Roughly two thousand years ago, there was a woman who went into labor in a province of the Roman empire. Her son would go on to be one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. He taught people about the importance of kindness, mercy, forgiveness, on doing one’s duty, on the corruptive influence of wealth and the redemptive power of poverty and adversity. Eventually, his wisdom became controversial, a threat to the state, and so he was painfully put to death by the Romans. As he experienced the agony and humiliation of a very public death sentence, he asked his loved ones and his followers to stay strong, to forgive the excesses of an emperor who did not know what he was doing. In those brave final moments, he immortalized himself forever.
Who are we talking about? Today is Christmas, you are thinking, that’s obviously the life of Jesus. Well, it’s also the life of Seneca. Remarkably, Seneca and Jesus lived nearly parallel lives. Not only that, but they were also born—according to many sources—in the same year. No one can confirm for certain the exact birth date for either, but it is indisputable that two of history’s greatest philosophers walked the earth at the same time.
More incredible is just how much their teachings overlap. And it’s worth taking some time this Christmas morning to consider those similarities:
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” — Jesus
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” — Seneca
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” — Jesus
“It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.” — Seneca
“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” — Jesus
“You look at the pimples of others when you yourselves are covered with a mass of sores.” — Seneca
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal…No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” — Jesus
“If my wealth should melt away it would deprive me of nothing but itself, but if yours were to depart you would be stunned and feel you were deprived of what makes you yourself. With me, wealth has a certain place; in your case it has the highest place. In short, I own my wealth, your wealth owns you.” — Seneca
Now Seneca was obviously just a man—a flawed and contradictory man at that—while Jesus—depending on your beliefs—was both a man and God. But it is fascinating to think that they were both born in the same year, in the same empire, and died bravely facing evil. Both would be immensely popular in their own time, and long after. Both would run afoul of the powerful interests of their time. Both would be forced, in their final moments, to live their teachings—Jesus, on the cross, asking for forgiveness for the people who had wronged him. Seneca as he comforted his friends and family when Nero’s goons came to demand his suicide. Tacitus, who also tells us about the life of “Christus,” would note how Seneca had made plans for such an ordeal, writing that “even in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of his life’s close.” So too, the Bible tells us, had Jesus.
Their words and their example lives on.
Especially here as we bring 2021 to a close, wondering how we’ll get through this, how we’ll survive. We’ll make it by clinging to these timeless principles from those timeless philosophers. We’ll get by on love, on wisdom, on courage, and self-discipline. We’ll find beauty in the ordinary. We’ll be of service to others. We’ll zoom out and look at the big picture. We’ll zoom in on what’s immediately in front of us. We’ll find something to be grateful for—because there is always something to be grateful for.
Life is short, Seneca said. It was short for Jesus, too. What matters is what you do while you’re here. What matters is what you do with the year (and the days) you’ve been given. What matters is the example you leave behind you for others to follow.
Enjoy today. Don’t be afraid. Do what’s right.
Follow in their footsteps. They’ve shown us the way.