The Sayings; ‘An Invitation To Be Creative’

Posted: August 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 11A, 2017 Matthew 16:21-27

The Sayings; ‘An Invitation To Be Creative’

Last week we explored the sources and place of the biblical writings in the life of faith and today as promised we will touch on the sayings which I claimed are the most authentic writings as history and thus can claim that they are the voice print of Jesus from which the Christian or Jesus Way developed. The first thing we need to recognize is that the sayings fragments of Jesus and the stories from that time were about the reality of life as if living in that time. They did not have any other purpose that making it better for the hearer.

I would also suggest along with others that this is the purpose of the gospel story we heard this morning be it for a different time and different audience. Matthew is a storyteller, and a storyteller’s imagination is necessary to the life of religion. This is a claim that imagination is important when approaching the scriptures, both in terms of searching for the historical context and the interpretation of the writings we have we shall take a brief look as promised at the sayings.

We acknowledged last week that our bewilderment and frustration is a result of Jesus having so little to say by way of explicit direction for getting on in the world. The fact is that Jesus chose not to be explicit, but rather to indulge in hyperbole, irony, and metaphor. And we presume he did this so that he could be more lucid in teaching his listeners to live wisely and judiciously. Insofar as Jesus’ teachings are to be honoured as the ground rules for a Christian ethic, reinterpretation, manipulation, supplementation seem not only to be permitted but actually required. We also acknowledged last week that nothing we have in early Christian literature goes directly from Jesus’ mouth to the evangelists’ ears! Everything that Jesus is credited with saying by all the writings is hearsay!

The current critical understanding of the Jesus tradition is as follows: The best we can tell is that the conclusion to Jesus’ brief public career occurred sometime between 26 and 36 CE. Some things he said during his public career were remembered by his earliest companions, and repeated to others after the crucifixion. These remembered words were later repeated around the Mediterranean basin and interpreted in new social settings and languages to still others. In the transmission the sayings were applied to a wide range of social and cultural contexts, which were different from the original context in which Jesus first uttered them. This period of oral tradition, is the social context in which the Jesus traditions (i.e., stories about Jesus and sayings attributed to Jesus) existed in living memory; it lasted well over a generation before being reduced to writing in the latter part of the first century, even though the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition survived into the second century. In the process of transmitting these traditions orally they were inevitably changed as they were performed in different languages and under different cultural situations. When trying to get a handle on just what these sayings went through in this oral period we can say that there are a few implications and some of them are as follows; Remember this is over approximately two generations.

  1. The first is that no sequential account of Jesus’ life was preserved.
  2. The second is that things were remembered because they were significant for faith.
  3. The third is that different explanations were given to the same saying or story.
  4. Subsequently;
    • The distinction between the original tradition and its later explanations becomes blurred.
    • The transmitted traditions were modified to suit the later social contexts on the basis of the languages and cultural environments in which they were performed.
    • Some things later attributed to Jesus did not originate with Jesus.
    • Sayings and stories orally performed tend to be reduced to a memorable core.

If these conclusions, reached by the many scholars who have analyzed the circumstances of the Jesus traditions in the oral period, are accurate, then we have little choice other than to wrestle with the reliability of the Jesus tradition as we have it preserved in the early Christian gospels, and this on top of what we know happened to the stories in the centuries nearer to our time.

We won’t have time to unravel any sayings today but I want to focus on the method of approach to the sayings, the first of which is what is known as Form Criticism. In other words; studying the forms of oral literature and their development. We also need to remember that it was only at the beginning of the last century that Hebrew Bible scholars began investigating the formal aspects of the Hebrew language. They recognized that in particular the book of Genesis consisted of small units of religious folk traditions having a lengthy oral history before being committed to writing. They analyzed the evolution of these oral units over time tracing them to a purported original social setting in the life of the Israelite community that produced them.

It may or may not be possible to sort out earlier oral forms from later oral forms when beginning with a written tradition and projecting backward over numerous years, but there is no denying the traditional aspects of the literature and its recognizable formal character, which is also found elsewhere in the ancient world. For example, Hermann Gunkel, the first scholar treating the book of Genesis to this kind of analysis, described the stories in Genesis as folk legends about the progenitors (i.e., the patriarchs) of the people of Israel. New Testament scholars eventually began applying the same approach to the gospels. They had the same goals as Hebrew Bible scholars which was to determine the original form of a piece of narrative, a dominical saying or a parable. In the process we learn to distinguish secondary additions and forms, and these in turn lead to important results for the history of the tradition.”

The earliest scholars to apply the methods and insights of Form Criticism to the gospels did not reach the same conclusions on either the formal identification of the traditional units in the gospels or the social contexts out of which they arose. They began from opposite ends of the form-critical process and as is logical came out with different answers. One approach begins by reconstructing the history of the synoptic tradition from a study of the community and its needs; and the other begins with the analysis of the particular elements of the tradition. Their answers were not opposed to each other, but rather engaged in mutually complementary and corrective work. They were engaged in the same enterprise, but their designations for the forms of the tradition were quite different. Subsequently however form-critical scholars have, in the main, been more influenced by the formal characteristics of the Jesus tradition. What we have quite a bit of, is the analysis of the traditional forms of language in early Christian literature— that is to say, the written forms of literature in the synoptic gospels. This is because we can only imagine the oral state of the form, which no longer exists. What is significant for us today is that every study of the gospels written from a critical perspective includes a short section on sayings attributed to Jesus from the perspective of oral tradition.

The work of the Jesus Seminar, upon which I depend falls into this same category of critical study. The seminar’s final five-year report on the sayings of Jesus found that 18% of everything attributed to Jesus in the first and second centuries following his public career passed the critical tests, and hence were considered to be sayings originating with a Galilean pundit for the imperial rule of God. It is from that 18% that we will look at one or two later in the month.

Before that we need to get more of a handle on what a saying might be and the first thing we note is that a description of a saying is in itself complex. Of the Language of Jesus all we have is some sayings and the first description is that a saying is a Quip: in other words a short memorable statement that can be amusing, strange, curious, eccentric, ironic, or, on occasion, sarcastic (i.e. a gibe). And when we talk about a saying we are looking for Hyperbole: In other words a statement that is extravagantly exaggerated. It presents something as greater or less, better or worse, or more intense than it actually is. We are also looking for ambiguity: in other words a condition in which something is capable of being understood in more than one way; it is equivocal, obscure, imprecise, and hence difficult to understand. We are looking for humor: in other words having a light or comic character which strikes one as amusing. We are looking for wisdom: in other words, sound judgment; having the quality of discerning what is true or right. We are looking for summary: in other words a brief abstract or compendium on a particular theme. We are looking for idiom: in other words a characteristic way of speaking that is peculiar to a particular person. We are looking for an Aphorism: in other words we are looking for a terse statement of a principle or precept usually unclear on its surface. We are looking for a Proverb: a brief distillation of community or traditional wisdom that is instantly clear on its surface. We are also looking for Paradox: a statement seemingly self-contradictory or absurd on its surface, but in reality possibly expressing a valuable insight. We are looking for a Pundit: an authority who announces opinions, judgments, conclusions in an authoritative manner. And we are also looking for a Quibble: an ambiguous or unclear statement to avoid a direct answer; an equivocation.

All of the above raises the question: how could any statement characterized by humour, hyperbole, ambiguity, and paradox contain a wisdom for practical living that can be orally passed on with some degree of precision, and that can also be easily accessible to the average person? The obvious answer is: it cannot. Essentially, the critical residue of the tradition originating with Jesus is largely enigmatic if one intends to forge from it a guide for daily living. Taken as a whole the, the Jesus tradition reveals Jesus to be, in Robert Funk’s words, a laconic sage (a wise man of few words), or perhaps a comic savant (one who embeds wisdom in humour). Over all it has to be said that lengthy speeches by Jesus (as opposed to the brief saying and short story) were not preserved in the oral period because of the difficulty of mentally retaining the speech and passing it on without condensing it.

We find that the sayings of Jesus most probably originating with him do not reveal him to be: an apocalyptic prophet who announced the end of the present world and the beginning of a new world, or a crucified redeemer who came to die for the sins of the world, or a religious mystic concerned primarily about personal union with God, or the founder of a universal religious institution, or even a moral teacher. In his terse quips Jesus strikes one like a provocative social critic and to judge from the stories he told, Jesus was a person of considerable native intelligence and a creative story teller who, was far more interested in life in this world than in the end of the world and an afterlife. It should never be forgotten that his idiom did not reflect Christian concerns, but rather consists of a wry perspective on the agrarian world of the Judean state religion in which he lived.

To judge from his discourse, Jesus was not religious in a traditional sense. He clearly believed in God, but, to judge from the vestiges of his discourse, he did not engage liberally in God-talk. His actual words dealt more with lower class village life in the early Roman Empire than it did with a philosophical probing of the Judean state religion, or in setting out a specific code of conduct for daily life— rather, he dealt generally in sweeping unrealistic challenges to daily life rather than in positing narrow legal rules to be followed as a code of conduct, and he leaves vague the practical decision as to how his ideas should be incorporated into daily life.

His sayings would have provoked questions with no definitive answers and his stories would have raised issues with no stated solutions. He did not engage auditors head-on with propositions and discursive arguments that led to their resolution. And thus, we are left with secular stories and brief challenging sayings, which leave auditors, and now readers, considering what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus leaves it up to the auditor— to his or her imagination and ingenuity, to make practical sense of his sayings. Today readers must struggle with the vestiges of his discourse first in terms of a first-century Palestinian setting, in which Jesus speaks to his fellow Israelites, in order to evaluate how a particular saying of Jesus may have resonated in the ancient Mediterranean world. Then readers must ponder what his words might mean for values and behaviour in the twenty-first century. A second important step here is to realize that the “meaning” of a saying is not the same under all circumstances. There is no one final irrevocable meaning to a saying for all time and every place that will be suitable as an explanation for a saying of Jesus, for “meanings” change with the “life baggage” individuals bring to the saying and with the circumstances in which the saying is considered. Meaning is individually constructed. Within certain parameters there is no one right or wrong explanation, and a range of plausible responses is always possible. The importance of this claim is its challenge to a faith dependent upon belief as a noun as opposed to a faith based on trust in human/divine co-creativity.

Matthew takes several stories well known in his small community, and borrows from Mark, and reshapes the story of Jesus needing to go to Jerusalem, into a teaching moment for his community. What we have here is Matthew looking back over some 50 to 60 years or so, on past events or stories, rather than looking forward to some expected future event. This is a primary concern of all the written material we have so while we can only ever work with story fragments, we have to presume that Jesus’ vision of God or the sacred, of wisdom beyond convention, of the central traditions or stories of Israel’s heritage, and his sensitivity to the poor and marginalised, struck his hearers as truly radical and for some, very risky. New imaginative thinking always is, and because of all of this ‘political’ stuff, Jesus died on a Roman cross. Not because of some preordained cosmic Divine Plan or Purpose which required his execution as a so-called act of redemption through blood. But because he was unwilling to compromise his vision of a possible re-imagined world. Reactors try to tighten their personal worldviews around them to protect themselves. Actors allow their lives to have spaces in them, and to greet life as ‘invitation’ rather than as ‘plan’. We are left with ‘an invitation’… in spite of the present economic circumstances or political arguments and/or grandstanding, an invitation to create our world, our community, our congregation, differently. Theology is always an ongoing activity of fresh, imaginative, and the re-construction of our understanding of the world and of God, and of human life in the world and under God.

Notes: Cupitt, D. 1995.  What is a Story? GtB: London. SCM.

Hedrick, Charles W.. The Wisdom of Jesus: Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (p. 86). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.


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