Have you spent hours trying to comprehend Jesus’ comment about the camel and the eye of the needle?
Have you puzzled over what Jesus meant when he said his flesh was bread, his blood was drink, and that we are to consume it?
Have you wondered why Jesus told a gentile woman it was improper to share his healing with dogs (like her)?
A Flat Reading of Jesus
Many of us read the Bible in a flat, straightforward way without realizing it is not flat at all but dynamic; real personalities interact with each other.
Even Alexander Scourby’s popular audio version of the Bible is flat. Scourby’s voice is beautiful, but he reads it like an informational news report. No human emotion or dynamic is involved—no raised voices, no laughter, no groaning. The text says Jesus was angry with the temple merchants, but he doesn’t sound angry; and he doesn’t sound happy when the disciples bring wonderful reports of their visits to surrounding towns. He reads the Bible in a beautiful, but matter-of-fact, voice.
I love watching movies about Jesus to see how others characterize him and to gain new insights. The worst I ever saw had Jesus walking around quoting the King James text in a dull, monotonous voice—“Bueller…Bueller…Bueller…” How different it was from Johnny Cash’s Gospel Road (1973). Jesus walked along with his disciples in that movie too, but his chuckling at them on a mountain trail as they pretend to throw a startled disciple off the mountain gave it life and a human connection.
When we read the words of Jesus, we should remember that he was a dynamic person. We must also remember that his words are not dry, impassive announcements. He projects warmth, color, and personality.
He also uses literary devices. Let’s look at three examples.
Matthew chapter 19 reports:
Jesus said to his disciples…“I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Some believers think this means it’s impossible for rich people to follow Jesus. Others suggest Jesus refers to a supposed needles-eye security gate into the city where camels must get on their knees to scoot through the tight entrance.
These are diversions; Jesus is just using hyperbole—grand exaggeration to prove a point. His observation comes after the rich man wanted to know how to enter the kingdom. Jesus, knowing his attachment to wealth, told him to sell it all and give it to the poor, but the man sadly declined.
Jesus is saying that excessive attachment to riches hinders spiritual commitment. But don’t feel badly if you missed the point because even his disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus says in John chapter 6:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Some thinks Jesus is referring to the elements of the sacraments or communion; others suggest that the entire episode never occurred. But it seems to me that this is simply metaphor.
Jesus had provided bread to the large crowd, and they followed him around wanting more bread. Jesus tells them they’re missing the significance of his work; bread is not the important thing—the important thing is Jesus himself. So he uses the metaphor of bread and life to let them know that he, personally, is the source of life.
But they missed the point and “Began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”
Jesus then expanded the metaphor: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”
In Matthew chapter 15, a gentile woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter.
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Some people are outraged that Jesus called this gentile woman a dog, but others see the story differently. Jesus does not dialog with the woman for her benefit but for the benefit of his disciples. It is a case of humor, and it seems that the woman was in on it.
When the disciples wanted to send her away, Jesus exposed their prejudices by making the ‘dog’ remark to the woman; I can imagine the wink or the amused glint in his eye, and the woman picked up on it and gave a snappy comeback.
It was a teachable moment for Jesus’ disciples.
Be Aware of Figures of Speech in the Bible
Jesus, like other biblical personalities, used many figures of speech. Look for them and you should discover a more interesting and personable Jesus. You might also find seemingly difficult questions about his sayings just disappear.
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim