Jesus the Great Innovator

In this article I will consider three ways in which Jesus was a great innovator in his preaching: theologically, hermeneutically, and rhetorically. To be completely frank, the first two are well beyond what a short article can address, but I have hope that in considering the third we might be challenged and inspired in our own preaching in the church today.

Theological innovation

Firstly, most obviously and yet also most profoundly, Jesus’ preaching of the Good News was theological news: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 4.17). It must have been the best news, I can’t help adding, to those who had not heard it before; revolutionary, innovative, and even now endlessly worthy of the contemporary preacher’s closest attention.

 The kerygma – this good news message of salvation, of healing, of release that he promised to the poor, to the oppressed, to the prisoner – this good news message forms the content and focus and the drive of every Christian sermon worthy of the name. It is the Christian preacher’s foundation stone, the sine qua non. If we are not preaching the Good News, we are not preaching. However, innovation, at least for us, doesn’t come into it. Jesus was ‘innovative’, theologically speaking, but our charge as followers is not to ‘innovate’ a new gospel. It is rather to bring the Old, Old Story to 21st century listeners inside and outside of the church. Where you stand on the conservative – liberal – radical spectrum will of course determine how much you think theological innovation is possible and necessary in postmodern cultures with pluralistic and relativistic worldviews. It is well beyond the scope of this article to enter that debate. Jesus was theologically innovative, but that does not give us license or permission to attempt to do the same.[JS1]  (If you find an effective way to preach a Cupitt’s non-realism or Paul Tillich’s ‘ontological ground of our being’ as good news, by all means let me know.)

Hermeneutical innovation

The second way in which Jesus could be considered an innovator is in his hermeneutical approach to his own Scriptures. How did he read and interpret the Old Testament? Jesus believed in the authority of the Scriptures, certainly (see Matt 4:4) and his intention was often to lead people to a truer understanding of the meaning of the Scriptures (as in Matt 23.23). The interpretation of his own scriptures leads him into theological innovation, of course, and had a direct bearing on the kerygma, above. The Matthean ‘You have heard that it was said’ pericopes are a striking example. We are rarely if ever able to interpret our scriptures so radically. However in this I think he patterned what is sometimes referred to now as the Trouble / Grace school of preaching. Stage one is to ask, where is there trouble in the text, where is the sin or disease or conflict or disorder or fallen-ness of humankind, and then to ask where is the instance or hint or promise of grace in the text, where God’s redemptive, healing, liberating purpose can be glimpsed.  Stage two is to look for a parallel or analogical situation in the world of the preacher and listeners, and to ask where is there trouble in that world, and where is there, or where could there be grace in that world. The American homiletician Paul Scott Wilson is an articulate exponent of this approach to preaching, which does not lead to specific models, he says, but rather a ‘deep grammar’ for preaching.[1]  

Another way of looking at the hermeneutic innovations of Jesus is to ask what were the scriptures he focused on, and which did he ignore? As the Franciscan contemplative Richard Rohr has provocatively pointed out, the hermeneutic of Jesus foregrounds issues of mercy, of inclusivity, of justice on earth. He avoids passages that affirm violence, or separatism, or religious imperialism. Some books are quoted, others are ignored. Rohr suggests that Jesus taught a ‘hierarchy of truths’ and illustrates that by noting: ‘Jesus says that “the entire law and all the prophets” (Matthew 22:40) are summed up in love of God and love of neighbor. In doing so, he shockingly dismisses hundreds of clear laws and prescriptions!’[2] Again I’m thinking, it is not our job to innovate new hermeneutical methods, but to be faithful to our theological heritage and to seek honest, wise and grace-filled readings both of the Scriptures and of the world where God’s grace works in multiple and often mysterious ways.

Rhetorical Innovation

Finally, rhetoric. Recently I’ve been wondering, WWJT? (What would Jesus Tweet?) The extreme brevity of the medium could be an advantage for gnomic utterances and might give them the ambiguity of a punchy parable. A pastor in Hawaii invites congregants – whom he knows will be on their smartphones anyway – to text him their answers to multiple choices questions that he poses on his PowerPoint™ slides during his sermon. Others allow twitter feeds to scroll past during the sermon. So it seems that creative preachers restlessly search for new technologically-enabled angles, in the hope that they may thus compete with the mass media technoscapes which increasingly form the background and even the foreground of the lives of their listeners. In this they are arguably seeking to emulate the rhetorical innovations of the preaching of Jesus.

Rhetoric, or the art and science of discourse, has universal rules codified by Aristotle, refined by the Roman Cicero and developed for Christian preachers by Augustine.  Logos, the argument or power of the spoken word, is fatally undermined without ethos, the listeners’ positive perception of the character and integrity of the speaker. The argument is also weakened without pathos – the engagement with the listener’s emotions, and by extension the relationship of the message to real life. In the estimations of the gospel writers the ethos of Jesus the teacher and preacher is unparalleled. According to all four writers he spoke with authority and power and wisdom that was ‘astonishing’. Luke refers to ‘amazement’ at the gracious words that came from his mouth. Matthew contrasts the remarkable authority that Jesus exhibited, compared to that of the scribes.

At the same time as being virtually universal, rhetoric is culturally embedded, for the preacher cannot gain a hearing without thought-forms and speech-forms comfortable for the listeners, or without ideas and concepts that address or correspond with the listeners’ felt concerns. As cultural expressions develop and change preachers need to know the difference, say, between Wallace Simpson and Marge Simpson as well as between wheat and tares.

Where was Jesus wielding the rhetorical tools of his culture, and where was he making an innovative leap forward in 1st century CE rabbinical discourse? The unequivocal evidence that would provide for that study is not there, as far as I can see. But the challenges that his preaching discourse raises for preachers today are instructive and inspiring nevertheless. We could start with his use of parables and enigmatic sayings (see Mark 4:11 and 4:33-34). However studying the parables of Jesus we quickly learn that, as Robert H Stein pointed out, Jesus was drawing on a well established Jewish tradition of mashal.[3] We learn also that the term parable is an umbrella term for a wide variety of figures of speech including simile, extended metaphor, little story, and allegory. The challenge of Jesus’s parables (which is also the title of an excellent compendium by Richard Longenecker) is particularly that they convey a point not only in intellectual but also in affective ways. (Sometimes: Julicher’s ‘single point’ understanding of parables has been widely superseded.) And even that summary risks undervaluing the way parables work. Often they seem designed to get past a mental guard, to get under the skin, or to turn preconceptions on their head so violently that laughter is the first, but by no means the only response. The deliberate withholding of clarity, as in Luke 8:9-10, seems to be an innovation too far for contemporary preachers who strive to be clear at all times. There is a challenge in Jesus’ use of parables to work with ambiguity and mystery, to expect the listener to do more work, and to preach in ways that are less spoon-feeding and more provocative.

Equally important in a rhetorical consideration of the discourse of Jesus are the subjects, the details and the local colour. He told stories about bread and yeast and mustard seeds, lost sheep and lost coins, money (paying, investing and taxing it), jealousy and covetousness, squabbling brothers, managers and tenants, slaves and owners, Pharisees and tax collectors, impoverished widows and arrogant judges, children and rich young rulers, wedding banquets and bridesmaids and husbands and wives.  In short, he drew widely from the tapestry of 1st Century rural Palestinian life, with images that are arresting and immediate. They are almost visceral, by which I mean they are heard ‘in the body’, because they speak of things that are seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelt. They are about the everyday felt experiences of his listeners, while lofty abstraction and conceptualizing is kept to a minimum. This is too easily given a nodding but non-committal assent by preachers who have had to reach their ministerial ordination through a university education. If only preachers today would use more ‘vulgar’ language, with fewer Latinate words and more Anglo-Saxon words. Oral speech for preaching, if it is to follow the innovations of Jesus, needs to be spiced with down-to-earth metaphors, language that evokes the five senses, and engaging stories from the time and culture of the listeners.[4]

Next there are the innovative contexts for the preaching of Jesus. The accounts tell of a range of situations and locations, from synagogues and hillsides, to rooms so jammed that one importunate was lowered through the roof, and lakeside crowds so large and so pressing that the best pulpit was a boat rowed out from the shore. But the teaching he gave in individual encounters tells us something else: it speaks of penetrating insight and spiritual discernment combined with gut level compassion and unbounded mercy. His encounters with Nicodemus, Nathaniel, the Samaritan woman at the well, the rich young ruler and others have given us teaching that is not only validated by the man who gave it, but made accessible for listeners 2000 years later by the immediacy and details of the story. The implication for sermons today is clear: by all means preach precepts, but search tirelessly for the story or illustration of the individual grasping or being transformed by the precept you are trying to teach – and then tell that story skillfully.

Can contemporary preachers usefully seek to emulate the innovations of Jesus? In informal surveys of preachers and their formative influences, Jesus is often cited as a role model. Which is fine in a way, except that preachers today do not normally accompany their preaching with miraculous healings and deeds of power, and or have a corpus of teaching that is powerfully validated by their rising from the dead. Nor is my focus on the rhetoric of Jesus very useful if considered in isolation. Jesus was not a wandering rabbi with a vital message and some especially effective communication methods, but the Word of God incarnate, a breathing, speaking, listening, doing being whose ethos validated his logos in ways that are unique in history. His words and his works rippled out in space and time through a group of previously unlearned but Spirit-led disciples. An innovator unique in history is a tough act to follow, but the exciting challenge to preachers today is clear enough: words and deeds go together. Preaching must be embodied and integrated with effective ministry, but thankfully, not all in the lone man or woman. The Body of Christ preaching in the world today is composed of differently gifted diverse members who need to share the family likeness, and who need to be demonstrably and vitally relationally connected. Of course the preacher must ‘walk the walk’, but not alone: the church preaches and walks with words and works that together speak of the glory and redemptive purposes of Jesus, the Great Innovator.

[1] Wilson, Paul Scott. Preaching and Homiletical Theory. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004.

[2] Rohr, Richard. Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus’ Use of Scripture (CAC Webcast, December 2013) <http://store.cac.org/Things-Hidden-Hierarchy-of-Truths-CD_p_349.html> Accessed 28 August 2014.

[3] Stein, Robert H. ‘The Genre of the Parables’ in Longenecker, Richard N. The Challenge of Jesus' Parables. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2000, pp 30-50.

[4] See especially Day, David. Embodying the Word. London: SPCK, 2005.


Author Bio

Geoffrey Stevenson.jpeg

Geoffrey Stevenson teaches homiletics at New College, Edinburgh and Cranmer Hall, Durham. Before his PhD at Edinburgh he was Director of the Centre for Christian Communication at St John’s College, Durham. He was the editor of The Future of Preaching and the co-author with Stephen Wright of Preaching With Humanity.