Friday, December 30, 2011
Joe E. Morris,Ph.D. Guest Post
The first Sunday in October in the United Methodist Church is World Wide Communion Sunday. On that occasion in 2009 my pastor was away. As a retired member of the conference, I was asked to conduct the service. I had not preached in years and a message was burning in my bones.
The ritual of Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is a central aspect of Christianity. To the early followers of Christ, it was the centerpiece of the simple worship services held in their homes. In the partaking of bread and wine during a common meal, they re-experienced the spiritual presence of Jesus the Christ. The celebration had little to do with memory as we understand it. Like the Jewish Passover, it was a re-enactment. Christ was meeting them in the present, not in a “thinking back” to events past. It was not just a “Do this in remembrance of me,” which prompted the thought, “I wish Jesus hadn’t said that.” Jesus meant something far different from the meaning of the phrase today. “Do this in remembrance of me” lets us off the hook. All we must do is remember Him, think about Him, a passive thought that requires no active participation in His Presence and ministry.
As I reflected on that saying, others I wish Jesus hadn’t said came to mind. It occurred to me that there are two sets of troubling passages. There are those sayings that make it hard for us to be a Christian and those that make it easy. The tough sayings sere and scorch, challenge and demand. They call us to accountability, responsibility, and action. These are the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount, to the Rich Young Ruler, to the adulteress about to be stoned. These are sayings G. K. Chesterton was possibly recalling when he said, “Christianity, even when watered down, is hot enough to boil all of society to rags.” These are the sayings that do not let us off the hook. The easy sayings seem to contradict and counter the hard sayings, almost as if Jesus is saying, “I didn’t mean it that hard.”
There are things I wish Jesus hadn’t said, not because they are hard, but because they are easy and allow us wiggle room with the hard sayings. They let us off the hook from spiritual, ethical, and moral obligations. They are also susceptible to questionable interpretation and more vulnerable to exploitation for personal or national agendas. They are easily ripped from context, manipulated, and distorted to allow excuses for behavior denounced in Jesus’ tough sayings. Some examples are “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town” (Matthew 10:11-15), and “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). These scriptures, respectively, have been interpreted and applied as reasons to wage war, denounce others, and reduce or end social outreach programs.
Both types of sayings threaded the communion meditation that Sunday. Following the message there were requests for notes that did not exist. The four page outline with narrative paragraphs that was developed evolved into Things I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said.
Some of these sayings are embedded in short stories. Jesus was a master of the short story. The classic short story outline—character, event, change—structures each scene. In quick strokes Jesus develops or evokes the character, creates the event, usually a challenge, which sets the stage for change in the character. In some of these stories, change occurs in the audience, and the reader. William Faulkner once remarked that novel outlines could be reduced to two words: sin and redemption. The same could be said of short stories and parables, the latter defined as condensed short stories.
This book can be read for personal edification, reflection, and meditation or used as a teaching tool with small groups. The structure of each chapter is straightforward and simple: The Text, The Context, The Message, and Further Questions for Reflection and Discussion.
In some chapters a thematic format works best while in others a line-by-line expository approach is more effective. The division subtitle “The Text” is the scripture. “The Context” discusses the placement of the passage within a larger text, the audience, underlying symbolic meanings, and, when appropriate, background and historical information. The dictionary definition of context is the parts of a book or other writing which immediately precede or follow a passage. Often we recall a scripture from memory and not where it fits in the flow of its original source. Attempting to understand or interpret a scripture in this manner is called “taking it out of context.” Context is also to how passages interweave into one body and interrelate. “The Message” of a scripture flows from its context. “Questions for Reflection and Discussion” are provided at the end of each chapter for personal meditation and study or group settings.
One reason for choosing these particular ten scriptures is their inter-relationship. Their messages interweave in the way the Ten Commandments hang together as a solid piece, interlocking and influencing each other at various points.
As readers move from passage to passage, they are encouraged to note the different audiences. At time, Jesus speaks to a multitude, at times to only His disciples, and on other occasions to a specific audience. Those listening to Him understood the context of His words. Centuries later, the context changes with different interpretations. Understanding these New Testament passages involves recognizing the context of the sayings, the use of symbolic language embedded in them, and the settings of the early church. The sayings of Jesus come to us through these filters which influence how we hear them today.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the New International Revised Version. In some cases, because of universal familiarity, the King James Version or Revised Standard Version are used. Parallel passages for each scripture are located, by chapter, in Appendix A.
One final note is in order. After writing this book on Things I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said and
exploring the sayings in depth and achieving a greater understanding, I am glad he said them. Hopefully, this sampling of the hard and easy sayings of Jesus will give others a greater understanding of them.