Many people from traditional Christian backgrounds may find this shocking and offensive… that is understandable…for other people, it will feel like a palmful of cold water on your face when you wake up in the morning.
This is how Stephen Mitchell begins his book Jesus,What He Really Said and Didand you might be wondering—what did Mitchell do to offend some and wake up others? Well, he dared to reinterpret the story of Jesus as told in the Bible, retranslating passages from their original Greek into easy to understand, modern-day English.
Mitchell tells us that Jesus grew up much like you or I, an ordinary kid in a small town, who was possibly regarded as illegitimate. Then, at the age of about 30, “he had an extraordinary experience of waking up to the truth.” With this revelation, Jesus became “a man in love with God, who gave himself completely to the acts of human kindness that proceeded from that love.”
Mitchell points out that Jesus never wrote down a single word, nor did his original followers.
It wasn’t until 40 years after his death that his teachings were first recorded on paper in the Gospel of Mark. The other gospels were written at least a decade after that, so while the stories that appear in the Bible may have captured the gist of what Jesus was saying, they’re almost certainly not his exact words.
Mitchell is not the first to retranslate the words in the gospels, a task recently completed by Thomas Moore. You might also know that Thomas Jefferson compiled his own version of the Bible. Believing that the supernatural feats attributed to Jesus were superfluous to his message (and probably invented long after his death), Jefferson cut down the teachings their core essence, only including what he believed were Jesus’s authentic sayings.
Mitchell has done much the same in this slim, 145-page book. He takes select passages, gives us some backstory, and then reinterprets them. The result are Jesus maxims that are familiar but fresh-sounding. What follows are my six favorites, each with a valuable nugget of wisdom to share. (I’ve also included my personal perspective on the “Note” that follows each passage.)
Someone once asked Jesus, “when will the kingdom of God come?” He answered, “The kingdom of God doesn’t come if you watch for it. It isn’t in heaven. It doesn’t come after you die. No one can point and say, ‘It is here’ or ‘It is there.’ For the kingdom of God is within you.”
Note: If the kingdom of God is within us, do we need the church, or any middleman, to help us find it? As Mitchell points out, all any teacher can do is point you in the right direction. As I recently wrote, the secret to life may very well be hidden within us and we just don’t see it.
Another time, Jesus said, “When you light a lamp, do you put it under a basket or under a bed? No, you put it on a lampstand. When you feel God’s love, don’t hide it. It should shine out from your heart and give light to everyone around you. The more love you can give, the more you will receive.”
Note: Many believe that God is love, so feeling the presence of God equates to feeling a sense of love and well-being within. If God is love than love is God.
When you pray, don’t be like the pious, who love to stand and pray in public, so that people will see them and praise them. But when you pray, go into your inner room and shut the door and pray in secret to your Father, and your Father in heaven, who sees what is secret, will reward you.
Note: There is a similar passage that preceded this one along these lines: When you give to charity or perform any charitable act, keep it to yourself. Again, “the Father in heaven” sees what is secret and will reward you.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and everyone who seeks, finds; and to all those who knock, the door will be opened.
Note: The wording in this passage is very similar to what appears in the Bible and is perhaps my favorite Biblical passage. Could such a statement, that God offers us whatever we seek, really be true? I say yes but with a huge caveat—what you ask for must fit into your life path and not only be good for you but for others around you.
If you don’t judge, you will not be judged;
If you don’t condemn, you will not be condemned;
If you forgive, you will be forgiven;
If you give, many things will be given to you.
For the more you give, the more you will receive.
Note; There is a give-to-get quality to this passage with what you do being rewarded in kind. We put out good into the world, we get good back. Truly words to live by.
There are two gates into life, and two paths people take. The gate of selfish pleasure is wide and easy to go through, and most people choose it, but it leads to great suffering. The gate of spiritual practice is narrow and hard to get through, and few people choose it, but it leads to true happiness. Don’t go the way of selfishness. Enter life through the narrow gate.
Note: This is a reinterpretation of the “it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle eye than for a rich man to get into heaven” passage found in Matthew 19:24. I never really understood that passage until reading this.
Mitchell finishes his book with an important reminder that we all should take to heart: We are all the sons and daughters of God, and what Jesus found within himself, we all can find within us. It is just waiting to be discovered. He advises us that:
When you’re able to look inside yourself deeply, you’ll find that the teacher who taught Jesus will teach you. That teacher has no name. It is closer to you than breathing, nearer than your own thoughts.