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What did Jesus say?

by David Cartwright

       Cover   Of the three questions that drive my quest for an answer concerning the paradoxical teachings of Jesus, “What did Jesus say?” would seem to be the easiest to answer. On the surface, “What did Jesus mean?”, and “What would Jesus do?”, surely require more reflection and discernment. Not so, I’ve found, during my study of these sayings of Jesus. In fact, all fifteen sermons in my book deal with the question, “What did Jesus say?” with varying degrees of difficulty and success. Whether it is “To Speak or Not to Speak”, “A Public or Private Affair”, or “To Turn the Cheek”, each is a representation of the on-going struggle to uncover what Jesus actually said.
An example can be found in complimentary passages from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. I am thinking right now of a passage that I could have included in my book, but for some reason at the time of writing, escaped my search. It all has to do with loving one’s enemies. The discussion can be found in Matthew 5, The Sermon on the Mount, and Luke 6, The Sermon on the Plain. Both report Jesus saying, “Love your enemies.” Matthew 5: 44 puts it this way, “Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Luke 6: 27: “But I say to you that hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” So far, so good, as far as I can tell. But then we come to Matthew 5: 47, “And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Compare Luke 6: 34: “And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” Notice that Matthew, a Jewish Christian, uses the loaded word, “Gentiles.” Luke, a Gentile himself, uses the much more generic word, “sinners.” What did Jesus actually say? One of these, or perhaps, both? And to make matters even more puzzling, this is one of those places in scripture that we call “Q,” where Matthew and Luke are evidently following a source that is not in the gospel of Mark. Conceivably, Jesus may have said something that neither Matthew nor Luke chose to incorporate in their reports. My hunch is, that is all we can know until we find the lost source “Q.” It seems clear to me that both Matthew and Luke chose words that their audiences would or could relate to.
But there’s an even more intriguing saying that also reflects the biases of these two gospel writers. In Matthew 5: 48, Jesus says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” While Luke 5: 36 concludes, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Which is it? Or both? Or again, did Jesus say something entirely different that neither gospel writer chose to use? As I said before, we simply do not know.
For myself, I can see how Jesus may have at one point in his ministry said, “Be perfect,” and at another time, “Be merciful.” The overarching point of agreement is that Jesus is telling us that we should emulate these qualities of our heavenly Father. We should strive to be as perfect (complete) and as merciful (compassionate) as God is and desires us to become.
I’m glad for this opportunity to expand my thought, as I wish I had spent some time on these sayings and included them in my book. Which is only to say that my quest to answer the three questions continues.


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  1. I really do like your writing and conclusions. Bravo! Perhaps you have heard of Robert L. Lindsey and his book”One Foot in Heaven.” I met his daughter and read that book in Jerusalem in 2012. If you haven’t read his book, “Jesus Rabbi & Lord: The Hebrew Story of Jesus Behind Our Gospels,” you would treasure it. He says, “It is necessary to translate the Greek texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke to Hebrew word by word to recover the earliest form of the story of Jesus.” He also said, “The gospel of Mark shows evidence of having descended from a Greek story of Jesus which had in turn been translated from a Hebrew original.” I found out from quotes of early church “fathers” that Matthew was preserved in its original Hebrew manuscript in the library at Caesarea!! Studying the Jewish roots of the church has been invaluable to me in understanding Scripture. Thanks again for your fantastic insights.

  2. Complimentary or complementary? These parallel passages should undermine our certainty (as if we could ever have any) about how to interpret the ‘creation’ of the gospels. It is not a compliment (praise) to our thinking that we fail to complement (complete) our readings with thought.

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