I heard something very interesting recently on a podcast featuring Bible scholar Peter Enns. I want to start this post by paraphrasing something he said that struck me: when we treat the Bible as a message to be proclaimed we expect it to be simple and unified, something that, apart from a couple of corner cases, a child could understand. However, the way that Jewish people have traditionally approached their sacred texts (many of which are found in the Christian Bible) is as more of a debate or a struggle. They see value in the act of wrestling with the text, not simply in the conclusions.
The discussion of the Bible as a whole is best left for another post (or several posts), as today I want to focus more narrowly on the words of Jesus. I think that, more than any other parts of the Bible, Christians try to proclaim the words of Jesus as a message because they are so foundational to the gospel message that many Christians, myself included, want the world to hear. However, I do think we fall into the trap of assuming that we always know what’s going on with Jesus. We have a conception of him that fits the message we are proclaiming, and we tend to assume that his words and actions will always fit that conception.
Some words that might commonly be applied to Jesus are ‘loving’, ‘compassionate’, ‘wise’, ‘authoritative’, ‘radical’, ‘counter-cultural’, etc. I think there is a lot of truth to those words. But when we box Jesus in, it becomes harder to understand why he does things that don’t fit that conception.
An example of this that struck me recently – and prompted this post – is in Luke 4. After his temptation in the desert and a short spell of teaching round Galilee, Jesus returns to Nazareth, his hometown. He starts off by reading a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah that is basically a prophecy about him and what he has come to do, and Luke writes that, ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips’ (v. 22).
So far so good. Jesus is being authoritative and wise, just like we expect him to be, and people are responding well. But then he seems to go off the rails. He says, ‘No prophet is welcome in his hometown,’ and tells stories about Elijah and Elisha, two Old Testament prophets, when God sent them away from their homes to help non-Jewish people.
There are a number of reasons why this would have been upsetting to the people he was talking to, and sure enough, they turn on him to such an extent that they try to drive him off a cliff! This turn of events is, quite simply, baffling. Jesus could have sat down and stopped teaching, and everyone who had heard him would have been happy. Instead, he presses on, past the point of no return, and riles everyone in the town up. It seems so unnecessary.
If you’re expecting my explanation of why Jesus did what he did, then I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. I am still wrestling that passage and trying to understand. What does seem clear to me is that Jesus is directly challenging his listeners. He is not content to say what they want to hear, but goes further, saying something that, for whatever reason, they need to hear. There are plenty of other times in the gospels where Jesus directly challenges people when other words might have placated them. Most of his exchanges with the Jewish religious authorities fall into this category, as does an occasion like his exchange with the rich young man, who wants to follow inherit eternal life, but ends up going away distraught because Jesus tells him to sell all he has (Mark 10).
If there is a unified message in all of this, it seems to me that it is an admonishment to spend more time really reading the accounts of Jesus, not just skipping over them in the assumption that I know what Jesus taught and did. The fact that I can be so stumped by a passage after years of reading it without a second thought shows how limited I was in my own approach to the Gospels.
My hope for my own life is that I will read the Gospels more carefully, and do all that I can to avoid going in with preconceptions about what Jesus is saying and doing. The last thing I want to do is assume that I know what’s going on, and miss a challenge that Jesus has for my own life.
If you want to join me in this attempt to go deeper into the Gospels, and the Bible as a whole, then please go for it! Don’t wait to pick up your Bible – if you have some spare time (which I assume you do, as you’re reading this) pick it up! I don’t know what works for you when you read the Bible, but I know that something that I try to do more of now is when you read something that challenges you, or that you don’t understand, read it again. Don’t just move on in confusion, but take some time to reread the passage and pray to God about it, and let him speak to you through it.
Anyway, I don’t want to take up anymore of your time. Go and learn more about Jesus!