What Did Jesus Really Mean?
Sunday, June 18, 2017, Gathered Worship
by Elizabeth Dede
Today is Father’s Day. So happy Father’s Day to every father. I include in this every father: my biological father; my nephews’ adoptive father; my grandfather; my godfather; my priest. I call them all father. Happy Father’s Day.
So what in the world did Jesus mean when he said, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven?” (Matt 23:9) He must have meant something other than a literal interpretation of his words. No one would prohibit me from calling my dad father, even though he is a man on earth. Also, there are verses all over the Bible, which use the word father to describe a man on earth: Joseph speaks of a fatherly relationship God gave to him with the king of Egypt (Gen 45:8). Job says, “I was a father to the poor” (Job 29:16). Elisha calls out to Elijah, “My father, my father!” as Elijah is being taken up into heaven.
And it doesn’t work to say that all of that changed with the New Testament. References to earthly fathers are all over the place in the New Testament. Paul regularly talks about Timothy as his son. (1 Tim 1:18; 2 Tim 2:1; Phil 2:22). He called Onesimus his child, and says, “I have become his father.” (Philem 10)
Paul calls himself a father very clearly in his letter to the Corinthians: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1 Cor 4:14-15).
So what did Jesus really mean? You have to look at the Bible in its context. Jesus says, “But you are not to be called ‘rabbi,’ for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called ‘masters,’ for you have one master, the Christ.” (Matt 23:8-10) Jesus also prohibits the use of the title teacher, but then he appoints teachers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . .teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20) Paul calls himself a teacher: “For this I was appointed a . . . teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” (1 Tim 2:7). He reminds us that God calls teachers, “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers.” ( 1 Cor 12:28)
It simply doesn’t work to take Jesus’ words here literally. Jesus was criticizing Jewish leaders who love “the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places and being called ‘rabbi’ by men.” (Matt 23:6-7) Jesus was exaggerating (an oft-used figure of speech) to show the scribes and Pharisees that they needed to look to God in humility as the source of all authority, fatherhood, and teaching. They, in their pride, saw themselves as the ultimate authorities. Jesus is saying no to that way of thinking.
So Happy Father’s Day to fathers, grandfathers, godfathers, priests, and every other man you would call father on earth.
On Friday, I did a brief devotion on Matthew 5:27-30. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” I humorously said that I found it hard to reflect on these words so early in the morning. I’m a bit too squeamish to talk about plucking out eyeballs and cutting off body parts. If Jesus was being literal then we would all be missing eyes and hands. What did he really mean? He was once again using exaggeration to make a point. Lust is a sin. Adultery is a sin. They are serious sins. They have serious consequences. They destroy relationships here on earth. They ruin our relationship with God. The pain they cause are like plucking out an eye, or cutting off a hand. Jesus really means, “Don’t commit adultery. Don’t lust after each other.”
So what did Jesus really mean in today’s Gospel? “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” When we take communion, are we really eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus? Should the bread and the wine (or juice for us) be treated with the respect due the body and blood of Jesus?
I watched the movie, “Romero,” with our interns not too long ago. Romero was a priest and archbishop who served the poor in El Salvador during the 1980s at the time of the Death Squads. In one scene in the movie, Romero is in a church that has been taken over by the army. Romero tells the commanding officer that he has no right to be in the church. In response, the commander shoots up the altar, spraying the bread and wine with bullets, and splattering and scattering it all over the floor. Romero drops to his knees, carefully picking up the wafers, the Host. For Romero, that bread was the true body of Jesus. It cannot and should not be blown off the altar by a soldier with a gun. I grew up Lutheran, and my dad is a pastor. That scene has stuck with me each time I have seen the movie. Recently, I asked my dad what Luther would have said about this scene. Without even stopping to ponder his reply, my dad said, “Luther would have said that soldier is damned to hell.” Jesus body and blood are really present in the bread and wine. We dare not think of them just as some symbol.
So what did Jesus really mean? He really meant, “This is my body. This is my blood.” We can look to other places in the Bible. For example, Paul says, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the Body and Blood of the Lord. . . for anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” ( 1 Cor 11:27, 29) How is bread and wine (or juice) really Jesus’ body and blood? It’s a mystery that requires faith like the Resurrection, like the Incarnation.
It is a great thing to understand Jesus to really mean “This is my body; this is my blood.” The body and blood are food. They give us strength for our life with the presence of Jesus. They give us a personal relationship with Jesus: we are nourished by his body and blood.
So Happy Father’s Day! Confess your sins, try to live a good and decent life, and hold on to your eyeballs and hands. And take in the Body and Blood of Jesus to give you strength in your relationships with earthly people and with God. Amen.