“Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock” (Matt. 7:24, 25).

Jesus’ teaching, as set forth in the Gospels of the New Testament, is thought by many people to have little or no direct relation to the hard, stern world in which we live. To be sure, they feel, what Jesus said would be fine if human nature were other and better than it actually is—if, as W. S. Gilbert put it, “hearts were twice as good as gold, and twenty times as mellow.” But as it is, Jesus’ lofty idealism is too impractical for everyday consumption. George Bernard Shaw once described the Sermon on the Mount as “an unpractical outburst of anarchism and sentimentality.” Sigrid Undest has put the same point in a biting sentence in which she speaks about thinking of Jesus as “a frail and kindly visionary with no knowledge of human nature as it really is, or as an amiable young preacher with a special talent for touching the hearts of Women’s Unions.”

At least two things should be said about this whole viewpoint. For one thing, Jesus would have been painfully surprised—not to say dismayed—to find his teaching dismissed in such a way. Certainly he never considered himself a vague and impractical dreamer, living high above the din and tumult of daily life. Still less did he consider himself an effeminate sentimentalist, more at home at pink teas than in the crowded marketplaces of life. On the contrary, he insisted time and time again that his teaching was meant to be soberly realistic in the highest degree. For example, in the well-known fourteenth ...

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