"Slot Machine Religion" and The Hard Sayings of Jesus
Many who read some of the sayings of Jesus find much comfort and assurance in thinking of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, our friend, comforter, and guide. But others of the sayings of Jesus often challenge and disturb our thinking and leave us uncertain how to understand, apply, or discern the meaning intended by Jesus. Some of his more difficult sayings have been used by the enemies of Christianity to throw derision and ridicule on the teachings of Jesus.
Some scholars have suggested that there might be 70 or as many as 150 “hard” or difficult teachings of Jesus. Some believe that many of Jesus’ teachings are difficult to comprehend clearly in today’s world. All these writers note the difficulty in translating the words of Jesus from Aramaic or Hebrew. They believe that much of the difficulty may be in Jesus’ use of simile, metaphors, puns, hyperbole, overstatements, irony, and paradox; use of proverbs, riddles, or poetic forms; and use of parallelism.
The kind of difficult sayings of Jesus I am referring to include the following: “Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26ff). “You must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), “Love your enemies” (Mark 11:14), “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (Matt. 5:29), and many more of course. To try to ignore the difficulty of these teachings or simply to act as though they are not puzzling is dishonest. As Christians we need to see if we can grasp their message, even though they may seem perplexing.
There is one hard saying of Jesus I should like to briefly explore with you. It is found in Mark 8: 34 “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me!”
What strange words! How foreign they sound to modern ears! Of course, these words may have become so familiar to you that they have lost their cutting edge; perhaps they no longer shock you. They should, you know.
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself….” I suppose that these words are among the most difficult and unwanted words in the Bible! I, for one, wish they were not there. I wish that Jesus had never said them. But say them he did, and I can’t get around them.
I remember hearing a college student say: “I am not much for this religion business, but I just love the teachings of Jesus.” That’s interesting. I don’t “love” the teachings of Jesus at all. He taught some uncomfortable things and we cannot get around them without getting around Jesus as well.
The truth of the matter is: if we wish to worship and serve this Christ of the Christian faith, we have got to take seriously his commands. “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, if you are not willing to do the things I say?” You see, Christ was always suspicious of an emotional religious faith that didn’t make much difference in the way a person lived. And so with these words he anchored discipleship in reality.” If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”
What strange methods our Lord used to recruit disciples. He promised them a cross! Certainly nobody could say that he followed Jesus out of false pretenses.
One day a group of enthusiasts came running to Jesus, eager to be disciples. “Have you sat down to count the cost?” he asked them. And these words threw cold water over their enthusiasm, for they wanted a religion that would cost them nothing.
A rich young ruler came to Jesus and Jesus asked: “Are you willing to place your love for people ahead of your love for things?” He went away sorrowful for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the
I wondered what would have happened had we been there instead of Jesus. We certainly would not have turned the man away. Perhaps we could lower the standards a little bit; what an addition the man would have been in the church. This is to say that there is a great deal of difference between the appeal of Jesus and the appeal of popular religion today. Christianity has been beset by an epidemic of what might be called “slot-machine religion.” The big question asked today is: “What’s in it for me?” We have come to expect that, if we put in a nickel’s worth of religion, we ought to get a nickel’s worth of results.
I once saw on the dust jacket of a book on prayer these words: “Now You Can Get What You Want From God!” Is this what religion is for? Is it to help me get what I want? What if what I want is different from what God wants? Will I still be content to serve him?
The disciples who came to follow Jesus did not necessarily find their troubles were suddenly taken away. On the contrary, they inherited a whole new set of troubles. They were persecuted, hounded, ostracized, even crucified. “In the world you shall have tribulation,” he said, “but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world!”
R.R. Maltby has said: “Jesus promised his disciples three things. They would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.”
Perhaps modern Christianity has lost some of its spark and power and sense of adventure because we have failed to warn people enough concerning the risk of following Jesus. It costs something to be a Christian. It is not the line of least resistance. In fact; Jesus said it was the line of most resistance.
“Straight is the gate and narrow is the way and few there be that find it.” Jesus was at least honest with his followers. He knew his way meant a cross and told them so.
In the dark days of the World War 11, when Sir Winston Churchill took the helm of the floundering British ship of state, he offered his people not a bed of roses, but “blood, sweat, toil, and tears.” After the siege of Rome in 1849, the Italian patriot Garibaldi cried out: “Who will follow me? I have nothing to offer you but hunger and thirst, hardship and death!” The men rallied to follow him.
Jesus never sought to lure men and women to follow him by the offer of an easy way. Instead he challenged them to the way of the cross. He sought to awake their sleeping souls, to inspire them to take the high way instead of the low. He promised peace, but not the peace of relaxation. It was the peace that is only found in the midst of great struggle. The peace of launching forth on a new adventure in faith, knowing that “underneath are the everlasting arms.” The peace even of the cross, confident in the faith that God will ultimately win the victory of resurrection.
Jesus did not come to offer us an easy peace but an eternal victory. He came not to make life easy but to make men great.
This, then is the hard saying of Jesus: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” Notice the “if.” He is saying: “You don’t have to follow me.” Nobody will force you to do so. But if some of the glory and wonder of the