Introduction to The Rabbi, The Count & The Storekeeper 

Who am I to produce a version of Jesus' teachings?  Actually, I'm a guy who watched Monty Python's movie The Life of Brian.  There's a great scene in the movie where the anti-hero Brian attends Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, but since he's a bit late and standing near the back of the crowd, he doesn't hear teachings clearly:  "Blessed are the cheese makers?!!"  Since I have to admit to being chronic daydreamer during a lot of the sermons I've had to endure in my life, I can identify with Brian.  In fact, I think a lot of Christians miss a bit of the message, not always with comedic results.  In the same vein,  I have tried to imagine what it would be like if Jesus showed up preaching in the middle of the small town where I live. With the traffic noise, the lack of crowd control, and the fact that religious teaching really isn't supposed to happen on public land, He would probably have a bit of a rough time, especially since as a practicing Jew, He might have a problem teaching in the Protestant or Catholic churches.    
 
        That being said, I went ahead and tried to state the essence of Jesus’ teachings, as he would have made them to the ordinary people of first century
Palestine and as I believe he has said them to me, not speaking out loud or even privately to my mind, but simply through the pages of a book.   This is, in brief, an ordinary teaching for ordinary people by an ordinary person, Jesus of Nazareth, a first century rabbi, or teacher, who promised that he would return in spirit to each and everyone who would listen.  (I use the word ordinary for Jesus in the sense that the actual person named “Jesus” was not a super-human figure who glowed in the dark, wore a halo or had insights into reality beyond those available to any other person, then or now.) 

            I further feel that the transmission of Jesus’ teaching came to me via Leo Tolstoy, a Russian nobleman and writer at the turn of the last century.  Tolstoy felt that he had heard the inner voice of Jesus, so I listened to Tolstoy, and now you may, or may not, listen to me.  That’s the way The Spirit seems to work, in the mystical tradition to which many Christians, as well as non-Christians, subscribe today.

 

I originally began to look at the basic teachings of Jesus for several reasons.  The first began several years ago when a new acquaintance handed me an evangelical pamphlet, which he believed would introduce me to salvation.  It was filled with a number of Biblical quotations that were meant to lead me to the salvation offered by God’s Son, Jesus.  However, when I looked at the source of the quotations, I couldn’t help but notice that not one of them was from the Gospels -- not one of them actually purported to be a quote from Jesus.  It was almost as if to say: no one gets to the Father except through Paul, John, Peter or anyone other than Jesus.  Jesus was obviously important to the authors of the pamphlet only as something of a walking metaphor, and his teachings were not of primary importance, at least as far as the author of the pamphlet was concerned.  Since that time, I have glanced at a number of Bible-quoting pamphlets, and I find that, repeatedly, they ignore the actual sayings of Jesus in favor of the epistle writers, as if Jesus just could’t choose the right words or stories for converting, or redeeming, anyone.

 

            Then during a Sunday service several years ago, I listened more closely to the story of the transfiguration in the book of Luke.  This led to several across-the-store-counter questions of some professedly pious Christians:  “What does God command us to do in the presence of Jesus?  Are we to worship and adore him, love him to pieces or continually regard him as separate-but-equal with God, our creator?” The answer from most of those I questioned was that we should worship Jesus, while the answer from God at the conclusion of the transfiguration incident was clear:  “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”  So obviously, God the Father thought that the words of Jesus were of major importance, although we have no record that Jesus actually wrote down any of his words.  The Bible only records that Jesus once wrote words in the sand, doodling with a stick, and then left the words behind when he departed.

 

Then along came Leo Tolstoy.  I knew Tolstoy’s biography, but a close friend and spiritual advisor recommended The Kingdom of God is Within You, which in turn led me to Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief.   Like Thomas Jefferson, Steven Mitchell, Alan Watts and a host of others, Tolstoy felt that modern Christianity had been overly influenced by writings about Jesus instead of revealing the actual religion of Jesus.  So Tolstoy, arguably one of the world’s greatest writers, sat down with his knowledge of Greek and Latin and developed his own translation of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, without any clouding of these teachings due to a narrative line or particular dogmas of the Orthodox Church.  He also felt, as did Thomas Jefferson before him, that the teachings of Jesus had been so changed by the writers of the early church that many “lesser,” or institutional, minds had intruded onto the actual words of Jesus.  However, the essential teachings would stand out as “diamonds in a dunghill,” and we have only to extract them to see with startling clarity the beauty and possible divinity of the teachings of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth.

 

And that is what happened to me.  Reading The Gospel in Brief gave me a sense that I was listening directly to Jesus in a way that countless Bible readings have not.  While reading I began to turn down the corners of a number of pages (an old habit), and that, in turn, made me return and retrieve a number of what I considered key verses in my understanding of Jesus’ lessons.  Instead of a story about Jesus, I felt as if I were actually entering into the mind of Jesus, knowing him as a teacher rather than a metaphor.  And just as when a student listens to a talented teacher give a lecture on a rich subject, certain teachings stood out, some because I found them different or more profound, others because they had a particular reference to my own life and personality.   

 

While Tolstoy’s Gospel is organized using the Lord’s Prayer as an outline, and while it is not long, I still felt it’s primary ideas could be condensed even further and sharpened a bit by being re-stated in the language of today.  Of course, one obvious problem arises whenever someone begins to write down favorite Bible verses and stories and ignore or overlook verses that do not attract the collector’s attention: “How dare you leave that out!”  This is a most justifiable criticism, and yet it is one that could be made of every reader, preacher or follower of the Gospels.  Selectivity is unavoidable, simply because there are so many contradictory ideas throughout the Bible.  Any Biblical reader or student is going to follow favorite themes, or they are going to be attracted to a particular vision of Jesus.  That is happening here, too.  And let's not forget the "Brian Phenomenon" I mentioned at the beginning of this intro.  However, I have always agreed with theologians who felt that there has to be a core, a starting point if you will, to the teachings of all religious leaders, and Jesus’ core teachings are no exception. 

 

As a person growing up in mid-century America, when science was exploding with possibilities and a “new thought” came almost daily, it was tough to reconcile religion with reality, and now as I grow older, I see that it was (and still is) a problem for a great many others, both Christian and non-Christian.  When faced with a conflict between what religions teach and science shows, most of us will postpone the resolution of the problem by erecting a mental “wall.”  Religion is on one side; “the world” is on the other.  This is not necessarily a bad thing to do, and it is somewhat consistent with the teachings of Jesus, who kept repeating that the world of the spirit is not the same as the materialistic world, although the material world exists within the spiritual world.  The problems come when the wall crumbles, as it frequently does.  Galileo looked through his telescope, biologists look through their microscopes or physicists look with their minds and, presto, reality shifts.  We think we have God figured out, and then something happens -- a sudden death, a startling act of cruelty or a homosexual Samaritan showing up at the door.   All can make us search again for a God-Who-Won’t-Stand-Still.

 

What I have found in the teachings of Jesus is a consistent voice that gives a way to live a full and loving life.  By making this voice as brief as I can, I hope to make it easier to digest, both for myself and for others.  And it  has already been a help for me at times.  If someone does not agree with the points I have raised, that is fine.  They should write a gospel for themselves.  It can be a most worthwhile occupation.