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Getting Jesus Wrong

Getting Jesus Wrong:
Dealing with the Unknown in Youth Ministry

Mark 8:27-30

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Getting Jesus Wrong

Shhh…It’s A Secret

There’s something troubling about this little text.  Jesus’ questions get right to the heart of his identity, yet he seems to be okay with a lot people being wrong about him.  If we evaluated Jesus as a youth pastor from this passage alone, we’d probably say he’s doing it badly.  How should we deal with the unknown in youth ministry?

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is. Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite?

Jesus’ response to Peter’s correct confession is part of a larger theme in Mark’s Gospel, sometimes referred to as “the Messianic Secret, ”1 which has largely mystified New Testament scholars.  Readers of Marks Gospel are often struck by Jesus’ repeated commands not tell anyone about him or what he did.  We see other examples of this in 1:44 when Jesus heals a man with leprosy and promptly tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone” (see also Mk 1:24-25; 1:43-45; 3:11-12; 4:10-12; 5:43; 7:36-37; 8:25-26; 9:9).

Who Am I?

Very often in Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ secrecy follows questions of his identity, like in the passage we began with.  Jesus appears unfazed by others misidentifying him as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, but responds somewhat harshly to Peter’s confession of his messianic identity.  Theories abound as to what’s going on here in Mark’s Gospel and why it doesn’t seem to show up as much, if at all, in the other Gospels.2

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is.  Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite? After all, if people aren’t spreading the word about who he is, how will others know what to think about him? What if they continue thinking the wrong things about him, like some of the gossip that wrongly identified him with John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets?

Programming People

It seems that so much of the way we teach youth (and children…and adults) in the church centers on programming correct confessions into them.  We probably (hopefully) wouldn’t articulate it that way, but our Christian education programs often have to do with passing on the proper particularities of the faith, especially for young people who already identify themselves as Christians.  We want them to be the right kind of Christians—to believe the right things about Jesus.

Whatever we think about what’s going on with Jesus’ secret identity in Mark, it is interesting to notice that Jesus was willing to let people be wrong about him and his identity.  Are we willing to let our youth be wrong about Jesus? Are we willing to let ourselves be wrong about Jesus?  (Hint: we’re wrong about Jesus all the time—we need to come to terms with that.)

Notice that Jesus only gets two lines in this brief story, both of which are questions.  Might we see this as a model for how we talk to youth about Jesus, the Bible, and all sorts of other matters of life and faith?

Knowing (About) Jesus

Perhaps we can use this text as an opportunity for listening rather than depositing what we think is the right kind of knowledge about Jesus.  Who do they say Jesus is?  Who do their peers say Jesus?  Where else are they hearing about Jesus and how does that shape their understanding of who he is?  Perhaps it’s a matter of what we hope to achieve.

Do we want little orthodoxy robots into which we program proper theological responses that they can then reproduce,3 or young people who are engaged with the biblical texts and the world around them in meaningful, even if critical and challenging, ways—even it means getting it wrong?

Our task should be to cultivate faith characterized by questions, not answers, and the humility to let ourselves and our youth get it wrong from time to time.

That’s the danger with this approach, of course: they might get it wrong more often than they get it right. But I can’t honestly say that’s not already true about me (and you).

Facing the Unknown

This week, what would it look like for you to allow a young person to “get Jesus wrong?”  How much might you be able to learn from who they say Jesus is? While it might feel scary, when we think we’ve figured God out and don’t need to deal with the unknown in youth ministry, we’ve missed the point.

Let God be bigger than you are this week, and let a young person explore who Jesus is, even if they seem to be missing the point entirely.  You may be surprised where they lead you!

Footnotes

1 This term was first coined by German scholar Wilhelm Wrede in 1901 and has been an enormous topic of scholarly conversation since.

2 Matthew and Luke both contain similar phrases, but typically only when they have directly borrowed a story from Mark. John has no comparable statements from Jesus.

3 This is essentially what Paolo Freire refers to as the “banking” model of education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

 

Are you interested in reading more about Marks Gospel? Check out Marks Discipleship, our five-week study guide for the Gospel of Mark!

Mark's Discipleship


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.

Letting the Bible Read You

Letting the Bible Read You

There’s this interesting story in the book of Luke that we can easily gloss over.

Letting the Bible Read You

In chapter 18, Jesus tells a short parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. In the context of first century Israel, the Pharisee is part of the religious elite and the tax collector is a Jewish traitor, working for the enemy and extorting money from his own people.

In the parable the two men go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee begins first thanking God that he isn’t a dirty, rotten sinner like the tax collector. He’s quite pleased with himself.

The tax collector, on the other hand, won’t look at heaven and can’t bring himself to be around other people. He merely utters the short prayer, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

We read this story and conclude that God wants us to be humble and to not exalt ourselves and then we move on to other things. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps there is more to the story and more to what Luke says about the story itself.

Read the story if you have a moment, Luke 18:9-14. Now, let me ask you a question. With which character do you most identify? Are you closer to the Pharisee or the tax collector? Why?

If you’re like me you probably think something like, “Well, I’m not always the best guy, but I’m not like that Pharisee, I mean, I don’t look down my nose at people and don’t judge people and…” And about that point you start to realize that you sound kind of like someone in that story and it isn’t the tax collector.

I was at a conference about 15 years ago where theologian Stanley Grenz was teaching a seminar on reading the Bible. He used the exercise above with us and it just blew me away. His point, and I think the point of the story, and maybe the Bible as a whole, is that the Bible wasn’t given to us to merely mine for facts, morals, and ideas to which we can give our assent or ignore completely. The Bible is there to reveal us as we truly are, beauty and warts and everything else.

The Bible is there to reveal us as we truly are, beauty and warts and everything else.

If we start looking down on the Pharisee by believing we are the tax collector, we actually reveal ourselves to be the Pharisee. Just as he looked down on the tax collector, we look down on him and think to ourselves, “At least I’m not like that.”

But when we recognize our inner Pharisee and admit that we judge, we are hypocritical, we are arrogant… well, we admit we are sinners and we start to sound a lot like the tax collector.

Notice that Luke begins retelling this parable with verse 9:

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.”

Who is Luke talking about here? The crowd? Maybe.

What about us, his readers?

Do we ever consider that Luke might have wanted to be sure that just as the early crowds surrounding Jesus were challenged or even offended by Jesus’ teachings, that we should be too? Could we be so sure of our own goodness and righteousness that we look down on other people, thinking that somehow we are above them?

The Bible can and will expose us if we let it. It can wreck us if we let it. But it can also, by the power of God’s Spirit, speak new life and redemption into our lives. When our arrogance, sin, and pride are exposed, God can then begin working on building a new foundation.

I encourage you to approach the Bible this way. More than that I encourage you to teach the Bible this way. Let us not give into the temptation of taking the easy road when it comes to the words of Christ, to the words of Paul, or to the words of any of the authors in the Bible. Let us be leveled by what we read, let us be willing to let the Spirit level other people as they read it, and let us seize that opportunity to let Scripture shape and form us as disciples.


About the Author: Bryan Amerling

Bryan AmerlingBryan Amerling has been a youth pastor for 18 years.  He has been married to his amazing wife Sheridan for 18 years as well, and has two children; Rebekah, 13, and Ethan, 10.  He holds a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Florida, and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  When not playing with his family or working with the youth in his church, he enjoys Florida Gator football, reading, and playing guitar.  You can email him at bryan.amerling@gmail.com

When Scripture Talks Back

Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” There’s a certain simplicity to this sentiment that no doubt adds to its appeal.


Statements like these represent a common strategy for reading the Bible and reveal a perspective that understands that Bible as speaking with one voice, with absolute clarity, on nearly every question we could ever have. This kind of perspective seeks to offer black and white answers to black and white questions, ignoring the world of deep greys in which we live. There are certain questions to which the Bible does not give a black and white answer, and to pretend that it does is dishonest.

Questions such as these complicate the way we think and talk about Scripture; and if we continue to wrestle with these questions we also should assume that our youth do, too. Reading and wrestling with the Bible ought to mean more than simply making the biblical texts “relevant” to their lives. Memorizing the books of the Bible in order and mastery of Bible drill games, while useful, are far less important than discussions of how we read the Bible. 

This is why I suggest moving from seeing the Bible as a monologue delivered from on high, to an understanding of the Bible as a divine dialogue that speaks with multiple voices. The Bible is a vast conversation, often messy and muddled, into which we are invited to listen and to speak, and this is precisely where its beauty is to be found.

Diverse Voices

The primary issue with the way of reading the Bible highlighted above is that is assumes one-way communication from God, to the biblical authors, to us. The Bible essentially becomes one massive monologue, and the whole book is meant to communicate the exact same thing. Again, I understand the power of this perspective, but I also find it deeply problematic. If this our model for teaching the Bible in youth ministry we are teaching unhealthy and unsustainable reading practices.

For starters, this perspective unnecessarily obscures the diversity of voices and perspectives preserved within the biblical witness. When we think of the Bible a single book rather than a collection of books written by distinct people in disparate times and places, we lose something crucial. Our task should not be to smooth out all tensions in the biblical texts, but to grapple with those tensions and hold them up as model for the life of faith.

The Problem of Exile

A number of examples could be raised to highlight the internal dialogue of the Bible, but one that I find particularly helpful is between Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80. Both texts deal with the same basic problem, but in drastically different ways: the problem of exile.

The respective defeats of Israel and Judah at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians and subsequent banishment of many from their homes and land was more than a national disaster; it was a theological catastrophe. The violence of exile rendered God’s covenantal promises dubious. What happened? Why were they being punished so? Were they no longer God’s treasured possession? Or, worse still, had God failed to protect them? Had God been defeated?

These are perhaps some of the questions rattling in the minds of the people as they wrestle with the problem of exile. Indeed, the experience and catastrophe of exile haunts much of the Hebrew Bible. But, perhaps surprisingly, not all biblical authors answer the basic question of exile quite the same way.

Isaiah’s Vineyard

The prophet Isaiah, for instance, offers an allegorical song about a vineyard. The vineyard is called “beloved” and is planted by the vintner with care “on a very fertile hill” (v. 1). Because of the care and precautions taken by the vintner he expects the vineyard to produce a bountiful crop of grapes, but instead “it yielded wild grapes” (v. 2).

Through some clever rhetorical maneuvering the prophet uses the allegory to declare the culpability of the people for their own exile. For Isaiah the answer is simple: the people were disobedient. This is our lot because we were unfaithful. We disobeyed God and this what we deserve.

The Psalmist’s Accusation

The Psalmist, however, has a slightly different take on this question. In Psalm 80, instead of a penitent prophet crying for repentance from the people, we see someone who is deeply troubled at the idea of a God who could allow such an atrocity.

Contrary to Isaiah, the Psalmist does not call for repentance from the people, but instead calls for God to change because, according to him, it is God who broke down the wall. The overarching sense of the Psalm is that the people are being punished unjustly, and that God needs to be stirred to action. The Psalmist even seeks to strike a deal with God, bargaining that if God will again look upon the people, “Then we will never turn back from you; give us life and we will call your name” (v. 18).

When Scripture Talks Back

A Divine Dialogue

The beauty of the texts from Isaiah and the Psalm is that they don’t see eye to eye; they fundamentally disagree regarding what for them was a major theological issue. Yet, both are allowed to stand side by side in the same sacred corpus; somehow we consider both true.

We could try to harmonize these accounts; we could offer a reading of the Psalm that assumes its author shares the same perspective as Isaiah, but that would seem to do a disservice to the raw honesty and emotion of the Psalm. Or we could pit the perspectives against each other and try to decide which one is right. Which one more accurately represents the God we know?

The beauty of the texts from Isaiah and the Psalm is that they don’t see eye to eye; they fundamentally disagree regarding what for them was a major theological issue. Yet, both are allowed to stand side by side in the same sacred corpus; somehow we consider both true.

Instead, I think a better, and more fruitful, reading strategy would be to hold both texts side by side, preserving both voices in this divine dialogue. Our goal should not be to decide which one is right, and to present them in perfect harmony, but to highlight the diverse theological perspectives within the biblical witness. This kind of dialogical approach ought to be fundamental to the way read and teach the Bible.

How Now Do We Read Scripture?

Teaching and embodying a dialogical approach can help shift the way youth interact with the Bible for the better in at least three ways:

  1. A dialogical approach allows for richer engagement with the Bible, and helps give a better sense of the diverse voices preserved within our sacred literature. It gives a more honest image of the Bible that doesn’t seek to smooth out every tension, but deals with the texts as they are.
  2. A dialogical approach emphasizes the process rather than the end. Hopefully none of us would claim to have all the answers. While we generally know on some level that faith is a constant wrestling with big issues, we tend to teach that faith is black and white. If we began to care less about the answers and more about the dialogue we might be surprised by the value we find in the process itself.
  3. A dialogical approach better prepares youth to engage the world around them and to be more open to dialogue with folks who think differently. We are so bad at disagreeing, especially in the church. We need to teach our youth the value of listening and learning to disagree more hospitably. A dialogical approach allows them to see diverse perspectives existing side by side while still being invited into the same sacred space.

 


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.