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Doing the Words of Jesus: How to Get Started

October 20, 2020 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 6:46-49 (NRSV)

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

Focus

Jesus says that if we want to construct our lives so they will be of lasting value, we need to build on the foundation of hearing and doing Jesus’s words. Yet, sometimes we who acknowledge Jesus as Lord get stuck in the hardness of his sayings. They can be hard to understand or hard to do . . . or both! Nevertheless, much of the teaching of Jesus is clear, giving us plenty to go on. Even if we don’t have it all figured out, we can certainly act in love for our neighbor today. Nothing is stopping us from obeying Jesus actively each day.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion we began reflecting on Jesus’s teaching about how to build solid, lasting lives. We do this, he says, by hearing his words and acting on them. If we merely hear his teachings but do not act upon them, then we’re like the person who built a house without a foundation. When hit by a flooding river, such a house is destroyed.

Given the clarity and simplicity of Jesus’s teaching in this passage, I wonder why so many Christians – including me – struggle to do the words of Jesus. I’m sure there are many reasons, but I would like to name and respond to one of them here. There are times, it seems to me, when the moral teachings of Jesus are hard; hard to understand or hard to do, or maybe both.

For example, a few verses earlier in Luke, Jesus told his followers to “lend, expecting nothing in return” (6:34-35). On the surface, this seems pretty straightforward. It seems to rule out any kind of loaning of money with the assumption that the borrower will pay back the loan with interest. Does this mean Christians should never, under any circumstances, loan money with the expectation of receiving interest in return? Does this imply that Christians shouldn’t be bankers or mortgage managers? Would this imply that we shouldn’t even invest our money in institutions that make money by receiving interest? What Jesus says in this passage seems both hard to understand – What did he really mean? – and hard to follow – How in the world are we supposed to do this in the real world?

Tricky passages like these can bog down followers of Jesus when it comes to the matter of obedience. We can let the difficulty of Jesus’s teachings be an excuse to ignore them. Even though we recognize Jesus as Lord, we don’t allow him to be the Lord over our daily lives because we figure his guidance isn’t sufficiently clear.

So, I wonder, what should we do with the hard sayings of Jesus? An answer to this question that comes from a curious comment I heard many years ago. I was in line at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, waiting to get my driver’s license renewed. While standing there for what seemed like an eternity, I was reading a book called Hard Sayings of Jesus. When I finally got to the service counter, a DMV employee asked, “Why are you reading that book?” “Because many of the sayings of Jesus are hard to understand,” I answered. “Well, that’s not a problem for me,” the woman behind the window answered. “Why not?” I asked, supposing that she wasn’t a Christian. “Because when I don’t understand something Jesus said,” she explained, “I just go on to the next thing and try to do it!”

At that moment, I wasn’t happy with that woman’s solution to the problem of Jesus’s hard sayings. After all, I was getting a Ph.D. in New Testament, spending vast amounts of time trying to understand the teachings of Jesus in their original language and context. My life’s work focused on figuring out the hard sayings of Jesus. I couldn’t just move on to the next one and do it. Plus, to be honest, I was pretty good at not doing many of the sayings of Jesus because I could forever debate their true meaning.

In retrospect, I would say that the DMV employee had a good point. She wouldn’t have made it in my graduate program, but she was ahead of me when it came to faithful discipleship. She acknowledged the limits of her understanding, but didn’t let that get in the way of her obedience to Jesus. She recognized that some of his teachings were hard to unpack. Yet she knew that others were sufficiently clear to guide her behavior. Her focus was on obedience, on doing what Jesus said insofar as she could understand it. Today, I respect that more than I once did.

Now I still believe that Christians should work hard on trying to understand the meaning of all of Jesus’s words, including the hard ones. This happens best in Christian community, by the way, where we can discern together the truth of Jesus’s teaching together, learning from each other, and where those of us trained in biblical studies can share our insights. But I also recognize, in a way I did not so many years ago at the DMV, that Jesus has given us plenty of instructions that we can and should put into practice today. Before this day is over, I can choose to love my neighbor and pray to my Father in secret.

So, if you want to do the words of Jesus, you don’t have to figure out what they all mean before you begin to obey. You don’t have to get stuck when it comes to the teachings that are difficult to understand. Rather, you can begin today to do what Jesus says, seeking to honor him through your obedience even as you also seek to build your life on the sure foundation of that obedience.

Reflect

How do you respond to what the woman at the DMV once said to me?

When you think about obeying the teachings of Jesus, which teachings stick out to you?

How might you love your neighbor today?

How might you love your enemy?

Act

Ask the Lord how you can love your neighbor today and then do what he puts on your heart.

Pray

Lord Jesus, you know that sometimes your teachings are hard to understand. You didn’t give us ten easy steps to discipleship. Rather, through your teaching you invited us into deep engagement with you and your truth.

But, it’s certainly true that some of what you taught is not hard to figure out, even though it may be hard to do. You have given us plenty to go on, plenty to obey, plenty to do. So I ask that you help me through your Spirit. Even this day, may I do what you have said. May my life be built on the solid foundation of hearing and doing your word . . . even today. Amen.


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Your Work Needs a Solid Foundation


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