Jesus’s “plain sayings”: conventional wisdom or the heart of the Christian message?


Scripture: Luke 6: 39-49

Are the sayings in this Scripture passage just disconnected pieces of conventional wisdom?

This is the first time since my ordination that we have had enough Sundays of Epiphany to read all three sections of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.  We read the blessings and woes two weeks ago. Last week and this, we have several sayings of Jesus. My Bible’s section headings identify last week’s sayings as ‘Love for enemies’ and ‘Judging others’.  This week we have a continuation of ‘Judging others’ along with ‘A Tree and its fruits’ and ‘Two foundations’. At first glance, these four sets of sayings look almost like a ragbag — disconnected pieces of conventional wisdom.   “Treat others as you want them to treat you”. “If you won’t forgive others they are unlikely to forgive you.” Sure, what else do you expect?

Because I’ve had to wrestle with this whole section of Luke’s Gospel, I came to see more clearly that this apparent ragbag of conventional wisdom actually lies at the heart of the Christian message — and more than that, of the Christian way of life.  They are deceptively simple ideas. Today, I want to pick out and comment on specific examples of those pieces of conventional wisdom (but not in the order we read them).

Saying and doing; secure and shaky foundations

The last shall be first, as Jesus often said.  In the final section (Two foundations) Jesus links two ideas together.  (1) Saying versus doing. (2) Houses built on a good foundations versus shaky foundations.  The second one is obvious. The house built on a secure foundation stands up to winds (even the ones like last weekend) and floods; the one built on sand (as Matthew told the story) gets swept away.

 To digress, as I am found of doing, I have always been interested in the history of WWII. The historian Gerald Reitlinger borrowed from the Gospel the title of his history of Hitler’s Russian campaign in 1941: The House built on Sand.  Expecting a quick victory from a surprise attack, Hitler’s army was insufficiently equipped and provisioned to withstand the Russian winter.

Actions don’t speak louder than words 

Jesus, to note it again, linked the metaphor of the buildings with good and poor foundations to what people say and what they do.  People often say things like, ‘It’s not what you say that matters, but what you do,’ or ‘Actions speak louder than words.’

Jesus took exactly the opposite tack.  Our words tell others what kinds of people we are. As Christians — that is, disciples of Jesus — we must expect to model Christian behaviour and values in a world that behaves very differently.

We live in an age of fake news, outright lies, and coarseness of discourse. In his homily last Sunday evening at our retreat, Bishop Michael Pryse recalled the trucker in Ottawa a few days before who had said that anyone who did not agree with pipelines should be run over.  That is typical of the level of discourse in North America today.  Maybe that trucker believes himself to be a kind and generous person.  But his words speak the opposite. They are the foundations of what he is truly like.

It’s easy to fall back into old bad habits

Whenever we say something or tell a joke that is derogatory or belittling about someone of a different group, we fail to model Christ; in fact, we model something utterly different.   It has taken me a long time to realize this, and even now I fall back into bad habits all too easily.  If the building of our discipleship is built on poor foundations it will get swept away in the hurly-burly of life.  But at least I now realize that words speak equally as loudly as actions, and sometimes even louder. Words lead to actions.  That is why I don’t think that Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, was exaggerating when he feared that someone might get shot if the words spoken in the coming federal election campaign are excessively negative.

 The image of God as a rock

There’s something else in that piece of conventional wisdom that we might not notice at first glance.  I thought about why Jesus used the metaphor of foundations. Matthew tells the story as a man who built on a rock. There’s significance in that. Jesus was talking to Jewish people, whose hymn book was the psalms. With just a quick scan, I found that at least ten psalms refer to God as ‘my rock’.  These ten psalms, and others, speak of God as a stronghold or a fortress to keep me safe. Think of Martin Luther’s famous hymn, A safe stronghold our God is still, from Psalm 46.  Jesus didn’t choose that analogy by accident, I’m sure.  Good foundation or rock = God = one who hears Jesus’s words and acts on them appropriately.

There are many aspects of our lives that need good foundations.   Friendships, marriages, upbringing, faith … there will be times when the storms come, and we have to trust that those buildings were made with strong foundations.  Of course, preachers like to dwell on the foundations of our Christian faith. We try to give our children good foundations for living their lives. For all the broken people we meet, there is some aspect of their being whose foundations were ricketty.  This is much more than conventional wisdom. What Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel is that each of us models good behaviour by both words and actions for those in our care — and I define ‘those in our care’ very broadly.

 Specks (motes), logs, and vision problems

The other saying that I want to comment on is the one about specks, logs, and eyes.  Very obviously, Jesus exaggerated on purpose. I’m sure that we have all heard sermons that see this as mere conventional wisdom, and say, “Look at your own faults and correct them first, before you start criticizing the faults of other people.”  However, Jesus is pretty tough on us. He calls us hypocrites, when we focus on the faults of other people and ignore our own. He says that we are only pretending to be Christians. The word hypocrite comes from a Greek word (remember, the New Testament was written in Greek) hypokrites, meaning a stage actor, someone who literally pretends to be someone else.

But I got a different perspective from something by Fred Craddock that I read this week.  Craddock identified this saying as evidence of moral superiority combined with a lack of self-critical ability.  Even people who are sincere and who act with good motivation can fall into this trap. “Let me help you remove that speck from your eye” is not always altruistic.  It can be a way of hiding one’s faults from oneself by always keeping the focus on other people. I had not really thought much about that aspect of the equation before.  Something to think about more deeply. As Craddock wrote, “Our speech reveals who we are, and whether the Holy Spirit is present” [when we speak].

What is God doing? Today? in my life? in our congregation?

I recently heard someone say that theology can be thought of as, ‘What is God doing?’  This week, what God did was force me to think about how these apparently trite pieces of conventional wisdom are relevant to my own life.  That led me to ask these two follow up questions. What is God doing at the moment in our congregation? What is God doing at the moment in each of your individual lives?

As I thought about how to tie this homily back to the idea of God as our rock, a verse from last week’s psalm came to my mind.  “Delight thou in the Lord and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires.” But no matter how much you delight in the Lord, that probably doesn’t mean that you will win one of the cars next time you “Roll up the rim” at Tim Horton’s.