The Sayings of Jesus

Posted: September 5, 2017 in Uncategorized

The Sayings of Jesus

Exodus 34: 14, Matt 4: 10, Matt 10: 16; Mark 12: 17, Matt 5: 43– 44

As I indicated last week the approach of the Jesus Seminar and their colour scheme for evaluating the sayings of Jesus (red-pink-gray-black) is the approach that represents the most critical sorting of the Jesus tradition to date. The sayings we examine a little today are those in the gray area meaning they include some that many Jesus Seminar scholars include as most likely out of the mouth of Jesus. Web remember also my claim of last week that Jesus’ idiom is basically the language of the secular world. He is generally not straightforward, but oblique; he is not clear but appears deliberately ambiguous. He is provocative and permissive— in that he leaves it to his hearers to decide how they should incorporate what he says into their lives. Sometimes he speaks obliquely in hyperbole, at other times he is brutally direct. We note particularly that his direct speech gives hearers the most difficulty, since what he says seems to work against one’s own human self-interest— many of the sayings strike the reader as unclear, or impractical and unreasonable. It’s from these that we look at today.

Be as sly as snakes and simple as pigeons. (Matt 10: 16; Gos. Thom. 39b)

This perplexing saying throws together two contrasting personality traits. Its brief form and content, identifies it as an aphorism. Aphorisms are terse statements unclear on their surface forcing the auditor/ reader to ponder them. This aphorism, it turns out, presents the reader with a paradox. It is impossible to be both sly and simple at the same time. Why? Because, “Sly” connotes someone who is shrewd, calculating, cunning, or wily. Whereas, “Simple” connotes someone who is uncomplicated, guileless, or gullible. Trying to be both at once is like mixing oil and water— they simply don’t mix. The character traits are so different.

But it then gets even more complicated. In general, in the ancient world the saying would evoke a consideration of certain positive character traits valued in community: shrewdness and prudence versus candor and purity. Yet when associated with snakes and pigeons and played off against each other, community morals are caricatured, ridiculed, and turned on their ear: shrewdness becomes slyness, and purity appears as gullibility. Such teasing language offers no hint of a resolution between the two personality types— and who would want to be regarded as sly or gullible in any case. Neither of these, now transformed, character traits are something to be valued as a description of oneself.

What we can say about this saying is that such language is not the stock-in-trade of an apocalyptic prophet delivering an urgent message of repentance before the imminent end of the world, nor is it the kind of language used by a teacher of religious morals, expecting clearly defined behaviour in response to a message on ethical behaviour. So, the challenge we are left with is where exactly are we expected to orient our behaviour on the landscape of this perplexing saying? How do we choose between being shrewd and accommodating, between cautious and accepting? Or maybe it’s not an either or? Maybe its situational or maybe it’s about the need to do this analysis as a process of discernment?

Give Caesar what’s his, and what belongs to God give to him. (Mark 12: 17)

In Jesus’ day this saying, a quip, would be a politically sensitive statement, considering the state of affairs in Palestine, where Rome was in charge. On the one hand, it would certainly please the imperial regime, but, on the other, it would clearly infuriate first-century Judean Zealots who recognized no king but Yahweh over Israel. The saying appears to recognize that people have an obligation to support the authority of the ruling political authority simply by virtue of the fact that the regime has the political power— similar to what Paul said in Rom 13: 1– 7. Maybe it’s about trying to choose between political parties at an election, who is the most beneficial for society? But as a guiding principle for evaluating the relationship between social organizations and the state or with respect to the individual’s obligation to the state, it falls considerably short of clarity. Not unlike choosing a party where one hates the idea of one of their policies but likes the others. The saying says nothing about the morality of the Roman Empire (and neither does Paul in Romans). We notice also that the saying lacks any specifics. It does not specify exactly what it is that is due Caesar or exactly where one’s obligations to God begin. Individuals must decide for themselves where to draw the line between the state and God— that is, what they owe the state and what they owe God. Jesus does not suggest what should be done when the state encroaches on what one considers obligations due God, or what should be done when God’s prerogatives are asserted over what one considers the responsibility of the state. Life is never that simple and to prove that the saying expresses a beautiful sentiment, but there never has been such a thing as a perfect balance between religion and the state, as seems implied in the saying. The question is: precisely where does one draw the line between the demands of the state and what one considers the prerogatives of God? And Jesus leaves the answer to that practical question to the individual, and offers no guidance for resolving the tension.

Our third saying for today is; Love your enemies. (Luke 6: 27b; cf. Matt 5: 43– 44)

We of course are more familiar with “love your neighbour” (Matt 19: 19, 22: 39; Rom 13: 8; Jas 2: 8– 9), which in the Hebrew Bible means your fellow Israelite (Lev 19: 17– 18, 33– 34). It is possible that early Christians broadened the frame of reference of what is meant by “neighbour” to include fellow human beings (Rom 13: 8– 10). And while Jesus may have endorsed loving the neighbour in this expanded sense to include fellow human beings, what is most characteristic of him is “love your enemy.”

So far as we know the sentiments reflected in this saying do not occur elsewhere in the ancient world. But what does “love your enemy” mean in actual practice? Does it mean that you really should love an enemy, someone who has made it a goal in life to destroy you, with the same devotion that you love family and close friends? Such an attitude would be personally dangerous, and early Christians clearly had a problem with this explanation of the saying. Every time the saying “Love your enemy” appears in the literature it is always conditioned by other statements clarifying precisely what loving your enemy means. What the radical statement of Jesus means in actual practice, according to early Christians, involve behaviour that one can do for the enemy without actually “loving” them, and thereby exposing oneself to danger. For example, Luke 6: 27– 28 qualifies “Love your enemies” in the following ways to show what loving an enemy means in actual practice: “do favours for those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for your abusers” (see also Matt 5: 43– 48). All of these behaviours involve minimum risk. But what does one do when the welfare of family (and close friends) and enemies clash? How is it possible to love both with an equal degree of intensity and trust?

In the final analysis, the idea that one should love one’s enemies is irrational or even absurd — even if it is noble and idealistic. For in trying to love the one, an individual will inevitably break faith with the other. Or to state it baldly: loving your enemy can get your neighbour killed! So how exactly should we incorporate such a strange idea into the practical affairs of our daily lives? Again, that crucial judgment is left to the reader.

Last week I claimed that the one core assumption we could make is that the search for an understanding of wisdom lies at the centre of the sayings journey and we have to say that in terms of the wisdom reflected in these sayings of Jesus it is difficult to characterize in terms of content. It is far easier to describe what it is not.

So, it is not an esoteric wisdom. such as we find, for example, in Gnostic texts. His words do not describe the secrets of the ages, or how the world came into being. These sayings are also not about the nature of a heavenly realm. They do not describe the nature of a future life— or even suggest that there will be some kind of future existence; his words do not predict the future, announce the end of the physical world, or describe the character of God in analytical philosophical language. It is also not a practical wisdom, like traditional community wisdom, that is based on generations of experience providing practical instruction about how to get on in the world and be a successful member of society.

Rather the wisdom it denotes is decidedly impractical, unrealistic, and remarkably challenging in what it suggests. It cuts against the grain of human self-interest, and practical living in the human community with its established traditions and values. It is more like what we find in the wisdom of Socrates — a question thrown down challenging what we thought we knew, including the tried and true values we were taught. Maybe the nature of the wisdom we are looking for in these sayings is more about seeking a quality or state of being wise coupled with just judgment as to discernment, insight and possible action.

In general, these five sayings as a group challenge the traditional community wisdom found in the sages of ancient Israel, which seem concerned to help people make a successful life under God in the world. They raise questions as to the nature of the wisdom being espoused. The wisdom is not traditionally religious in the manner of most of Israel’s ancient sages. Jesus does not appeal to Torah as the embodiment of divine wisdom or to Lady Wisdom, the primordial origin of all wisdom. God is not invoked as authority for the statements. Also lacking are the trappings of the Judean religion contemporary with Jesus, such as temple, synagogue, sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc. The one saying in which God is mentioned recognizes the authority of Caesar, along with God, as receiving an honour that is his rightful due. Putting anything on a level with God, however, violates the principle of the singularity of God in the Israelite tradition (Deut 6: 13 LXX; Matt 4: 10), for God is a jealous God (Deut 4: 24), and claims the exclusive loyalty of God’s people (Exod 34: 14).

These few sayings do not constitute a large enough sampling to enable an evaluation of the discourse of Jesus as a whole, but it does suggest that traditional religious piety may not have been an interest of Jesus. Next week we will take a quick look at the sayings most likely to have been from the mouth of Jesus and in doing so we will look for the wisdom found in Ambiguity, Hyperbole, and Common Sense

Notes:

Hedrick, Charles W.. The Wisdom of Jesus: Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (p. 90). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

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