20-14 The Radical Language Of Jesus
Because of the gracious words and manner of speaking of Jesus, therefore
God so highly exalted Him (Ps. 45:2). The Father was so impressed
with the words of His Son. Lk. 4:22 records how people were amazed at
the gracious words He spoke; there was something very unusual in His manner
of speaking. Evidently there must have been something totally outstanding
about His use of language. God highly exalted Him because He so loved
righteousness and hated wickedness (Ps. 45:7), and yet also because of
His manner of speaking (Ps. 45:2); so this love of righteousness
and hatred of evil was what made His words so special.
The Lord's choice of language was therefore radically different.
Indeed, the Father Himself has inspired His word in a way which
uses language quite differently to how we do. Thus there are many
examples in Scripture of where even basic rules of grammar are broken-
an obvious example is the way Leviticus and Numbers begin with “And…”,
what scholars call a “waw conjunctive” that is not ever
used to start a sentence let alone a book. The Father’s Son likewise
used language in His own way. “’Peace’ [‘shalom’- the usual Semitic
greeting] is my farewell to you” (Jn. 14:27) is an example of how
He seems to have almost purposefully delighted in using language
in a startlingly different way. There are times when the Lord Jesus
seems to have almost coined words. The adjective epiousios
in " our daily bread" is one example; there in the midst
of the prayer which the Lord bid His followers constantly use, was
a word which was virtually unknown to them (1).
Our bread only-for-this-day was the idea. When He addressed God
as abba, 'dad', the Jews would have been scandalized(2).
But this was the experience He had of God as a near at hand, compassionate
Father. He purposefully juxtaposed abba with the Divine
Name which Jews were so paranoid about pronouncing: " Abba,
glorify your name" (Jn. 12:28). This was nothing short of scandal
to Jewish ears. And we are to pray as the Lord prayed, also
using " Abba, father" (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). Seeing it
was unheard of at the time for Jews to pray to God using 'Abba',
Paul is clearly encouraging us to relate to God and pray to Him
as Jesus did (cp. Jn. 20:17). The Lord made a big deal of calling
God 'Abba', even forbidding His Jewish followers to use the term
about anyone else (Mt. 23:9). The Lord's attitude to prayer was
radical in itself. The observant Jew prayed three times / day, the
first and last prayers being merely the recital of the shema.
Yet Jesus spent hours in those morning and evening prayers (Mk.
1:35; 6:46). Perhaps He was motivated in His prayers by the lengthy
implications of the fact that Yahweh is indeed one, and this demands
so much of us.
He asked us to drink His blood, another idea repellent to Jewry. His
healings broke all the purity boundaries of His social world. He touched
lepers and hemorrhaging women. He ate with the outcasts and well known
sinners. Women followed Him around the country, yet He was unmoved by
all the scandal mongering which inevitably must have gone on. He allowed
Mary to wash Him with her hair, and to speak with Him in public- even
though the hair, legs and voices of women were felt by Judaism to be especially
enticing. Jesus refused to share the usual Jewish fears of female sexuality.
Believing that sexual desire was evil and uncontrollable, the Jewish world
coped with women by secluding them. The Lord, however, accepted women
into His company of disciples. He was comfortable with His humanity, He
wasn’t paranoid about the ‘thin end of the wedge’. And moreover, He expected
His responsible and comfortable-with-his-humanity attitude to rub off
upon the men He’d chosen to be with those women. He valued persons for
who they were, and this had radical results in practice. And yet He spoke
with " authority" in the eyes of the people. What gave Him this?
Surely it was His lifestyle, who He was, the way there was no gap between
His words and who He was. The word of the Gospel, the message, was made
flesh in Him. There was a perfect congruence between His theory and His
practice. The repeated amazement which people expressed at the Lord's
teaching may not only refer to the actual content of His material; but
more at the way in which He expressed it, the unique way in which word
was made flesh in Him. The way the Lord could ask men to follow Him, and
they arose and followed (Mk. 2:14), is surely testimony to the absolute,
direct and unaccountable authority of Jesus. It was surely His very ordinariness
which made Him so compelling.
Jesus juxtaposed ideas in a radical way. He spoke of drinking His blood;
and of a Samaritan who was good, a spiritual hero. It was impossible
for Jews to associate the term 'Samaritan' and the concept of being
spiritually an example. And so the stark, radical challenge of the
Lord's words must be allowed to come down into the 21st
century too. Lk. 6:35 has Jesus speaking of " children of the
Most High" and yet Mt. 5:45 has " children of your father"
. What did Jesus actually say? Perhaps: " Children of abba,
daddy, the Most High" . He juxtaposed His shocking idea of
abba with the exalted title " the Most High"
. The Most High was in fact as close as abba, daddy, father.
“Amen” was what you usually said in the first century
about the words of someone else. To use it about your own words
was, apparently, unthinkable (3). But the Lord Jesus was so quietly
sure of Himself that He could say this of His own words. Without
being conceited or proud, the Lord valued His own person to this
extent. Truly “Never [did a] man spake like this man”.
The Sting In The Tail
The radical nature of the Lord Jesus is reflected
in His teaching style. His parables work around what I have elsewhere
called "elements of unreality". They involve a clash of
the familiar, the comfortable, the normal, with the strange and
unreal and radical. The parables are now so well known that their
radical nature has been almost buried under the avalanche of familiarity.
The parables begin by getting the hearers sympathetic and onboard
with the story line- and then, in a flick of the tail, the whole
punch line is turned round against their expectations, with radical
demands. Take the good Samaritan. The story of a man travelling
the Jerusalem-Jericho road alone would've elicited sympathy and
identity with the hearers- yes, that road is awfully dangerous.
And then the priest and Levite pass by and don't help. That was
realistic-"priests and levites were known to have quarters
in the Jordan valley near Jericho where they retreated from the
beehive of activity surrounding the temple" (4). The common
people were anticlerical, and yes, they could just imagine the priest
and Levite passing by. "Typical!" would've been their
comment. They're all set up to expect the Messianic Jewish working
class hero to stride in to the rescue. But... it's a despised Samaritan
who stops and gives saving help. They had expected a Jewish Saviour-
and Jesus, the teller of the parable, claimed to be just that. But...
in the story, He's represented by a Samaritan. Remember that Samaritans
and Jews had no dealings, and people were amazed that Jesus would
even speak with the Samaritan woman at the well. Even in desperation,
a Jew wouldn't have wanted to be helped by a Samaritan. You had
to be utterly desperate to accept such help. Moments earlier, the
audience had been identifying with the injured Jewish man. But...
were they really that desperate, did they appreciate their
desperation to that extent, to keep "in" the story, and
accept that that desperate man was really them? They wanted to be
able to identify with the hero. But no, they had to first of all
identify with the wounded, dying, desperate Jew. And only then were
they bidden "Go and do likewise"- 'be like the Samaritan'.
The Lord's initial audience would have been left with knitted eyebrows
and deep introspection at the end of it. The whole thing was too
challenging for many. They quit the parable, quit identifying with
the story... just as we can when it gets too demanding. It's a tragedy
that this amazing story, crafted in such a radically demanding way,
has been reduced to merely 'Be a good neighbour to the guy next
door, so long as it doesn't demand too much of you'- which is what
the story has come to mean for the majority of professed Christians
today. That of itself indicates a discomfort with the radical nature
of the demands.
It's the same with Nathan's parable to David. It
elicited David's sympathy- and then it was turned back on David:
"You are the man!". But he didn't quit the parable. He
acted on it, as we have to. The parable of the self-righteous older
son is just the same. The parable's story line leads us to expect
that the wayward son repents and is accepted back by his father.
But then right at the end, the whole thing takes a biting twist.
We suddenly realize that the prodigal son and the need to forgive
your wayward son isn't the point of the story- for that's something
which comes naturally to any father and family. The whole point
is that the son who played safe, who stayed home and behaved himself...
he is the one who ends up outside of the family's joy because
of his self-righteousness. He ends up the villain, the
lost son. Again, there'd have been knotted brows and an exit from
identity with the story line. And the way generations of Christians
have described the story as "the parable of the lost / prodigal
son" shows how they [we] too have so often missed the essentially
radical point of the story.
(1) J.H. Moulton & G. Milligan The Vocabulary
Of The Greek Testament (London: Hodder, 1949).
(2) Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers Of Jesus
(London: S.C.M., 1967) pp. 96,97 comments on how he searched through
" the prayer literature of ancient Judah...[but] in no place
in this immense literature is this invocation of God as abba
to be found...Abba was an everyday word, a homely
family word. No Jew would have dared to address God in this manner"
.(3) J.D.G. Dunn, A New Perspective On Jesus (Grand Rapids:
Baker, 2005) p. 75.
(4) Robert Funk, Honest To Jesus (Harper San Francisco,
1996) p. 174.