Some Thoughts on the "Hard Sayings" of Jesus

If you have followed the discussion about the Synod on the Family, or any discussion about sexual morality in Christianity, surely you have heard some reference to the "hard sayings" of Jesus.  These discussions go something like this--someone will make a point about how difficult or impractical this or that traditional bit of sexual morality is to actually and fairly implement and live, and someone will respond "well, sure, these are hard sayings of Jesus, but Jesus is calling us to do the hard thing."  The implication, of course, is that the person who is expressing concerns about the stance at issue is looking to take the easy way out, to avoid the challenge of Gospel living.  It is a way to take the moral high ground.

No doubt, there are many hard sayings of Jesus, and many hard sayings throughout the Scriptures.  Here is another one--"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 22:21, as well as several other places in the Torah).  Similarly hard, in a way that we often do not realize, is the story of the Good Samaritan.  (Luke 10:25-37).  Samaritans were seen as blasphemers of the covenant of God, literally the enemy within.  When Jesus tells the lawyer to "go and do likewise," he is telling the lawyer to treat people who were seen as betraying the Jewish people as a neighbor.  That was a hard saying for the 1st Century Jew, because it meant that everyone, no matter how despised or problematic, were within the circle of care that we are obliged to extend.

Along those lines, St. Benedict took these ideas and incorporated into his Rule for monks--"Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, 'I came as a guest, and you received Me.' (Matt. 25:35)."  (Chapter 53).  As any who has ever taken in guests can tell you, this too is a hard saying, even if the guests are friends and family.

But notice that the Rule, along with Jesus's teaching and the Torah rule, admit no exceptions.
 Nowhere does it say, nor can it reasonably said to imply, that there are unspoken caveats to these principles.  It does not say, for example "you shall not wrong or oppress the resident alien. . . unless he is Muslim, then it's fine."  Nor does it say "everyone is your neighbor . . . unless of course someone tiny segment of their religious tradition are nihilistic killers, in which case it is fine to leave all of them by the side of road."  Finally, St. Benedict does not say "treat all guests as Christ . . . unless they have a Hispanic last name, or they have technically violated some laws about being here, in which case not only do you not have to take them in, but it is OK to cheer when some narcissistic charlatan calls for them to be rounded up like cattle."

No, it doesn't say any of those things.  And if you want them to say those things, or if you act as if they say those things, it is fair to say that you are not confronting the "hard sayings" of Jesus.  You are taking the easy way out.

I thought about all of this when I saw a tweet from Rod Dreher yesterday:


One can say many things about this tweet, but what is beyond question is Dreher is taking the position that the millions of Syrian refugees (fleeing, it should be said, the same organization responsible for the attacks in Paris) should not be allowed in Europe.  He doubled down on that thesis in a later post.  In his post, he raised a whole set of practical and pragmatic arguments about why we can't let Muslim refugees into Europe.

I am not interested in debating the pragmatic merits of Dreher's positions on this issue.  Instead, I want to focus on the fact that Dreher, one of the loudest and most persistent of the "hard sayings" crowd when it comes to LGBT folks or sexual issues in general, inserts a series of unspoken caveats into the unambiguous commands of the Old and New Testaments.  There is no "assuming they can be integrated into our culture" exception in the Torah or in the Good Samaritan story; if there were, the Samaritan would certainly fit into that exception.  Dreher's position is one that ignores these hard sayings of Jesus.

Each one of us struggles with the hard sayings of Jesus--that's why they are hard sayings.  We are all on a journey to the place God is calling us to be, a place that seems impossible, even dangerous, from the far off land that we currently inhabit.  Jesus's commands can often seem counter-intuitive, even self-destructive, and we should not be surprised that any of us react strongly to some of them.

Mindful of the fact that we are all on the same road, we should always try to resist the temptation to pick up our own stones of self-righteousness and chuck them at those who we see are struggling in a certain area.  We all live in glass houses here.  But what we can ask, and what it is fair to require of someone who calls himself or herself a Christian, is that same courtesy be shown to others.  A person who ignores the hard sayings of Jesus regarding welcoming the stranger--including, yes, the Muslim stranger--has forfeited the right to lecture others about failing to take seriously other hard sayings of Jesus.  It may be the case that LGBT people, or divorced and remarried Catholics, or whomever, are not paying sufficient attention to the hard sayings of Jesus.  But neither is Dreher, and neither are his fellow-travelers that wax poetic about the "Benedict Option" and ignore Benedict's Rule and its implications.

We all are working through the hard sayings of Jesus "with fear and trembling."  The problem, I think, is that only some of us recognize that.

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