I was asked by the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC) to write a short series of five reflections on the ‘Hard sayings of Jesus’ for their weekly email Word for the Week which is sent out on Monday mornings. It has proved to be an interesting experience which I am still reflecting on.
When planning for this, I asked on Facebook what people thought were some of the hard sayings of Jesus. I was rather overwhelmed by the avalanche of responses; it appears that we have no hesitation in thinking of and listing all the difficult things Jesus taught! That is striking, given that I don’t think this is a very prominent theme in most of our churches (‘Come to Jesus and be baffled!’).
From the various suggestions that people offered, it seemed to me that the hard sayings of Jesus fall into four or perhaps five groups. The first are hard to understand because we are at a distance from the world in which Jesus was living and teaching, and sometimes the history of interpretation leads us astray as well. The second, smaller, group consists of sayings of Jesus that are, in themselves, genuinely obscure. There are also sayings which trigger things from our context, which makes it hard for us to actually attend to what Jesus is saying and why—we have to fight through a good deal of emotional and cultural noise to get to it. Then come the sayings that are relatively easy to understand, but they are awkward and unexpected, and we just wish Jesus hadn’t said them. Lastly are the things which are easy to understand, but just very difficult to live out.
In noting this, I am conscious that some of the issues here belong firmly in our world, in the world of us as interpreters at a considerable cultural, linguistic and chronological distance from the teaching of Jesus as we have it in the gospels. But there are important issues which originate in the record of what Jesus said, and this presents us with the uncomfortable truth that Jesus was not always an easy person to be around. This has a whole range of implications.
It challenges us to rethink our understanding of the incarnation, the theological understanding of God becoming human in the person of Jesus. Especially at Christmas time (as I write it is only 15 weeks till Christmas!), the incarnation is often trumpeted as signalling that Jesus is ‘just like us’, sharing for a time our joys and woes, our experiences, even our finitude. But this is surely only part of the meaning of the incarnation—not least because this is now commonly extended to suggested that Jesus was like us in being ignorant, rude and prejudiced. The incarnation is not about Jesus being a human, but about the divine taking human form—in other words, that which is not like us has become like us. Unless we recognised that Jesus is different and strange as well as being familiar, I think we might have missed the point.
The presence of hard sayings of Jesus within the gospels also tells us something about the gospel writers. It appears that they were quite aware that some of Jesus’ sayings were difficult, challenging, awkward, and even obscure or embarrassing—yet they faithfully recorded them anyway. Despite their, at times, different theological agendas, reflected in the different emphases in each of the four gospels, these agendas appear to centre on and do not eliminate a central core of testimony of the things that Jesus actually said and did.
And this appears to have shaped the way that the early Jesus followers shared their testimony of what God had done in Jesus and what their hearers needed to do in response. There is no doubt that this new religious movement appealed to many people and offered answers to questions they were asking—and yet the early kerygma or message was much more shaped by the sometimes difficult and awkward teaching of Jesus than it was shaped by ‘meeting people’s needs’.
I wonder what this means for some of the ways we share faith, individually and in our church communities? I am always struck by the recruitment advertisements for the armed forces, which make it all look tough and unpleasant—because you can be a better person than you are today if you undertake these trials and this tough training. The early proclamation appears to have had something in common with these.
And that also raises the challenge of how we engage with and teach from this aspect of Jesus’ teaching—which is, of course, an argument for teaching systematically through the gospels, perhaps even from the lectionary! I have found it deeply enriching to have been writing on the lectionary readings for the last year-and-a-half—though also frustrating where the lectionary atomised, dissects and omits important passages. And the difficulties in Jesus’ teaching is also an argument for using a more word-for-word, rather than dynamic equivalence or paraphrase version of the Bible. These latter two have to make more interpretive decisions, and so can unwittingly resolve the paradoxes and challenges in the text, as my example from Eugene Peterson below illustrates.
But I might have missed something, and I would love to hear in the comments your reflections on why there are so many hard sayings of Jesus in the gospels, and what that means for us as his followers. Here are the reflections on the different sayings that I wrote for LICC.
Hard saying no. 1: This generation will not pass away until all these things have happened (Matthew 24:29–31, 34)
I recently asked a group of friends ‘Which do you think are the hardest sayings of Jesus?’ I was expecting one or two thoughtful suggestions – but what followed was a long list, with some animated discussion, of all the difficult things Jesus said. That in itself is something worth pondering; whilst both the teachings of Jesus – and the whole of the Bible – include many things that are easy to understand, which warm our hearts and lift our souls, alongside these are many other things that are very challenging!
But some of Jesus’ sayings are hard to understand simply because we are at a distance from the world in which Jesus was living and teaching, and sometimes the history of interpretation leads us astray as well.
In the middle of his ‘end times’ teaching in Matthew 24–25, Jesus makes this claim:
‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened’ (Matthew 24:34).
This isn’t just a difficult saying; C.S. Lewis called it ‘the most embarrassing verse in the Bible’. It completely undermines the use made – every day during the pandemic it seems! – by ‘end times prophets’ telling us we are ‘in the last days’. And it has led generations of scholars over the last 200 years to believe that Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic prophet whose predictions failed to come true, so that he died a failure.
But we usually fail to notice what Jesus is actually speaking of here. The ‘tribulation’ he refers to in Matthew 24:9, 21 and 29 happened with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70. The ‘powers of heaven’ that are shaken (verse 29) refers to the radical shift brought about by the exile of the Jewish people and the preaching of the gospel (Peter says exactly the same about Pentecost in Acts 2:20). And ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ indicates Jesus coming to the throne of God from the earth, not the other way around, as we can see from its source in Daniel 7:13. This section is all about Jesus’ exaltation and the gospel being preached – not Jesus’ return!
And this gives us great comfort. First, we realise that whatever ‘tribulations’ we are facing, we are not the first and we are not alone. Christians before us have faced all this, and often much worse. But, secondly, whatever else is happening, Jesus is on the throne with God. He is the rightful king we can trust with our lives, and one day he will return and all will come under his just and holy reign.
Hard saying no. 2: Where There is a Body, There the Vultures Will Gather (Luke 17:30–37)
If some of Jesus’ sayings are hard to understand because of our distance from them, in other cases it’s because they seem to be genuinely obscure.
In this instance, Jesus is talking about the end of this age, when he returns and will be revealed to all as the rightful king. He has just drawn a parallel with the days of Noah and of Lot, when people were taken away in judgement, and says the division will be the same when he returns. (Incidentally, this means that those who are ‘taken’ are the ones who suffer judgement, not the saved – so, contrary to much popular teaching, we should all want to be left behind!)
The disciples’ question doesn’t appear to make much sense, given what Jesus has said, and Jesus’ obscure reply makes even less.
Is the ‘body’ someone who is still living, like Jesus on the cross, as the word used in Luke suggests? Or is it a ‘carcass’, as in Matthew 24:28? Are the birds vultures or eagles, as the Greek word can refer to both? If vultures, does this mean something like a crowd gathering around a schoolyard fight? As Eugene Peterson paraphrases it:
Whenever you see crowds gathering, think of carrion vultures circling, moving in, hovering over a rotting carcass. You can be quite sure that it’s not the living Son of Man pulling in those crowds.
Or are the birds eagles, representing the followers of Jesus gathering around his crucified and risen body, and finding salvation? Or perhaps the eagles are the standards of the Roman army gathered around the corpse of Jerusalem? New Testament scholar R.T. France decides that ‘the saying remains an enigma’ with good reason!
But that in itself offers an important learning point. It’s clear from the gospels that both the disciples and the crowds often find Jesus puzzling, but this is to be expected: he is our Master, not someone to be mastered.
We will not understand everything about Jesus this side of eternity. The apostle Paul only knew ‘in part’ and looked forward to the day when he would ‘know fully’, even as he is ‘fully known’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). And this calls for patience. The gospel writers themselves held on to the teaching of Jesus, and passed it on to others, even when they found it puzzling. We need to follow their example.
Hard saying no. 3: It is not Right to Give the Children’s Bread to Dogs (Matt 15:21–28)
Jesus was a racist, nationalist bigot. A woman comes to him in need, and he refuses to help because he thinks his race is superior to hers. He adds insult to injury by calling her a ‘dog’, a serious slur in his day. If he was trying to test her, he is doing so at the moment of her greatest need – how cruel and callous can you get? In the end, he has to learn from her that there is a better way. If even Jesus was a racist, then you can see how deep-seated this problem is.
Some of Jesus’ sayings are difficult because we are so removed from their context; some are difficult because they are genuinely obscure. But others become difficult if we are so absorbed with our own issues and agendas that, when something in what Jesus says seems difficult and triggers a reaction, we too quickly leap to a conclusion that tramples all over what Jesus really means.
Although his first response, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’, seems harsh, it is consistent with the rest of Matthew’s very Jewish gospel. But this could hardly be Jesus’ last word; this encounter matches closely the story of the centurion’s servant, during which Jesus talks of a multi-ethnic and multiracial kingdom comprised of those ‘from the east and the west’ (Matthew 8:11). We have already met foreigners in Jesus’ genealogy, Magi from the east at his birth, and people from this very region being healed in Matthew 4:24. Perhaps Jesus has forgotten to read the earlier chapters of this gospel – or perhaps his critics have!
In contrast to his disciples, Jesus engages in dialogue with this woman. He treats her as a worthy debating partner, just as God did with Abraham in Genesis 18. When he challenges her, she responds, and he loves her response. He grants her request, commends her ‘great faith’ (a contrast to the ‘little faith’ of the disciples) and thus allows Matthew to make her, a foreign woman, the hero of the story.
If there is prejudice here, then it’s in the kind of biased reading I opened with. Rather than imposing our own agenda, will we allow Jesus, through these difficult sayings, to provoke us to think more, trust more, and become people of ‘great faith’?
Hard saying no. 4: They be thrown into outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth… (Matthew 8:5–13)
Yesterday my laptop got a bit uppity. The battery was running down, so I needed to move it and plug it into a source of power. ‘Leave me alone!’ it cried out. ‘I’m doing fine as I am!’ ‘But’, I tried to explain, ‘I need to plug you in. If I don’t, then you will die.’ ‘That’s rather exclusive of you! Why can’t you accept me as I am? I am very happy thank you! And there are many ways for laptops to work – you should broaden your outlook!’ Not long afterwards, the screen went blank.
Some of Jesus’ sayings are hard for us because we are at distance from them, or we have our own agendas, or because they are genuinely obscure. But others are difficult because we just wish Jesus hadn’t said them. They are hard truths, and life would be a lot easier if we could avoid them. Jesus’ sayings about judgement, expressed most sharply in the language about ‘outer darkness’ and ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, fall into this category.
‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, is not the Jesus of the gospels; he talks more about judgement than anyone in the Bible. When he asks the disciples who people say that he is, they reply ‘Some say…Jeremiah…’ (Matthew 16:14) probably because Jeremiah speaks most about judgment in the OT, and Jesus often echoes his words. The Jesus of the gospels cannot simplistically be contrasted with the ‘nasty, judging’ God of the Old Testament because there is so much continuity. And the basic reason is that salvation and judgement are two sides of the same coin.
If not knowing Jesus doesn’t ultimately matter, then knowing him doesn’t ultimately matter either. But if Jesus really does offer the wonderful gift of life that only he can provide, then turning it down is going to have serious consequences. If we refuse the one true source of light, then we will sit in darkness. Life is not something we own, but a gift we receive, so if we refuse to drink from the river of the water of life (Revelation 22:17), then we will die.
Those who love us most are the ones who are willing to speak to us the hard truths we need to hear. When the right moment presents itself, we also might need to speak hard truths to those we love – but in the meantime we rejoice in the free gift of life and share it with others when we can.
Hard saying no. 5: Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5.38–48)
Every now and then, in the middle of some relaxing TV programme, I am interrupted by a grunting young man, covered in mud and getting shouted at, in what is clearly a pretty unpleasant ordeal. And the idea is that I might want to endure the same thing. It doesn’t make much sense, but since the Army must have paid an advertising agency lots of money to make this short film, I presume it works.
The last kind of ‘hard saying’ of Jesus is probably the most common type in the New Testament: easy to understand, but well-nigh impossible to live out.
There are various theories about Jesus’ impossible ethics. Perhaps he’s showing us how difficult it really is to live a holy life, and thus make us more aware of our sin. Yet whilst Jesus calls for repentance elsewhere, he doesn’t here.
Or perhaps he’s urging us to just try harder, or rely more on the Holy Spirit – and yet neither of these ideas are hinted at in these verses. This looks like very much like practical teaching for Jesus’ disciples.
There is no doubting how demanding these standards are. ‘An eye for an eye’ originally aimed to limit vengeance by keeping it in proportion – yet Jesus says we are not to seek retribution of any kind from those who wrong us. The person forcing you to go a mile is a soldier of the occupying force, who has brought violence and oppression to your land – yet Jesus would have us offer them a helping hand. Jesus asks us to bless others without distinction, just as God makes the sun shine on all, even those who have done us harm.
But I wonder what would happen if Jesus offered us a compromise – an attainable standard of life – and we all pretended that that was enough? The Army recruitment advert carries a message: you know you are not living life to the full, and if you accept our rigorous demands, you might become better than you ever thought possible. Jesus appears to say the same.
Cardinal Newman once said: ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ In his impossible invitation, Jesus says to us: you can change and live a better life each day. And one day, by his grace, all those changes will complete their work.
You can receive future reflections, by other writers (I might contribute again some time), if you sign up to the LICC Word for the Week emails.