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Unreasonable Jesus

It might seem sometimes as though Jesus is being unreasonable. But we'll misunderstand his words if we fail to recognize what he's really saying.

It would seem as if some of Jesus’ teachings are unreasonable. Consider, for example, that Jesus says, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire” (Matt. 18:8). If we took this teaching seriously, almost all of us would mutilate ourselves.

Although this teaching of Jesus seems unreasonable if understood in a simplistic, flat-footed way, it is this interpretation that is unreasonable, not what Jesus meant. In this passage, Jesus is using hyperbolic language: a deliberate exaggeration to make a point. We still do this today. A man might say to his buddy, “My wife is going to kill me when I get home so late.” The husband does not actually mean that his wife is a killer and that he will be in the morgue the next day. Rather, he’s using colorful and memorable language to make the point that his wife will be extremely angry with him.

So what does Jesus mean when he says, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire” (Matt. 18:8)? Christ is emphasizing the vital importance of turning away from sin and embracing a life of love for God and neighbor. Sin is like cancer. It damages us, impeding our functioning, and if not treated, it can kill us. If we get cancer, it is utterly foolish not to try to eliminate the disease. We may have to get radiation treatments. We may have to get chemotherapy. We may have to get surgery to remove the tumors. But all these treatments, even painful and difficult ones, are worthwhile if they get rid of what is causing our suffering and what threatens to kill us.

So too with sin. If not treated, it can kill our relationship with God, our relationships with others, and even our relationships with ourselves. Sin can lead us to hate God, hate other people, and hate ourselves. When this hatred is complete and lasts forever, that is the condition known as hell. Because Jesus loves us, he wants us to be cured; he wants us to have love in our lives. Just as the good physician hates the cancer, so Jesus the physician hates the cancer of sin and warns us in vivid and memorable language to get rid of sin.

Another teaching of Jesus that some people think is unreasonable is when Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Here also Jesus is using deliberate exaggeration in order to make his point more memorable. Jesus calls us to love everyone, male and female, young and old, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor. If we are called to love everyone, we are called to love our own family. In this passage, Jesus is pointing to the proper order of love. We should love God more than we love even our family.

If we loved someone else more than God, then we would have a disordered love. If I treated my wife as if she were God, I would fail to properly love her and also fail to properly love God. I would fail to properly love her because I would not appreciate the flesh and blood person that she is. Likewise, if I treated her as if she were the queen of England, I would fail in my love because my love for her would be based not in reality, but in an illusion and a lie. My relationship with her would be grossly distorted. If I treat my wife as if she were God, I would also fail to properly love God, for I would be setting up an idol to replace God.

So the words of Jesus are misunderstood if we fail to recognize the deliberate exaggeration that Jesus is using. He wants us to love all people, including our family. But he does not want us to love anyone, even our family, as if that person were God.

In order that we may profit from Scripture more fully, God gave us not only the Bible, but also a reliable interpreter of the Bible. Without such a reliable and authoritative interpreter of revelation, revelation would be made void because conflicting and misleading interpretations would multiply. In the words of the Catechism, “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written” (111), the Spirit that animates and protects “the living Tradition of the whole Church” (113). Otherwise, it is a “dead letter”—and one that may lead us into false and unreasonable interpretations of Christ’s teachings. But the Church’s guidance will show us their true meaning.


This article is an excerpt from our 20 Answers booklet “Faith and Reason.” You can get more at the Catholic Answers shop.

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