Is Jesus Just Stringing Us Along?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 8
February 27, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : After Jesus describes the values that should be in operation in the reign of God on Earth, he offers his followers several specific rules for living that should result in a world full of compassion, wisdom, mercy, generosity and love. Each one is a pearl of great price. And each one is a gift of grace.

In Jewish preaching tradition, a series of small teachings such as the ones from Jesus that Luke describes in the passage we read today is called by the Hebrew word charaz . It can be translated as stringing together pearls or beads.

Charaz preachers move quickly from one topic to the next to avoid losing the interest of their listeners. This short-attention-span style has its advantages but also its drawbacks. One downside is that it's easy to fail to notice the beauty and individuality of each pearl in the string.

So today let's hold these pearls up for a careful look. Just maybe you will find what you later will come to think of as your pearl of great price.

First, though, it's important to note that in the way Luke has organized his gospel, these pearls come shortly after other important words from Jesus in verses 27-36. The late great Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown says that the earlier passage "enunciates Jesus' values," which he says are sometimes called "the ethics of the kingdom." And Brown calls the passage we read today, particularly its emphasis on not judging, "an extension of love."1

And isn't that what we Christians are called to do? Extend God's love? That's a rhetorical question. If you got the answer wrong, we may have to sign you up for a refresher class on the catechism.

So having described the values by which people should live in the kingdom, or reign, of God - and, by the way, that list of values includes the Golden Rule - Jesus now offers some detail about the rules for living.

Can the ignorant lead the ignorant?

But what does Jesus mean when he asks whether a blind person can lead a blind person? I suspect that if he were to ask this question today, he might phrase it this way: "Can a person who doesn't gather news of - and information about - the world from many different sources possibly explain fairly and accurately what's happening?"

It's a warning not to be so narrow in your sources of information that you become blind to the complexity of reality. One of the accurate criticisms of our society today is that we put ourselves in silos and want to hear only what we already believe. And this is true not just in politics but in many other areas, too. We often avoid the risk of being exposed to thinking that challenges our views of racial matters, economics, education, ecology or religion.

Let's think briefly about one of those areas - religion. People who get engaged in interfaith work say quite consistently that learning about other faith traditions deepens their commitment to their own religion because it forces them to understand it better so they can explain it to others. Ignorance of faiths other than our own simply breeds fear, which in turn can breed bigotry and, as we have seen often, violence and even terrorism.

Where do you think all the anti-Catholic bigotry found in the history of this nation came from? From ignorance and fear, of course - sometimes willful ignorance. Much the same thing has happened in more recent times with Islamophobia, the blind fear of Muslims and their religion.

So Jesus is asking us to remove whatever is blinding us to reality. Is it that you listen to or watch only one news outlet? Is it that you read only one newspaper - or, worse, none at all? Is it that you imagine that leaders of only one political party speak the truth while leaders of the other party are demonic?

If so, we have work to do to overcome such self-inflicted blindness. Otherwise, says Jesus, we'll end up in a ditch. Please know that Jesus is not arguing here for the bogus notion that all ideas are of equal value or for what has come to be called moral relativism. Not at all. He's simply asking that we not judge ideas or the people who hold them without understanding those ideas, their sources and why they're attractive to some people.

Jesus was a funny man

And speaking of judging, that's exactly what Jesus talks about in his next pearl in the Luke passage. He tells his listeners not to obsess over the tiny speck in their neighbor's eye when they themselves have a massive plank, or log, in their own eye. In other words, be careful about the judgments you make because you might be judging yourself.

I'm afraid many of us fail to see Christ's humor in this pearl and in some similarly preposterous statements Jesus uses to make his points.

As author Elton Trueblood writes in his book called The Humor of Christ , "there is good reason to suppose that Christ meant his words to sound preposterous. We ... lose all the robustness, when we tone it down. Christ had a revolutionary message to give and he knew that he could not make himself understood by speaking mildly."2 Trueblood points out that Christ's deliberate use of humorous exaggeration is found in many places in the Bible.

I bet you can name a few, including the idea of a camel going through the eye of a needle and, from today's Luke passage, the idea of harvesting figs from a thistle. These are the jokes, folks. Sometimes they may not translate well from Aramaic to Greek to English. But Jesus knew that humor is always meant to make a serious point. That's why he talked about straining at a gnat but swallowing a camel and about casting pearls before swine.

In his book, The Joyful Christ: The Healing Power of Humor , journalist Cal Samra says that it's "really surprising how many Christians cannot tolerate the image of a joyful, laughing Jesus."3 Let's try not to be among them. Let's try to take Jesus seriously by recognizing that even though we correctly call him a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief, he knew he needed to use humor so people could grasp his message.

Remember, too, that Jesus was speaking to an agrarian society, to people who were close to the land and who understood that food comes from the soil and not directly from supermarkets. So in his next pearl, he speaks of trees and the fruit they bear. He's not, of course, really speaking about trees but about people, about you and me.

What matters is the common good

So let's translate his words this way: "No good person produces detestable things and no bad person can produce good works. Rather, each person is known by what he or she produces for the common good."

Here's another way of putting that: If what you produce isn't in some way for the benefit of others, for the health of the community, for the flourishing of a wholesome society, you are subtracting from, not adding to, the goodness in the world.

Self-centered people haven't figured out that they shortchange not only the world but themselves by not contributing to the common good. Jesus wants each of us to be good trees producing good fruit. Otherwise, what's the point?

As many others have done before and after him, Jesus locates the human heart at the center of our lives and moral character. Again, it's symbolism. He certainly doesn't mean that if you have actual heart disease you are a bad person. It's simply a way of describing the core of our being.

So he says that the "good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good." But what is the "treasure of the heart" and how do we make sure that treasure is good?

How many times in recent years have we heard public officials or celebrities say something stupid and outrageous and then have to apologize for it? Often, part of the apology insists that what was said was at odds with what the person truly believes.

But perhaps the old Scottish theologian William Barclay gets closer to the truth in his commentary on this section of Luke. Barclay's language seems a bit dated now but not the truth of his conclusion: "Nothing shows the state of a man's heart so well as the words he speaks when he is not being careful and considering his words, but when he is talking freely and saying, as we say, the first thing which comes into his head ... Always our speech betrays us."4

It's like opening a stuffed closet. What falls out is what we put there last. And it does no good to suggest that we ourselves aren't responsible for what falls out. We put it there. So Jesus says we must guard our hearts.

In the end, Jesus hasn't just been idly stringing pearls. He's been teaching us how to be his disciples, how to live beautiful lives, how to express gratitude to the source of all life. Friends, those are all pearls of great price. Treasure them. Live them out. Today and every day.


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