Why does a Gospel text bother us?
That’s the essential question when confronted with a text we don’t like. There are lots of possible answers to that question, yet the essential answer is this:
The text bothers us because it conflicts with our understanding of God.
Gospel passages are difficult when Jesus says or does something that frustrates, disappoints or makes us nervous.
Jesus frustrates us with puzzles, parables, and proverbs that make no sense. Why doesn’t he just speak plainly?
Jesus disappoints when he acts (or fails to act) in ways that are contrary to (or consistent with) his essential nature as loving, merciful, and compassionate. How can he speak of swords and dividing families?
And he makes us nervous us because sometimes he draws lines in the sand and we wonder whether we really are on the right side of that line. Because…what if we’re not?
Our answers to these questions show we come to the text with faith: we have beliefs about who Christ is.
But the Gospels reveal a rich complexity to Christ who can’t be flattened into a two-dimensional figure. Jesus doesn’t always speak or act consistently with our faith.
So how do you find the sermon message when dealing with Gospel texts where Jesus frustrates, disappoints, or makes you nervous? This 8-step process examines the backstory of your faith so you can name your theology, identify the apparent inconsistencies in the text, and then bridge the gap between them.
The gap and bridge, then, become the sources of your sermon message.
Everything is filtered through your backstory
Faith Seeks Understanding
What do you believe?
Who do you believe God is?
What is Jesus’ essential nature as both human and divine?
What did Christ accomplish on the cross?
How you answer these questions depends on the infinite combination of life experience, church tradition, education, relationships and spirituality that has formed you.
Your entire life has contributed to your faith: who you believe and trust God to be and act.
Your faith precedes you each time you open the Bible. Whether you are able to articulate your faith or not, your faith is the filter through which you make sense of the text; it’s the plumb line against which Jesus is measured.
When the text is in agreement with your faith, your faith is reinforced. When the text seems askew from your faith, well, now you have questions on your hands.
Now you have to make sense of the gap between your faith and the presented text. Now your faith needs to understand what Christ is doing.
Daniel Migliore articulates our quest beautifully in historical context:
“According to one classical definition, theology is ‘faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). This definition, with numerous variations, has a long and rich tradition. In the writings of Augustine it takes the form, ‘I believe in order that I may understand.’ According to Augustine, knowledge of God not only presupposes faith, but faith also restlessly seeks deeper understanding. Christians want to understand what they believe, what they can hope for, and what they ought to love. Writing in a different era, Anselm, who is credited with coining the phrase, ‘faith seeking understanding,’ agrees with Augustine that believers inquire ‘not for the sake of attaining to faith by means of reason but that they may be gladdened by understanding and meditating on those things that they believe.’ For Anselm, faith seeks understanding, and understanding brings joy. ‘I pray, O God, to know thee, to love thee, that I may rejoice in thee.’ Standing in the tradition of Augustine and Anselm, Karl Barth contends that theology has the task of reconsidering the faith and practice of the community, ‘testing and rethinking it in light of its enduring foundation, object, and content…. What distinguishes theology from blind assent is just its special character as ‘faith seeking understanding.’”
The Lord has helped our unbelief and we do believe! But, oh, how it smarts when we stub our faith-filled toes on certain passages!
When we believe God offers unconditional love, then why does Jesus worry us by adding conditions like the one in Matthew 7:21: “‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’” Gulp! Is that me?
We believe Christ wants to gather all into heaven and yet he frustrates us with riddles and parables. Why not speak plainly for our sakes and for those who listen to our sermons? Plus, Jesus at times plain disappoints us.
We believe Christ wants all to be treated with dignity and respect, right? And yet, he alludes to the Syrophoenician woman as a dog (Mk 7:27), one of the worst insults of the day! Ouch.
Troubling passages mean one of two things:
- The text is right “as is” and reveals our belief in God is insufficient. In humility, however one defines one’s faith, we must admit that possibility. Maybe the text corrects or expands our faith.
- Our faith in/understanding of God is right (at least so far as we can understand in this life), so the “problem” is the text. The text’s message doesn’t seem to jibe with our faith, because if something is true for God it must true for God at all times; the text can’t be an outlier. Thus the puzzle is not understanding how the text works within that belief. Our faith seeks understanding.
As Daniel Migliore so rightly points out, we want to understand what we “ought to love.” And when we do find understanding, our understanding brings joy, and our joy is shared in our sermon as much as the woman who rejoices to find the lost coin!
Why is this process so focused on our faith?
Isn’t the faith of the whole community, the whole world, our concern?
Absolutely. But we start with our own faith for a couple of reasons.
- It’s the only filter we have. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our own faith impacts our perspective of the faith and spiritual needs of our community.
- We represent the “universal singular.” That is, the story of all is told through the story of one. Each of us is unique in the make-up of our faith and experiences. However, we’re variations on themes. We’re all variations on love and betrayal, judgement and mercy, faith and fear, anger and reconciliation. It’s unlikely our problems with the text are unique. Just like being in a lecture hall, odds are your questions are the same questions many have.
When we understand our faith and questions as representative, our sermon reflects empathy and draw listeners in. Listeners feel like we got inside their heads and hearts, and understand their struggles.
And we do, roughly, because our own struggles likely reflect the struggles of many.
How do we make sense of frustrating texts?
To understand troubling texts, we start by naming our faith. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. We start by asking God to build our faith where fear or frustration exists.
And then we proceed from there.
Step One: Be Not Afraid
First, we step back and ask God to build our faith. We start in prayer and scripture, asking God to give us courage to see what we have chosen not to see, to hear what we have chosen not to hear, and to act where we have lacked courage. In short, before tackling troubling texts, we ask Christ to remind us, “Be not afraid.”
Step Two: Identify Your “Theological Omega”
This is our theological end point, the “pretty fixed, you-gotta-prove-it-to-persuade-me-otherwise” faith on which you stand. Once your faith is articulated, work backwards to seek understanding.
Step Three: Name the Conflict
We believe Christ is “X.” The text, however, seems to suggest that Christ is “Y.”
Step Four: Understand that Jesus' Perspective is Our Best Interest
Consider the situation from Jesus’ point of view, who has our best interests at heart. He’s working hard to get a point across. What’s he worried about? What is troubling Jesus about us? What’s at stake for us as far as he’s concerned? Note: steps three and four will save time in your sermon prep because they will narrow your focus for exegesis.
Step Five: discern Who in Scripture Will Guide You
Now that we have a good handle on the context, the conflict, and the problems, what other passages will help us understand? Starting in Scripture, who will help us understand our faith?
Step Six: discern Who Among the Communion of Saints Will Guide you
After Scripture, we have a whole communion of saints waiting to assist. How can theologians, spiritual mothers and fathers, poets, ethicists, prophets, and others help us understand our faith?
Step Seven: be Transformed
Our faith has found understanding. We've been transformed by the renewing of our minds—our thoughts have literally been made new.
We might be filled with gratitude and awe and say, “Oh, wow!” Or, we might feel convicted by our sinfulness and say, “Oh, no! That’s me.” Either way, our discovery is followed by Christ’s mercy so we will always end with, “Oh, wow!”
Step Eight: Define the Sermon Message
Define the message. You’ve got all the elements: a problem, tension, conflict, resolution, and grace. No preacher could ask for more.
Get Bsp's step-by-step organizer with full instructions and graphics to walk you through this process next time you encounter a troubling text.
Download it for free here.