We’ve heard them from the pulpit, scanned the red-letter words in our Bibles and quoted them in scripture memorization. But when we listen --- really listen --- to the words of Jesus, they may change us irrevocably. So says renowned religion writer Phyllis Tickle in THE WORDS OF JESUS, which offers a new way of looking and listening to familiar passages.
The book began with a simple question from a colleague who asked Tickle, “Did you ever wonder what you would really find if you took out the duplications and triplications and connective tissue of the Gospels and stripped it all down again to just His words?” The question stunned her, and she admits, “I had never wondered such a thing…I was also fascinated by the potency of the Sayings format and drawn to the intellectual game and pleasure of trying to tease out just how and why that format works so well.”
The “Sayings” format is indeed unique. All of the words of Jesus from the four gospels and the first chapter of Acts are compiled and arranged into five different “books” and then organized by topic. In each book, Jesus’ personality is “shaded and shaped by the particularity of either his audience --- public, private, or intimate --- or an activity --- healing.” Rather than relying on a particular translation, Tickle brings her own scholarship and the texts of several translations to bear to recreate Jesus’ words.
Tickle suggests that the reader begin with Book Two, Christ’s words of private instruction to His followers. Here, He is “most self-revelatory and open to us.” Bits and pieces of Jesus’ words reach out and pull the reader in. “Be careful that you do not look down on one who seems small or unimportant and trivial…,” Jesus says in one passage. In another, “Sit down in the humblest place.” And, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Each saying in each “book” is grouped under a topical header.
Tickle divides the other four books of Jesus’ Sayings into The Words of Public Teaching, The Words of Healing Dialogue, The Words of Intimate Conversation and The Words of Post-Resurrection Encounters. The 21 Sayings under “healing” are interesting, Tickle points out, as most of them have little or nothing to do with the healing itself: “Rather, they read now as if much of the time the act of healing becomes a platform for teaching health of more than just the body.” Good food for thought.
One of Tickle’s passages that resonates particularly well is the idea that the brain and the heart are both organs of perceiving and being. “We must assume that there is in the human being a means of knowing other than that of the brain.” Her surprise, she said, was that the Sayings of Jesus “entered prayerfully” are first heard somewhere other than the mind. “The heart, it would seem, has its own consciousness and knowledge and ways that can be experienced just as the brain’s consciousness and knowledge and ways are experienced. They are just not as scientifically measurable at the moment, and may never be.”
Tickle, who has worked with other sacred writings before (The Divine Hours series), has a delightful blend of humbleness and confidence in her reflections on the Sayings. As she began compiling the “words” of Jesus through the past two years, Tickle said she wrestled with new perceptions about what it is to be a Christian, as well as to be herself.
So reader be warned. If, as Tickle says, “It is the correct and proper business of followers to try to discern the meaning of God’s words,” then THE WORDS OF JESUS is a good place to be about our business. But readers will encounter the sayings of Jesus through this book in new ways --- and may come away changed.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on February 4, 2008