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What Jesus Said:
The Word
Made Flesh

by Virginia Smith

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

This is the opening verse of the majestic Gospel according to John. So powerful are these three short lines that they are rendered identically in all three English translations most used by Catholics: the New American Bible (NAB), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB).

Recalling from long past English classes that personification is a literary device whereby human qualities are conferred on the inanimate, it remains only to discern the author's reference. The balance of the passage brings the answer to light clearly and decisively. John 1:1-18 tells us unambiguously that this Word is Jesus, the Christ. Returning to the Gospel's opening, it is then possible to read:

In the beginning was Jesus,
and Jesus was with God,
and Jesus was God.

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 land—most 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 5—7, 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 5—7), 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 24:1—25:46).

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 nature.

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 God."

Virginia Smith, one of the general editors of, and frequent contributors to, Scripture From Scratch, has an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University.

Next: The Last Supper (by Barbara Reid, O.P.)

 

Praying With Scripture 

The Word of God can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. At times we are sorely afflicted, and at other times much too comfortable. If the latter is true at the present time, what words of Jesus challenge you to move beyond your comfort zone and take up discipleship in new ways? Talk to Jesus about what he says to you in the Gospels and what he is trying to say to you right now.

 

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