Thomas Jefferson is an enigma for many. A recent article by Bruce Tomoso in the Dallas Morning News noted that his enemies accused him of being an atheist and yet he started the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom with the phrase, “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” But he certainly would not have been invited to speak at an evangelical conference to share his beliefs that most clergymen are “soothsayers and necromancers.” You likely have a bigger brain than I do but I will confess that I had to look up necromancers. It literally means one who interrogates the dead. Okay. Not sure what church Jefferson was frequenting but clearly he had some issues with clergy and he believed that most of what they preached was a mockery of Jesus’ teachings.
Jefferson “believed that an authentic Christianity had long ago been hijacked by the Christian Church,” wrote Erik Reece in the December Harper’s. Jefferson decided to just fix the problem. So he took out his scissors and cut out the parts of the Bible that he didn’t believe. “Jefferson,” Mr. Reece wrote, “cut out the virgin birth, all the miracles – including the most important one, the Resurrection – then pasted together what was left and called it ‘The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.’ ” (Later, he added portions of the Bible as translated into Greek, Latin and French.) Jefferson described his work as separating the “diamonds from the dunghill.” Out went all references to Jesus as divine, all accounts of healings, of walking on water, of making loaves and fish appear out of thin air. What remains? His teachings about helping the needy, shunning earthly wealth and power, treating people as we would have them treat us – in Jefferson’s words, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
Mr. Tomoso wrote that “not all scholars are impressed.” Historian Garry Wills, a Catholic, writes that Jefferson’s Gospel, “cleansed of all the supernatural hocus-pocus, is the tale of a good man, a very good man, perhaps the best of good men.” But, he argues, the Jesus of Jefferson is boring, utterly without mystery, “shorn of his paradoxes and left with platitudes.”
It is so easy to criticize Jefferson. What audacity! The incredible chutzpah to modify sacred texts to fit your own views! But then I took a breath and stepped back. Do I do the very same thing at times without the in your face honesty of Jefferson? When I choose to ignore the hard teachings of Jesus I have, in practice, done the same thing. When I say that some command in God’s Word is too hard I have essentially taken my scissors of doubt and cut that teaching out. When I point out that I cannot forgive or love or give because you don’t understand my circumstances I have clipped out the challenge of supernatural living. In my book When Bad Christians Happen to Good People I wrote a chapter called “This is a Hard Teaching” about the challenging and difficult things that Jesus taught that I tend to mentally, emotionally, and practically excise from my walk. Let me give a couple of examples.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, Matt 5: 11-12
Do I believe that? Does feeling blessed even cross my radar if I feel insulted? Do I rejoice? Or do I simply pull out the scissors, clip, and concentrate on the ones I am more comfortable with like this.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
That’s better. I can live with that. But when I read words from Jesus like this I start to squirm again.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[h] and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies[i] and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
Are you kidding me? Love your enemies? Pray for them? Scalpel please…that must be removed. I often feel like the disciples of Jesus who struggled with His teaching about the bread of life.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?
That is the bottom line isn’t it? Sometimes the hard teachings of Jesus offend me. Or at least annoy me. I don’t want to forgive the unforgivable or love the unloveable. I don’t want to serve the least of these because it is inconvenient, messy, and hard. But I have a choice to make. I have to accept the entire Word of God and be open to allowing the Holy Spirit to move in every area of my life. Or I have to take the scissors of my lack of faith to His Word. As for cutting out the miracles and just making Jesus a profound and amazing teacher. I don’t think that He gave us that option. He clearly let it be known that He was the Son of Man sent by His Father in heaven. If that is not the truth then Jesus was not a great man and teacher. He was, in the famous words of C.S.Lewis from Mere Christianity, a liar or a lunatic.
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon and you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
So I am praying for the grace to embrace the hard teachings and leave the scissors in the drawer.