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Chapter 17: Jesus, The Great Teacher (Faith and Action)
From the very beginning of His teaching, Jesus was a threat to the religious authorities, but many ordinary people followed Him. These people were confused by the different ways in which their teachers interpreted the Torah. Their teachings were mostly about rituals and outward formality. However, Jesus came with a teaching which was radically different.
The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week; a day that the Jews kept especially holy. The principle of a day of rest is very sound, but the Jews added all kinds of prohibitions, forbidding many activities taking place on the Sabbath. By doing so they missed its real meaning.
Jesus told people that on the Sabbath all good work must continue. For example, He deliberately healed people on that day. On one such Sabbath He stood up among the people and challenged them: "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" He then healed a man right in front of them all, and some Jewish leaders were so offended that they started to plan to kill Him. But Jesus did not stop doing good because of this. As we considered in the last chapter that it was also on a Sabbath that Jesus healed the paralysed man at the pool of Bethesda. As a result of this the leaders made further threats to Jesus' life.
Jesus wanted to teach people two things. Firstly, that God has compassion for them every day of the week. Secondly, that people should not set up religious regulations, which come merely from men and not from God. We may laugh at the people of Jesus' days who followed man-made rituals and regulations, but we also have to ask ourselves whether the things we do are pleasing to God or not.
Jesus taught a lot about prayer. He said that if we pray only in public, so that people may see how religious and pious we are, then it is hypocrisy. God is not interested in such prayers. He said, "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men..."
His instructions were that worship of God should be in spirit and truth. If our mind and heart are not right, all our prayers are useless. He said that we should not repeat things over and over again while praying. The Jews had many set prayers which they would simply repeat at high speed. Jesus taught that such prayers are of no benefit. God does not hear us just because we use many words, or repeat the same words many times in our prayers. He said, "Learn from me."
How to pray?
He gave an example of prayer, which is sometimes called the Lord's prayer (see column). However it would be more appropriate to call John 17: 1-26 as "the Lord's prayer".
Jesus did not intend His disciples to repeat this prayer verbatum. Rather He was giving them an idea of what true prayer should be like. When praying we would do well to God that His rule should be effective here on this earth; to plea for our physical and spiritual needs;.to appeal for forgiveness and finally to acknowledge His sovereignty.
Jesus did not instruct us to pray facing Jerusalem or in any other direction. Nor did He give instructions about the movements of our bodies during our prayers. According to Jesus, God is more interested in the motives of our hearts.
One may ask, "How much do I need to be in prayer?" Jesus spent long periods of time in prayer, both before important events and as a regular practice. The apostles did the same and advised other Christians to do so.
Prayer changes things. However, the Bible does not only tell us to have faith, but also that we are to put our faith into action. Prayer must not be regarded as a labour-saving device; God will not do for us the things that we can do for ourselves. He will listen to our prayers, and will help us in our difficulties. He will accept our prayers for the things that are best for us.
When Christians pray to God, they do so in the name of Jesus, because this is what Jesus commanded them to do. God first approached us in Jesus. Jesus Himself said, "My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in My name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete."
The question is often asked: "Why do you Christians not fast?" Christians do fast, but they do not fast during Ramadhan. Jesus said, "When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
According to Jesus, fasting, like personal prayer, is something private, and should be carried out just between the individual believer and God. Jesus' emphasis was always on inner motivation, not outward appearance. People may pray and fast but still lack forgiveness. In the Bible a man named Cornelius is mentioned. He was a God-fearing person who had a good reputation among friends and foe alike. He fasted and prayed, yet lacked forgiveness. Because of his sincerity though, God sent Peter, an apostle of Christ to talk to him, so that he would find forgiveness. Peter spoke to him about Christ: His perfect life, His sufferings, and His death on the cross. He told him about Jesus' resurrection and His return as Judge. It was not until Cornelius believed in Jesus that he found forgiveness.
The Pharisees of Jesus' day were very concerned about giving to God exactly one tenth of all their income, even down to a tiny quantity of herbs such as mint. In fact they were neglecting what was really important by making a big show of their giving to God. Jesus said, "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
To show that one should be helpful, without expecting any reward from people, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. (See column on next page) This story is a great example of generous love for others.
Many people today talk about the need for good relations between people of different backgrounds and ethnic origins. Long ago, Jesus gave this one principle: "Love your neighbour as yourself." Not only are the people next door my neighbours, but so is the stranger who travels with me for a short while on the bus or train. This generous love is supremely shown in Jesus' life, by the giving of Himself to save mankind. Let us follow his footsteps in love and truth.