Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Jesus and the First Person Singular

In a Sunday morning class, we were watching a Fr. Robert Barron video in which he talked about the modern tendency to trivialize Jesus as a very smart and very nice guy with a good philosophy of life and lots of interesting stories. The fact is, he said, that Jesus was an unusual and disturbing person who challenged those around him and created a lot of discomfort.

He mentioned the question Jesus asked of his disciples, “Who do the people say I am?” and suggested that great teachers and spiritual leaders, Deepak Chopra, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, for example would explain a way of thinking and living but would not be concerned about who people thought they were. I could add Tony Robbins, Zig Ziegler, T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dale Carnegie, and Norman Vincent Peale to his list of folks who wanted or want to show us a different way (some perhaps making a lot of money in the process) but don’t express concern about who people think they are and don’t use a lot of first person singular pronouns.

It made me think about the extensive use of the first person singular by Jesus. Here are some examples:

"Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." - Matthew 4:19

 But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."  - Matthew 8:22

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. - Matthew 9:9

"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” - Matthew 10:32  

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  - Matthew 10:37-40  

 “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” -Matthew 11:29

 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” - Matthew 12:30  

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” - Matthew 16:24
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” - Matthew 18:5 

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." - Matthew 18:20

Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." - Matthew 19:21
 “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  - Mark 1:1

Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?"  Jesus said, "I am; and 'you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,' and 'coming with the clouds of heaven.'"  - Mark 14:61-62

Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” - Luke 13:32  

"I am he (Messiah), the one who is speaking to you." - John 4:26
"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” -  John 6:35
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." - John 8:12
He said to them, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” -  John 8:23
Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am." - John 8:58

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” -  John 10:9 

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” -  John 10:11
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” - John 10:27

"I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” - John 11:25
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” - John 14:6 

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” – John 14:15

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” – John 15:1  

Christians read the words “I am,” the most fundamental first person singular declaration, coming from Jesus, especially in John 8:58 above, as hearkening back to the words of God when Moses encountered him in the burning bush in Exodus 3 and, upon being challenged to step up and lead the Children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, asked God who he should say told him to do such a foolish thing. God replied, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"

Jesus was certainly loving in his encounters with many people but doesn’t seem to have been a “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” as suggested by a once popular hymn (based probably on Matthew 11:29 minus the “yoke” issue) except perhaps in his dealings with children. With followers and potential followers, he was confident and direct with such imperatives as, “…sin no more,” “sell your possessions,” and “keep my commandments.” His teaching challenges us to focus our own use of the first person singular to statements such as, “I believe,” “I confess,” “I pray,” “I forgive,” “I love,” and “I will.”

We may be in danger of trivializing Jesus by asking a subjective question such as “What would Jesus do?” Often what he did was heal people, cast out demons, or perform other miracles, make outrageous claims or demands on his followers, or tell wise and provocative stories. Those are not things we do very well. It may be more helpful in our spiritual journeys to first ask, “What did Jesus say?” and “What did Jesus do?” Then we can focus on what we will say and do in response.


  1. Note that the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were written long after His death through the lens not of a 21st Century bibliographer, but people of the Christian faith proclaiming the Gospel of Christ Jesus after the resurrection. As a pattern of human relationships, I have little faith that such a large portion of Jesus spoken words were as scientific of all his utterances. But do inform the Church and me about the nature and significance of Jesus Christ. Indeed, in no way should such "I" statements be a model for my dialogue among others.The ancient Benedictine practice "lectio divina" calls for the student of scripture to carefully and reflective listen to what scripture says and then to attempt to discern what God is calling the disciple to do. This activity can be personal in private or it can be a small group activity. Similarly, the singing in many churches follows a prescribed call and response.

    1. Thanks, Paul. Since there was that long delay between the resurrection and the writing and since the NT Canon was not finalized until even much later, I think that taking Holy Scripture seriously pretty much requires a strong ecclesiology, a belief that Jesus established His Church, put some people in charge, entrusted them with the things he taught, and, as promised, sent the Holy Spirit as their guide. And we have to believe they operated under the inspiration of The Holy Spirit. There were no Fox or CNN reporters following Jesus around, writing down every word, and feeding a 24 hour news cycle. I guess the Pharisees did a bit of that. The reported words of Jesus must be a tiny portion of the words he spoke during three years of trudging around the countryside and through the towns interacting with and teaching people. Otherwise he would be the ultimate "strong silent type." Thankfully, most liturgical worship is based on using the words of Holy Scripture.