Jesus, then, is not only the very Word (Logos) of
the Divine Eternal One, he is at the same time one with and equal
to the Great Mind behind the Universe.
He is Immanuel: God with us. And yet, "...the
Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (Jn 1:14a).
The incarnated Word became one of us that we might hear from his
own lips God's message to us. The mere idea overwhelms us, leaving
us convinced that we should hang on Jesus' every utterance so
far as they are known to us. While that is undeniably true, it
may not be as easy as it first appears.
What's the Good Word?
Access to the exact words of the great figures of
church and state has only been possible for little more than half
a century. Franklin D. Roosevelt is probably the first American
president whose speeches were systematically recorded and preserved.
It is possible to listen today to FDR's ringing address to Congress
the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.
For most of human history, such precise record keeping,
if envisioned at all, would have been a preposterous dream. After
all, many cultures, particularly very early societies, were totally
nonliterate. Even where alphabets eventually led to writing, which
in turn resulted in reading, those blessed with such abilities
were few in number. A people's story was preserved and handed
down generation to generation through oral tradition. The history
of a clan/village/tribe was memorized, often in story form, told
and retold over incredible spans of time. Families, lacking surnames,
preserved their line through genealogies (usually not the most
popular sections of the Bible, but tremendously significant nonetheless).
Towering personages were kept alive in the collective
memory by recalling what they said. Frequently, these sayings
were compiled into collections. The practice is not unknown to
us moderns. Who among us has not resorted to Bartlett's Familiar
Quotations in summoning some notable voice from the past?
And many recall the celebrated Little Red Book containing
the sayings of Mao Zedong which was carried by countless millions
of Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. In a sense, this perpetuated
a long tradition in that Asian landmost of what we know
of Kung Fu-tzu (Confucius) is contained in The Analects,
where the prevailing mantra is, "Confucius said..."
What Jesus said was most likely retained in much
the same manner. As yet, no such collection of sayings has come
to light. Should one surface at some future date, it would be
a very great find indeed.
There is, however, evidence of one such collection's
use in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Dubbed the Q Source from
quelle, German for source, it has left its literary DNA
all through those two Gospels. Thought to have been composed in
the decade of the 80s, 10-15 years after Mark's, these two works
made thorough use of their predecessor's writing while adding
substantial amounts of their own material. Some of this is known
as either L (Lucan) or M (Matthean) material because it appears
nowhere but that particular Gospel. But other passages are neither
Markan extracts nor L/M material; yet they appear on the pages
of both evangelists although the writers were unknown to one another
and worked in disparate geographical areas. A common source is
the only reasonable solution to the puzzle.
Examples of passages usually attributed to Q include:
Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, Chapters 57, and Luke's Sermon
on the Plain, Chapter 6, the Lord's Prayer (Mt 6:9-13, Lk 11:2-4),
and the story of the man with the 99 sheep (Mt 18:12-14, Lk 15:4-7).
In referencing these passages and others like them,
it soon becomes apparent that the writers sometimes use particular
statements of Jesus at different times and in different ways,
which leaves us wondering whose version is "right."
That it was said is generally of greater import than when or where
it was said. Accustomed as we are in our media-drenched age to
having the newsworthy pounced on by hordes of reporters and cameras
at every turn, we need to don a quite different mindset upon entering
the world of Jesus. There was no mass media, no means of broadcasting
in any fashion one message throughout the land. That being the
case, in all likelihood, Jesus' most crucial messages were given
again and again as he and his disciples traversed the dusty roads
and small towns of Galilee, Judea and even Samaria. So long as
the choice of venue doesn't skew Jesus' message, the Gospel writers
could freely arrange them to suit themselves and, as we shall
shortly see, they did.
5 Books = 5 Sermons
Matthew's Gospel was written for a largely Jewish
audience. Consequently, it could be assumed that readers had been
immersed in the Law and the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures
all their lives. Explanations that are essential for us were completely
superfluous for them. And so, when the writer of Matthew gathered
the components of Jesus' thought and arranged them into five lengthy
sermons, it was perfectly obvious that such a construct was a
parallel to the five sacred books of the Torah or Pentateuch (Genesis
through Deuteronomy). Jesus' words in this context take on particular
solemnity, but none of Matthew's sermons is a verbatim transcript
of a sermon Jesus delivered on one specific occasion.
The best known of these, of course, is the Sermon
on the Mount (Chapters 57), woven within the section highlighting
the proclamation of the Kingdom. In this discourse, Jesus tells
his Jewish listeners, "Do not think that I have come to abolish
the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill"
(Mt 5:17). He then boldly "edits" the Mosaic Law, including
some commandments of the Decalogue. A formula appears: "You
have heard that it was said to your ancestors...but I say to you..."
(Mt 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). Only God had
the power to alter the stipulations of the Law. Matthew's audience
would quickly have heard the overtones of divinity. Most of this
material is missing entirely from Luke's version (Lk 6:20ff) as
it would have eluded his Gentile readers completely.
The remaining Matthean sermons or discourses are:
the Mission Sermon (Mt 10:1-42); the Sermon in Parables (Mt 13:1-52);
the Sermon on the Church (Mt 18:1-35); the Eschatological [Last
Things] Sermon (Mt 24:125:46).
It's easy to see why it is often remarked that Matthew
is more interested in what Jesus said as opposed to Mark's action
Gospel, which is infinitely more concerned with what Jesus did.
Those Puzzling Parables
Storytelling is a time-honored teaching device,
and Jesus was a masterful weaver of tales. His stories most often
fall into the category of parables, true-to-life anecdotes taken
from everyday life that would be easily grasped by those hearing
them. We don't grasp them so easily because we are forced to reconstruct
the era and the culture to get a handle on them. Would Jesus tell
us the same stories today? Without a doubt. They're spellbinding.
But he would tell them within a 21st-century framework consistent
with our culture. Unfamiliar as we frequently are with the original
setting, we either inadvertently misread the parables or fail
to lay hold of their biting edge. Oblivious to the long, deep
antagonism between Jews and Samaritans, we can easily miss the
jolt Jesus' listeners would have felt upon learning that the hero
of one of his best known parables was a Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37).
For the most part, Jesus' parables are recorded
in the Synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke). John's Gospel
contains only two: the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:1-18) and the Vine
and the Branches (Jn 15:1-10). In that gospel, these teachings
are more figures of speech than parables. The author of John takes
a quite different approach.
I AM, among other things, Misunderstood
In the Fourth Gospel, much of what Jesus says is
misconstrued. And at times, he refers to himself rather obliquely
in statements which begin, "I am..." This Jesus makes
constant reference to aspects of light and dark. All this can
make coming to grips with this gospel a somewhat trying, even
frustrating, experience...an experience which is, nonetheless,
well worth the effort.
All writers, biblical or otherwise, employ a variety
of literary techniques which are consistent with their special
style and which advance the goals of their manuscripts. John's
Gospel, possibly more than any other, abounds with them. Here
we can examine only a few.
Misunderstandings frequently set the stage for Jesus
to clarify and expand a certain issue. One example is found in
the episode of the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus' disciples
encourage him to eat. "But he said to them, 'I have food
to eat of which you do not know.' So the disciples said to one
another, 'Could someone have brought him something to eat?' Jesus
said to them, 'My food is to do the will of the one who sent me
and to finish his work'" (Jn 4:32-34).
The I Am statements accomplish for John what the
"You have heard...but I say to you" formula does for
Matthew; namely, subtle allusions to Jesus' divinity. God's reply
to Moses' query regarding his identity was, "'I am who am.'
Then he added, 'This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I
AM has sent me to you'" (Ex 3:14). When Jesus says, "I
am...": the Bread of Life (6:35 ff); the Light of the World
(8:12); the Sheepgate (10:7); the Good Shepherd (10:11); the Resurrection
and the Life (11:25); the Way and the Truth and the Life (14:6);
the Vine (15:5), many scholars believe he is alluding to his divine
Those who understand and believe in Jesus' words
are, to the Fourth Evangelist, fully in the light. Those who do
not have chosen darkness. Characters in this Gospel are constantly
on the move, either closer to or further from the light that is
Jesus (see Nicodemus, 3:1-21, 7:50-52, 19:38-42; the Samaritan
Woman, 4:1-42, or the Man Born Blind, Chapter 9). Jesus himself
says, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will
not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (Jn
8:12b). And again, "The light will be among you only a little
while. Walk while you have the light, so that darkness may not
overcome you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where he
is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that
you may become children of the light" (Jn 12:35b-36). What
Jesus says in John may require a bit of processing to comprehend,
but it is fully consistent with a portrait whose colors accent
Jesus' divine nature.
The Word in Context
The words of Jesus, then, must be interpreted within
the context in which they appear. Jesus may not speak in Luke's
Gospel quite the way he does in Matthew's, and his words in John
will resemble the Synoptics very little. Another element to be
considered is culture. Just like the rest of us, Jesus was a product
of his own time and place. What he says and the manner in which
he says it is heavily conditioned by the Word having been incarnated
as a first-century, Mediterranean, Jewish male. These factors,
in and of themselves, are neither pluses nor minuses. They simply
are and must be acknowledged when interpreting his speech.
It is often tempting to turn a blind eye to some
of Jesus' more challenging statements or to ignore utterance of
his which ring harsh to our ears or to skip over his rather obscure
comments. We do that at our peril. Jesus' message to his first-century
audience and to his 21st is a complex and often difficult one.
Why would we expect anything else? After all, "the Word was
Next: The Last Supper (by Barbara Reid, O.P.)