Why would Jesus say that? The implicit assumption of this title is that Jesus actually said the things the bible attributes to him. That’s quite an assumption 2000 years after the fact! It is also one of several problems with this year’s Lenten reflections.
Perhaps a more appropriate title for the volume would be “Quoting Jesus out of context”. The short snippets of text discussed each day are rarely placed in their biblical or cultural context, no mention is made of the possibility that some things might have been lost in translation, and the likelihood that Jesus actually did or did not say the phrase in question is never examined. Given that many people in the United Church are now familiar with these aspects of New Testament scholarship (for example, having heard of the work of the Jesus Seminar), this seems naïve, and a bit disrespectful to the subject (Jesus). Thus, I often found myself wondering: What would Jesus think of these reflections?
Lack of scholarship is not a terrible thing if one acknowledges it, and clearly indicates that the goal of each reflection is to describe what thoughts, feelings, and actions the text inspired in the writer, regardless of the text’s veracity. We do something like this in the Week of Guided Prayer, where we read a passage repeatedly, pray on it, and then together ponder what it might mean for our lives or for our understanding of God. We don’t pretend to know everything about the passage, but we can appreciate what it evokes in us as, for example, one can appreciate a work of art without knowing how to paint. Some writers in the volume do take this approach and these are, in my opinion, the most helpful reflections. Other writers, unfortunately, do not.
Besides the variable quality of the individual reflections, I also missed something in the volume as a whole: a certain coherence and depth. In past years, the focus of the reflections has often been a spiritual metaphor (for example, water, home) and that metaphor became a unifying theme for the volume and for Lent. By reflecting on different aspects of the same metaphor and its possible relevance to our faith, the reader was drawn into a daily contemplative practice that became increasingly familiar and thus increasingly calming and centering over the weeks. Nothing like that was possible with this year’s reflections. There was no unifying theme, and the two- to five-word pithy little snippets of Jesus’ sayings made him sound more like a smart-ass than a spiritual teacher.
I know the United Church has recently tried to draw people in by being provocative, and some of that has been fun to watch, but there’s a time and a place for it. I’m not sure that the annual Lenten reflections are that time and that place. There are other, more meaningful aspects to Lent worth celebrating. On the other hand, we are probably one of the few denominations where members like me can feel free to write critically about its publications. What a privilege!