Why Did They Listen to Jesus?
DESPITE the advances of science and technology today, there has never been greater need for practical guidance in human relations. Not only is mankind divided racially, nationally and religiously, but frequently persons feel unaccepted by others of their same race, nation and religious organization.
A tendency toward class distinctions is part of imperfect human nature and has existed throughout the millenniums of human history. Some things, however, can aggravate it. Have you noticed the inclination of some who have had considerable education to look down upon persons not so well educated? This problem existed in Jesus’ day too. Professor George Foot Moore writes in Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: “The educated had the common pride of learning in double measure because it was religious learning. . . . Hillel [who was alive at the beginning of the Common Era] had put it in a word, ‘No ignorant man [‘am ha-arez, “people of the land,” Hebrew] is religious.”’—Compare John 7:49.
Indicating the extent to which certain persons carried this attitude, the Talmud preserves the following statements of rabbis who lived in early centuries of the Common Era:
“Our Rabbis taught: Let a man . . . not marry the daughter of an ‘am ha-arez, because they are detestable and their wives are vermin, and of their daughters it is said [at Deuteronomy 27:21], Cursed be he that lieth with any manner of beast. . . . R[abbi] Eleazar said: An ‘am ha-arez, it is permitted to stab him [even] on the Day of Atonement which falls on the Sabbath . . .. One must not join company with an ‘am ha-arez on the road. . . R[abbi] Samuel [son of] Nahmani said in R[abbi] Johanan’s name: One may tear an ‘am ha-arez like a fish! Said R[abbi] Samuel [son of] Isaac: And [this means] along his back.”—Babylonian Talmud, tractate Pesachim (“Feast of Passover”), folio page 49b.
Jesus, however, went right out among the common people. When certain “scribes of the Pharisees” objected to his eating with despised tax collectors and “sinners,” Jesus stated: “Those who are strong do not need a physician, but those who are ill do. I came to call, not righteous people, but sinners.” (Mark 2:16, 17) Concerning this attitude, E. R. Trattner points out in As a Jew Sees Jesus:
“No Jewish prophet before Jesus ever searched out the miserable, the sick, the weak, and the downtrodden in order to pour forth love and compassionate service. He went out of his way to redeem the lowly by a touch of human sympathy that is altogether unique in Jewish history.”
This spirit of compassion for the common people surely moved many to listen carefully to what Jesus had to say. But that was not all. Unique too was the content of Jesus’ teaching.
Humility and Forgiveness
Instead of urging his hearers to strive for greatness in learning or otherwise, Jesus taught: “The greatest one among you must be your minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:11, 12) Claude Montefiore, a Jewish scholar who produced several works about Jesus of Nazareth, writes in Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings:
“The doctrine of service and of the humility of service was a notable feature in the teaching of Jesus. It was also a comparatively new feature. There are no complete parallels to the doctrine in the Rabbinic literature, so far as I am aware and have been able to probe the matter. For Jesus . . . means more than such a small point as serving or pouring out wine at a banquet, though such action might be the occasion or the illustration of his teaching. He meant the service of a life-time; the lowly or devoted service of others. He meant spending oneself for the sake of the lowliest . . . Such a conception was a new thing, a new teaching. And of its gigantic importance and effects in history it is needless here to speak.”
How should a person who wished to serve his fellowman react when offended? Have you ever heard someone say: “I’ve ‘had’ it with him. He’ll never get away with that again.” While it is popular to extol the virtues of forgiveness, many set a distinct limit to the number of times they will put up with an annoyance. Possibly Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter thought it an exaggeration when he asked: “How many times is my brother to sin against me and am I to forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus, however, replied: “I say to you, not, Up to seven times, but, Up to seventy-seven times.” (Matt. 18:21, 22) In other words, there should be no limit to forgiveness of personal insults and injuries. These principles of humility and forbearance were another reason why people found it pleasurable to listen to Jesus.
Good Deeds and “Salvation”
What is your opinion of very religious persons? Have you noticed the tendency in some to overstress the value of carrying out religious precepts or performing charitable deeds? Do not certain persons appear to believe that generous contributions to charity, or other philanthropic or religious deeds, excuse harmful attitudes or even an immoral way of life? Beneath a veneer of piety such individuals may be very selfish and cause much unhappiness for others.
As is the case with nearly all humans, many Jews of Jesus’ day tended to feel that keeping religious precepts or performing deeds of benevolence would counterbalance, in God’s eyes, transgressions of his Law. The Pharisees (meaning “Separated Ones”) were particularly prone to this attitude. Among the “7 types of Pharisees,” the Palestinian Talmud lists “he who counterbalances,” explaining: “[He] says to himself, I am going to fulfill one religious prescription, and then violate another, and sets off one against the other.” Another type of Pharisee, “who is conscious of his duties, endeavours to efface his sins by his good conduct.” (Tractate Berakhoth [“Benedictions”], chapter 9) Showing how far some carried this balancing off of sinful acts by good deeds is the following statement:
“Our Rabbis taught: A man should always regard himself as though he were half guilty and half meritorious: if he performs one precept, happy is he for weighting himself down in the scale of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for weighting himself down in the scale of guilt.”—Babylonian Talmud, tractate Kiddushin (“Betrothals”), folio pages 40a, 40b.
With regard to this attitude, Montefiore remarks: “The Rabbis seem to judge too much from acts. . . . And this emphasis leads to a strange externalism. If a man’s good deeds, at any given moment, exceed his bad deeds by one, he may be classed among the righteous; if his bad deeds exceed his good deeds by one, he may be classed among the sinners. Thus his ‘salvation’ may depend on whether, at the moment of death, his good deeds are in excess of his evil deeds by one.”
Of course, Talmudic literature includes many statements about the need for right motives in keeping precepts and doing charitable deeds. There is emphasis on ‘keeping the commandments for the sake of the commandments’ rather than for reward. Expressions of this type, however, do not offset the numerous passages that portray the making of a record of good deeds as a sure way to “salvation.” As Montefiore puts it: “There is much to be quoted (as usual) on the other side; but there was a tendency to regard the whole affair of life as if it were a case of a schoolboy’s marks.”
Jesus, while he did not belittle the importance of right conduct, emphasized that individuals could be disapproved by God despite scrupulous performance of religious and charitable good deeds. The Pharisees, for example, took a special vow to observe laws of religious purity, which included ritual hand washing at meals. However, when questioned as to why his disciples neglected such hand washing at a meal, Jesus replied: “Listen and get the sense of it: Not what enters into his mouth defiles a man; but it is what proceeds out of his mouth that defiles a man. . . . the things proceeding out of the mouth come out of the heart.”—Matt. 15:10, 11, 18.
Another vow taken by Pharisees involved tithing, or giving tenths of the produce of the land, and of its fruit trees, herds and flocks for the support of the Levitical priesthood and other necessary things connected with God’s worship. While there was nothing wrong with tithing in itself, Jesus sternly rebuked Pharisees who felt that performing such religious precepts would excuse a lack of other godly qualities. Jesus said:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cummin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. These things it was binding to do, yet not to disregard the other things. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel!”—Matt. 23:23, 24.
Jesus repeatedly emphasized that what a person is in his heart, which involves his pattern of thinking, emotions, desires and motives, outweighs in God’s eyes the doing of specific religious and charitable good deeds. (Compare Matthew 5:27, 28.) Surely many sincere Jews of Jesus’ day took pleasure in listening to his bold presentation of such basic truths.
Ancestry or Earnest Effort?
Probably you know persons who display a peculiar pride that they are members of a certain family line, race, nation or religious organization. As is the case today, the tendency to carry such an attitude to extremes existed in Jesus’ day. Have you ever heard of the teaching known as “merit of the fathers” (in Hebrew: zekhuthʹ abhothʹ)? According to the Encyclopædia Judaica, “rabbinic literature contains many statements to the effect that the merit of ancestors affects the welfare of their descendants.”
Descent from Abraham was considered especially beneficial. “So great is the [merit] of Abraham,” notes an authority on Judaism in A Rabbinic Anthology, “that he can atone for all the vanities committed and lies uttered by Israel in this world.” A rabbinical commentary on the book of Genesis represents Abraham as sitting at the gate of Gehenna, to deliver any Israelite who otherwise might end up there. Thus, when urging his hearers, regardless of their ancestry, to repent and harmonize their lives with God’s law, Jesus’ forerunner John the Baptizer found it necessary to say: “Produce fruits that befit repentance. And do not start saying within yourselves, ‘As a father we have Abraham.’” (Luke 3:8) Jesus too directed attention away from the thought of gaining merit with God because of descent from Abraham when he said to fellow Jews:
“Exert yourselves vigorously to get in through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will seek to get in but will not be able . . . There is where your weeping and the gnashing of your teeth will be, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves thrown outside. Furthermore, people will come from eastern parts and western, and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. And, look! there are those last who will be first, and there are those first who will be last.”—Luke 13:24-30.
Jewish thought back there pictured the blessings of “the world to come” as a festive banquet with the patriarchs and prophets. But natural Jews who were “first” in line for such blessings would not inherit them merely because of fleshly descent from Abraham. If they refused individually to put forth earnest effort to meet God’s requirements, their places would be filled by those willing to ‘exert themselves,’ even though being from the Gentile nations, those “last” in line, so to speak.
Right-hearted persons, who could not reconcile with their consciences that God winked at wrongdoing simply because of someone’s ancestry, must have taken pleasure in listening to Jesus’ teaching on this matter.
The Witness of Powerful Works
An important reason why many listened to Jesus was his display of miraculous powers. On occasion he demonstrated superhuman knowledge of persons and events. (John 1:47-49; 4:16-19) At a wedding feast he transformed water into wine and on other occasions miraculously multiplied food to meet the needs of vast crowds. (John 2:1-11; Mark 6:32-44; 8:1-9) Besides that, Jesus went about “curing every sort of disease and every sort of infirmity among the people.” (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 10:1) On several occasions he even raised the dead.—Mark 5:35, 38-42; Luke 7:11-17; John 11:1-44.
Such powerful works caused many to take Jesus seriously. Crowds of astonished onlookers made exclamations such as: “A great prophet has been raised up among us.” “This is for a certainty the prophet that was to come into the world.”—Luke 7:16; John 6:14; compare Deuteronomy 18:15-19.
Rabbinical literature, though viewing Christianity as an apostasy, does not deny that Jesus and his disciples performed miracles. Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner remarks in his book Jesus of Nazareth, as translated from the Hebrew by Herbert Danby:
“The Gospels say that [Jesus] performed signs and wonders through the Holy Spirit and the power of God; the Talmud stories allow that he did indeed work signs and wonders, but by means of magic. . . . It therefore follows that the accounts in the first three Gospels are fairly early, and that it is unreasonable to question either the existence of Jesus . . . or his general character as it is depicted in these Gospels.”
Jesus’ peerless teaching and loving attitude toward all types of persons caused honest-hearted persons to listen to what he had to say and to take it to heart. His unprecedented miracles caused many to exclaim: “When the Christ arrives, he will not perform more signs than this man has performed, will he?” (John 7:31) In fact, by the close of the first century C.E. several thousand Jews became firmly convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah.