Jesus Gave People Mind Cramps (by John Frye)

Jesus Gave People Mind Cramps (by John Frye) May 16, 2014

Jesus’ Way with Words

Jesus did not shy away from giving people mind cramps.  Jesus was not afraid of being misunderstood.  While living in our reality, he spoke from a different realm altogether.  Immersed in that realm, he brought deepened meanings to ordinary words.  One of the most important dimensions of pastoral ministry is helping others recover the immensity of eternity in ordinary, daily life.

Jesus was a masterful word artist.  As a brilliant conversationalist, Jesus could inject an ordinary term with a depth that caused cerebral convulsions.

Here is some of Jesus’ ways with words:  With Nicodemas, the Teacher of Israel, in John 3 it was the phrase “born again” (γεννηθη ανωθεν).  Nicodemas does a mental double-take and asks dumbfoundedly “How…?”  With the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, it was the ordinary term for a life necessity: “water.”  With baffled curiosity the woman asked for the living water, but wasn’t sure Jesus could deliver because he had nothing with which to draw that kind of water.  Back in John 2, Jesus used the word “temple” with his new definition to the bewilderment of some very upset and confused Jewish authorities.

I can’t prove the following, but it seems to be true.  When we endeavor to grasp the eternal weight of ordinary things and seek to infuse kingdom-of-God-definitions into daily terms, the Spirit’s transformative power goes nuclear.  The best kept secret of God’s kingdom is that it is crammed into ordinary life all around us.

I was in Mozambique teaching some pastors who had walked hundreds of miles to be at a conference.  For lunch, we all lined up with a tin plate to receive a large scoop of rice with a ladle of brown beans over them.  No napkins, no silverware, no tables.  We stood outside in the hot African sun eating by scooping rice with our fingers into the beans.  Hear me: for all I knew, I was enjoying the “marriage supper of the Lamb!”  Injected into the ordinary things of that meal on that day in that dusty place was the glory of eternity. We don’t need to visit exotic places or have ecstatic experiences or formulate an esoteric vocabulary.

Why do we evangelicals have this slavish penchant to be correctly understood and to make sure the minds of our listeners are always at ease?  Why don’t we dare speak ordinary words filled with other worldly, kingdom of God, meaning?  Why is Webster’s or the NIDOTTE or the DNTT (or whatever) dictionary our sources for definitions and not the creative Jesus and his new world of meanings?  I anticipate the objection: But does this not make language too slippery? Are we just going to fill a word with whatever meaning we want?  To these questions I simply ask, Did Jesus do that?  He was creative, not willy-nilly. The more immersed we become in the reign of God, the more infused our words will be with eternity-weighted meanings.

Jesus was an intriguing word smith, not a ponderous exegete. He believed in a deeper, truer realm; lived from it and invited others into it. He used daily words with mind-expanding meanings. His vocabulary while current and earthy nevertheless had a “to infinity and beyond” dimension. This is a pastoral challenge. Eugene H. Peterson writes, “Everybody treats us so nicely. No one seems to think we mean what we say. When we say ‘kingdom of God,’ no one gets apprehensive, as if we had just announced (which we thought we had) that a powerful army is poised on the border, ready to invade. When we say radical things line ‘Christ,’ ‘love,’ ‘believe,’ ‘peace,’ and ‘sin’—words that in other times and cultures excited martyrdoms—the sounds enter the stream of conversation with no more splash than baseball scores and grocery prices.  It’s hard to maintain a self-concept as a revolutionary when everyone treats us with the same affability they give the grocer.” That’s not how they treated Jesus.

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