(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
Did Jesus Really Say That?
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
This week we will study some of Jesus’ statements that seem hard to understand to many people. Sometimes Jesus did not mean to be understood easily. In Mark 4, he told a parable, one his followers asked him to explain (cf. verse 10). At its end, he used a common Hebrew expression: “Whoever has ears to listen should pay attention!” It was a way of saying the story’s meaning wasn’t obvious, that understanding its message took attention and thought.
Jesus used various types of parables and imagery to communicate his message. One of them was “prophetic hyperbole”—dramatic exaggeration to show that a subject is serious. Adultery was (and is) a serious issue, and Jesus used hyperbole to stress that the call to follow him is not always easy. At times entering God’s Kingdom takes hard choices, “tearing out” or “chopping off” some things so that we can live the life God calls us to live.
First, Jesus told the man who asked about eternal life, “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” The man went away—he didn’t want eternal life THAT much. Then Jesus said, “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” That shocked his disciples—no rich people in heaven? No, said Jesus, that’s not the point: “All things are possible for God.” His hyperbolic statements were a solemn warning about the spiritual danger of worshipping wealth.
In yesterday’s reading, Jesus challenged those who made their “stuff” more important than his kingdom. In today’s passage, he challenged anyone who made family ties more important than following him. He was not against family love—he cared about his mother even on the cross (cf. John 19:25-27). But in his day, and ours, following Jesus sometimes strained or even broke culturally valued patterns of family obedience and loyalty.
Some of Jesus’ sayings were hard to understand—a few may even have been misreported. But what Mark reported as Jesus’ central point came through clearly. “Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives,” he said. “Come, follow me!” Sometimes a focus on Jesus’ “hard sayings” is a cover for what Mark Twain reportedly said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Matthew 9:9-13, 35-36
For many self-righteous religious leaders in Jesus’ day, the hardest thing to understand about Jesus was not some obscure statement, but his crystal clear message that God loves and has compassion for all people—including those they called “sinners.” Jesus lived that message out, and voiced it in stories like the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:25-37) and in the greatest commandments (cf. Matthew 22:34-40). Some things about Jesus we may not fully understand—but the central “good news” of his kingdom is clear. And for all of us who are willing to recognize our standing as “sinners,” it’s incredibly good news.
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Lord God, we pray that we may always be as ready to respond as Matthew was when you break into our daily routine. We pray that we will respond “right away,” as did your disciples when you called. Help us to break out of the constraining norms of this world and value the treasure of heaven more than earthly “things.” Give us ears to listen and a heart to respond. Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
The holiday season is behind us and we are about one-third of the way into winter. What are you looking forward to now and why?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
• Read Mark 4:1-9. What did Jesus mean when he said, “Whoever has ears to hear”? What is a parable? Why did Jesus so often speak in parables rather than speaking more directly? How do you interpret this parable? What can we do to make sure that our hearts and minds are “good soil” for the word of God? If we have “good soil,” what kind of good crop and harvest might we be able to expect?
• Read Matthew 5:27-30. Also read the paragraph under “Tuesday” above. What should be more important to us, momentary pleasure or eternal life with God? Is that issue always obvious to us in the moment? Can you think of one way you’ve found greater satisfaction by choosing to live in God’s way versus a way of momentary pleasure? In what ways have you found following the teaching of Jesus to be difficult? Can you think of examples of how we might be able to “tear out” or “chop off” things in our life that get in the way of our ability to follow Jesus faithfully?
• Read Mark 10:17-27. What was Jesus meaning when he said, “Why do you call me good?…No one is good—except God alone”? Did he mean that he was not good? Think about what Jesus said about how hard it is for rich people (and even everyone else) to enter the kingdom of heaven, then re-read the concluding verse in this selection (verse 27). What message does Jesus want to convey here? There were lots of wealthy people in the Bible that God did not tell to sell all that they had (Abraham and Zacchaeus, for example). How does that fact affect your understanding of these verses? How can our attitudes about “stuff” get in the way of our desire to follow God?
• Read Luke 14:25-33. Jesus is again using hyperbole to make a point. In the context of the New Testament, how would you define a “disciple”? Do you or do you not want to be a disciple? For many, this becomes a question of what personal cost they are willing to pay to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Has someone you know well ever had to choose between pleasing family members and doing what God was calling them to do? How can we care about people as Jesus did, and yet be faithful to our convictions about what God is asking of us? In what ways have you found new “family relationships” within God’s larger family?
• Read Mark 1:14-20. The Common English Bible renders the Greek word metanoia, often translated as “repent,” with the phrase “change your hearts and lives.” The Greek literally meant “to change directions, turn around.” What are some of the most significant ways you have changed your heart and life in response to Jesus? One of the more striking parts of Mark’s report is verse 18: “RIGHT AWAY, they left their nets and followed him.” Why do you think they responded so quickly and readily? Have you ever finally responded to God, and then thought, “I wish I’d done this long ago”?
• Read Matthew 9:9-13, 35-36. Is it sometimes hard for you to accept the fact that, despite all your efforts to be “a good person,” you are still a sinner who needs a Savior? Does God love sinners? What makes you think so? Is that a part of the “good news” of Christ’s message? For all of us who are willing to recognize our standing as “sinners,” it’s incredibly good news, isn’t it? Matthew was a tax collector and was considered a sinner of the first order. Did he change lives for the better? Can we?
From last week: Did you prayerfully consider to what extent you believe Jesus’ humanity affected his attitude toward us, how God’s attitude toward us might have been different if he had not lived in human flesh? Share with the group whatever you learned.
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, January 19, 2014:
The scholars of the Jesus Seminar developed a set of rules and assumptions about the kinds of things Jesus actually said. Then they measured each recorded saying of Jesus in the gospels in the light of their rules and assumptions. Here’s the question: on what basis did you develop the assumptions? For instance, among the 2% of the words of Jesus the Jesus Seminar said was undoubtedly authentic was the saying, “Love your enemies.” But we learned two weeks ago that Reza Aslan in the bestseller Zealot about Jesus, came to the exact opposite conclusion—Jesus most certainly did not say, “Love your enemies.” Both the Jesus Seminar and Aslan made assumptions about Jesus, then discounted the things he said that did not fit their assumptions.
It is important to recognize, however, that the sayings of Jesus in the gospels were not verbatim accounts of what Jesus said. There were no court reporters taking down his words. This is what people remembered, and how they remembered them and how the gospel writers interpreted these things. I’ll give you a side-by-side example of how the gospels sometimes differ:
In Luke we read that Jesus said to his disciples:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.”
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.”
But now consider how Matthew records the same saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for
righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Many scholars think Matthew was writing to a more affluent congregation, Luke writing with a particular concern for the poor, and each adapted Jesus’ words. But generally, Matthew, Mark and Luke sound very much alike. When we compare these three gospels, usually called the “synoptics” from the Greek “to see together,” with John, you’ll see that there is a huge gap. In Matthew, Mark and Luke (the Synoptics) Jesus speaks in parables, but in John he rarely speaks in parables—he uses metaphors instead. In Matthew, Mark and Luke he refers to the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven 84 times; in John, only twice. John’s Jesus uses the personal pronoun “I” twice as much as the Synoptics. The Synoptic Jesus is focused on ethical living and he calls people to follow him. In John the focus is on an internal spiritual faith, and Jesus calls people to believe in him….
Here’s the point I want you to see—we need both John and the Synoptics to have a balanced and complete Christian life. We need a relationship with Christ that transforms us and gives us life, and we need to hear the ethical call of the Kingdom of God….
Jesus often speaks in a way that clearly he does not intend us to take literally, but he does intend we take seriously. LaVon and I fight over the thermostat….The other night she was going to bed and said, “If you don’t turn that thermostat down, I’m going to die.” Was she really going to die, or was she exaggerating to make a point? Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which you make a clearly over-the-top statement to dramatically make your point. You can think of others: “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Or, “I’ve got a million things to do today.” This is how Jesus often speaks in Matthew, Mark and Luke. He uses hyperbole to make a point. He also speaks in prophetic absolutes, not trying to consider all of the possible exceptions to the rule.
So when Jesus says “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,” he means, “Lust can be deadly. It can make you a slave.” Jesus also said: “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.” Since most of us are wealthy relative to the developing world, we’d better hope Jesus meant to be taken seriously but not literally. He was saying that wealth, our fixation on it, our tendency to hoard it can destroy our souls and keep us from God’s kingdom.
I want us to end by focusing on the crux of Jesus’ message. In John that message is largely an inner spiritual message. John is best known for one verse that captures in many ways what Jesus, in John’s gospel, demands. You know the words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” Jesus never says anything quite like that in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But it captures the personal, spiritual life. In John, Jesus uses agricultural metaphors to describe the relationship of the believer to him—he is the vine, we are the branches, and we’re to bear fruit. That fruit, he repeatedly says, is love. So Jesus says things like this on several occasions: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
The crux of Jesus’ message in Matthew, Mark and Luke is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Heaven. It appears 84 times on Jesus’ lips in the gospels, only twice in John, but 82 times in Matthew, Mark and Luke. What did Jesus mean by the “kingdom of God”? It is, in an ultimate sense, the truth that God is the rightful king and ruler over the entire cosmos. Yet the world we live in seems in so many ways to be in rebellion against God….
When Jesus preached his very first sermon, it was a simple one, “The kingdom of God has come near! Repent and believe the good news!” The word repent in Greek is METANOIA = A CHANGE OF MIND RESULTING IN A CHANGE OF HEART AND ACTIONS. This is what Jesus announced in his first sermon.
Jesus called people to acknowledge God as their king, to turn to God, and to live their lives daily focused on being his servants, his people, setting the world aright in so far as they were able. In their marriages, with their children, in their jobs, in the way they treat their neighbors, in how they respond to their enemies, in how they respond to the poor, the broken, the stranger or alien….
This weekend we celebrate the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King. His vision, he freely acknowledged, was drawn from the vision of Jesus and the kingdom of God. The strategy and powerful instrument Jesus announced both in John and the Synoptics, which had the power to change the world, was love. When Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize he quoted Arnold Toynbee, “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.” King then ended his speech with these words of hope, “In a dark, confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.”
What others have said about “righteousness”
– This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified. ― Martin Luther
– If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see. Let them see. ― Henry David Thoreau
– Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. ― Martin Luther King Jr.
– More evil gets done in the name of righteousness than any other way. ― Glen Cook, Dreams of Steel
– Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and a cry for help? ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
– For the believer, humility is honesty about one’s greatest flaws to a degree in which he is fearless about truly appearing less righteous than another. ― Criss Jami, Salomé: In Every Inch In Every Mile
– If you don’t have a righteous objective, eventually you will suffer. When you do the right thing for the right reason, the right result awaits.” ― Chin-Ning Chu
– My righteousness is just as good as Jesus’ righteousness, because it IS Jesus’ righteousness! ― E.W. Kenyon
– Righteousness acts never in its own interest, but in the interest of fellow men.” ― Thaddeus of Vitovnica
– You know what is right and what is wrong, and no disguise, however appealing, can change that. Be the one to make a stand for right, even if you stand alone. Have the moral courage to be a light for others to follow. ― Thomas S. Monson
– A righteous man does not conceive of himself as righteous; he is “only doing what anyone else would do,” except, of course, that no one else does it. ― Martin Berman-Gorvine
– Experiences are the gifts from God, but we never seek those directly. You and I are to be seeking. You and I are to be hungering and thirsting after righteousness and then the experiences are the gifts. ― Brian Richardson
– The abundant life begins from within and then moves outward to other individuals. If there is richness and righteousness in us, then we can make a difference in the lives of others, just as key individuals have influenced the lives of each of us for good and made us richer than we otherwise would have been. ― Spencer W. Kimball
This week prayerfully consider how you can help to overcome prejudice and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Do at least one thing to honor his memory by injecting peace and mutual respect into your week and the week of others. Next week share with the group any experiences you had.