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Jesus taught through challenges

Jesus taught through challenges

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

A distinctive trait of Jesus’ teaching is that it shows a confrontational style. Since he often had to challenge existing thought and practice, he would express his criticism and opposition in a memorable way.

We will study this feature in his saying on salt. Again we begin by noticing its poetic expression. Then there is an anomaly. The Greek texts of both Matthew and Luke say ‘if salt turns mad’. This makes no sense.

Matthew 5,13

Mark 9,50

Luke 14,34


Salt is good

Salt is good

You are the salt of the earth.


But if salt turns mad, with what can it be salted?

but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you season it?

but if salt turns mad, with what can it be seasoned?

It is no longer good for anything


Neither for earth, nor dunghill is it fit.

except to be thrown out


One throws it out.

and to be trampled under foot.


Have salt in you and be at peace with each other.


The Greek word ‘turning mad' is obviously a mistaken translation of the original Aramaic. In that language the word tâpêl can mean both ‘to be insipid’ and ‘to go mad'. If we reconstruct the original key sentence, we find a word play between tâpêl (insipid) and tabbêl (to season):

'in milchâ tâpêl

(if salt is insipid)

bemâ tetabbelûn?

(with what will they season it?)

‘If salt be insipid, with what will you season it?’. M.BLACK, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, Oxford 1977, pp.166-167.

We also notice how Jesus' saying makes us sit up be cause of the strong contrasts it portrays. Salt gone tasteless, salt of the earth thrown out on the dunghill (see illustration two pages back) and trodden underfoot. Salt was so precious that the Romans used it at times to pay their soldiers. Our ‘salary’ comes from Latin salarium, ‘a portion of salt’. Jesus shakes us awake by confronting us with opposites. He forces us to leave our complacency and face an unpleasant truth.

The use of strong contrast

As to style, Jesus made his statements in parallel phrases, a Semitic form of expression we know so well from the Psalms and the Prophets. What is unique to him is that he favours a succession of opposing phrases, such as ‘all sins shall be forgiven - sins against the Spirit shall never be forgiven' (Mark 3,28-29). This kind of parallelism is called antithetic parallelism. It is a form that 'characterises Our Lord's teaching in all the Gospel sources'.

See about this: C.F.BURNEY, The Poetry of Our Lord, Oxford 1925, pp. 83-84. J.JEREMIAS (in New Testament Theology, London 1971, pp.14-20) lists 138 instances of it in Jesus' teaching!

Like his contemporaries Jesus employed overstatements, a fortiori arguments, irony and counterquestioning.

Read: R.H.STEIN, The Method and Message of Jesus' Teachings, Philadelphia 1935, pp. 7-33.

Jesus loved riddles, that is: paradoxes that could not so easily be resolved.

  • ‘The son of man will be delivered into the hands of men’ (Mark 9,31).
  • ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and in three days build another not made with hands’ (Mark 14,58).
  • ‘Among those born of women none is greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he’ (Matthew 11,11).
  • ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace. I have not come to bring peace but a sword’ (Matthew 10,34).

This confrontational style suited Jesus' message. For Jesus wanted to call people to conversion, to a change of heart. ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand' (Matthew 4,17). Jesus demanded a totally fresh look at oneself and one's relationships, a turning upside down of conventional values

  • from adulthood to childhood (Mark 10,15; John 3,3);
  • from ‘loving' to ‘hating' one's family (Matthew 10,37; Luke 14,26);
  • from gathering wealth to abandoning wealth (Matthew 6,19-21.24.25-30);
  • from seeking status to becoming a servant (Luke 14,8-10; Mark 10,35-45; John 13,1-20);
  • from worshipping health to prizing wholeness (Mark 9,43-48);
  • from comfort to suffering and death (Mark 8,34-35; 13,9-13).

Jesus was such a contradictory figure. He preached God's love and love for one's neighbour as no one had ever done before. But he also challenged people in an unsurpassed manner; especially through his own person. He called himself ‘the son of man', that is: ‘the ordinary human being'; and yet God shone in him as in no one else. He died on a cross and yet was life and resurrection. After getting to know him, things could never be the same again.

John Wijngaards

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