The Strange Arithmetic of Jesus
September 2, 1990
It is quite appropriate this first Sunday of a new school year to include the word "strange" in my sermon title, especially for new students. You have come here to a strange country or a strange state, a strange college, dorm, fellow students, classes, subjects, all somewhat strange in the dictionary sense of "not before known or heard or seen."
The idea for this sermon comes from Frederick Buechner, who writes: "The high priest Caiaphas was essentially a mathematician. When some Jews started worrying that they might get into hot water with the Romans because of the way Jesus was carrying on, Caiaphas said that in that case, they should dump Jesus like a hot potato. His argument ran that it is better for one man to get it in the neck for the sake of many than for many to get it in the neck for the sake of one man. His grim arithmetic proved unassailable."
That got me thinking. Jesus certainly said many strange things: the greatest of all is a child; prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners will enter heaven before the so-called religious folk. And Jesus certainly did many strange things: riding triumphantly into Jerusalem on an ass, not a grand steed, then driving the money changers out of the sacred temple. So, I asked, what about some strange arithmetic on the part of Jesus? Upon reviewing the four Gospels, I found lots of it, more than I can include in one sermon. Therefore, let me share with you some of the highlights of the strange arithmetic of Jesus to see what you think.
First, a look at several of Jesus' strange sayings, beginning with my favorite, "For when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among you." (Matthew 18:20) Why my favorite? Because with the low attendance here in Herrick Chapel the past few years, it encourages me to continue this program, even when not many more than two or three gather.
Other strange sayings of Jesus come from his famous Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'" Hey, that's OK, good math, one thing for another one thing. One to one correspondence! However, Jesus continues, and gets strange, "But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." (Matthew 5:38-42) Jesus' strange ethic! The more you give away, the more you have? It just doesn't add up.
Also from the Sermon on the Mount: "No one can serve two masters." (5:24) Again, that's fine. But the Jesus arithmetic has a strange number one: "Strive first for the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things (food, drink, clothes) will be given to you as well." (5:33) And this strange number one thing is backed up by two brief parables where teacher Jesus says that the kingdom of God, God's way, is like a person who finds a wonderful treasure and sells all to acquire it. Or God's way is like a person finding one pearl of great value and likewise selling all to buy it. (Matthew 13:44-46)
So you and I want to be numero uno? Then hear this: "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" ... like Jesus. (Matthew 20:27) Yes, "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." (Mark 9:35) "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it, save it." Then comes Jesus' difficult question to us: "For what will it profit you if you gain the whole world but forfeit your life?" (Matthew 16:25-26) What do you think about these Jesus sayings? Can we handle this new math, this strange arithmetic?
Let's now move on to some of Jesus' strange parables, those wonderful disturbing stories about God's way for us. How about the shepherd (remember in Psalm 23 that God is "my shepherd," that later Jesus is portrayed as '"the good shepherd") who leaves 99 sheep on the hillside, alone, to seek one sheep who went astray? How about that woman who puts aside nine coins and turns her house upside down until she finds one lost coin? (Luke 15) Once more, strange arithmetic. Why risk so many for one? Why? Because God, my shepherd, and Jesus, the good shepherd, get a bigger kick out of one sinner, a lost one who repents, than out of 99 who don't need to repent ... or think so! God is the one who makes the lost one "number one." God, the source of Jesus' strange arithmetic, and hopefully our source.
Then there is our first scripture reading today, in which Peter asks Jesus, "How often should I forgive one who sins against me? As many as seven times?" Peter felt he was being generous, since Jewish law only required forgiveness three times. Note Jesus' strange extraordinary reply: "Not seven times but 70 times seven." (Matthew 18:21-22) Peter probably engages in some rapid multiplication: 70 X 7 = 490, thinking to himself, forgive 490 times? Jesus, I'll lose count. Precisely! That's the point, as Jesus proceeds to explain this unlimited forgiveness by relating a parable about a servant who is graciously forgiven an enormous debt of millions only to proceed not to forgive another servant a small debt of about $20. His theological point? God forgives our huge debts to God and rightfully expects that, out of gratitude, we continually forgive our sisters' and brothers' little debts to us. Strange, amazing! God's way, Jesus' way, for us.
Our second scripture reading today is another parable about what the kingdom of God is like. God's way is comparable to a landowner who hires workers throughout the day, from dawn to dusk. When payment time comes, the last workers are paid first and, behold, they receive the same pay as the first workers. What? What kind of weird arithmetic is that, Jesus? Certainly not good sound business mathematics where one's pay is equivalent to the numbers of hours worked. Again Jesus' strange message is clear: "The last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:1-16) The divine love is equally available to all regardless of ... whatever. Ultimately our first/last categories are meaningless in God's way and should be so in our dealings with others. Jesus' story is intended to move us from hierarchy to equality. So what do you think about these Jesus parables? Can you and I handle this new math, this strange arithmetic?
Next, a look at the arithmetic of Jesus that breaks through in his encounters with various people, rather like his "math in action." All four Gospels include accounts of Jesus feeding thousands. (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6;1-14) Here are the strange numbers: 5,000 people, five loaves and two fish, all fed with 12 baskets of food left over; 4,000 people, again five loaves and two fish, with seven baskets of food left over. Obviously these numbers just don't add up; it is creative addition to say the least. Here is a miracle with an interesting punch line: Jesus clearly had the power to do so much with so little. How much more could you and I do with what we have by engaging in the miracle of caring and sharing?
Caring and sharing is precisely what a rich young ruler could not do. When he asks about attaining fullness of life, Jesus tells him to sell all, give to the poor and follow Jesus. Strange! However, the rich young ruler's reaction was not strange at all; we can identity. "When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions." (Matthew 19:22)
The point is that when it comes to the arithmetic of possessions, the mathematics of money, we tend to prefer addition to subtraction, accumulation rather than disbursement for the benefit of others. You know, the 1980s, the decade of greed. Like that person in Jesus' parable of the rich fool, we yearn to build more and larger barns in order to store up and hoard our abundant harvests. Then "I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.'" (Luke 12:19-20)
Jesus, thank God, also encountered some folk who understood his message, who indeed learned his new math. Like the time when Jesus was watching people put money into the temple treasury. After some rich persons contributed large sums, along came a poor widow donating one penny. That's mathematically insignificant compared to the previous amounts. Jesus' response? "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." (Mark 12:43-44)
Another example of the lesson learned. Several days before Jesus' death an unnamed woman, bearing a jar of very costly ointment, proceeds to anoint Jesus. Others present at once scold her for not selling that ointment in order to give the money to the poor. Jesus agrees that one should continually show kindness to the poor. That's a given. But Jesus disagrees with the critics in this case, because this caring woman has done the right thing at the right time; she anoints Jesus' body beforehand for its burial. Then his amazing statement, "Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." (Matthew 14:9) A mathematical case of eternal concerns overriding immediate ones.
One more example: Zacchaeus, that hated little tax collector, meets Jesus and in that encounter he immediately adopts Jesus' strange arithmetic. He vows to pay back fourfold any person he has defrauded in the past. (Luke 19:8) How's that for strange division and multiplication! What do you think?
Finally. I offer a few examples of Jesus living his strange arithmetic because God wills it. Before commencing his ministry Jesus, we are told, is tempted by Satan. In the third and final test, Satan displays his own mathematical twist by offering Jesus everything, "all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor," for just one thing, "fall down and worship me." A splendid addition for Jesus, it seems. Jesus' response is predictable and characteristic of his whole way of life: "No way, I worship God and serve God only." Period, end of discussion, the end of this series of temptations. (Matthew 4:8-11)
That is Jesus' strange arithmetic, always putting one certain thing, God, above many other things we might consider more valuable. When Jesus was hanging on that cross, some priests and others proclaimed, "He saved others; he cannot save himself." (Mark 15:31) Precisely! That's the point of his whole life. I quote once more Frederick Buechner, the end of the Caiaphas quotation I shared earlier. "It is curious that in the matter of deciding his own fate, Jesus reached the same conclusion as Caiaphas and Jesus took it in the neck for the sake of many, Caiaphas included. It was not, however, the laws of mathematics that he was following." No, in this case it was the law of selfless love that undergirds all of the strange arithmetic of Jesus. May God move us to learn this law of love in order that Jesus' mathematics may no longer be strange to us in our living and loving.
Originally published as a web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2004