I think all of us who try to understand Jesus deal with two basic problems. The first of these involves the issue of transformation and change. Most recognize that the advent of Jesus was connected with a predicted change of monumental importance. The exact nature and scope of that change has been endlessly debated.
The second problem is a bit more subtle. It deals with trying to sort our from among all that Jesus said, what the essence of his message was and how it applies to our daily lives. This sorting process is complicated by the veiled way Jesus used parables and other forms of apparently symbol language. Even when he seemed to speak clearly and concisely as in the Sermon on the Mount, what he said seems preposterous. Love your enemies; baloney- that's likely to get you killed.
Anyone who claims to be a Christian or a believer in the biblical record eventually will face these issues, if only subconsciously. We now live 2000 years after Christ in a world where the idea that Jesus introduced mankind to something marvelously new and transformative is often hard to reconcile with what we experience in life. People still suffer. People still die. Wars still rage. Human misbehavior abounds. So what's so different now from before Jesus. This question was exactly what drove me in the mid eighties to seek a new understanding of the Bible.
In addressing this problem of no discernible change in the human condition post Christ, I have noted at least three approaches. Many traditionalists, insist that the promised change was postponed for some reason or possibly just misunderstood as to its timing and will occur in the future at a predicted Return of Christ with all its associated resurrection, judgment, etc.
Another group insists that the changes brought by Jesus occurred as predicted but were unobservable, happening in the spiritual realm and involving a change of status between God and man. This change is often spoken of as a re-establishment of a lost relationship, one severed by man's disobedience in the Garden, originally. Some in this group debate the exact scope of this unobserved change in terms of who received its benefit, but a portion hold it to be universal.
Still a third group wants to confine most, if not all, of the Bible to the Jews, meaning that all the instructions and promises were for them exclusively. Thus mankind in general needn't look to Jesus at all, because he was a Jewish Messiah/King who had a message for and mission to Jews only.
The second problem, to which I refer, tends to tie would be believers into knots. These knots are created by NT instructions which go so against the grain in terms of normal human reaction, that they seem absurd. Love your enemies, overcome evil with good, turn the other cheek, blessed are the meek, live and die by the sword, each of these ideas sound so unreal, so downright foolish, that they receive little emphasis in Christian doctrine.
Instead, that doctrinal emphasis has been placed on things like an eternal struggle between good and evil, the veracity of certain historical events, the nature of Jesus, a sanctioned biblical interpretation, chosen men to lead, and proper worship of God. The eternal struggle theme has turned the church member into a warrior, not a peacemaker. The emphasis on biblical accuracy and veracity has allowed mere human wisdom to become divine. The assignment of divinity to Jesus has meant that his life and words become otherworldly and therefore inapplicable to mere human beings. It also associates Jesus with the OT God of wrath. The establishment of an accepted biblical interpretation has restricted the ability of the church to grow and evolve in its understanding of Jesus. The reverence for church leaders, making them somehow superior, has simply served to maintain a religious status quo, denying the need for any re-evaluation. Then the idea of proper and acceptable worship has again reflected us back to the OT concept of an arbitrary, demanding, and easily offended God, thereby denying any real newness of relationship.
Traditional Christianity has dealt with the counter intuitiveness of much in the NT by largely ignoring the passages except to occasionally noted their implausibility in the real world. The words are noted but only to say that compliance is so hard that in effect we can't even try. Human nature, you know, is such that no one realistically expects anyone to internalize such ethereal concepts. If a Gandhi or Mother Teresa is held up as an exception, we usually can note some place where they failed to measure up and thereby conclude that they are not a good example after all. Didn't Mother Teresa admit to doubting God on occasion. The imperfections of others become another excuse to dismiss the whole idea.
Some have suggested that the Sermon on the Mount was directed at Jews only, in accordance with those claiming that all of the Bible was only for Jews. Maybe Jesus was only telling the Jews to submit to the Romans and avoid the impending disaster of AD 70.
I believe there is one more subconscious factor which impels many of us to dismiss this counter intuitiveness in the NT. A part of the message is that there are no degrees of sinfulness, eliminating the method of assigning moral superiority to some "good' people. By emphasizing the equality of sinfulness in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus essentially said you are no better than the worst man and no worse than the best man. Wow! If I can't worry about the struggle of good over evil, how will I ever occupy my time? What do I have to get worked up about? What about rapists, murders, terrorists?
So what about evil and its effects, if there are no "Good" and "Bad" people, according to Jesus? I think we might consider that just plain people can behave well and evilly without being labeled as good or bad. Despite their behaviors, they remain simply flawed human beings, like all of us. We can therefore observe behaviors, recognize the consequences, and even condemn and resist certain actions, while still maintaining the basic worthiness of the perpetrator. We do this sort of thing all the time with family members and loved ones, loving them despite their mistakes and knowing full well this is necessary and the right thing to do. In fact, this view of people is the very answer to how we should our our ancestors who may have engaged in what is now widely recognized as bad behavior, slavery or whatever. They weren't bad people, just imperfect in their actions. Their worth is not measured by their actions. This need to justify our fond memories of past loved ones is just one more reason to agree that people are not bad just because they behave badly.
Many will be familiar with a book entitled Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. One could easily write another book called Why Good People Do Bad Things. Any of us could be a chapter in such a publication.
Finally, I propose another way to interpret the idea of transformation post Christ and to perhaps come to grips with these mind boggling commandments from the NT. I recall that years ago Tim King noted an expression, which I recall as being African in origin. The expression was this: I pointed to the moon and all you saw was my finger. This is important to my point because I perceive that what we have tended to do with Jesus is to see his person as the essential element in transformation and not his message. He was the pointer, not what we were supposed to focus on. What did Jesus point us to? God in his true nature? True, I think, but is that all? Didn't he point us to abundant living with its joy, peace, and freedom? Seemingly so. Were those blessing for here and now or only obtained in prospect? What about the fruits of the spirit, apparently connected with the spiritual realm?? Are these to be embraced and demonstrated only after physical death?
I have personally struggled with the thought that if I attempt to address all these difficult commands, won't I be right back where I was when I was a traditionalist, burdened with the impossibility of evangelism. That's troubling. Give up a burden to take on another.
I think a possible answer to the dilemma is to reconsider all of this counter intuitiveness as other than commandments which require compliance under some divine penalty. That is not to say there is no penalty, just that it is not divinely driven. We perhaps need to know that the law of reaping and sowing is always in effect. Actions have consequences, but not because God has to pass judgment and direct punishment. It just happens naturally.
I fully believe that when Jesus said things like love your enemy he was really advising us to forsake hate as a motivation in our lives. Hate is a poison to our souls and our physical well being. Hate allows us to create enemies where one never existed before. Hate induces fear and anxiety. Who needs that?
If we view the "commandments" of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, as a suggested way to alter our minds and transform our world, instead as imperatives reinforced by a divine threat, then the words become an opportunity. Jesus says this is another way to think and act with marvelous consequences. You can choose to change and enjoy the transformation, or just continue on as you are and maybe later you'll grow to change. Your choice. Thus the promise of transformation, post Christ, always awaits fulfillment while we develop to the point where we might more fully accept the challenge of mind renewal, offered by Jesus' words.
Under this paradigm their is no universal salvation moment. Salvation is a process. Salvation becomes reality to the extent that what Jesus taught saves me from an old way of thinking. Transformation becomes observable and verifiable as one more individual realizes and adopts, if even partially, the better way Jesus showed. The reason change has been missing is because we have seen the change agent as transforming God instead of mankind. Because we have obsessed with Jesus' shed blood and not what he taught.
This opportunity, presented by Jesus, to change, grow, and enjoy is not a cause for guilt if we see that we are not in perfect alignment yet. The opportunity is always available. It is never withdrawn. Keep on living and hopefully loving with an ever expanding circle. You are on the right path.