“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:1)
The questions that people were struggling with in Jesus’ day were in many ways just like the big issues we deal with today – oppression, poverty, inequality, rioting and lawlessness, making ends meet, the future, how to live uprightly – let alone how to stay alive at all.
Israel was under the heel of the Roman Empire – a regime of unsurpassed cruelty, foreseen by the prophet Daniel in one of his night visions as “a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. (Daniel 7:7)
Roman rule of its subject nations was harsh and uncompromising. The presence of its military must have been a continual cloud of oppression on the people – made even worse by by the alien religious beliefs of Rome, and a coinage that displayed the emperor as a god.
Any form of protest or rebellion was stamped out mercilessly, and it was this aspect of Roman rule that the Jewish religious authorities appealed to in persuading Pilate to crucify Jesus.
Roman taxes were levied on a populace already obliged to pay a tax to the synagogue. Under this double burden, many people struggled to eke out a living. In addition, small farms and horticulture were being swallowed up or outmaneuvered by rich landowners who could afford to buy or hire workers. Chicanery and double-dealing were rife in the market-place – neither Rome nor the synagogue elders were even remotely interested in fixing THAT problem.
The Jewish people hoped the Messiah would come on a white horse and lead them in battle to conquer their enemies, like Joshua and Gideon of old. Instead, the Messiah came preaching that change must take place from within the heart.
“Together, the Beatitudes present a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and mastery; they echo the highest ideals of Jesus’ teachings on spirituality and compassion” (Wikipedia).
To many of His hearers, the style of Jesus’ ministry came as a total shock. Indeed, some followers started to fall away when He began to reveal the hard truths of his coming death. You can almost hear ‘the worldly’ saying, “What good is a Messiah who is going to be put to death?”
Yet, in the 2000 years since Jesus proclaimed His message, some of the world’s greatest and most influential humanitarian thinkers and activists have adopted and followed His teachings – Ghandi, Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela.
Their examples, great as they were, have not been enough.
We need to return to the basic tenet of Jesus’ message – change must begin in the heart of every single one of us. It is our individual responsibility – not someone else’s.