The Jesus teaching in a nutshell

Posted on

© Cynthia Bourgeault, June 2008

(excerpted from Chapter 8, “The Great Identity Theft,” of my book on Mary Magdalene, forthcoming from Shambhala Publications, July 22, 2010)

As we set out to consider the teachings of Jesus as an integrated spiritual method, we are entering territory that is both familiar and unfamiliar. Most people growing up in the Western cultural stream will have had some exposure to these teachings (if only as ethical precepts), but the apparent familiarity of the subject matter can blind us to its radical strangeness and difficulty. Perhaps more than any other spiritual teacher, Jesus requires a real beginner’s mind, a willingness to unlearn what one already presumably knows and start with a completely clean slate. In this spirit, then, I would like to begin by describing what seem to me to be the three constitutive elements of the path Jesus discovered;  then, on the basis of these characteristics, I will propose to identify what branch of the spiritual stream it most properly belongs to. I will of course be making use of not only of familiar reference points in the canonical gospels but also the new resources opened up in the Nag Hammadi gospels that we began to explore in Part I of this book.

These three constitutive elements are kenosis, abundance, and singleness.


Kenosis comes from the Greek verb kenosein, which means to empty oneself. It was Paul who first applied this term to Jesus. In a moment of intuitive brilliance he grasped the essential element in Jesus’s methodology, and described it in his immortal words of Philippians 2:9-16 3
Though his state was that of God,
yet he did not deem equality with God
something that he should cling to.
Rather, he emptied himself *
and assuming the state of a slave
he was born in human likeness.
He being known as one of us
humbled himself obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.
For this God raised him on high
and gave him the name
which is above every other name
So that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.
And so every tongue should proclaim
“Jesus Christ is Lord!”
To God the Father’s glory.

(*  this is the place where the verb kenosein appears)

As Paul so profoundly realizes, self-emptying is the touchstone, the core reality underlying every moment of Jesus’s human journey. Self-emptying is what brings him into human form, and self-emptying is what leads him out, returning him to the mode of glory. The full realization of his divine selfhood comes not through the concentration of being, but through a voluntary divestment of it.

We have already seen this same self-emptying motion described in that brilliant “divestment” metaphor of Logion 21 in the Gospel of Thomas. When asked to describe his students, Jesus responds:
They are like small children living in a field not their own.
When the landlords return and demand, “Give us back our field!”
the children return it by simply stripping themselves
and standing naked before them. 4
“Stripping oneself and standing naked:” this is the essence of the kenotic path. And it is, in fact, is precisely the strategy that Jesus employs during the famous temptation narratives of the canonical gospels. In each case Satan asks him to take (feed yourself by turning stones into bread; display yourself by drawing on your divine powers; advance yourself by letting me set you up as ruler of the entire world). Jesus responds by simply letting go of the bait being dangled, being content to rest in his emptiness.

It is also the methodology he will reaffirm during his ordeal in the garden of Gethsemane (“Not my will but yours be done”), and which will carry him through the crucifixion, the harrowing of hell (if my reading of Dialogue Three in the gospel of Mary Magdalene is correct), and the final forty days of his time on earth following the resurrection.

Kenosis is not the same as renunciation. Renunciation implies a subtle pushing away; kenosis is simply the willingness to let things come and go without grabbing on. For all intents and purposes it is synonymous with non-clinging or non-attachment But unlike a more Buddhist version of this spiritual motion, kenosis has a certain warm spaciousness to it; to the degree one does not assert one’s own agenda, something else has the space to be.  The “Letting go” of kenosis is actually closer to “letting be” than it is to any of its “non-“ equivalents (non-clinging, non-attachment, non-identification, etc.); its flow is positive and fundamentally creative. Between the “let it be” of kenosis and the “let it be” by which biblical tradition envisions Creation itself as having come into existence, there is a profound resonance.

This second pillar of Jesus’s teaching is often seen but rarely recognized. The kenosis Jesus has in mind is not a stoic stance against a pitiless reality; rather, it is a direct gateway into a divine reality which can be immediately experienced as both compassionate and infinitely generous. Abundance surrounds and sustains us like the air we breathe; it is only our habitual self-protectiveness that prevents us from perceiving it. Thus, the real problem with any constrictive motion (taking, defending, hoarding, clinging) is that it makes us spiritually blind, unable to see the dance of divine generosity which is always flowing toward us.

In this sense, then, kenosis is first and foremost a visionary tool rather than a moral one; its primary purpose is to cleanse the lens of perception. Letting go is not in order to get something better (the point Paul misses in the second half of his Philippians hymn); in and of itself it is the something better. For it immediately restores the broken link with the dynamic ground of reality, which its very nature flows forth from a fullness beyond imagining.

Since this point is so fundamentally counterintuitive for our anxiety-prone minds, little wonder that Jesus takes every occasion to hammer it home. In virtually all his teachings the fundamental leitmotif is an “over-the top” generosity that leaves its recipients not only satisfied but bedazzled. Think of all those well-loved gospel stories— the prodigal son, the good samaritan, the loaves and fishes, the water turned into wine, the woman with the alabaster jar, the fishing nets cast in the Galilean Sea—and you’ll see what I mean. It is not a question of “adequate,” or “barely enough,” but of a fullness “filled up, pressed down, running over” (Luke x:xx).

In exactly the same measure, his implacable stance against any kind of greed or hoarding is because these motions lead to constriction, or in other words to spiritual and physical death.  Life is an exchange, and in this exchange the Mercy of God is made real (I am indebted to Helen Luke, in her marvelous book Old Age, for pointing out thatthe linguistic root of the word “mercy” is in fact the Old Etruscan merc, which means “exchange” 5). The modern spiritual teacher Michael Brown succinctly summarizes the core principle at the heart of Jesus’s practical teachings: “‘Giving and receiving’ is the energetic frequency upon which our universe is aligned. All other approaches to energy exchange immediately cause dissonance and disharmony in our life experience.” 6
To experience abundance is essentially to see from oneness. It is to know, intimately, the wholeness that underlies and belies our surface impression of separation and scarcity. In the Eastern traditions this realized oneness is known as nonduality, and while Jesus knew it by another name (we’ll see what it is very shortly), he was clearly familiar with the state itself and yearned to impart it to his followers. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he urged (Luke 12:32)—“it is my father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!” But this gift can only be received in a state of deep inner emptiness, for any grasping and self-assertion will shatter the unity of which abundance is the mirror. Between kenosis, abundance, and oneness there is in Jesus’s methodology an unbreakable connection.


This unitive realization of the fullness ushers a person into a state which Jesus calls “singleness.” In the canonical gospels the term does not stand out, but a whole series of teachings in the Gospel of Thomas (5, 15, 18, 22, 23, 61, 75, 84, 106, 114 makes its meaning indisputably clear. It is Jesus’s term for the attained state of nonduality. Logion 5 succinctly describes this state, in which one sees from the wholeness and lives from the abundance:
Come to know the One
In the presence before you
And everything hidden from you will be revealed…7
It is fascinating how closely this idea resonates with what the Eastern traditions would call “enlightenment.” Breaking through the egoic mind’s compulsive need to divide the perceptual field into paired opposites (inside and outside, male and female, subject and object, and so forth), consciousness simply coincides with its source and looks at the world through a single lens of wholeness. To be able to “make the two become one” in this fashion is to reunite with the creative principle of the universe itself:
When you are able make two become one,
the inside like the outside, and the outside like the inside
the higher like the lower,
so that a man is no longer male, and a woman, female,
but male and female become a single whole…
—then you shall enter in.

(Logion 22)
When you are able to transform two into one,
then you too will become “Sons of Man,”
and it will be possible for you to say to a mountain,
“Move,” and it will move.

(Logion 106)
In the Aramaic language of Jesus’s immediate followers, followers, one of the earliest titles given to hims was Ihidaya, “ the Single One,” or the “Unified One.”8  In context, it speaks unmistakably of this state of inner oneness; it designates the anthropos, the fully realized human being: the enlightened master of Eastern tradition, or the monad or “undivided one” of hermeticism.

The “great identity theft” to which the title of this chapter refers is that in remarkably short order this term which was so clearly intended to designate Jesus’s attained state of inner oneness should come to be interpreted as “singleness” in the sense of being unmarried, “the celibate one.” 9  (This is not, of course, intended to argue the case one way or the other as to Jesus’s marital status, but simply to insist that the primary reference point for the “singleness” described by the Aramaic ihidaya and Greek monachos refers to a state of unitive, or non-dual consciousness and not a state of voluntary celibacy.)


3 The version of this text I am citing here is a translation by the monks of New camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur, California, in active use in their liturgical and devotional life. It was through many years of singing this hymn with the monks during Saturday night vespers that its deeper significance began to open to me.

4 Lynn Bauman, ed. The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin (Ashland, OR: White Cloud, 2004), p. 48.

5 Helen Luke, Old Age (New York: Parabola Books, 1987), p. 84.

6  Michael Brown, The Presence Process (Vancouver, Canada: Namaste Publishing, 2006), p. 246.

7 These and the following two citations from Thomas are all from the Bauman edition: Logion, p. 15; Logion 22, p. 51; Logion 106, p. 221.

8 I discuss this point more thoroughly in my article “The Gift of Life: The Unified Solitude of the Desert Fathers,” Parabola Vol. XIV, No. 2 (summer 1989), pp. 27-35. The original research comes from Dr. Gabriele Winkler, “The Origins and Idiosyncrasies of the Earliest Form of Asceticism,” The Continuing Quest for God: Monastic Spirituality in Tradition and Transition, ed. William Skudlarek, O.S.B. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical press, 1981)

9  I am indebted to my friend, Islamic scholar Ibrahim Gamard, in a letter to me on July 18, 1998, for his insight that “in the Islamic tradition monasticism was disapproved of in the Qur’anic verse which states that the monasticism of the followers of Jesus was invented by them and was not something commanded by God.”


Learn why Co-Creation can re-energize those practicing servant leadership through nonprofit work.

Comments are closed.