Were the teachings of Jesus extreme? In the space of one day I came across these two quotes;
‘It’s surprising how extreme Jesus’ teachings are. If we find ourselves on a comfortable middle ground, we’re probably not following him’
‘As for the parables, Jesus knew that telling stories about common things and familiar situations of life would help him connect with his listeners. It also enabled him to point out the hypocrisy and sin of the religious leaders who opposed him without seeming overly confrontational’
When I read that I thought to myself ‘Without seeming overly confrontational!’ Jesus to me seems incredibly confrontational in his teachings. The parables of course were designed to keep certain truths hidden so people had to interpret them according to how they were listening which revealed whether they were open to Jesus or not. However if you were discerning and you actually heard the truth in those parables and the broader teachings, the messages were incredibly sharp.
The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25ff holds up as a hero a person from within a group in Israel at that time who were despised. Not only that, a priest in the story is portrayed as not caring for the poor wounded person on the road. Only the despised Samaritan helps. This is squarely challenging the religious leaders of the day and shaking the assumptions that people were making around the question of who was in favour with God and who was out of favour with God?
The parable of the rich fool In Luke 12:13ff challenges the culture of the day which saw that people who were rich and prosperous were blessed by God. Instead the rich man is seen as a fool who is self focused and lacking in generosity. Instead Jesus said ‘blessed are you who are poor’ (Luke 6:20).
In the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son in Luke 15, Jesus tells these parables in the hearing of the religious leaders who were grumbling about the fact that Jesus was socialising with ‘sinners’. He then tells three parables about God’s generosity and joy towards those who ‘were lost and now are found’. This contrasts to the stingyness and lack of mercy shown by the establishment and is a direct rebuke towards them.
In Luke 14:25ff Jesus tells us that we must ‘hate’ our family in order to follow him, conveying that the act of following him must be so complete, devoted and passionate that it will seem, and we might get accused that, we are ‘hating our family’ because they are second place to following Jesus. The parables that he tells in this passage ask us to consider two questions; Can you afford to follow Jesus considering his demands? And ‘Can you afford to not follow Jesus considering all that he is offering? They are two questions that leave the reader quite stuck and quite confronted by the questions posed.
In Luke 14:7ff Jesus turns the tables of society in two ways. Firstly he rejects the cultural reliance on status, influence and power and instead declares that humility is the order in his kingdom. Secondly he very specifically tells us that instead of ‘inviting to the table’ only those who we like, who are our friends, who are our family, who are similar to us, instead, invite the broken, the weak, the poor to the table and actually show genuine hospitality to them.
In Luke 13:22ff Jesus confronts nominalism. The nation of Israel thought that they were chosen and many felt comfortable in that favour of God over the nation. Jesus rattles cages as he speaks out that ‘some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.’ According to this illustration belonging to the kingdom is not primarily about numbers, miracles and calling Jesus Lord. In fact one can possibly, even be deceived into thinking that all is well when clearly it is not. Talk about frightening people out of the status quo!
In Luke 11:38ff we read about Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to his teachings. That is no sentimental scene! This is the position of a fully fledged disciple and in that day this was no place for a woman. Mary entered traditional ‘male space’ and Jesus let her be. We don’t get the reactions of people to that event but surely everyone knew the cultural norms and what Jesus was allowing would have seemed extreme, confusing and completely unorthodox.
I could go on and on and write about when Jesus confronted miracle workers (Luke 10:20), told us to be like little children (Luke 9:47), revealed God’s indignant posture towards those who made excuses (Luke 14:24), challenged the boundaries of family (Luke 8:19f), told us that those who mourn are blessed (Luke 6:21), flouted religious rules on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6), touched the unclean (Luke 5:12) and conveyed that the Holy Spirit doesn’t only give you ‘warm’ experiences of God (Luke 4:1)
I can’t help but see that Jesus’ teaching were in fact quite extreme by comparison to the way that we practice following Jesus today. When I read the Gospel of Luke for example I experience the presence of a Jesus who was generous, kind, loving, gentle, deeply attractive but this was expressed through continual challenge towards the status quo, continual turning over the cultural assumptions of the day, a pushing of the boundaries and a questioning of the current teachings of religious leaders. I see Jesus who knew his Scriptures and was able to quote them by memory, one who was deeply embedded in the word yet dripping with grace. As he walked the dusty streets of Jerusalem I could imagine him smiling at the children that hung at his feet and boldly welcoming unashamed, the sinful women who drew close to him.
Have we made Jesus conform to our lukewarm climate today? I often wonder how it is that we can truly practice being more like Jesus in our current contexts. And especially I wonder this if we live a fairly comfortable middle class life in a leafy suburb in one of the most prosperous cities in the world. I wonder these things and I don’t want to feel guilty or make others feel guilty when I ask this question, instead I genuinely want an answer.
Surely we need to realise that if we are lovers of the status quo, if we are in love with our comfortable lives and worry about instability we will have problems following the Jesus we see in the gospel.
None of us is perfect and God knows that but how can we at least do something to make a step towards the imitation of Jesus that moves us out of our comfort zones?
In our congregation where I lead currently we have a family who have done just that. They are not heros, they are not perfect yet they are being obedient to the spirit of Jesus as we read in the gospels. The story is that one of them travels to Cambodia quite frequently and has been interacting with a family over there of very humble means who have a 3 year old son who was born deaf. In order to hear again what was needed was a cochlear implant. A specialist in this area it just so happened was found to be in Australia nearby where the family lives. This family from our church brought the family from Cambodia over to Australia and have committed to help this little boy, his name is Lemon, to have a cochlear implant operation. This might sound lovely and it is of course. However think about the cost of doing this. It means housing a family for about 3 months or more, making sure that this family who have never traveled before is comfortable in a foreign land, looking after this little boy, taking him back and forth to the hospital and to rehabilitation. This is all without even beginning to take into account the financial cost.
Lemon had his operation the other day and is now beginning to hear sounds for the very first time. This is a complete joy to everyone and his presence has blessed this family beyond all measure. Here is a photo of Lemon;
I thought to myself recently, that is what it looks like to step out of your comfort zone capturing the ‘extreme teachings’ of Jesus. This family at our church is middle class, not wealthy by ‘normal’ Sydney standards but wealthy of course in comparison to our whole world. They are faithful Christians living their lives simply in an average suburb in Sydney. It may only be one life that has been changed but this is exactly what Jesus was like. He turned lives around one at a time. He showed compassion and grace to all he encountered.
If we are looking to how we can practice the ‘extreme teachings’ of Jesus, these are the sorts of actions we need to take as middle class Christians surrounded by the wealth of our nation. It is in these small yet revolutionary, unique yet life changing acts that we practice the imitation of Jesus as he truly is reflected in Scripture rather than, quite frankly, soaking in our lukewarm climate that we are used to. I know many people like the family that I have mentioned here, I just pray for more. I pray for more people and families that would think missionaly in our city so that we see lives being changed one person at a time. This will require being uncomfortable and stepping out of our comfort zones but it means basking in the extraordinary lives that Jesus calls us each of us to live today. God give us imagination and then courage to obey!