As I’ve studied and preached on the radical words of Jesus in the Gospels, I’ve found myself unable to escape one striking observation: Jesus does not give disclaimers.
We hear “Take up your cross daily,” “Hate your father and mother,” “Gouge out your eye and hack off your hand,” and “Eat my flesh and drink my blood” (Luke 9:23; Luke 14:26; Matt 5:29-30; John 6:52-54). But we don’t hear, “Just so you know, I’m not necessarily talking about a literal cross.” We don’t read, “You understand that I only want you to hate your father and mother in a comparative sense.” He doesn’t sidestep and say, “Obviously it’s important to recognize that I was using hyperbole when I told you to gouge out your eye and hack off your hand.” We don’t find Jesus following up his extreme demands by saying, “Now, you all know that I’m not talking about cannibalism, right?”
Certainly (to give a disclaimer) Jesus gave more detail and explanation in his teaching than what we have recorded in the Gospels. No doubt he clarified and amplified his teachings, answered numerous questions and challenges, and engaged in personal discussions before and after he taught. We also know that Jesus made it his habit to clarify his teachings privately with his disciples. John ended his account of Jesus’ life by reminding us that “there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). We do not have a comprehensive, moment-by-moment account of everything Jesus did and said. This leaves room for a lot of clarification, which is part of everyday human communication.
It can be important to lay what we’re not saying alongside of what we are saying so that people can clearly see the difference in length, shape, color, and size. It can be helpful to identify what you don’t mean as well as what you do mean because it’s no virtue to be confusing or one-sided. So I’m not making the claim that never in his life did Jesus give a disclaimer or a caveat or a clarification.
But we do not typically find them in the Gospels, which are the only records that God has given us of his Son’s life on earth. Jesus simply does not give disclaimers.
The quickest way to tone down an obvious joke is to say, “I’m just kidding.” The easiest way to suffocate the siren of satire is to point out that it’s satirical. And the surest way to eviscerate the power of Jesus’ words is to emphasize our disclaimers instead of amplifying his demands.
I don’t want to miss the power of Jesus’ words by reading “Hate your father and mother” and then launching into an extended discourse on what Jesus didn’t mean when he said that. Of course it’s important to explain to a ten-year-old that Jesus is not contradicting God’s command to honor your parents and that he elsewhere condemns the scribes and Pharisees for finding ways to neglect their parents (Mark 7:9-12). But I would suggest that when talking about this particular teaching of Jesus, it’s substantially more important to emphasize to that same ten-year-old that Jesus demands the kind of radical, exclusive, upside-down commitment that will renounce anything and everything, including family.
I believe that often we focus on common-sense disclaimers to Jesus’ words in order to shout down the very discomfort that he intended us to feel. There is a gut-wrenching tension that wells up in the human soul when you hear the Lord of heaven and earth telling you that you cannot be his disciple unless you hate your father and mother. And Jesus means for that tension to remain quivering in our souls so that it will drive us to the kind of extreme action that only a quivering soul will take.
This is why I try to be very careful when preaching on the words of Jesus. I am frightened that in my attempts to explain him, I might explain him away. Yes, it is the teacher’s responsibility to do more than just read the words of Jesus, pray, and take a seat. There must be explanation, clarification, illustration, application. But let’s also be honest — we know right well what Jesus means when he says this type of thing. The overwhelmingly more dangerous temptation is not that we might take Jesus too seriously and outrun his commands, but that we will find his demands too extreme and will settle for our own halfway versions. My problem is not that I’m running out of limbs to hack off in a feverish misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings. My problem is that I am still not taking the Son of God seriously enough.
At the end of the day, you can either talk about what Jesus did say or you can talk about what he didn’t say. So may we minor on what he didn’t mean and major on what he did mean. Because Jesus doesn’t do disclaimers. Jesus does demands.