If Jesus Really Said it, Why Don’t We Act Like It? – November 13

A sermon based on Luke 6:20-31

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 13, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

I saw a one frame cartoon with two men in Biblical times walking away from one of Jesus’ sermons and one of the men asks the other,  “Okay,  so the meek will inherit the earth and the rich will have a hard time getting into heaven. But what about the middle class?”  That’s supposed to be funny, but there actually was not much, if any of a middle class back then. Most people were very poor and the poor made up most of Jesus’ audiences. Nonetheless Jesus’ teachings have a universal application across classes.

 As a middle-class person, I never tire of hearing the wonderful words from Jesus’  Sermon on the Plain. He’s speaking to us as much as the poor and the rich.   Kasie just nicely read the New Revised Standard English translation of words from a part of that Sermon on the Plain found in Luke. Many of us may know those verses as “the Beatitudes” (The word beatitudes means blessings). We might also know the Beatitudes in a little different form from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says similar blessings in his “Sermon on the Mount.”

The words of Jesus’ preached on the plain or mount, or anywhere else for that matter, were obviously not printed in newspaper reports or broadcast on the media when he said them. It’s very unlikely anyone wrote them down at the time since most folks Jesus spoke to and hung around with didn’t read or write.  Scholars think it was at least twenty or more years before anyone thought to write Jesus’ sayings down. Until then Jesus’ words were passed around by word of mouth.  Any actual words of Jesus that we have today came from what is called the oral tradition, the word-of-mouth preservation of his sayings.  Because no one is known to have written Jesus’ sayings down when he said them,  it’s a miracle that we have them at all.

Jesus’ sayings in Luke and Matthew were derived from the earlier book of Mark and at least one lost gospel referred to as Q, they each also seem to include local oral traditions. Scholars believe the Jesus’ sayings that we now have in the Bible were not written until forty or more years after Jesus lived. So, it is reasonable to conclude,  given that long time, and the lack of literacy and the rarity of writing down what a peasant rabbi said in First Century Palestine that without more there’s a shakiness to certainty around the sayings of Jesus.

Folks who believe the Bible is inerrant and literal may take them all at face value and believe they are what Jesus said,  but many folks reading the Gospels don’t accept that approach as reasonable. Many Christians are not afraid to apply a reasoned scholastic approach to the Truths in the Gospels . . . and the rest of the Bible for that matter. I am one of those folks, as are a number of church members along with many serious and well-respected Bible scholars. Our Adult Forum class that John is leading is considering in detail this more critical approach to the Bible.

One of the cool things about the scholarly approach is that by using historical detective work academic specialists in the New Testament have figured out ways to suss out the likelihood Jesus said what’s attributed to him.  It’d take longer than a sermon to explain it all, but basically they start with the premise that each gospel account of a Jesus’ saying is hearsay that needs evidentiary proof to support a conclusion Jesus said it or might have said it. Evidence that weighs heavy in the analysis is other sources that attest to the words, as well as whether the nature of the words is less likely to have been made up– like distinctive words, especially those that are counter-culture or not flattering to remember or those that fit with what we know about Jesus. Connections of the sayings with known history and culture are also weighed. The research and reasoning I am talking about still takes place, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s a now famous gathering of New Testament academics used it to consider the question “What did Jesus say?” They called themselves  “The Jesus Seminar.” long the way they created a wonderful translation of the Gospels called the “Scholars Version” which tries to capture the writing style of the original authors of each Gospel. Many of the scholars that you have heard pastors preach and teach from in this church were Fellows of the Jesus Seminar. The Fellows include Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, Stephen Patterson, Karen Armstrong, Robin Meyers,  and Robert Funk.  Those are solid, well respected, serious and pretty famous experts. And they were joined by thirty-nine other serious respected Jesus scholars in doing this work.

The Jesus Seminar was quite an undertaking. It lasted six years and resulted in a number of  remarkable books.  The one I used for this sermon is called “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?” It has the words of Jesus in colors that indicate  the level of likelihood Jesus said them.  It is one of my favorite books about Jesus and the Gospels,  I bought it long ago when I first started coming back to church.  It’s served to help me to set aside misinformation and get to the heart of Jesus and his message.  I’d developed misconceptions about Jesus through fundamentalists and literalists and church doctrines and from even reading the Bible without understanding its origins and the historical, cultural and theological contexts of Jesus –and the early church.  The book was among the readings that helped me find Jesus and helped lead me to become a Christian,  and then, of course, a minister. It may not work for everyone, but it certainly worked for me.  One of the great things about The Jesus Seminar’s book,  The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say,  is it concisely explains the theories about each Gospel’s formation and has commentary notes explaining the reasons for the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions about each set of verses. It’s pretty cool . . . well, to a Bible geek anyway.  While the lecturer for the Adult Forum video series, Professor Bart Erhman, was not one of the Jesus Scholars he is a well-known and respected–if sometimes controversial,  progressive Christian scholar who uses this sort of reasoned approach to the Bible.

I’ve just very generally set out the gist of the respected scholarly approach these folks take. I know it can seem overwhelming at first. If it helps, the short and simple explanation is,  they essentially see if there is evidence outside each Gospel that can back up what Jesus is reported to have said.  If they cannot back it up they say so. If they can back it up they say so. The result is that reason and research are given weight over theology and creeds and we end up with really awesome results, reasoned proof of what Jesus said or probably said or didn’t say. That excites me. I have mentioned before that I love seeing words Jesus’ likely said. They have a lot of power in my personal faith. Some folks get that with belief alone, I need reason to help me along.

This all relates to our lesson because the proof the scholars found made them as certain as they can be that Jesus actually said in Aramaic the first of the blessings Kasie read in the New Revised Standard English translation:  “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh.”  Scholars are also certain as they can be that Jesus said “Love your enemies.” It’s also pretty certain he instructed his followers to personally turn the other cheek,  and give to everyone who begs.   While it’s true that scholars are not sure Jesus actually said all the words attributed to him in today’s lesson, that does not necessarily make them less than sacred or lacking in value.   At the very least they can help us better grasp theological understandings as they developed around Jesus and his movement and the Church and its traditions.

On my faith journey,  I particularly like knowing it can be proven that Jesus very likely said “Love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” give to those who beg and “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh.”  I don’t have to suspend reason or disbelief to claim those words mattered enough for Jesus to have said them and his earliest followers to have committed them to memory and passed them along for years–and later followers found them important enough to write down. Those sayings are the types of things the Jesus of radical love whom I know and experience would have preached and taught.

But my opinion or sense of who Jesus is to me or who Jesus is to anyone else is not how the scholars figure out what was likely said by Jesus. They used evidence and reason to draw their conclusions.   For me there are burning theological and ethical issues raised by the determination that Jesus very likely said “Love your enemies” and the beatitudes, blessed are the poor, the hungry and those who weep.  Among those issues is why don’t we hear every theologian and preacher and person claiming to be a Christian push those proclamations to the top of the lists of what Christians need to take to heart and act on? Shouldn’t we be loving enemies  if Jesus told us to – and shouldn’t we work to make that a priority in our culture? Shouldn’t we be blessing the poor if Jesus told us to – and shouldn’t we work to make that a priority in our culture? Shouldn’t we be blessing the hungry – and shouldn’t we work to make that a priority in our culture? Shouldn’t we be blessing those who have reason to weep – and shouldn’t we work to make that a priority in our culture?

A stack of flyers from an Ohio religious organization was left at the front door of the church before last week’s election. It listed nine items to weigh in the US Senate race. Not one of the items mentioned Jesus or a teaching of Jesus’. Not one. I recycled the pamphlets.  Every election cycle we encounter religious people pushing others to vote on issues Jesus never addressed, about things not even close to adhering to gospel teachings.  Ironically I do not recall ever reading or hearing the same sort of religious people pushing for votes on the issues that Jesus actually  addressed and clearly cared about.  It seems to me Christians should be aware of, and consider supporting things and people in the world – including those on ballots– that will come close to doing what we can prove Jesus cared about on his Way, not what religious people care about on their way.

If we want to vote Jesus’ Way why not start with the words scholars are as sure as can be Jesus said? Like “Love your enemies: and  Blessed are the poor, the hungry and those who weep.  Shouldn’t we ask will this candidate or item work toward loving enemies? Shouldn’t we ask, will this candidate or ballot item work toward blessing the poor, the hungry and those who weep? Shouldn’t we ask would Jesus vote for this person or that thing?

I’m advocating that those who follow Jesus should consider voting in ways most likely to get done what Jesus cares about on His Way and that we can tell it’s his way if we actually find him addressing the issue in the Gospels. I am not advocating for any person or party on ballot, WELL, except for Jesus and his Way.  AMEN!

                                                            COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED