5 The Gospel of the Unconditional Grace
Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.
Matthew always describes Jesus' works in Galilee with two sentences, 'preaching the gospel of the kingdom' and 'healing every disease'. Chapters 5 through 9 in the gospel of Matthews are flanked by those two expressions(Mat.4:23 and 9:35). In this block 'preaching the gospel of the kingdom' is described in ch.5~7, the so-called "Sermon on the Mount", and 'healing every disease' is compiled in ch.8~9. Now, the famous collection of teachings by Jesus in ch.5~7, called "Sermon on the Mount", represents his 'preaching of the gospel of the kingdom.' Those words are not ethical teachings aimed at his disciples, but the gospel of the kingdom.
The subject of Jesus' proclamation or preaching is the kingdom(Greek, basileia) of God. Matthew substitutes 'Heaven' for 'God' in accordance with the Jewish religious terminology, and called it 'Basileia of Heaven.' 'Basileia' is the Greek word for 'kingdom' and means 'the reign of a king' or 'the realm of his reign'. When John the Baptist proclaimed, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," he meant that the final judgement of God was nearly at hand(Mat.3:1~2). But when Jesus preached the kingdom of heaven and said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"(Mat.4:17), he actually meant that the reign of the unconditional grace of God whose coming had been promised in the Last Days was at hand. The two proclamations were identical in words, but differed vastly in their meanings.
John the Baptist urged the people of the covenant to repent before the coming judgement of their righteous and mighty king. Since we are all sinners and guilty in His court, John asked of them to bear fruits worthy of repentance (Luke3:7~14). In contrast, Jesus urged people to come back to their merciful God and asked them only to believe in God's mercy. When a woman believed in the power and mercy of God revealed in Jesus and was healed from a disease that had afflicted her for many years, he just said to her, "your faith (believing) saved you"(Mat.9:22). Jesus urged all the people who were far from God to come back to God, their merciful creator and the foundation of their being and their life.
Many tax-collectors and sinners gathered around Jesus and dined with him(Mat.9:10). They were representatives of the people who were regarded unworthy by Judaism standards. They were despised as people unworthy of the kingdom of heaven by 'the righteous', the strict observers of Judaism. To those righteous Jesus said, "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Mat.9:13b). But when he talked to them, Jesus did not call them "the sinners." He called them "the poor" and said to them, "Blessed are the poor in the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Mat.5:3).
The Sermon on the Mount, which begins with this beatitude, is not a grand ethical sermon, it is the confession or description of the innermost sphere within which Jesus lived. Jesus was poor, that is, he had nothing and claimed nothing in his relationship with God. Jesus called God his father and relied completely on Him, just like a child trusts and relies on his parents. He made himself empty and received everything from his father. Therefore he said to the people around him, "Blessed are the poor." The spiritually enlightened in the religious sphere who are proud of their worth do not need the unconditional grace of God. They can claim their own worth before God.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus' declaration of the kingdom of God. The reign of God is the reign of God's unconditional grace. This is most clearly stated in the famous words of the Sermon on the Mount: "I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Mat.5:44~45 NRSV) In these words, God's unconditional grace is described clearly. The sun rises on the evil and on the good equally, and the rain falls indiscriminately on the righteous and the unrighteous. In these natural phenomenons, Jesus saw his Father's unconditional goodness and beneficial work. Our Father, the Creator of the universe, indiscriminately does good for his creatures, human beings, regardless of how they are. Jesus declared that our actions are always conditioned by our social environment (Mat.5:46~47). We love those who love us, and we hate those who are inimical to us. Our attitudes are always conditioned by our fellowmen. We are always 'relative'. Here 'relative' means 'related to or conditioned by the recipients'.
God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous alike. It means that God's work is unconditional, it is not dictated by the recipient's worth. Thus God's work is not relative, but absolute. The original meaning of the word 'absolute' is 'not bound by others'. We call God's unconditional benevolence 'the grace of God.' Jesus knew and experienced the grace of God and proclaimed it through his whole life. For Jesus 'the kingdom of God' means 'the reign of God's absolute grace'. He invited people to join into the reign of this unconditional grace.
Jesus tells us to love our enemies, those who are inimical to us. This proclamation, seen through the optics of ethics, would be unacceptable to us. Here Jesus does not impart an ethical demand upon us but simply describes his disciples' lifestyle and how they live in the sphere of God's grace. Those who are saved by the unconditional grace of God in Christ Jesus can not live outside of this grace. Jesus taught in the parable of the unforgiving servant that if we stray from the realms of God's unconditional grace, we can not be a part of God's fellowship (Mat.18:23~35). Therefore, if we want to stay in the realm of God's grace, we have to be gracious to our fellowmen. We have to be unconditionally good to our fellowmen, even to our enemies, for this is what Jesus asked of us when he said, "You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"(Mat.5:48). We have to strive for perfection in giving unconditional love to our fellowmen as Luke(6:36)expressed, "Be merciful even as your Father is merciful." If we live in this way, we are children of the Father who loved us when we were still His enemies (Rom.5:8).
In Christianity the Sermon on the Mount is usually interpreted as a code of ethics, but it is not so. It is Jesus' declaration of the reign of God's unconditional grace. It is the gospel of our Father's grace. Our Father showed His grace through His son Jesus. He accomplished His saving work when Jesus died on the cross for our sin and He raised him from the dead. Our creator had declared Jesus as Christ, the Saviour of the world, and proclaimed His saving work in Christ to the world through the medium of gospel. If we believe in the gospel and throw ourselves into Christ in whom God's saving work had been done, we will be in the realm of His unconditional grace and begin to live in the fellowship with Father. Only then will we understand that Jesus' words, even in the Sermon on the Mount, are the declaration of God's unconditional grace.
We, those who live in the realm of God's unconditional grace, are called upon to love our fellowman unconditionally. We have to love even those who are hostile to us, as Jesus said, "Love your enemies." We love our enemies in order to remain in the realm of God's unconditional grace. Since Christianity is meant to manifest and lead humankind to this unconditional grace of God in Christ, we may call it 'the true religion'. But Christianity, seen as a religion in the historical and social contexts, is relative and therefore does not have the power to bring about the ultimate reality for mankind. Paul said, "God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do."(Rom.8:3). Remember that in Paul 'the law' meant 'Torah', Judaism, the religion of religions. The meaning of Paul's words is that religions can not be the path to God's goal because of the weakness of humanity.
Grace-based religions highlight humanity's weaknesses by revealing the sinfulness of the human condition. The proclamation of unconditional grace points to the weakness and unworthiness of human nature to attain its aim. One illustration of that point can be found in the history of Buddhism in Japan. Pure Land Buddhism, a typical grace-based religion, is based on the absolute grace of 'Amitabha'. One of the representatives of Pure Land Buddhism, Shinran, was famous for his awareness of his weaknesses, the reverse nature of himself, what biblical terminology refers to as "sin". The religions that purely rely on the grace of 'the holy,' like Pure Land Buddhism or Protestant Christianity, point in the right direction, but fail to realize what it is they aim for.
God has done what religions could not achieve because of the weakness of our human nature. God has done so by giving His Holy Spirit to those who believe the gospel of Christ. The gospel is the power of God for salvation, the power to transform humanity to the ideal state God desires. Religions of grace can act as instruments of God by bringing us closer to reality of the Holy Spirit within us. "The law was given through Moses; grace and truth(Greek, aletheia) came through Jesus Christ"(John1:17). I think that John's meaning was that Judaism and its various demands were given through Moses; the unconditional grace and the reality(aletheia) of the Holy Spirit's transforming work came through Jesus Christ.