When we consider his teachings, there can be little doubt that Jesus has given us much to live up to in our daily lives. And yet Jesus also taught us that living up to the promise of his teachings is possible: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Jesus did not simply tell us to live according to his words. More than any moralist or philosopher in history, Jesus lived out his teachings through his actions. We should not doubt that Jesus was the most eloquent speaker who ever lived and was mankind’s greatest moral teacher. But he also lived up to the high expectations that he held for other people; in truth, Jesus actually went far beyond what he expected of others.
How do we know that this is the case? Even a cursory examination of the Gospels show us that Jesus was a person who practiced what he preached. At times of great uncertainty and fear, Jesus displayed virtues such as courage, mercy, and faith in a way that no other person has done before or since.
We know for example that Jesus was very brave because of how he responded to his imminent arrest and crucifixion by local religious and political authorities in the Garden of Gethsemane: We can gather in fact from descriptions of Jesus’s behavior that he was deeply troubled by the fate that God had decreed for him. For example, we know that Jesus did not sleep the night before his arrest and that he was wracked by anxiety. We know this because we are told that Jesus prayed to God while awaiting his fate. Indeed, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus asked of God, “Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup from me.”
It is a testament to the resilience of Jesus that he was able to overcome his fear and undergo crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities after being sentenced to die by the Sanhedrin. But it is also clear that Jesus felt a deep compulsion to live up to the tenets of his own religious faith even in the face of great challenges. By preaching to others that they should trust in God, Jesus also felt compelled to follow God’s plan for him. And yet that plan must have seemed extraordinarily frightening and uncertain as the time of Jesus’s arrest drew near.
To understand Jesus’s bravery in the face of conflict, we need only look to the behavior of Saint Peter following Jesus’s arrest as a point of comparison. It should be remembered that Peter was no coward; in fact, the Gospels tell us that Peter even used a sword to attack one of the soldiers sent to arrest Jesus.
Yet here again it is mentioned that Jesus lived by the code of his own teachings: In response to Peter’s violent actions, for example, Jesus tells Peter, “Put up again thy sword into its place: For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Although Peter’s actions could have allowed Jesus to escape, in other words, Jesus confronts his own fate with trust in God and with a remarkable degree of readiness and acceptance.
Consider also that even a brave man like Peter reacted with fear when confronted about his connection to Jesus. As he waited for John outside of Jesus’s trial, for example, we are told in the Gospels that Peter was recognized as one of Jesus’s followers by locals. Famously, and as Jesus predicted he would, Peter denies knowing Jesus to the people who are assembled in front of the high priest’s house. Surely, Peter’s decision had much to do with the fear of being crucified alongside Jesus. That Jesus’s courage was even stronger than Peter’s is an example of Jesus’s remarkable level of inner strength and personal resilience.
Even on the cross, and while in incredible pain, Jesus lived out his teachings with regard to nonviolence and forgiveness. While the people of Jerusalem persecuted him and called for his death, Jesus said from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
We should take a moment to consider just how remarkable this statement is. How many of us could look to our persecutors and even in a moment of extreme grief and fear forgive them for harming us? How often do we grow angry with people who do far less to us than what local religious authorities did to Jesus? Jesus spent his life preaching about forgiveness; he lived out his beliefs even to his death.
We also know that Jesus practiced forgiveness even in the face of immense social pressure. For example, the famous scene in the Gospels in which Jesus defends a woman found in adultery is a remarkable example of Jesus living out his own teachings.
We should recall that the story can be read on a number of different levels. Firstly, we must remember that local religious authorities saw Jesus as a threat to their own power. Bringing Jesus a woman accused of adultery and asking him to judge her was little more than a snare set for Jesus: The local religious authorities knew that the Law of Moses prescribed execution as a punishment for adultery; to wit, if Jesus were to let the woman found in adultery go, he would be directly contradicting the Law of Moses. Therefore, local religious authorities could bring charges of blasphemy against Jesus.
Conversely, if Jesus condemned the woman for her wrongdoing, local religious authorities would cement their position as the “proper” judges of religious infractions; moreover, Jesus would contradict his own teachings regarding forgiveness.
Yet Jesus understood that he was being tricked and offered a response that placed the moral onus back on the woman’s persecutors: “So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
This is surely one of the most remarkable statements ever made in the history of human civilization. Ashamed of their own shortcomings, in fact, the Gospels tell us that the assembled crowd began to disperse one by one: By condemning the moral failings of others, as Jesus shows, the assembled crowd would only be condemning themselves.
When the crowd has dispersed, Jesus says to the woman, “Where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?” She responds that no one has. Jesus replies, “Neither do I condemn thee: Go, and sin no more.”
What a remarkable exchange this is! Throughout the Gospels, Jesus has taught his followers that they must forego judgment with regard to the failings of others. And here, Jesus lives out that teaching in a remarkably beautiful way. Indeed, Jesus saves the woman’s life.
Of course, it should be noted that Jesus does not agree with or enable the woman’s behavior. But he also does not act as a judge or as someone who will condemn her. Instead, Jesus acts as a teacher rather than as a persecutor. Jesus knows that his role is to guide others towards virtuous behavior.
How many of us fall short of this example when we stoop to judge others? How often do we ignore our own faults when we point a finger at our neighbors? Indeed, when we condemn others, we merely mask our own flaws and our own sins. When we forgive others, we acknowledge that we ourselves also sin. More importantly, we acknowledge the fact that all human beings must strive to become better people. Life is about personal growth; no one is perfect.
Heavenly Father, please allow us to live out the teachings of Jesus not just in our opinions but in our deeds. Let us refrain from judgment as Jesus refrained from judgment. Let us be courageous as Jesus was courageous. Let us not seek to condemn our fellow human beings; instead, let us seek to understand and forgive their moral failings. Let us combine word and deed to live out the example that Christ set for us. Amen.