Who Is Jesus for You?

Psalm 112:1–9; Matthew 5:13–20, preached by Rev. Sandy Johnson on February 05, 2023

“The Question: Who is Jesus for you? My answer: Jesus Is Muddle-headed.” Now, before you email Pacific School of Religion to recall my Master of Divinity diploma, let me explain why those words are complimentary and not heretical.

Return with me, briefly, to 1968 when I was a graduate student in Psychology at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. One of my first reading assignments was a 1957 paper by Lee Cronbach, written when he was the President of the American Psychological Association. It was titled “The Two Disciplines of Scientific Psychology.” Cronbach contrasted the researchers who wanted to find the simplest, most general principles of human behavior with researchers who wanted to honor all of the complexities and particularities of human behavior. Another way to say this is that some researchers were interested in the ways everyone is the same, and others were interested in the ways everyone is distinctive. 

Cronbach, and fellow psychologist Paul Meehl (of the University of Minnesota), used the shorthand terms “simple-minded” and “muddle-headed” to describe these two extremes. Both of them urged their colleagues to find ways to weave the two together. The extent to which this has happened since then has been profoundly influenced by the arrival of computerized data analysis, advances in statistics, and the rise of the neurosciences—and only slightly by collegial collaboration.

As you can tell, this distinction between studying how people are the same and studying how they are distinctive has stayed with me, long past my time being active in psychological research.[1]

Since we have just been to psychology graduate school together, you know that what I mean when I say Jesus was muddle-headed is that he was focused on the complexities and particularities of human life. A somewhat less flattering way to say this, is that he was not very consistent in what he did and what he had to say. For example, in today’s text from the Gospel of Matthew, he tells his followers to let their lights shine, so that others can see their good works and glorify God. In the very next chapter (Matthew 6:1–7) he is going to tell his listeners not to practice their piety in front of others—to give alms unobtrusively, to pray in private and use simple words. One of the commentaries on this text that I read this week presented a logical and grammatical explanation of why these two instructions were not actually contradictory. Though I respect the scholarship of that author, I don’t think that saying different things to different people in different situations is a “contradiction.” It’s muddle-headed.

Jesus regularly treated different people in different ways. Consider, for a moment, some of the healing stories in the four Gospels. When Jesus encountered a man near the pool of Bethesda who had been ill for 38 years, he asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6). Another time, when he was on his way to the house of a leader of a synagogue, he healed a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years without speaking to her until after she had touched the fringe of his robe (Matthew 9:20–22). And yet another time, when a group of ten men suffering from leprosy called out to him for mercy, he just told them to go and show themselves to the priest. (Luke 17:11–19). Each of those interactions was specific to individuals: sometimes Jesus asked a question, sometimes he didn’t say a word, sometimes he responded to a plea. 

My favorite example of Jesus responding to a particular situation, as some of you may know, is the story of the Syrophoenician Woman (Matthew 15:21–28). She approached Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter, and his first response was, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The other disciples try to send her away; she persists. Jesus declines once more, saying “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She replies, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus not only treats her differently from others who have sought his healing, he treats her differently at the end of the passage than at the beginning.

I also think it is interesting that Jesus also seems to “muddle” the heads of people who listen to his preaching and teaching. The very nature of the parables he tells is to have a twist, a surprise, an unexpected turn of events. The father of the wayward son welcomes him home; the shepherd goes after one lost sheep; the most compassionate person is the hated enemy, the half-day worker earns as much as the full-day worker.

Think for a moment about the text we heard last week—the Beatitudes. Each line speaks a blessing to those who otherwise seem cursed, not blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. There are particular blessings for particular woes in this sermon on the mount.

The Question: Who is Jesus for You. My Answer: Jesus is Simple-minded. Just as I have convinced myself (and maybe some of you) that Jesus is, indeed, muddle-headed, he turns around and shows himself to be simple-minded, too. In today’s text he begins, “You are the salt of the earth,” and the word “you” is plural in the original Greek. What he said was more like “You folks are the salt of the earth,” or “y’all are the salt of the earth.” (depending upon what part of the US you grew up in.

Let me remind you that I am using the term “simple-minded” to mean straightforward, uncomplicated, direct, universal, and not to mean unintelligent or uninformed or untruthful. This is straightforward, uncomplicated, direct, universal Christian Theology. Everybody is the salt of the earth. Everyone is the light of the world. Everyone can shine. There is nothing unintelligent or uninformed or untruthful about it. It speaks about universally shared human conditions.

(By the way, the fact that the English language does not show the difference between single “you” and plural “you” is a frequent cause of misunderstanding in reading the New Testament. Check the footnote in your study bible to see which one it is.)

We also heard a psalm today, one that might have been familiar to the historical Jesus during his life. I’ve always thought of the Psalms as being muddle-headed, sometimes painfully so. In those 150 poems/songs, there are some harsh words and some horrifying ideas—like smashing children’s heads against the rocks. As discomforting and disconcerting as some of these verses can be, we have to admit that they give voice to true human feelings—the cruel ones as well as the kind and worshipful ones. 

Psalm 112, which we heard today, on the other hand, is squarely simple-minded. It proclaims that good people are happy and blessed; they will have riches and work for justice, “their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord.” The last verse (which, interestingly, is left out of the Revised Common Lectionary), continues the theme:

            The wicked see it and are angry;

            They gnash their teeth and melt away;

            The desire of the wicked comes to nothing.

The words of this particular psalm make me squirm because the world does not look this way to me. Many faithful people don’t fit this description—their children struggle, their financial situations are precarious, their mood is compromised by hardship, and their hearts do not always feel secure in the Lord. And conversely, the desires of the “wicked” do not always come to nothing. I am uneasy calling this simple-minded when it seems so counter-factual.

And then I remembered a story from a friend and colleague of mine, the late Tom Hunter, who told about working with a Native American youth group on Lummi Island in Washington. Tom was a wonderful musician, and the group often sang together. One Sunday, the song “This Land Is Your Land” came up, and the youth did not want to sing those words—after all, it wasn’t their land anymore. After some thoughtful and respectful conversation, the young people decided that they could sing those words as an aspiration for the future of the nation.

That’s how I feel about Psalm 112—I am willing to read it and hear it and pray it as a simple-minded hope for a future in which the faithful and righteous flourish.

The Question: Who is Jesus for you? My Answer: Jesus is the one who teaches us to be both simple-minded and muddle-headed. Lee Cronbach and Paul Meehl, the psychologists I mentioned earlier, were not the first to comment on the difference between those who want simple straightforward ways of understanding and those who want complex and nuanced ways. Cronbach and Meehl were both convinced (for somewhat different reasons) that the best psychological research would come out of a combination of simple-minded and muddle-headed thinking. 

I am sure they never imagined that years later, someone (like me) would use these words in a sermon. And yet it is precisely this combination of world views—the ways that all of us are the same and the ways that each of us is distinctive—that powered the ministry of Jesus. 

At our best, it is also this combination of vistas that power our lives as followers of the Jesus Way, and that power our life together as a community aspiring to the Jesus Way. We are simple-minded when we proclaim ourselves—as we do every week—moved by the spirits of compassion, justice, and stewardship. We are muddle-headed when—as we do every week—we gather, listen, speak, and act with real individuals and real institutions in this messy, complicated, and conflicted world. 

We are, I believe, most faithful when we practice and honor both.


[1] For the scholars among you, Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell were often described as epitomes of these intellectual styles.