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The Challenge of His Sayings

Humans love challenges. Some prefer challenges related to ideas, others to practical things. Whether you prefer to work crosswords, plan Sabbath dinner menus, or enhance production efficiencies, satisfaction results from meeting challenges. This week’s lesson examines challenging sayings of Jesus, a topic to engage both bends of mind. Out of these sayings, some wish to do theology, others service.

There are multiple ways to resolve the tensions that challenging texts generate. One common method is to import a classification system that enables one to evade the hard work that learning from these texts requires. For example, to classify the words of Jesus into separate categories such as teachings vs. sayings implies that some of Jesus’ words have a higher claim to our attention than others. Although this implication may be true, the imprecision of the categories, teachings vs. sayings, allows easy escape routes for texts we don’t wish to follow. The Gospels use both terms, but not as categories. For example, to what category would you assign words that follow this common introduction: Jesus opened his mouth and taught them, saying…?

Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The word perfect frightens us because we know how far we are from being perfect. And it is so useful to compel one another to try a little harder. The word perfect (teleos) has a variety of semantic meanings, but the literal command in its most stringent application is not possible, for it would be commanding humans to have infinite capacities. I suggest we allow the Lukan parallel to guide us in the interpretation here and see that it is focused on how we act toward others—a command that we act with mercy as God acts with mercy. This is not to stray from Matthew’s reading, for the context immediately preceding this verse says that God makes the sun shine on the evil and the good, and sends rain upon the just and the unjust, to which Matthew 5:48 provides the conclusion, Therefore, act with the same disregard toward good and bad as God does in sending sun and rain. That is truly a challenging command interested in service. Compare Luke 6:36.

Matthew 18:21–22: (21) Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (22) Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Like ice cream, the number in the text, both in manuscript variants and translations, comes in several flavors, which makes the point that score keeping misses the meaning of forgiveness. Treating the other with forgiveness, regardless of the number of times is to act as God acts.

Matthew 19:3–12: (3) Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” (4) He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ (5) and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? (6) So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (7) They said to him, “Then why did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” (8) He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (9) And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” (10) His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (11) But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. (12) For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

One of the challenges here is that even though divorce is not the ideal, Moses in the law made allowance for divorce because of the hardness of human hearts. The importance of verse 11 to Jesus’ words can be neglected, but it seems to recognize that when hearts are hard, allowance is an option, and since not all accept the ideal, there is opportunity to practice mercy upon even the hardhearted, particularly when Matthew 5:48 is taken seriously.

Matthew 19:3–12 recognizes that there are complicated issues with regard to human sexuality. The less frequently considered portion deals with eunuchs. People are not all born alike, have not all been treated alike, and do not all act alike. Jesus seems to repeat the same concern for the ideal in verse 12d as he did in verse 11: there is an ideal, but not all can accept it. When hearts are “hard,” when conditions vary from individual to individual, there is opportunity to act mercifully toward difference as God acts when God sends the welcome rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).

Luke 12:32-34 (32) Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (33) Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (34) For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Salvation has to be removed from the equation in order to understand this text (and others). The equation is not salvation = selling and giving. Before any commands are made (vs. 33), the kingdom has already been given (vs. 32). When the treasure is with people in need, the heart is with God. The challenging words of Jesus become most pointed in texts like this. The challenge is not in what is to be believed, but what is practiced.

John 19:25–27: (25) Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. (26) When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” (27) Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Any number of challenges stand in these three verses. Didn’t Jesus love other disciples? If so, why is this disciple identified as the one “whom he loved”? There are three Marys in this scene, but why would any family name two of their daughters both Mary? Why would one address one’s mother as “woman”? These, however, are red herrings to the core issue of valuing people. Concern is not to be limited to beggars, eunuchs, the divorced, and repeat offenders, but also to family, as portrayed in the concern of Jesus for the care of his mother.

The truly challenging words of Jesus are not those that provide intellectual puzzles, but those, usually straightforward sayings, that teach us to take care of the enemy, the poor, the imprisoned, the widow, the orphan, and the family member. It is not believing in mercy, but enacting mercy where the truly challenging words of Jesus confront us.

A New Testament scholar by training, Ron Jolliffe is professor of English at Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington.

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