The Five Commandments of Jesus
by Patrick J. Amer
Excerpts from Book

The following is the first seven pages of Chapter 1:


  Discovering the Five Commandments

"If you love me, keep my commandments." (Jn 14:15)

Suppose you wanted to look something up in the Gospels; say, for example, what did Jesus teach about prayer? Would this be difficult or easy? Surprisingly, it can be quite difficult. Some of the teachings of Jesus on prayer are in the Sermon on the Mount, Chapters 5 through 7 of the Gospel of Matthew (always a good place to start): Mt 6:5-15, 7:7-11. But the rest, and some important ones, are scattered throughout the Gospels in no particular order. I found that this is true of nearly all of the teachings of Jesus.
      Suppose you wanted to find, as I wanted to find, a plan or a central organizing theme in the teachings, particularly the ethical teachings, of Jesus? Unless you do the sorting and listing exercise I describe below, you almost certainly won't find one; until I did this exercise myself, I couldn't see one.
      So I looked more closely at the Gospels. What I found was that the sayings and sermons of Jesus jump from one topic to another with no apparent plan or connection. Teachings on the same subject are scattered here and there. Some teachings are set forth in a single saying, never repeated. Others are repeated in various forms in different places, but the Gospel writers only occasionally brought them together. Read the Sermon on the Mount again, and I think you'll see what I mean.
      How did this come about? I asked myself. I began to imagine the way the writers of the Gospels had assembled their materials. I imagined a fellow with a pad of papyrus and a large leather backpack, going from one person who had heard Jesus speak to another who had written down what he remembered Jesus to have said. "What did Jesus say?" the seeker would ask. Then he'd write down the remembered words, or copy the written record or memorandum of the words of Jesus kept by the person he was questioning, on a piece of papyrus, and stuff it into his backpack. After he'd done this for a while, he'd go back to his home or his tent, get them all out, and sort them sayings here, miracles there, parables in a third pile. He didn't think it was his job to impose an order on the sayings. Well, perhaps the writer of the Gospel of John did. The first three Gospels are more disorganized.
      This troubled me. I have an organized mind (a prerequisite for a practicing lawyer), so I started making lists, sorting, and organizing the sayings of Jesus by subject matter. To my surprise, there began to appear certain ethical teachings of Jesus which he repeated over and over, sometimes in command, sometimes in metaphor, sometimes in warning, sometimes in parable. In particular, I was able to identify five rules of ethical conduct which stood out from the rest. This is the genesis of what I call the five commandments of Jesus.
      I also discovered from this exercise that Jesus gave much greater importance to his teaching activities than we usually give to them. He said that his teaching was what he came to do, and that salvation would come from his teaching. Jesus said,

     I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose. (Lk 4:43)

       For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. (Jn 18:37)

      The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (Jn 6:63)

      If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth  will make you free. (Jn 8:31-32)

      Whoever keeps my word will never see death. (Jn 8:51)

     In Jesus's own words, his teaching activity is why he was born and what he was sent to do, and those who accept his teachings and follow them will live forever. This makes his teachings very important indeed.
     Many of the teachings of Jesus are ethical teachings. He sometimes called them his "commandments" and at other times called them his "word." He spoke repeatedly about the importance of keeping his commandments (or his "words") in his Last Supper discourse to his disciples, Chapters 14 -17 of John's Gospel:

      If you love me, keep my commandments. (Jn 14:15)

      Those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them. (Jn 14:21)

      Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our abode with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. (Jn 14:23-24)

      If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (Jn 15:7)

      If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. (Jn 15:10)

      You are my friends if you do what I command you. (Jn 15:14)

      I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (Jn 15:17)

     Some Scripture scholars are uncomfortable with relying on sayings of Jesus which appear only in the Gospel of John, because John's Gospel appears to be so carefully composed and so different from the other Gospels. But the Last Supper discourse wasn't the first or the only time Jesus spoke of the importance of keeping his commandments. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, which contains many commandments of Jesus, he said:

      Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5:19)

     Generally, when Jesus taught an important teaching, he illustrated it with a memorable metaphor or parable. So he did with this teaching, at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount:

      Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell and great was its fall! (Mt 7:24-27; Lk 6:47-49)

     When on one occasion the crowd told him that his mother and his brothers were waiting outside, he replied, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (Lk 8:21; Mk 3:33-35; Mt 12:49-50). And this teaching was part of the great commission given by Jesus to his disciples:

      Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Mt 28:19-20)

      This repeated demand that people keep his commandments is as clear and insistent as anything Jesus said. According to this teaching, we could hardly pretend to be Christians without trying to obey the commandments of Jesus. But what are those commandments? I found I didn't know what they are.
      We'd expect that the Christian churches would teach and preach the commandments of Jesus as a prominent part of their mission. But they don't. We'd expect at least that there would be a list of the commandments of Jesus, available to the faithful on request. There isn't. It's easy to find a list of the ten commandments of Moses in any church or courthouse in the country (in courthouses thanks not to the Christian right but to C. B. DeMille). There are lists of the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal virtues, the fifteen (or is it twenty now?) mysteries of the rosary, and so forth, but no list of the commandments of Jesus.
     In a random and unscientific survey, I asked a number of friends and relatives, all good Christians, if they knew the commandments of Jesus. Nearly all were puzzled by the question. It had never occurred to them that there should be a list of the commandments of Jesus. Most of those who ventured an answer said that what must be meant by the commandments of Jesus is what Episcopalians call the Summary of the Law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, etc., and Love your neighbor as yourself. Several also suggested that Jesus gave us a single commandment, that we love one another.
      That's what's set forth in the Catechism in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer, p. 851:

     Q. What response did Christ require?
       A. Christ commanded us to believe in him and to keep his commandments.

       Q. What are the commandments taught by Christ?
       A. Christ taught us the Summary of the Law and gave us the New Commandment.

       Q. What is the Summary of the Law?
       A. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

      Q. What is the New Commandment?
      A. The New Commandment is that we love one another as Christ loved us.

      I think this is almost entirely wrong. Jesus didn't teach the Summary of the Law. The Summary of the Law is found only once in the Gospels. (Scripture scholars treat episodes in the Gospel of Mark which are repeated in Matthew and Luke as having one source, not three.) In an episode found in Mark, Matthew, and Luke (Mt 22:34-40; Mk 12:28-34; Lk 10:25-28), a scribe or lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. Matthew puts the question as "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Mark puts the question in similar words. Luke puts it as "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" In answer to the question in Matthew and in Mark, Jesus recited the Summary of the Law. In Luke, Jesus responded with a question of his own: "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" The lawyer recited the Summary of the Law, and Jesus approved the answer.
      There's thus an initial uncertainty: did Jesus himself ever actually recite the Summary of the Law himself, or did he simply listen to its recitation by the lawyer? Did Luke change the story by adding an error, or did he correct an error made by Mark and copied by Matthew? Of course, even if Jesus did recite the Summary of the Law, he didn't "teach" it. Answering a test question isn't the same as teaching. And there's no doubt that Jesus clearly identified the Summary of the Law as commandments of the "Law," which is to say of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The two great commandments are in fact set forth at Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus wouldn't have identified commandments from the Hebrew Scriptures as "my" commandments.
      The New Commandment, that we love one another, is similarly unlikely as a candidate for one of the commandments of Jesus. It was first taught as a commandment in Jesus's Last Supper discourse, at John 13:34 and 15:17, rather late for a principal teaching. And "Love one another" is simply another way of expressing the second great commandment, that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. It's not an original teaching of Jesus. While the command to love one another summarizes and underlies all of the ethical teachings of Jesus, it's not itself new.
      A second problem with the New Commandment as well as with the Summary of the Law is that both of them are on a level of generality unsuitable for a commandment. Love, that strange and highly personal combination of emotion, desire, self-deception, and choice, is a powerful motivation but an unreliable guide to conduct. What we should be looking for in the teachings of Jesus are commandments like the ten commandments of Moses: commands to do or to avoid doing a specific kind of moral act or practice. The New Commandment and the second great commandment, however noble, don't tell me anything specific about what I must do and what I must avoid, in the way that "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not kill" are specific. The lawyer who questioned Jesus about the Summary of the Law didn't know to whom the command to love one's neighbor should be applied, let alone how (Lk 10:29). So he asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. We'll be able to find teachings of Jesus which tell us specifically what we must do and what we must avoid. We should look to these teachings for his commandments.
      A third problem with the Summary of the Law and the New Commandment is that they're singularly unhelpful guides to the conduct of groups and institutions. A nation or a political party may, for example, adopt a policy of nonviolence, or of equality between persons, but neither a nation nor a party can adopt love as a policy or program. Neither the Summary of the Law nor the New Commandment address communal or social sin.
      It can of course be suggested that all of the teachings of Jesus are important, and that a listing of selected commandments is unnecessary and will leave out important teachings. But Jesus himself indicated that he thought that some of his ethical teachings were more important than others, because he repeated the more important ones many times and illustrated them with metaphor and parable. We ought to identify these teachings if we can. The absence of a list of the commandments of Jesus leads to an absence of focus on what Jesus actually taught. A listing will shed light on what Jesus considered to be his core teachings and the center of his ethical revelation.
      So I decided to sort and organize the ethical teachings of Jesus, so that I could identify his commandments. The principles of sorting and selection I developed and used are these four rules:
      First, a commandment of Jesus should be an original ethical teaching of Jesus, new and different from the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures or those of any other ethical tradition of ancient times. When Jesus says "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times . . . But I say to you . . .", this is a clue that Jesus is claiming, and delivering, a new and original ethical teaching. For this reason, among others, I don't consider the care of the poor, important as it is, to be among the commandments of Jesus, for it's not an original teaching. In contrast, non-judging, forgiveness, nonviolence, humility, and detachment from possessions aren't taught in the Torah, nor with any consistency in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. They are original teachings of Jesus.
      Second, Jesus repeated some of his ethical teachings over and over, often in different circumstances and in different words, and these repetitions are found in many different Gospel sources. The emphasis which Jesus thus gave to these teachings indicates strongly that they are among his commandments.
      Third, Jesus wanted his commandments to be understood and remembered. It's a strong indication that an ethical teaching of Jesus is among his commandments if Jesus taught it both by direct instruction and in a memorable illustration, metaphor, or parable. All of the commandments set forth below are supported not only by texts of direct command but also by one or more vivid metaphors or parables.
      Fourth and finally, it's generally true that the sermon or lecture, the "stump speech," contains the message the speaker came to convey. The answers a speaker gives to questions asked during the question-and-answer period may be important, but they address topics selected by the questioner, not the speaker, and they may or may not be what the speaker considers important. For example, the statement of Jesus about the indissolubility of marriage, "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:9), was given in answer to a test question from the Pharisees and isn't central to his message. I give greater importance to the teachings of Jesus which appear in his direct preaching than I do to the material he covered in the Q-and-A periods.
      With these selection criteria in mind, I sorted the ethical teachings of Jesus by subject. I didn't select the subjects; Jesus (with the help of the gospel writers, and their leather backpacks) selected the subjects. Whatever the subject matter, if the ethical teaching was original with Jesus, frequently repeated, memorably illustrated, and set forth in his direct preaching, it made the list.
      Five, and only five, ethical teachings or commandments of Jesus emerged from this study. Nothing else in all of the ethical teachings of Jesus approaches these five commandments in originality, frequency, and force of expression. What follows is a list of these five commandments of Jesus. I've summarized each commandment in my own words, to try to collate into one short sentence the several teachings of Jesus on each subject, and I've followed each statement of a commandment with quotations from the teachings of Jesus which support, explain, illustrate, and elaborate that commandment.


The following is the beginning of the last chapter, which summarizes the new approach to Christianity:

     As we begin this last chapter, let me sum up the elements of my approach to Christianity through the five commandments of Jesus:

     1. Life on earth is difficult for all of us human beings. We all begin life without culture or morals, and we must work to acquire and exercise self-control, basic skills, and specialized competencies by practice against resistance throughout life and through some suffering, and when we get good at these we get old and die.
     2. Life on earth is made more difficult for all of us by the presence in our genes of the naturally selected anti-social behaviors of violence, kinship affinity, dominant-submissive behaviors, and acquisitiveness.
     3. The social, cultural, and political institutions of the world, built upon the ancient human culture of sacrifice and its rituals and practices, have controlled and channeled these genetically based behaviors, not by opposing them, but by absorbing them into our institutions, laws, and customs.
     4. Jesus of Nazareth, a young Jewish man of the early first century, was a teacher sent by God. Throughout his life he was guided and inspired by a full indwelling of God in his consciousness, which made him in a real sense divine. He taught us, among other things, that God is a loving father to all humans.
     5. The central ethical teachings of Jesus, which are his five commandments, constitute a direct and specific instruction to men and women to resist and overcome our genetically based anti-social behaviors, and a specific description of the attitudes and actions which we are to put in their place.
     6. In his teachings and in his life and death, Jesus attacked the world's culture of sacrifice and the genetically based behaviors which it had internalized, seeking to uproot them, to reform humanity's public social, cultural, and political institutions, and to replace the culture of sacrifice with the kingdom of God.
     7. The ethical demands of the five commandments of Jesus are difficult to follow, but, on reflection, we can see that we ought to accept and practice them for the good of the world and for our own good, and that they offer a way, perhaps the only way, to overcome humanity's most difficult problems.
     8. It is by the overthrow of the culture of sacrifice and its replacement with the kingdom of God, which is the community of men and women who accept and practice the five commandments of Jesus, that Jesus redeems the world. That's what makes Jesus our redeemer and savior.
     9. Jesus didn't accomplish his redemptive activity by himself alone. Rather, he began our redemption by gathering those who would follow his teachings, teaching them, inspiring them, and then entrusting them with continuing the task. Completing the redemption of humanity by putting the five commandments of Jesus into practice is the task of the followers of Jesus. Thus many men and women will participate in the redemption of the world.

      Taken together, this is a somewhat unconventional view of Christianity, even though it is a view with strong support from the life and the teachings of Jesus himself. It isn't what most Christians have heard in church. It'll take some getting used to. But I believe an unconventional view of Christianity, such as the one presented here, may be more attractive to many of us than the conventional and traditional views.