.” Disobedience to God’s law is called “sin.” We seldom hear the word “sin” today but it means “failure to love.”

The parable of the good Samaritan is important because it shows us what it means to disobey God’s law of “love for other persons.” In the parable, we see two kinds of “failure to love.”

The robbers who robbed and beat the man demonstrated an “active” failure to love by causing the man to suffer. The priest and Levite demonstrated a “passive” failure to love by being indifferent to the suffering of the man. To cause human suffering or to be indifferent to human suffering are both “failures to love,” and therefore “disobedience to God.”

How Can You Love God?

In the time of Jesus, the Jewish religion placed many obligations or requirements on the Jews. These obligations, or commandments, came from the Mosaic law and the teachings of the Hebrew prophets. Jesus tried to make religion simple and understandable by explaining that there were only two basic commandments from God.

Jesus said that these two commandments were, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all of the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Jesus explained what “love your neighbor” means in the parable of the good Samaritan. Love for your neighbor means to not cause human suffering and to not be indifferent to human suffering. It means to be compassionate and try to relieve human suffering whenever possible. Jesus defined “neighbor” as everyone, even those we consider our “enemies.”

It is easy to understand how we can “love our neighbor.” But what does it mean to “love God?” What does the word “God” mean?

Since the life we have, as individuals, came to us through no decision or action of our own, we know that life comes from some Source beyond ourselves. In ancient religions, the original Source of life or the One who created the world was viewed as the “ruler” of the world.

In paternalistic cultures, this “ruler” of the world was viewed in the male gender and called “God.” In maternalistic cultures, this “ruler ” of the world was viewed in the female gender and called “Goddess.” This is why some religions worship a “God” and others worship a “Goddess.” The words “God” and “Goddess” both mean “ruler.”

In the Jewish culture, which was paternalistic, the “ruler of the world” was viewed in the male gender as a “King” or “Lord.” Jesus referred to God as “Our Father who is in heaven.” Jesus used the term “kingdom” of God to refer to wherever God’s “rules” or commandments were obeyed. [I will discuss the meaning of the “kingdom of God” in another essay.)

We may refer to the creator and ruler of the world as “God,” “Lord,” “Goddess,” “Father,” or any other term but we should always remember that these are human terms that should not be taken literally. The Source of life is beyond description. For my purposes, I will use the word “God” and I will refer to the “reign of God” as the “kingdom of God.”

Now back to the question: What does it mean to “love God?”

The word “love” means to “appreciate” or “respect.” How can we show our respect for God?

Jesus answers this question in his parable of the “talents.” The word “talent” refers to an amount of money. So I call this the “Parable of the Money” (Matthew 25:14-30), as follows:

“For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

“He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So too, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.

Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him,’Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’

And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. ….And cast the worthless servant into outer darkness; there will men weep and gnash their teeth.”

In this Parable of the Money, the servants (I will call them “employees”) are loaned various amounts of money (“to each according to his ability”) to invest and earn a profit for their master (whom I will call the “employer”). Two employees were “faithful” in investing the money and they were rewarded by their employer.

But one employee made a feeble excuse for not investing his one “talent” by claiming that his employer was unfair (“reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow”). The employee ignored the fact that it was his duty to invest what had been entrusted to him in order to produce something more. The employer provided the money to invest and it was the employee’s job to do the “sowing and winnowing.”

The employer took away the “one talent” from the unfaithful employee and threw him out into the night.

In the parable, the first two employees did the best they could with what they had been given to invest. The employee with five “talents” produced five more, and the employee with two “talents” produced two more. Both employees received equal approval from their employer.

In life, human beings receive various amounts of time, abilities, and opportunities for investment. A person can complain that he or she did not get a fair share, and just refuse to use whatever that person has received. We see individuals who become “drop-outs” in life. They waste their time and abilities, blame others, and wallow in self-pity or bitterness.

The failure to invest one’s own life as God intends is disrespectful to God. This is clearly a failure to “love God.” The only way we can show our love for God is to use our time, abilities, and opportunities as God intends for us to use them.

So how does God intend for us to use our time, abilities, and opportunities? It is not a coincidence that Jesus connected God’s commandments to “love God” and “love your neighbor.” These are inseparable. These laws are two sides of the same coin. The only way we can show our love for God, our creator, is by investing ourselves in something that is helpful to others.

Jesus preached the “gospel” (good news) that the “kingdom of God” is “at hand” (here and now) for those who discover and follow God’s natural laws of love for God and neighbor. Jesus stated his mission in his prayer to God, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). And Jesus calls us to follow him in this mission. Life has meaning when we use it as God intends.

 

 

The Kingdom Of God

The basic message from Jesus is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14).

This message has two parts. The first part is what Jesus called the gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” The second part is the response to the gospel that Jesus called for people to make: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

What did Jesus mean by the term “kingdom of God?” We find clues to the meaning of this term in Jesus’ parables (stories). Almost two-thirds of Jesus parables refer to the kingdom of God. (Note: the writers of the books of Mark and Luke use the term “kingdom of God” and the writer of the book of Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heaven.” Both terms refer to the same thing.)

One of Jesus’ parables is known as the parable of the “sower.” We should examine this parable first because Jesus considered this parable the key to understanding all of his other parables. When the disciples of Jesus asked him to explain the meaning of the parable of the sower, Jesus replied, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all of the parables?” (Mark 4:13).

The parable of the sower is given by the writers of Matthew (chapter 13), Mark (chapter 4), and Luke (chapter 8).

The following is the parable according to the book of Matthew:

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:3-9).

When the disciples asked Jesus to explain the parable, Jesus said:

“Hear then the (meaning of the) parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand (accept) it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what is sown along the path.

“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for awhile, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.

“As for what is sown among the thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and delight in riches choke the word and it proves unfruitful.

“As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:18-23).”

The “seed” that is sown is called the “word of the kingdom” (Matthew), or the “word” (Mark), or the “word of God” (Luke). Jesus uses the term “word of God” to refer to the “commandment of God” (Mark 7:9, 7:13) or God’s laws. According to the parable of the sower, the “word of God” is sown “in the heart.” God’s laws (commandments) are known intuitively, or naturally, by everyone.

Jesus described himself as “a man who told you the truth which I heard from God” (John 8:40) but Jesus did not make any exclusive claim to “hearing” God’s truth. Jesus said, “It is written in the (Hebrew) prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God’(Isaiah 54:13). Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45).

According to Jesus, all people are taught the truth by God, and those who “hear” (pay attention to) and “learn from” (accept) the truth are attracted to the teachings of Jesus because “my (Jesus’) teaching is not mine, but His who sent me; if any man’s will is to do His will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God, or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:16-17). “For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has Himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49).

Jesus taught that God’s two basic commandments can be summarized as “you shall love God” and “you shall love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:37-39). Jesus refers to God’s commandments as the “word” of God (Mark 7:9; 7:13). Although the parable of the sower teaches that the “word of the kingdom” or the “word of God” is known by everyone, each person must choose whether or not to accept this truth and put it into practice in one’s own life.

In the parable, Jesus gives four examples of how individuals respond to the “word of God” which is “sown in the heart.”

Some individuals reject God’s law of love completely, like a hard path that will not allow seeds to take root. They let the temptation to do evil devour the truth, like birds devour seeds on the hard ground. In Jesus’ day, the temptation to do evil was personified as the “evil one” or the “tempter.” (This personification should not be taken literally but the temptation to do evil is real.)

Other individuals initally accept God’s law of love in a superficial way, like the thin, rocky soil receives the seed, but when it becomes difficult to follow the way of love, they abandon it. They let the truth wither away.

Other individuals let God’s law of love get entangled and choked out by materialistic concerns.

However, some individuals accept God’s law of love and produce the fruits of love — good deeds — in various amounts. In the parable of the sower, the “word of the kingdom” is sown “in the heart” but only “he (she) who hears and understands (accepts) it; he (she) indeed bears fruit” (Matthew 13:23).

In addition to the parable of the sower, Jesus gave a number of other parables about the “kingdom of God.”

Here is the parable of the hidden treasure:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys the field” (Matthew 13:44).

According to the parable of the hidden treasure, the kingdom of God is valuable ( “like a treasure”). It is contained within something (“it is hidden in a field”). It can be discovered (“a man found it”). And finally, the kingdom of God can be acquired at some cost (the man “goes and sells all that he has and buys the field” to possess the treasure).

Here is the parable of the pearl:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45).

According to the parable of the pearl, the kingdom of God is valuable, “like a pearl of great value” and it can be acquired at some cost, the merchant “sold all that he had and bought it.” The parable of the pearl adds the point that the kingdom of God can be found by searching, the “merchant was in search.”

Next is the parable of the mustard seed. It is found in Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; and Luke 13:18-19. The parable in Mark is as follows:

“And he (Jesus) said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade’.”

From the parable of the mustard seed, we learn that the kingdom of God is sown or planted somewhere. It is small in the beginning but it grows, and serves a useful purpose.

Next is the parable of the leaven:

“And again he (Jesus) said, ‘To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened’ (Luke 13:20-21).”

Leaven, of course, is a substance that is put into dough causing fermentation to make the dough rise when baking bread. The parable of the leaven suggests that the kingdom of God is intentionally put into something and it has a permeating influence on whatever it is in.

To Jesus, the “kingdom of God” meant the rule of God on earth. Jesus believed that God’s kingdom would come as God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus taught that it is God’s will, or “commandment,” for us to love God and our “neighbor.” Through his parables, Jesus taught that God’s laws are known to everyone. They are planted like a seed “in the heart.”

The kingdom of God comes, in the beginning, through an individual’s search and discovery of God’s natural laws within himself or herself. The recognition and acceptance of God’s natural laws have an inner influence that permeates the individual’s life.

Although the kingdom of God begins within the individual, it does not end there. The kingdom of God has an “outward” aspect to it. The acceptance of God’s way of love becomes evident in the deeds of the individual. In the parable of the sower, the seeds “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” In the parable of the mustard seed, the plant “grows up and puts forth branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

The kingdom of God is the reign of God’s law of love in individuals and in human society.

Jesus said that the kingdom of God is “at hand.” What did Jesus mean by the term “at hand?” We find the answer to this in a conversation that Jesus had with a Jewish scribe. “The scribe said to Jesus, ‘You are right, teacher, you have truly said that He (God) is one, and there is no other (God) but Him; and to love Him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he (Jesus) said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.'” (Mark 12:32-34).

It is clear that the scribe was “not far from the kingdom of God” because he recognized that God’s basic laws for humankind are “love for God” and “love for neighbor.” The discovery, or recognition, of God’s natural laws is the first step toward the reign of God’s laws in an individual’s life.

Of course, the kingdom of God, or the reign of God’s laws, becomes a reality in a person’s life only when a person chooses to live by these laws. The scribe was “not far” from the kingdom of God because the scribe recognized God’s laws. The next step would be for the scribe to “enter” the kingdom of God by obeying these laws.

When Jesus said that the kingdom of God is “at hand,” he meant that we are “not far” from the kingdom when we recognize God’s laws of love for God and love for neighbor. And the kingdom of God becomes a reality for us when we choose to follow God’s laws as we live each day. The kingdom of God is truly “at hand” for anyone to discover.

 

Repentance and Forgiveness

 

When Jesus preached the gospel, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he called for a response: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” What does “repent” mean?

The meaning of “repent” is found in Jesus’ parable of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11-24) as follows:

“And he (Jesus) said, “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that falls to me (by inheritance).’ And he (the father) divided his living between them.

“Not many days later, the younger son gathered all that he had and took his journey to a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.

“So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.’

“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.”

The parable of the “prodigal son” illustrates the process and meaning of “repentance.”

The process began when the young son recognized his wrong-doing against his father. The son had shown disrespect for his father by squandering the property that his father had given to him.

Next came the son’s decision to turn away from his wrong-doing and confess his sin with an attitude of contrition (feeling sorry for what he had done). The son said to himself, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

Then came the son’s actual change in direction in his life and his confession of wrong-doing (“And he arose and came to his father….and the son said to him, ‘I have sinned….'”).

The son’s confession of sin was made to his father who had been hurt by his son’s bad behavior, and the son was willing to make amends by working as a “hired servant.”

Of course, the father’s response was forgiveness and rejoicing (“for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”).

Dictionaries define “repent” as “to feel sorry for sin and seek forgiveness.” But the parable of the prodigal son shows that repentance is more than this. The process of repentance includes:

1. The recognition of and acceptance of personal responsibility for sin.

2. A sincere feeling of remorse and sorrow for having sinned.

3. A conscious decision to stop the wrong-doing.

4. An actual “turning away from” the sin. This is a change of direction in behavior.

5. A confession of sin and a humble request for forgiveness. The request for forgiveness is made to the one who has been hurt by the sin.

6. An offer to make amends for the hurt that was caused by the sin.

Repentance is not just an intellectual exercise of “feeling sorry” for sins. Repentance involves a “turning” or “reorientation” of one’s life. The evidence of that change is seen in the “fruit,” or how a person lives. John the Baptist told those who came to confess their sins that they must “bear fruit that befits (evidences) repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

The parable of the “prodigal son” also teaches us that we are sinning against God “our Father” if we squander the life that we have received. God expects us to invest ourselves to produce something good in the world.

Jesus said something else about repentance in the parable of the “unmerciful servant” (Matthew 18:23-35) as follows:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents (a large amount of money); and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment be made.

“So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

“But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii (a small amount of money); and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused (to have patience) and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.

“When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.

“Then the lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in his anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.”

Jesus said, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

In this parable, when a servant failed to pay what he owed the king, the servant fell down on his knees and asked for the king’s “patience.” The king had mercy on the servant and forgave him of his large debt. But this same servant refused to show mercy and forgive a fellow servant who owed him a small debt. The king condemned the servant who refused to forgive his fellow servant.

Jesus’ point is clear. If we repent of sins, God will forgive us in the same way that we are willing to forgive those who sin against us. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, Jesus makes this same point: “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4).

The parable of the “unmerciful servant” tells us that God will forgive our sins (1) if we repent and ask God to forgive us and (2) if we are willing to forgive others who sin against us.

Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in a day and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him (Luke 17:3-4).

Again, Jesus said, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

The parables of the “prodigal son” and the “unmerciful servant” teach us something else about repentance and forgiveness. While we should ask God to forgive us of our sins, we should also ask forgiveness from any person who has suffered because of our sin, if that person is available. Repentance and forgiveness are not limited to our relationship to God but, in many instances, can and should take place in our relationships with other human beings.

Jesus said that we should “believe in the gospel” that the “kingdom of God is at hand.” The reign of God is a reality here and now for those who commit themselves to love God and to love their neighbor. How do we know if we are committed to God’s way of love? We know by our experience of “repentance” whenever we fail to love.

If we have chosen to follow God’s natural laws of love, we will experience remorse and sorrow whenever we fail to love. This should lead us to repent (turn away from) such unloving behavior and seek forgiveness. If a person is not committed to follow God’s natural laws, such a person will not feel remorse or sorrow over a failure to love.

Of course, no one is perfect. There will be times when we fail to live by love. But if we are trying to live by God’s natural laws of love, we will always experience repentance whenever we fail to love. The ability to repent is a sign that we “believe in the gospel” (good news) of the kingdom of God.