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Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: July 17, 2010
This is the fourth column in a 13-part series
By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study
In our growing years we might have become familiar with such wise instructions as “be prepared to walk the talk” and “actions speak louder than words.” And it’s true. Words are hollow if not given flesh and enacted in daily living. But that doesn’t mean that words are unimportant.
Jesus used both words and actions to invite his listeners into relationship with him, and he demonstrated by integrating the two that he was the ultimate teacher. In this article we will examine some of the ways Jesus used words effectively, and in the next we’ll look at his use of actions.
One of the reasons that the teachings of Jesus continue to resonate with hearers centuries later is that he used language in a wide variety of ways. Perhaps his use of parables is what people most call to mind. A parable is basically a story with a lesson, but the lesson is most often delivered in an unexpected twist. That twist is what draws us in and makes the lesson effective.
Describing a Samaritan as “good” in Jesus’ day (Luke 10:30-37) would be like asking a gang member to believe one of his rivals could be merciful. Telling a story of a shepherd who searches for one lost sheep sounds irresponsible in terms of caring for the other 99 (Matthew 18:12-14).
And sowing seed without care for where it lands (Matthew 13:3-8) sounds inefficient and wasteful. And yet, these stories and so many others reveal profound lessons about the mercy and generous love of God, and how that love is to be manifest in the lives of Christ’s followers.
Some of the language of the Gospels draws heavily on the poetic style found within the Hebrew texts that Jesus would have known. Simple repetition is one such poetic technique, as found in the series of “blesseds” that make up the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11; Luke 6:20-22). Even the devil employs that technique as he repeatedly challenges Jesus in the desert, “If you are the Son of God …” (Luke 4:3, 9).
Parallelism is another poetic device found in the Gospels. The point is reinforced by stating it more than once but in slightly different phrasing. Consider the scene of Jesus being awakened in a boat that is being tossed by wind and waves. Jesus rebuked the forces of nature with simple words, “Quiet! Be still!” and then we are told that “the wind ceased and there was great calm” (Mark 4:39).
Twice he speaks quieting words, and then twice we are told how that quiet was achieved. In these parallels he teaches a simple lesson: he is master of the universe and can calm the storms of life as well. On another occasion, Jesus employed parallelism when he said to his followers, “My yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:30).
Sometimes Jesus feigns ignorance or respect but he is really using irony, and his words are meant to communicate a judgment. For example, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the sabbath. Because he knew the Pharisees, the guardians of the law, were watching him, his words are intended to communicate irony: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” (Mark 3:4). On the surface he seems to defer to the legal observers, but we should hear the irony as he is really illustrating their inability to understand the meaning of the law.
When an audience is antagonistic he will sometimes employ irony as the best way to teach. Jesus also used language that was imaginative. This is particularly true when he is inviting his listeners to embrace the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven).
In Matthew 13, there is a series of similes, sometimes also called parables, that compare the kingdom to a much sought after buried treasure, a merchant searching for select pearls and a fishing net that captures all manner of fish. These are concrete images from daily life and yet they stir listeners to imagine something beyond this reality, something that defies simple definitions.
Those who respond to this kingdom invitation also hear about the uselessness of worry (Matthew 6:25-34). Don’t the birds of the air find food, and the wild flower grow without effort? Even so, God will take care of our needs.
Words have the power to shape our minds and our vision of the future. The words of Jesus and the evangelists are powerful indeed.
Think about one or two of your favorite teachers. What methods did they use that made them effective?
What is your favorite parable, and why? In what ways does it challenge you to see differently than you would normally?
Read the crucifixion accounts and identify some of the ways that irony is used in the words and scenes that are described.
At this time in your life, what words of Jesus are most effective in stirring your imagination in new ways?
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic July 17, 2010. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.