Words of Jesus — authentic or not?


Scripture: Mark 8: 31- 38 Nigel Bunce

The Gospels record many words of Jesus, but they are probably not all authentic. Some of them may be misleading, or worse, in today’s culture.

The Gospels record many words of Jesus, but they are probably not all authentic. Some of them may be misleading, or worse, in today’s culture.

Words of Jesus in today’s Scripture

Mark, Matthew and Luke all tell that Jesus told the disciples that he, the Son of Man, must suffer greatly. The Temple elders would arrange for his death, but he would rise again three days later. Peter, the impetuous disciple, challenged Jesus.

But Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan. Take your mind off earthly politics. If you really want to follow me, you must put aside your own ambitions.” Those ‘devices and desires of your own heart’ that we met last week. “You must be ready to take up your cross, like me.”

Jesus went on, “Those who want to save their lives in this situation will lose them. Those who lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel will save them. You’ll have nothing if you save your physical life but lose your immortal soul.” 

The Game of Life

The company that sells the board game Monopoly also sells an older one called The Game of Life. It’s like Monopoly, with a bank and money. The game involves choices about your life. Certain cards give you good or bad luck. The winner of The Game of Life is the player who ends with most money.

That’s the exact opposite of what Jesus told Peter. Also, in Luke 12: 34 he said that where your treasure is, your heart will be there, too. It reminds me of the old saying, “You can’t take it with you.”

Interpreting the words of Jesus in today’s Scripture

Last time this passage came up, I related it to the life and death of Dietrich Bonhõffer. In the book The Cost of Discipleship (1937), Bonhõffer wrote this. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Like Jesus in Jerusalem, Bonhõffer accepted the risk of execution in Nazi Germany.

For a different angle on this Scripture, I tried to put myself in Mark’s place. His Gospel gives us a coherent account of Jesus’ life. But Mark had no records like newspaper or TV interviews to help him. Only stories about Jesus to work with, some of them legends, that people had passed down orally.

By that time, Jesus and Peter had both already suffered crucifixion. We can’t know whether those oral stories included predictions by Jesus that he risked crucifixion. But given the ongoing hostility for Jesus from the Pharisees, it would have been reasonable for Mark to put those words in Jesus’ mouth.

What does “carrying your cross” mean in Canada today?

Modern Canadians do not risk execution for being Christian. That’s certainly not true everywhere. So what might “carrying your cross” mean for us today? For example, we often say that people with difficult life circumstances have a “heavy cross to bear”. But I wonder, does that cheapen the fate of people like Jesus or Bonhõffer.

Perhaps we read Scripture too literally? There are other ways of losing your life than execution. Week by week, our newspapers report cases of domestic abuse. Where women must choose between accepting demeaning treatment or standing up for themselves and risking deadly violence. Yet even this does not involve risking your life, specifically for the sake of the Gospel.

Words of Jesus and the Doctrine of Discovery

These days, we recognize that Holy Scripture has condoned many kinds of inequities. Often, it’s because times and culture changed. Jan and I have both read a recent article by Arden Mahlberg concerning the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery dates from the 1500s. It posed the idea that the lands “discovered” by European explorers were “empty” and could become colonies for European rulers. It was a land grab, pure and simple.

But in addition, it proposed that Church must claim the peoples in those “empty lands” for Christ. It justified this second claim with Matthew 28: 16-20, the so-called Great Commission. Jesus allegedly told his own disciples, “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

It’s impossible that Jesus actually spoke these words

The Trinity didn’t emerge as a Christian doctrine till centuries later. It’s also very “un-Jesus-like”. Jesus’ ministry was very inclusive. The Gospels contain no other reference that he suggested converting pagans to a Christianity that didn’t yet exist. Conversion was “Paul’s thing”.

Therefore, the Great Commission cannot possibly represent authentic words of Jesus. Likewise, Matthew couldn’t have written them. They smack of the Roman Empire style of Christianity that emerged in the 4th century CE. And, as Mahlberg noted, Jesus rejected the Devil’s temptation to become the “ruler of the world” concept during his forty days in the wilderness. 

The Great Commission was a mandate to convert everyone. Concerning the Doctrine of Discovery, it suited the Church leadership in the Renaissance (i.e., the pope) to pronounce that Christianity laid claim to all the peoples of the earth. And all its resources. With damnation if you resisted.  You would be an enemy of Christ. 

The Great Commission has an excellent Scriptural pedigree  

I realized years that when YHWH gave the Israelites the Promised Land, they forcibly removed the Canaanites. Modern Israeli settlers use this precedent to justify building in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, Moses told the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites completely [Deut. 7: 2].

We still read Scriptures that celebrate the Canaanite conquest. E.g., Ps. 80: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it in. You made room for it, and when it had taken root it filled the land.” But replace Egypt with Europe in Psalm 80.  Now you have the situation in the Americas, including  here in Canada.

The Church saw European settlers as “Chosen People” like the ancient Israelites. They brought a high quality vine into Canada. It took root and filled the land, pushing out the original inhabitants. This is a hard lesson to learn for those of us who are not First Nations.

To conclude

Mahlberg ended his article with a list of ideas for how we might, as modern Christians, disavow the Doctrine of Discovery and its malign consequences. In this particular homily, I wanted to address the matter of its Scriptural basis.

I sincerely hope that no-one at St. George’s believes that non-Christians are “enemies of Christ”.  However, several years ago, we lost a parishioner couple who left St. George’s because I prayed for “all who try to follow the divine in their lives, whatever their religion.” Their reasoning came from John’s Gospel, which says that the actual words of Jesus were these.  “No one cometh unto the Father but by me” [John 14: 6]. I hope that we have committed ourselves to respecting the beliefs of non-Christians.

I will end by sticking my neck out about the Great Commission. It’s not just that I doubt that Jesus said it or that Matthew wrote it. Beyond that, I regard it as having had a very malign influence on Christianity and for the world at large. It has made Christians feel entitled and arrogant. Not loving and respectful of others. Indeed, not like Jesus.