Everything that Jesus ever said was true, but not everyone who heard was able to grasp his meaning.
Those in his environment who were most certain that they and not others possessed religious and spiritual truth—faithful disciples though they might believe themselves to be, and might to all appearances have been, of the same great prophet of old on whose Jesus’s own teachings were predicated—were mostly likely to reject his sayings vehemently and violently.
How could anyone—how could we—white American evangelical Christians en masse—have missed the danger clearly implied in Jesus’s diagnosis of the situation of that generation? How could we have come to assume so carelessly that the unwitting apostasy of the generation that Jesus encountered—a generation that saw itself as righteous and faithful, but which Jesus called wicked and adulterous—was a failure of that generation only? How can we have seen that apostasy as a danger to which the next generation, and the next, and our own, were, and are, somehow immune, just because we, unlike the original “Pharisees” and “scribes” of Jesus’s sayings, have looked upon Jesus and said “Lord, Lord”?
Was it not entirely predictable, and did not Jesus and his apostles in fact predict, that among those who came to profess with greatest subjective certainty and greatest satisfaction and sincerest gratitude that they grasped his meaning and embraced it and were able to convey it to others, many and perhaps most would miss it? Yes, gratitude! “O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men . . .”—a more heartfelt prayer was never uttered! (The other prayer in that same story is praised not because it was more intensely heartfelt but because of its humility and its truthfulness.) And how many times has it been repeated, with no sense whatsoever of irony or danger?
Everything that Jesus ever said was true, but not everyone who has heard has grasped his meaning. As he himself said, echoing his servant and spiritual ancestor Isaiah:
By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive.
Here is a story (a parable? a straightforward warning?) told by Jesus that has been heard by many, but never once understood by one about whom it was told. It is a story about exorcism and failed conversion, about a disarmed soul:
When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.
When we read it, do we not pity that man about whom it was told, and thank God sincerely that we are not like him? Does any Christian who reads this story ever say: an unclean spirit was cast out me, that is true—but who or what inhabits me now?
Here is another story told by Jesus and not always understood:
Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
Has anyone who has ever heard this story said: “Oh, no, I should not have built my house upon the sand, what will become of me”? Or has not everyone who has read it and accepted it thought, “O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as that man who built his house upon the sand”?
Here is a warning that Jesus gave:
Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
How quickly after that warning was uttered do we think it expired? One year? Two years? Twenty years?
Or these warnings:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Does everyone who encounters rotten fruit reject it, or having taken a bite spit it out in disgust? Are there no festivals of rotten-fruit eating—have we ourselves not attended them?—where many see the rotten fruit, and perceive that it is good for food, and pleasant to the eyes, from a tree to be desired, and eat it?
And did not Jesus, echoing Moses, say repeatedly:
Take heed to yourselves.
Should it not shake evangelicals to the core—of all people, these most committed to going everywhere to tell others, without necessarily taking heed to ourselves—to read:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
Did not Paul the apostle write concerning the Old Testament stories of Israelite apostasy:
Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.
Did Paul not tell the Ephesian elders:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
And do we imagine that Scripture preserves this saying for us so that we may pity those poor Ephesians of old?
When Jesus approached Jerusalem for the last time, did he not weep over it? Did he not say,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!
And do we imagine that having died, and risen, and ascended with his assumed humanity to the role of heavenly intercessor, he has not wept since, and is not weeping even now? And perhaps not only for “the rest of men,” like whom we, thankfully, are not?