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Um, Jesus Didn’t Say That

Hello, friends, and welcome back. I’m the Rev. Sare Liz Anuszkiewicz and this is the Sunday Sermon. If you’re looking for the bits of the bible I’ve referenced in this sermon, you can find the link right here on the website. For the nerds in the know, this is Proper 22, Year C, Track two, and here’s the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 2, 2022.

If you’d like to hear the audio-only version of the sermon, here you go. The full text is below.

I’m focusing on the gospel reading this morning, this section of Luke that starts out with the Mustard Seed explanation, and then moves on into a bigger explanation. I’m choosing this focus for my sermon not because it’s particularly exciting or invigorating, but because it’s an example of something that all middle-of-the-road biblical scholars agree happens in the gospels, and which few middle-of-the-road biblical scholars want to be pinned down to exactly where it happens in the gospels. And frankly, I don’t want to be pinned down, either, so I’m going to say… maybe. Maybe this is an example of this phenomena.

What am I dancing around?

The people who wrote down the gospels added stuff Jesus never said. They straight-up added stuff, put it in Jesus’ mouth, taught everyone in their community that, ‘Yup, yup, Jesus said that, and you should have seen His face!’ and… Jesus never said that.

Now, this ranges in levels of meddling. It ranges from blatant omission, mild tweaking of omission or addition, and blatant addition. 

Why would they do this?

Our best guess for the mild tweaking, whether it’s leaving just a few bits out or adding just a few bits in, or changing just a few bits, is to adjust the message for the audience. Each gospel writer had a very different kind of spiritual and religious community they were a part of and it made sense to change the message ever-so-slightly. Not the basic content of the message, but maybe the way it was delivered, what details were mentioned, what emphasis there was. And this happens all the time today. Politicians push their message in Detroit and Silicon Valley both, and the message is always the same core, but the details get changed. Because you don’t talk about cars in Silicon Valley and you don’t talk about computers in Detroit. And we see this in the Gospels – in Luke, the poor and marginalized were really important and it was possible that Luke’s community was made up of some poor and marginalized people, or those who very strongly valued their presence in the community. In Matthew it’s different. Matthew’s community was made up of Jews, and in the Gospel of Matthew there are so many pervasive themes, references, and examples that would make sense only to Jews. So, we already know that the gospel writers changed the message they gave (and wrote down) based on their community setting.

But not all changes, the biblical scholars consider, were small. Possibly. Maybe. Some might have been quite large. So why would a first generation follower of Jesus who had picked up their life, moved out into the larger world to spread the gospel and founded a community for just that purpose, why would they make big changes? Big additions? Big subtractions? Why would they edit Jesus like that? 

We don’t think it was about memory – simply remembering things differently, or failing to remember things. Their culture was much more of an oral culture than ours, and one of the benefits of that is better memory and better recall. We… suspect… that the reason the gospel writers may have made significant changes is due to difficulty, or specifically, failing to understand a very difficult teaching of Jesus. And instead of throwing up their hands and saying, here’s a list of the mysterious things Jesus has said that he didn’t explain and none of us can parse them out either, good luck: and just listing them out, they either omitted them entirely, or, the kept them in, then tried to explain them the best they could. Except they didn’t understand them, so their explanations don’t offer clarity, they only further muddy the waters.

And that is what I suspect we have here this morning.

Jesus says a hard thing, and let’s just go ahead and file this one under, ‘Oh, Ouch!’ His students have asked for help in cultivating something they consider important and Jesus essentially says, ‘dude, if you had any at all, you’d be warping reality right now.’ …which is why we’re filing that one under ‘Oh, Ouch!’ 

And then… the gospel writer continues, and puts an explanation into Jesus’ mouth that… doesn’t really explain much. And this is very, very different from all the explanations that Jesus does give that explain entirely and completely, leaving the reader with complete illumination on the subject – like when he explained the parable of the sower. And biblical scholars are a little like archeologists. And they notice… Jesus says hard things, and Jesus says easy things. Sometimes Jesus explains the hard things. Sometimes his explanations are essays in elegance, eloquence, brevity, and illumination – as if (wait for it) they came directly from God. And other times his explanations are muddy, oddly placed, and fail to illuminate, even taking cultural context into account – as if those explanations (why yes) came from a student who has failed to understand what Jesus said and is just trying to fake it until they make it.

And you know, there’s no harm in faking it until you make it. Sometimes that gives us the confidence to continue on a difficult road. And if you encounter ancient spiritual wisdom that makes zero sense to you, whether Jesus said it or not, don’t lose sleep over it. Just put a pin in it and move on to practicing what you do understand. Because there is plenty of excellent spiritual wisdom that we can focus on day to day to help make ourselves, our relationship with God, and our world a better place.

Amen.

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