Tuesday, 11 November 2014

What Jesus Really Meant

Image: Vmenkov via Wikimedia
I really do spend too much of my time as a preacher reading the words of Jesus in the Gospels and then immediately contradicting them, publicly and rather guilelessly.

I mean well, I really do. But I still contradict him far too often. It's started to worry me a great deal.

Here's how it goes. I stand up in church and read a passage from the Gospels. Jesus says something difficult and challenging. You know, something like his words to the rich young man in Mark 10: "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." I sense the difficulty and want to soften it, to accommodate it, to negotiate it for myself and for my congregation. So I stand up and begin to preach roughly along these lines: "Now what Jesus really meant here was ..."

What follows is plausible, pastoral, hopefully thoughtful and helpful, and perhaps in many respects actually right. But the problem is this: it's usually the complete opposite of what Jesus actually said. And so I take the sting out of his words and make them, well, more comfortable. Which is starting to make me very uncomfortable.

Here are a few examples:

What Jesus says ... Sell everything and give to the poor.
What I preach ... Get your priorities straight around money. It's your heart attitude that counts.

What Jesus says ... Let the dead bury their own dead. You, come follow me.
What I preach ... Rabbinic hyperbole. Go ahead and bury your dead. Then follow him.

What Jesus says ... One thing is needed: Mary (the listening contemplative) has chosen the better part.
What I preach ... Martha (the active minister) is the thing we really need. Stay on the church rotas, for goodness sake. But also be contemplative and listen to the Lord.

I've got good reasons for all these interpretations, and I've got a lot church tradition on my side (not to mention to example of most of my clergy colleagues). But really, how often can I undercut Jesus before I'm simply saying he's wrong? I mean, there likely are folks in some of the congregations where I preach who do need to sell everything and give to the poor (even if it's a small percentage of the whole). There are people who need to put discipleship even above their grief and bereavement. There are people who need to stop doing and start listening attentively to the Lord - many, many people, I suspect.

I'm wondering how best to handle this, how to think it through as a preacher. What do you think? How should I handle it? Preachers, what do you do? Sermon-hearers, what do you experience?

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