It may be a shift to read the Gospels and find the opposite of comfort. While the words and actions of Jesus shed light, they’re no escape hatch. Conflict, tension and frustration still plague believers. We may respond with the puzzlement of the father who cried, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
We read the Gospels for one purpose: to know Jesus better and increase our intimacy with him. We don’t read for warm fuzzies, easy answers or reinforcement of our prejudices. Nor will we always encounter “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”
He who threatened the cozy assumptions of his contemporaries may have the same effect on us. If we rely on the “wrong” supports, like wealth (Luke 6:20, 24), family connections (Matthew 12:48-50), prestige (Mark 12:38-40) or strict religious ritual (Mark 2:27-28; Luke 18:10-14), he’ll challenge us, too.
Jesus questioned many of the religious and social customs of his time—such as the subservient role of women and the authority of the Pharisees. Nathan Mitchell writes in Real Presence: The Work of Eucharist, “It is hard to believe [Jesus] was simply an early flower-child who traipsed through sunlit fields talking about lilies and love! Who would seek to arrest and execute such a sap?”
The perils of storytelling
We may be uncomfortable with the Gospels’ storytelling style if we want “just the facts, please.” We might prefer a precise architectural drawing or accounting spreadsheet to what seems rambling or inconsistent. But if we compare the Bible with our own life stories, we grow more comfortable with its mixed genres. For example...
—The early years of my parents’ marriage were interrupted by my father’s Navy service during World War II.
—My college years were filled with news of the Vietnam War—and protests against it.
—My son began graduate school at Georgetown just as the dean of his school, along with her family, was killed in the 9/11 flight that struck the Pentagon.
—My friend missed his daughter’s birth because he’s a Marine serving in Afghanistan.
Those are a few examples of the stories that nest within stories like a set of Russian dolls. The hinges between levels connect them: my story—our story—The Story. We search for links where the larger Story of God intersects with our personal ones.
So we reflect not only on Jesus’ and the Hebrews’ experience in the desert, but also on our own desert times. Wandering in the wilderness brings valuable insights we don’t learn in secure kitchens. We find God in the spaces between certainties.
Much as we enjoy the intriguing connections, storytelling has its problems. It’s not scientific, it’s subject to personal interpretation, and sometimes it’s wildly inaccurate. Two people who attended the same party Saturday might tell radically different accounts.
So, too, each Gospel writer has a different emphasis. Even within the Gospel of John, there are apparent contradictions: “Jesus was troubled in spirit” (13:21), but in the next chapter Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (14:1).
Those who enjoy stories listen beneath the words, because their primary interest is the meaning stories give our experience. We don’t read the Gospels primarily for scientific accuracy or historical fact, but to follow Jesus better.
We read through the lens of a human author, one who will sometimes shade, condense or exaggerate. Sometimes we also need to read biblical interpretation or commentary, but most important is our response. It’s an old saying: The Gospel gives the chapter headings; we write the texts in our lives.
Too good to be true?
The Gospels have been misused to incite guilt. Some people may need that stern correction to overspending or luxuriating while others starve. But many hardworking people are simply trying to survive the recession, raise their families and do their jobs, while being as generous as they can with time and treasure. They don’t need another guilt trip!
What we may find harder than guilt is the Gospels’ insistence on how splendid we are. Jesus walked among people who were diseased, smelly and sweaty and assured them that, even in poverty, mourning or persecution, they were “blessed”—the Kingdom of heaven is theirs. Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle with good news?
Admittedly, the central message is hard to absorb. We, limited and flawed, are made in the image of the divine. Furthermore, God continues to dwell and act in us.
Throughout the Gospels, the message recurs: You are not a slave, but a friend, an adopted child with an eternal inheritance—not condemned to futility or the finality of death. Jesus has sanctified everything human, making us indeed “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).
The implications could be unsettling. God chose each of us for a unique purpose and equips us to get it done. So, no whining or stalling—get on with it!
The problem of Jesus’ humanity
We want Jesus to act like a powerful Messiah, and he overturns that expectation. He’s born as a helpless infant—not a military general, popular hero or political leader. He avoids people who want to crown him king. He’s accused of being a glutton and drunkard, and annoys both religious and state authorities.
One way Scripture scholars know a passage is authentic is the “embarrassment criterion.” Early authors wouldn’t invent an action that casts Jesus in a bad light. (Only the secure parent tells the story of a son’s night in jail or a daughter’s unfortunate maroon hair coloring.)
So if Jesus unnerves us, he’s right on target—the natural consequence of his radical call: Forgive as you’ve been forgiven. Much will be asked of those to whom much has been given. If we’re not squirming, we should be.
Look at those who took it seriously—Francis and Clare of Assisi, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Stang. Their attention to living the gospel made them larger human beings. What matters isn’t our comfort. What matters is becoming saints like them.
(for praying alone or with others)
Preparation: Place a small bowl of water, a towel, a Bible and a lighted candle on a prayer table.
“The Servant Song” (or similar hymn)
Good and gracious God, help us to be your servants.
Help us to risk the unfamiliar and the frightening.
Guide us to bring your light to the darkest places. Amen.
Let us spend a few moments in silence. Think of a place or time when you were called to have the courage to step out in faith, a moment when you spoke or acted for Christ.
Now, I invite each of you to come to the bowl to have your hands washed and, in turn, wash another’s hands. As your hands are being dried by the person before you, tell us of your moment of courage.
May Almighty God keep us safe from harm, courageous in faith and in the palm of his hand. Amen.