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Beyond Belief: a Buddhist Critique of Christianity

Chapter 5:
Fact and fiction in
the life of Jesus
Part 3

Was Jesus Perfect?

If a religious teacher were perfect we would expect the behaviour of such a person to be unfailingly blameless, their teachings to be humane and practical and for there to be consistency between what they preached and how they behaved. Jesus of course, denied that he was perfect (Lk 18:19) but despite this denial and all the evidence in the Bible, Christians continue to claim that Jesus was perfect. They have to do this because they mistakenly believe that Jesus was God - and how can a God be imperfect? Buddhists believe that Jesus was a good man as were the founders of the other great world religions but because he was not enlightened like the Buddha he was certainly not perfect. Like other unenlightened people he sometimes did wrong, some of the things he taught were impractical, and sometimes he failed to practise what he preached. Let us examine the evidence,

Jesus' ethical teachings are often described as 'sublime', 'lofty', 'utterly perfect' etc. But were they? Let us look at his teachings on divorce. In the Old Testament divorce was allowed under certain circumstances, which of course when a couple no longer love each other or when they are incompatible, is the most humane thing to do. But Jesus took an extreme position on divorce, saying that it was allowable only on the grounds of adultery:

It has been said, "Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce". But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to commit adultery, and anyone who marries a woman so divorced also commits adultery (Matt 5:31-32).

This terrible teaching has meant that until recently in Christian countries millions of couples were trapped in unhappy and loveless marriages, unable to get a divorce. It also meant that countless women who did manage to get a divorce from their husbands even without committing adultery were branded as adulterers if they married again. This teaching of Jesus alone has caused untold misery and heartbreak. Another example of the far from perfect teachings of Jesus is his attitude to money. Jesus seems to have a deep resentment for the rich:

But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger (Lk 6:24-25).

While it is true that the rich are sometimes greedy and thoughtless (as are the poor), no mention is made of this. The rich are condemned simply because they are rich. Once when a young man pressed Jesus for an answer to the question of how he could have eternal life he finally said:

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor and follow me and you will have treasure in heaven (Matt 19:21).

Jesus even went so far as to say that it is virtually impossible for a rich person to get to heaven.

Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (Matt 19:23-24).

Christians of course, have never taken any notice of these sayings of Jesus, but if they did the economies of most Christian countries would collapse and all the good qualities that honest entrepreneurship can engender would disappear. This rather impractical and unfair teaching of Jesus contrasts very sharply with the Buddha's attitude to wealth. He recognized that wealth honestly earned can be a source of happiness.

What is the happiness of ownership? Herein, a householder has wealth acquired by energetic striving, won by strength of arm and sweat of brow, justly and lawfully won When he thinks of this, he feels happiness and satisfaction. And what is the happiness of wealth? Herein, a householder has wealth justly and lawfully won, and with it he does many good deeds. When he thinks of this, he feels happiness and satisfaction. And what is the happiness of freedom from debt? Herein, a householder owes no debt large or small to anyone, and when he thinks of this, he feels happiness and satisfaction (Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Fives, Sutta No.41).

He also understood that with the right attitude the wealthy can do great good with their money.

With wealth acquired by energetic striving, won by strength of arm and sweat of brow lawfully and justly, a noble disciple makes himself, his mother and father, his wife and children, his servants and workmen and his friends and acquaintances cheerful and happy - he creates perfect happiness. This is the first opportunity seized by him, used for good and appropriately made use of (Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Fives, Sutta No.41).

So rather than dismissing the rich wholesale from the religious life as Jesus did. the Buddha taught them to earn the money honestly and to use it for the benefit of themselves and the general community.

But the teaching of Jesus which has caused more problems than any other is the claim that he and he alone can give salvation (Jn 14:6). It follows axiomatically from this that all other religions lead to the only alternative to salvation - hell - and are therefore evil. Sadly, this claim by Jesus is the root of that most characteristic of all Christian traits - intolerance. Christianity has always equated disbelief in Jesus with evil and has castigated non-believers as godless, wicked, stubborn pagan, scoffers, followers of false prophets, idol worshippers (see e.g.2 Pet 2:l-22).

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? (2 Cor 6:14-16).

What, Paul asks in this passage, can a Christian have in common with, for example, a Buddhist? For Paul as for fundamentalist and evangelical Christians the fact that the Buddhist may value and practise love, compassion, charity, patience, humility, and truthfulness just as he does, counts for nothing. For the Christian the single fact that the Buddhist does not believe that Jesus is God automatically puts him on the side of wickedness and darkness; he is an idol worshipper who should be shunned and who deserves to go to hell.

This is the great tragedy of Christianity - the stronger the Christian's faith in Jesus the more partisan, bigoted and intolerant he usually becomes. What a relief it is to be able to Take Refuge in the Buddha and still be able to respect and admire Lao Tzu, the Prophet Mohamrned, Krishna, Guru Nanak, etc. How pleasant it is to be able to communicate with others without the need to be always trying to convert them. How nice it is to be able to be happy when one sees others happy with their religion. Christianity is intolerant because it is obsessed with Jesus and excludes everyone who does not accept him. Buddhism is tolerant because it treasures wisdom and compassion and can embrace anyone, whatever their religion, who is developing these qualities.

Go to Chapter 5: Fact and fiction in the life of Jesus. Part 4
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