What kinds of lessons can a non-believer take from the story of Jesus? Well, first of all, I want to assure you: there are some. Almost anything you read will teach you something, even if it’s as simple as, “That person can’t write for shit.”
Jesus possesses a lot of qualities I like in a person. I wouldn’t say he was ideal, and he definitely had some beliefs and habits that would piss me off, but I think I could stand to be around the guy, and if there weren’t a language barrier, I’m sure we’d get along fine. If he could cure my asthma, that would also go a long way towards me seeing him as a bit more than “some guy.”
Jesus was a generous guy, and that’s an important quality to have. A lot of his miracles are about making food or drink for people. He heals people, which even if he didn’t actually heal them, I respect him for trying. He’s at least spending some time with sick and dying people, which is nice.
He’s also a man of the people. He’s not a rich guy, he doesn’t hang out with rich guys, and this is sort of a huge departure from most of the rest of the Bible. Most of the Bible is about high priests and kings, of pharaohs and generals, of princes and conquerors. Then, suddenly you have this guy who hangs out with prostitutes and tax collectors.
All the supernatural mumbo jumbo aside, Jesus was in with the outcasts and did a lot of favors for people. He was my kind of guy.
And boy did he hate the establishment. Not the government; Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about Rome, though what little he said was largely neutral (“render unto Caesar…”). Jesus didn’t like Roman or gentile culture, but he wasn’t a raving anti-Roman. So, conservatives… Jesus was largely ambivalent of the government. He focused most of his disdain upon the priests.
In fact, it was ultimately his questioning of the fundamentalists of his day that led to the priests having him tortured and killed. It’s sort of a very secular message, if you look at it realistically. If you question the religious powers, they may give you a most horrible demise.
The lesson of Jesus, then, has nothing to do with self-sacrifice, but with always being on the look-out for a religious lynch mob.
And that is why I still read religious texts as a non-believer. Still as true today as when it was written…