The Jokes of Jesus

Rembrandt’s masterpiece of 1642 is commonly known as “The Night Watch.”  Around the time of 1945, this painting was restored to something closer to its ORIGINAL state.  After a dark brown layer of varnish was removed, and the margins restored, we can see sunlight streaming in through a window in the painting – so it is not night!  The original of this picture is very different from what we were accustomed to!

When historic buildings in cities are cleaned from dark layers of urban grime and restored to their ORIGINAL state they look so very different and marvelous.  Examples include Notre Dame in Paris, the Boston public library, and St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The original aspect of these buildings is so very different from what we are accustomed to!

Jesus here in our Mt 5:13-20 gospel reading today said it was his mission to take us back to the ORIGINAL meaning of the law.  That original meaning of the law was not the legalism of the “scribes and Pharisees” .  Let’s acknowledge that Jesus himself broke the super important fourth (Sabbath) commandment repeatedly!

Rather, the original meaning of the law (Torah) looks very different from legalism.  The original meaning is that when we follow God in faith as learners and disciples, under the teaching of God’s Spirit, the Law and the Beatitudes become a promise. The Law and the Beatitudes become like fruit in our lives.  “You shall love the Lord your God” means that God promises that the faithful follower will grow to love God with our whole heart.  As faithful followers, we grow to have compassion on others.  We grow to be ever less jealous and covetous.

It’s like the 500 year old Reformation, which sought to peel away the accretions of church history and go back to the ORIGINAL meaning of the Gospel in Jesus, St Paul, and the early church of Jerusalem, Asia Minor, and Greece.

Furthermore, we hear Jesus speak (in our Matthew chapter 5 reading) of salt.  Salt refers to discipleship, table community, and the deep bonds of friendship.  Discipleship means following after God lovingly, wholeheartedly, in faith.

James Martin, Elton Trueblood and others referred to the humor and jokes of Jesus in the gospels.  Such humor is difficult to translate, recognize and appreciate.  This saying of Jesus about “salt losing its taste” could be one such joke.  For we all know that salt cannot lose its taste.  Sodium chloride is either salty tasting, or else, if not salty tasting, then the substance is something other than sodium chloride salt.  If it is tasteless, then surely what we taste is not salt, but it may be the light coloured sand that may be in the mined salt mixture.

Whether this is a “joke of Jesus” or not, at any rate, Jesus’ point here about the taste of salt (the taste of a disciple) is this:  Jesus urges a simple, wholehearted, and UNDILUTED discipleship, even if we stumble along.

The answer to the marriage vows is either yes or no.   Our response to the marriage vows is not “maybe”, “sometimes”, “occasionally”, or “somewhere on a scale of 1 to 5.”  Discipleship, like marriage, is just a wholehearted yes or no, even if you stumble along.  That is what Jesus is saying here: Discipleship is just a yes or no, wholeheartedly, and irrespective of whether you think that you only stumble along in your vows.

Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew may be like the great teacher Moses.  Yet Jesus may be even more like Joshua of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Remember how Joshua in his great speech before leading the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land said the following: “Choose here and now who you will serve… (idols?).  But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

Katie Meyler was featured on TV (Jan 13 2017, PBS).  She is a person like that –wholehearted, and undiluted in her commitment and calling to create schools in Liberia.  She continued even when Ebola struck.  She was named “The Time Person of the Year”.

Jesus speaks not only of the original meaning of the law as faithful following, not only of discipleship as salt, but also of discipleship as light (Ps 112:4/ Isa 58:9b).

Like Katie Meyler, the light of the true and faithful disciples shines through their social justice and compassion, which shines as the light of the world.  It is compassion for those who hunger and thirst.

All of the “Peoples of the Book”, namely Jews, Christians, and Muslims have this for thousands of years in our shared scriptures (the first five books of the Bible):

(Deuteronomy 10: 19 You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.):

As Jews, Christians, and Muslims it is of our very nature and essential behavior as believers in and disciples of God to take care of the hungry, the homeless, the outsider and refugees.  We can do no other.

“Choose you this day the one that you will serve: (idols)? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord”.

Epiphany 5, Sunday February 5 2017, Trinity  Episcopal Whitinsville MA and St John’s Episcopal Millville MA

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