© Dr. Chris Schriner 2006
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 16, 2006

As Unitarian Universalists we try to reach out for new truth, including new truth about ancient scriptures. For example, many of us are curious about the Bible, wanting to know what really happened in Biblical times, and on Easter we may especially wonder what Jesus was really like.

Finding the real Jesus is challenging because at first his teachings were passed along by word of mouth, which is a notoriously unreliable way of preserving history. So it isn't surprising that the four Gospels in the New Testament contradict each other. And a lost text called the Gospel of Judas was recently discovered, which maintains that Judas was not a betrayer but a close collaborator with Jesus. It was probably written at least 100 years after his death, so who knows if its claims are accurate? But as I said, there are even contradictions within the New Testament. For example, the accounts presented in the so-called synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke - contradict what we read in the Book of John.

As one scholar writes, "The two pictures painted by John and the synoptic gospels cannot both be historically accurate. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks in ... pithy one-liners . . . In John, ... Jesus speaks in lengthy discourses." (Robert W. Funk, et. al., The Five Gospels, p. 10) In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus doesn't say much about himself, and he strongly advocates the cause of the poor. But in John, Jesus can't seem to stop talking about himself, and he says almost nothing about the poor and oppressed. In the synoptics, Jesus' disciples wonder about who he is and finally decide he is the Messiah. In John, they knew this from the beginning. So which is correct?

One remarkable effort to meet the real Jesus is the work of the Jesus Seminar. And about 10 years ago at a Unitarian Universalist ministers' conference I spent two days listening to lectures by Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar. Funk has dedicated his life to searching for the historical Jesus, and he has had the good sense to realize that this is not a task for one person. So he invited virtually everyone who has written scholarly articles about Jesus to join the enterprise.

Eventually the Seminar grew to about 200, representing many different traditions. Of course, fundamentalists don't take part because to them the Bible already shows us the historical Jesus. They just ignore all the obvious contradictions. Funk said that many teachers of religion get a lot of flak from their schools if they even hint that something in the Bible might be incorrect. At least one scholar was fired for participating in the Jesus Seminar.

After extensive debate, the Seminar participants voted by secret ballot about whether each statement of Jesus sounded authentic. Their work is summed up in a wonderful book called The Five Gospels, (including the Gospel of Thomas) - which prints the alleged words of Jesus in four different colors. It's exciting to see the colors change from verse to verse, giving us a cutaway view of the way the tradition was constructed. Words printed in red were probably very close to statements made by Jesus himself. Those in pink sound like Jesus, but we're not quite so sure. There are grey sayings, which basically fit his thinking, but probably represent the language of others. And the sayings printed in dark black are those which Jesus almost surely did not utter.

By the way, Thomas Jefferson, who was a Unitarian, was one of the first people to investigate what Jesus did and did not say. He assembled a book called The Jefferson Bible, containing only those Gospel passages that he thought were authentic. One person at the Jesus Seminar always voted in accord with The Jefferson Bible - so our own "doubting Thomas" got to cast his ballot posthumously.

As we look at the relationships among the red and pink sayings and those that were colored grey or black, we see a conversation between the historical Jesus and his interpreters. There is an interplay, and sometimes a tug-of-war, between his radical message and the more conventional voices of those who wrote the Gospels. They often softened Jesus' hard sayings to make them palatable. And so in this interchange between Jesus and his biographers, his words are both preserved and distorted. People are attracted to prophets, but the pure prophetic message is too demanding for most of us. How many of us are willing to live like Jesus or Schweitzer or Gandhi?

So here is the heart of my sermon this morning. The message of true prophets is often more radical than we want to hear. Sometimes this is because prophets tend to be impractical, and we have to live in the real world. And sometimes we reject their message because they demand more courage and commitment than we want to muster. If we hear the words of a visionary and we remain perfectly comfortable, we probably are not paying attention.

Funk mentioned several places where the Gospels water down the words of Jesus. Matthew has Jesus say, "The last will be first and the first last." Mark evidently thought this sounded unreasonable, so he wrote, "Many of the first will be last." Luke quotes Jesus as saying, "Give to everyone who begs from you," but Matthew only says, "Give to one who begs from you." Later a second century writer quotes this statement and adds a stern warning that God will punish those who beg unless they are really in need. (Didache 1:5-6). Do you see how his followers tried to fit Jesus' most extreme teachings into the realities of everyday life?

Jesus said it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24) To make this one easier to swallow, Matthew, Mark, and Luke add a standard cliche - "but all things are possible for God." And there is a caravan pass in Israel called the Needles' Eye, which a camel can squeeze through if it's not loaded with baggage. So some claim that this is the "needle's eye" he was talking about. Funk says that "These are feeble and misguided attempts to take the sting out of the aphorism and rob Jesus' words of their edge." (The Five Gospels, p. 24)

On the other hand, Robert Funk does not think it takes out the sting if we treat many of Jesus' sayings as humor or something akin to humor. Jesus says that if somebody asks you for your shirt, you should give that person your coat as well. He told this to people who lived in a two-garment society. If you give away the second garment, you're standing there naked! You can imagine his listeners laughing uproariously. When he said, "Give to everyone who begs from you," that must have been hilarious too, since there were beggars everywhere. And to top it all off, he says if somebody smacks you on one cheek, turn around and let him whack you on the other cheek, too!

Someone once remarked that God is a comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.

Was it always wrong of his disciples to soften the hard sayings of their Master? I'm not sure. If we look to a prophet for guidance, we may need to add some missing ingredients to complete the picture. No single personality style is perfectly well-balanced. In fact, brilliant innovators are known for their lack of balance and their extremism. Do prophets lay things out step-by-step so we can easily follow their guidance? Are they systematic and thorough, analyzing various alternatives in detail to figure out how to apply their principles in every conceivable situation, like a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Emily Post? Obviously not! People with the sharpest cutting edge are often one-sided, impractical, unsystematic, and passionately impulsive. If you add a brilliant mind and a charismatic personality to that recipe, you have a dynamic spiritual leader who wakes us out of our complacent, conformist, conventional slumber. But to bring that fiery spirit into everyday life, we may need to cool it down a few degrees. And that's what the Gospel writers did, sometimes very well and sometimes not so well.

According to Funk, Jesus was not a systematic teacher of ethics, giving people pointers about how to behave. In fact Funk doesn't think Jesus ever spoke a literal word. His parables were metaphors, with meanings that were more poetic than prosaic. He was trying to break up our expectations about life and God and human relationships. Jesus took apart the common-sense assumptions of his disciples, and he didn't always put things back together again. Often he would upset the apple cart and let others pick up what had fallen.

Dr. Funk explored a passage which we commonly call "The Good Samaritan," because we think of it as an example story, an example of good behavior. Funk does not think this is an example story, and it took me a while to see what he meant. Funk focuses on paradox, exaggeration, humor, and turning common-sense upside down. So with that in mind, here is the story, and remember that priests and Levites were considered righteous, and Samaritans were hated.

A man going to Jericho was attacked by robbers who left him half dead. A priest saw him lying on the road, and passed him by. Then a Levite saw him, and crossed the road to avoid him. Finally a Samaritan saw him and was moved to pity. He bandaged his wounds, hoisted him onto his own animal, brought him to an inn, gave the innkeeper two silver coins, and said, "Look after him, and on my way back I'll reimburse you for any extra expense you have had." (Adapted from The Five Gospels, Luke 10:30-35, p. 323)

To set this up as an example story, Luke leads into it by having somebody ask Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells the story and asks which one acted like a neighbor of the man who was robbed - obviously the one who showed compassion. Luke has Jesus conclude by saying, "Then go and do the same yourself," and in The Five Gospels those words are printed in black.

But if Jesus wasn't telling us how we should act, then what's the message? Well, which aspects of this parable contradict our expectations? The man who has been beaten is helped by someone he hates. Perhaps Jesus is saying, help may come from those from whom we least expect it. Or: You could be helped by somebody you despise, and whose help you would refuse if you could.

So don't hurry to interpret the words of a prophet. Live with their cryptic statements for a while. Sit with the feeling of confusion and paradox, before you tidy everything up into a nice little package that "makes sense." I think listening to prophets is a bit like listening to children. They sometimes say things that sound irrational, but are actually brimful of meaning if we will only pause to pay attention, ponder what they have told us, and not rush to fit their way of thinking into our own.

It is said that a poet is entitled to anything anyone finds in his or her poetry, and the same is true of prophets. Luke views the Samaritan story as meaning we should offer help to all sorts of people - even Samaritans! Maybe that wasn't Jesus' message, but it's a good message. Some UUs may be disappointed that the Jesus Seminar does not see Jesus as a social reformer, nor does Funk believe that he was teaching pacifism when he said to turn the other cheek. We may to use this passage as an inspiration for pacifism, or use Jesus' blessings upon the poor to support a gospel of social reform. But let's take responsibility and admit that we're the ones who are making these interpretations.

It takes many voices to make a choir, and many visions to make a world that works, and in this world we surely need visions that are prophetic. It can be hard to hear a prophetic message - either because prophets tend to be impractical or because of our lack of courage and commitment. Prophets aren't always well-balanced, but the world would be in far better balance if we paid more attention to them.

Do you want your personal world to work? Do you want to live richly and intensely and with a clear vision? Then go back to the poets and songwriters, the daring social reformers, playwrights, philosophers, and spiritual teachers. Go back to Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Alan Ginsburg, May Sarton, Bill Moyers, Annie Dillard - and Jesus of Nazareth. We don't know much of what Jesus said, but the words that remain still have plenty of bite. Every time his words awaken our spirit, Jesus has triumphed over death.

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