OK, I’m not really after that question. What I really want to ask is “Was Jesus ironic (/satirical/sardonic/rhetorically savvy in any fashion)?”
Most Christians (and, regrettably, most pastors) assume that Jesus always spoke directly and literally–with no hidden meanings or nuance. This assumption stems from two deeper assumptions. The first is quite understandable, while the second betrays a modern association:
1) If the Gospel message is accessible to even the uneducated and children, then Jesus’ words must not require any special knowledge or expertise to decipher.
2) All spiritual knowledge and understanding is created equal. (In other words, we want theology to be democratic.)
Let me deal with the second briefly. Until the Reformation, the church was quite comfortable with the idea that there were “levels” of spiritual understanding. Early catechumens were allowed to hear only a portion of the Scriptures, being led outside during the reading or more difficult and mysterious passages, because the elders did not want them to form heretical opinions. (Of course, after the completion of their catechism and confirmation into the body of believers, they were allowed to participate in the entire service.) Origen uses 1 Cor. 3:2 to construct an entire hierarchy of spiritual reading–the codification of which entered Scholasticism as the “four senses of Scripture–with the spiritually immature reading on a level “according to the letter” (literal sense) and the most enlightened reading on a more symbolic or mystical level (anagogical sense).
Now, far be it from me to deny Luther’s insight that all believers should participate in reading God’s word. But does that entail that all will interpret correctly? No, certainly not.
Our American sensibilities rebel against anything that smacks of elitism and hierarchy, but let us not allow these sensibilities to highjack our theology.
Take, for instance, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager:
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
(Luke 16: 1-9)
Most pastors will try and cram the obtuseness of this parable into an interpretation that accords with what Jesus said about money elsewhere. And I admit that Luke’s placement of another saying of Jesus (which we do not know if it had any original connection to the parable; it may be an instance of editorializing by Luke) in v. 9 influences one in the direction of a literal interpretation.
But what if Jesus is being sarcastic? What if he’s giving us a picture not of what we ought to be like, but of what we ought not to be like? (Jesus certainly used negative examples in other instances: Matt. 18: 23-34 and Luke 12: 13-21 are two great examples.) Or what if it’s even more subtle than that? What if Jesus is doing something much more rhetorically complex than either of these options?
My point is simply that we don’t give Jesus enough credit. Jesus was clearly a gifted speaker, and used a variety of oral conventions to communicate. He even regularly stumped the more educated members of Galilean society–the Pharisees, who (like Paul) likely attended Greek institutions with classical curricula such as rhetoric, philosophy, and logic. So why wouldn’t he use subtle forms of communication? Why must everything be plain-speech?
Now it’s time to get around to the first assumption: if the Gospel is to be accessible to everyone, Jesus’ words must be simple and straightforward.
As I said, this assumption rests on very healthy instincts. But is it necessarily true? It depends, for one, on Jesus’ every word being an utterance of the Gospel in its entirety. Did Jesus never talk about anything else but the most core truth of the Gospel? Hardly.
Secondly, does occasionally misinterpreting Jesus amount to missing the Gospel message? Nope. Origen would have admitted that the basic Gospel truth is accessible to everyone–even to those unaware of the “higher sense” of a passage. This is because Origen and contemporary Evangelicals (to take just one subgroup who tend to interpret exclusively according to the literal sense) subscribe to different imaginaries of the Gospel. If you were to diagram how the Gospel looks to Evangelicals, it would be a square, like a fortress, with clear boundaries and a formulaic password to gain entrance. It is also uniform: every element inside the fortress equally signifies the Gospel and is equally important for salvation.
The other half of the Western Christian tradition (in which Origen and lots of others stand) imagines the Gospel as a series of concentric circles: in the center is Jesus, and on the outside are other truths and doctrines (doctrines about Mary or the angelic beings, for instance), which bear relation to Jesus but might be less essential for salvation.
Which view do you think is better equipped to handle development and change within the tradition?