Hard Sayings of Jesus: Blessing or Naming? – Robert Saler reflects on being a clear-eyed observer of human freedom and its effects.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday August 14-20, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022, 2025)
Isaiah 5:1-7 (semicontinuous reading)
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 (semicontinuous reading)
In a Christian Century blog in which I discussed this Sunday’s series of eschatological sayings from Jesus, I wrote this:
“The truth is that the scriptures offer us a Jesus who names hard realities in hard terms. I used to hate this fact about the Bible. I used to have little appreciation for the presence of these disturbing passages. It took me a long time to realize that description is not prescription—and that because Jesus says something does not mean that the content of his statement is automatically a good thing. ‘Scriptural’ does not always mean ‘right.’ Part of the genius of scripture is that it names realities about our lives that are often very wrong.
We have a sense of what it meant for Jesus in his time to say that his presence on Earth would bring a sword of division to his followers, one that would force the disciples and the early Christians to make excruciatingly difficult decisions about a discipleship that would put them at odds with the structures around them—government, religion and even family. Behind these words in Luke is the emerging vision of martyrdom in Christian communities, as Luke’s own later narrative of Stephen’s stoning would attest. We have no reason to think that Jesus is blessing this reality; he is only naming it.
The Bible names reality in unsparing terms. The theology of the incarnation tells us that Jesus inhabits this reality without reservation, even unto death. But our world is ruled by a host of realities that the incarnation does not bless; naming one of these is often a preface to judgment instead of blessing. The fact that naming judgment happens on terms different from those we might craft may be key to their salvific character.” (Robert Saler, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 8/7/2013).
The distinction between Jesus naming reality and blessing it is crucial when we think about how these passages might relate to creation care. Too many exegetical strategies within the Christian tradition—fundamentalist and mainline alike—have assumed that Jesus’ talk of fire and swords is a threatening eschatological judgment. As we have come to know, however, these times of ours HAVE brought about a time in which the Earth is “on fire,” globally. Global climate change is a reality, and increasingly we are aware that this has implications for violence. As a Public Radio International news story, reporting on contemporary scientific studies of the links between rising temperatures and violence, points out:
“The effects of global warming are visible. The icecaps are melting and the sensitive equilibrium of Earth’s ecosystems is being thrown out of balance. But a recent study, published in the journal Science, found that humans are affected too, becoming more strongly disposed to aggression and violence as Earth’s temperature rises.
‘Just to give you a sense of what the magnitudes are, the estimated average effect of two degrees Celsius warming in tropical Africa on the risk of civil war in Africa would be something on the order of 40 to 50 percent increase in the risk of civil war,’ said Edward Miguel, co-author of the study and economics professor at the University of California, Berkley.”
As a reader of the Bible, I believe that Jesus names the hard realities of our time. As a Christian, I refuse to believe that Jesus (the Lord, the Giver of Life) blesses them. The homiletical opportunity for this Sunday is to allow the hard words of the Bible to name reality as it is.
Once that is done, and it is made plain that the God we are dealing with is no pious projection of “niceness” but a clear-eyed observer of human freedom and its effects, then the gospel news can take effect. The gospel that God saves us and renews creation precisely amidst the fires and chaos of war, and that the Christian task is to practice creation care in the confident hope that even now God’s green shoots are springing forth, is founded on the soil of such truth-telling. Our creation faces death; our churches must live into that reality if we are to proclaim a God who overcame death on the cross and whose Spirit works in us and around us to overcome death and destruction even now.
Let the preacher not shrink from the task of truth-telling, and let us be bold in our hope that God will not shrink from the promise to restore us and the earth God loves.
Originally written by Robert Saler in 2013.