Impossible questions annoy and even anger people. Why? Because they make us scramble for answers and doubt our most basic assumptions. I dislike doing both those things.
"Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" (Mt. 6:27; Lk. 12:25)
"What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mt. 16:26; Mk. 8:36; Lk. 9:25)
"Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?" (Mt. 5:13; Mk. 9:50; Lk. 14:34)
"If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?" (Mt. 5:47)
"If you love those who love you what reward do you have?" (Mt. 5:46; Lk. 6:32)
Jesus' Distinctive Voice
Jesus' distinctive teaching voice comes through in the way he coins sayings that conform to traditional wisdom forms like beatitudes and proverbs, but uses them not to resolve the conflicts of life but to heighten them. He uses them, not to preserve the status quo, but to push the hearer to question society's assumptions and values and her own. They take a wisdom insight and concentrate and intensify it by paradox and hyperbole.
In this short passage alone, I am being pushed to give up one of my most cherished occupations, worry, in favor of trusting God for the basics of daily life. I am being pushed to consider that my other loyalties are in conflict with my loyalty to God (6:24). Jesus' teachings are digging tools that undercut the foundation of my house. My priority, my life's project has been to build a comfortable present and a secure future for me and my family. Jesus wants to undermine it and eventually, to replace it with radical, risky trust in God and the mission of seeking God first, confident that other matters will fall in place. If I give up a preoccupation with anxiety and security, it would seem like I would have time and energy for seeing to the needs of others around me. These teachings take something away to free me for something more. In that sense they are just the beginning.
The teachings of the Book of Proverbs are so measured and reasonable in their recommendations of moderation and hard work and the assurance that God will direct us, giving us wisdom to lead satisfying lives that give us a good reputation in the community. But Jesus' wisdom is the opposite of moderate and measured. It is immoderate, risky, and extreme in its statements about how to live. It is absolute in its confidence in the God for whom we live. That God is, as New Testament scholar Stephen Patterson has put it, "a God who demands all and a God who gives all. "
I resist this passage; I still want to make a case for being able to serve two masters, for the need for anxiety, for the integrity of security as the project of my life. But this young teacher's impossible questions make it impossible for me to go forward without doubting where I've been. That's what makes them so very annoying.
Alyce M. McKenzie, Preaching Proverbs: Wisdom for the Pulpit(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Alyce M. McKenzie, Hear and Be Wise: Becoming a Preacher and Teacher of Wisdom (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004) [See especially Chapter Eight: "The Fourth Pillar of Wisdom: The Subversive Voice."]
Stephen J. Patterson, The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning (Trinity Press International, 1998)