Jesus' Counterintuitive Teaching - 1

By “intuitive” I mean things that seem normal or sensible by our human wisdom or judgment.  What seems “sensible” to us may be formulated by cultural norms, parental nurture or Bible study.  But Christians can lean away from Lord’s teaching when His words seem to run counter to our own conclusions or an aspect of our worldview.  We’ll consider some of these in coming articles (in no particular order).

1. “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Lk 6:26).  What might conventional wisdom say?  “Blessed are you when all men speak well of you …”.  Isn’t this what we strive for?  We emphasize positive influence, gracious words, fairmindedness, respectfulness, being “harmless as doves,” not giving enemies a reason to blaspheme, etc. so that we can make the best possible impression on others.  Such the Bible teaches, but there’s a flip side of this coin which Jesus emphasizes in this shocking adage.

Jesus acknowledges that taking a firm stand for truth will make enemies, for His people live in a world of conflicting ideals and values.  And this world can react in great hostility when its norms are exposed or criticized.  As one teacher in Washington state recently put it: “So many students are not safe in this nation from their Christo-fascist parents.” 

But if everyone consistently speaks well of us, it is likely because we have softened our stance on Biblical truth in order to maintain the world’s approval.  Jesus says this was the case with false prophets in the OT; the fathers spoke well of them because their messages reflected the climate of the day:  “Who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us right things; speak … smooth things, prophesy deceits.  Get out of the way, turn aside from the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us’” (Is 30:10-11).

Obviously, Jesus does not offer comfort in this verse when we have acted with callousness and inconsideration and then gotten blowback.  By all means let us strive for grace in our speech, but not at the expense of truth.

2. “Let them alone.  They are blind leaders of the blind.  And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch” (Mt 15:14).  As a follow-on to the first point, Jesus Himself was evil spoken of by His generation precisely because He did not cozy up to the religious/political leaders.  In this He reflected the faithful prophets of old who “spoke truth to power” and were often martyred for it:  “You are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.  Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt … I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth …” (Mt 23:31-34).

In the context of Mt 15 Jesus has publicly called out the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy; they “have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition” (15:6).  Afterward, “His disciples said to Him, ‘Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’” (15:12).  Jesus answers, “Let them alone.”  Conventional wisdom might say, “Confront them; do everything you can to convict them of their error.”  And while Jesus did not shy away from telling the scribes, Pharisees and priests what they needed to hear, He did not lead marches against the Sanhedrin or picket the temple precincts (cf. Mt 12:15-21). 

Instead, Jesus practiced what He preached:  “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine” (Mt 7:6).  Jesus determined that the Jewish leadership was a lost cause, and consequently He spent most of His energy in Galilee healing and teaching the multitudes. 

Having said that, it is not easy to decide when our efforts will be of no avail and we should move on to focus on other people and opportunities.  But the prescription is given by Jesus, and we must prayerfully contemplate when to apply it.

3. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:24).  This statement of Jesus again jolted His disciples:  “They were exceedingly amazed, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (19:25).  The prevailing notion was that prosperity was a sign of divine approval, an idea obviously fostered by the rich and powerful to maintain their status and keep the rabble mired in guilt and impotence.  The disciples had imbibed this spirit, and they are stunned by Jesus’ unconventional assessment of wealth.

But is it wealth per se that Jesus is calling out?  And further, did not the law of Moses promise material blessings to those who would remain obedient to the covenant (cf. Dt 28:3-6)?  Was not Abraham wealthy, and did David not enjoy the luxuriousness of royalty?  What is Jesus getting at?

In Mark’s account Jesus responds to His disciples’ consternation, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (10:24).  Such trust is exemplified by the rich man whose fields “yielded plentifully.  And he thought …‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’  So he said, ‘I … will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ … So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Lk 12:16-21).  It is one thing to have riches; it is another thing to trust in them and neglect God for them.

Now before we rush to comfort ourselves by pointing out that it is an unholy attitude toward riches that Jesus has in mind (cf. 1 Tim 6:9-10 – “desire to be rich … the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”) – and concluding that Jesus could not possibly be speaking to us – let us realize that by any metric, Americans (and Westerners in general) enjoy the greatest amount of material abundance than any other generation/nationality in all of human history.  If we don’t realize that we are the wealthy, that is proof positive that we have been blinded by our riches.  And if we are that blind, might it also be that we are blind to our trust in said riches?  So it was with the rich young ruler who occasioned Jesus’ observation, for he spurned eternal life and “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mt 19:22).  Let us heed Jesus and not make the same mistake.