The words of Jesus, though simple in nature, had dramatic impact on the hearts of the listeners. His manner of delivery, as much as the words themselves, made the people receptive to His message. He spoke to them as friend and fellow companion. His stories were compelling and convicting, yet full of humor and compassion. His words seemed almost to compose some heavenly hymn that only those who had ears to hear could discern this heavenly sound. The words of Lord Byron make sense.
Words are things; and a small drop of ink
Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
His actions were in perfect harmony with his words. His life communicated. There was no contradiction in his life that could potentially create confusion or disappointment in those who followed Him. His life was a living symbol of the very words he spoke. He was a Book read of all men. The love of the Father was fleshed out in His daily associations with the very lowest in the caste system of society and religion. He ate meals with the untouchables, defended the prostitutes, healed the afflicted and pursued the oppressed. And He didn’t do this to try to make a statement. He preferred these people. He truly enjoyed their company. And they all in turn were at ease in Jesus’ presence. However, the religious leaders despised this reversal of established order in their precious community. They couldn’t bear not being the guests of honor. It was unthinkable that they should have to take the back seat to the riff-raff up front.
Jesus’ language was sprinkled throughout with the poetic, the imaginative, and the metaphorical. It disarmed and stirred curiosity in the hearers, opening their hearts without their even being aware. His powers of persuasion were honed by his ability to see beyond the ordinary. He loved the story method of getting his point across. Everyone loves a good story, and Jesus could tell a good story. He liked to end His stories with a twist that left the hearers walking away scratching their heads, and thinking about them for many hours to come. His stories always had the goal, though not obvious to the hearer, to open them up to the love of Father, Who was always waiting in the wings.
Aphorisms – Jesus was the king of one-liners!
The aphorisms and parables of Jesus function in a particular way: they are invitational forms of speech. Jesus used them to invite his hearers to see something they might not otherwise see. As evocative forms of speech, they tease the imagination into activity, suggest more than they say, and invite a transformation in perception.[i]
An aphorism is a short pithy statement that states a truth and smacks you with a reality punch. We are exposed to aphorisms every day, in the sermons we hear, the books we read and the commercials we are subjected to. The key to a powerful aphorism is not in its conciseness but in its content. A good aphorism is only the tip of the iceberg and underneath its logic is a ton of philosophical meaning. It is the big truth in capsulated form and its power is in its ability to be retained in our consciousness and the affect it has on our thinking. Below are just a couple of examples.
Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. (John Lennon)
Knowledge is finite but ignorance knows no bounds. (John Osgood)
Good friends and bad enemies have one thing in common, they are hard to lose. (Joel Poquette)
The pen is stronger than the sword. (Unknown)
We take things apart to understand them and put them back together to make them work. (Tony Sandy)
A student of the message of Jesus quickly realizes his use of aphorisms. The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of aphoristic statements on Kingdom living. Jesus would draw word pictures from their own familiar world. He arrested their minds, captured their imaginations and opened them ever so gently to the stirrings of the ancient language deep within them. Some of his most famous one-liners dealt with the least, the last, the little and the lost. He encapsulated heavenly truth in such a way that they would not be forgotten. These condensations of heavenly realities gave hope to the disenfranchised while they, at the same time, infuriating the religious folk.
But many who are first will be last; and the last, first ( Matt. 19:30)
For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost. (Lk. 19:10)
See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you, that their angels in heaven
continually behold the face of My Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 18:10)
Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who
sent Me; for he who is least among you, this is the one who is great. (Lk 9:48)
With these words Jesus challenged the established precepts upon which Jewish society was built. Our culture is still prevalent with these concepts: Everyone gets what they deserve. The righteous will prosper. No rest for the wicked. Life is about rewards, requirements, judgments, and success. These precepts never prevailed in the words of Jesus. These religious leaders were relics of the old ways of religion and just did not fit in the coming Kingdom.
Parables – Stories that reveal the heart
Parables were not a new form of communication. For many years they had been an accepted form of communicating spiritual certainties. So what made Jesus’ stories so different? In them He attacked the conventional wisdom of His day – the accepted psyche of the Jewish community. He reversed religious order, violated accepted social practices, and challenged the motivations of men’s actions. In His stories He made the ‘bad guys’ the ‘good guys’ and the ‘good guys’ were made the ‘bad guys’. The less honorable were made heroes in the stories of Jesus. The religious and powerful were always the villains.
The only judgment to be found in His stories was against the righteous and the rich. What was that judgment? They were judged by the Father’s love. The compassion of their heavenly Father exposed the hypocrisy of their lives. Be careful what you wish for – the recognition of others, the riches of success, and the rewards of religion. In your attempts to move up the ladder you are actually descending. Pursuit of the first place will put you in the last place.
For most of my life I yearned for recognition. I threw myself into sports in high school because everyone knew that jocks were the BMOC (big men on campus, for those of you who weren’t around in the 60’s). I decided after high school that I was going to go off to be trained for the Ministry. Everyone knew the Ministry was the place to be if you were looking to make points with God and man. Then came years of working for God, but I still didn’t feel like I had found what I needed. I was afraid of anonymity.
Comparing myself to ministry people around me, I always felt like I came up short. (You do know that comparing is a stupid thing to do!) I was in para-church ministry in the early days, so coming back to the States from Mozambique, I decided the Church was where I’d find what I was looking for. And I did find it, well somewhat, but it didn’t do it for me. What I didn’t realize was that seeking the public place, rather than the private place, was leading me ever downward on the spiritual ladder. Only when I finally hit the bottom rung did I began to truly understand the truth of the Jesus stories. At the bottom, I was finally content, finally accepted. Because He was down there with me! What I was searching for was there all the time.
With his stories, Jesus created paradoxes and reversed religious rules: the broad way vs. the narrow way, love of our enemies, real religion, synagogue vs. the individual, religious ceremony, and the way less traveled (internal over the external, relationships over knowledge, mercy over judgment, last before the first).
…their main object is not to present the gospel, but to defend and vindicate it; they are controversial weapons against its critics and foes who are indignant that Jesus should declare that God cares about sinners, and who are particularly offended by Jesus’ practice of eating with the despised.[ii]
Forgiveness, compassion and mercy are the golden threads of the Gospel that Jesus wove through every story: The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, The Good Shepherd and many others. To the sinners came one that extended a heavenly invitation. Come to Me and received water, come and eat to never hunger again, come receive forgiveness, come receive life, and come follow me. The gospel parables were clearly understood by His critics and that is why they rejected him. Because they were expecting a day of wrath and vengeance, they closed their hearts to the Good News Jesus was proclaiming in His stories. For them it was cheap grace. Sloppy agape. No one pleased God by simply being needy and willing. Otherwise, why had they spent their whole lives training for and toiling in the ministry? What was the use of unfaltering piety? The religious authorities had too good an opinion of themselves. To these men the gospel was an offense because it exposed them – their religiosity, hypocrisy and pride – and that was intolerable.
Drawing back the metaphoric curtain, Jesus revealed to the world the hidden language of God—the secret messages that unlock the gate of heaven. ‘I will speak to you in parables and expound things hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Mt.13:34-35). Understanding the secret meaning behind these words is at the very core of hearing God. This is why Jesus was so insistent that His apostles decipher His words correctly, and not just listen to the literal stories, encapsulating what He had to say. “If you do not understand this parable,” he once asked them, “how then will you understand any of the parables?” (Mk.4:13-14). Interpreting scripture requires an understanding of spiritual language, the hidden truth that lies just beneath its surface. Often Jesus would take his disciples aside and explain to them the message contained in his stories.
Jesus, make me your student!
[i] Meeting Jesus for the First Time, Marcus Borg, Harper Collins, San Francisco, Ó1995, Pgs. 70, 71
[ii] Rediscovering the Parables, Joachim Jeremias, SCM Press, New York, Ó1966, Pg. 98