By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – When a preacher starts second-guessing Deity, some might think it’s time for bystanders to seek shelter against lightning bolts.
But Joe Edd Morris intended “Things I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said” to offer understanding, not confrontation, for some of the Gospels’ perplexing sayings.
Morris, a Tupelo psychologist and ordained United Methodist minister, wrote the book after he’d realized in preparing for a Communion-service sermon that “Do this in remembrance of me” seemed disappointingly unchallenging, as did several other admonitions, while others seemed unrealistically difficult.
He had trepidations about the title, but most responses expressed intrigue rather than recoil.
“I stepped out of the pulpit and didn’t use any notes because I had it pretty well inside of me. I was able to get the information out there, and the people were very attentive,” he said.
Morris gives each of 10 difficult imperatives its own chapter. He starts with the gut-wrenching declarations.
“The tough sayings sear and scorch, challenge and demand. They call us to accountability, responsibility and action. … These are the sayings that don’t let us off the hook,” he writes.
Morris’ first choice of “tough words” is Jesus’ instruction to the woman caught in adultery, after he’d shamed her accusers and offered forgiveness, to “Go and sin no more.”
“Those words scare us because they demand accountability. We cannot have it both ways,” Morris writes. “We cannot receive God’s indicatives, His love, mercy and grace (‘Neither do I condemn you.’) without also receiving His imperative, His judgment and His discipline (‘Go and sin no more.’).”
Another of Morris’ hard-sayings reflections is on Jesus’ instruction to the rich young ruler: “Go, sell everything you have, and give it to the poor.” After examining at length the radical ramifications of its literal interpretation, he offers “the most reasonable interpretation.”
“If our possessions interfere with our caring for others, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless, then they are a hindrance. We are the rich young man,” Morris writes. “And if we are the rich young man, then Jesus means ‘everything.’”
Still, he reminds us that the radical application is available to us: “Jesus says less is better; less is more. According to his logic, we lose what we keep and gain what we give away.”
The three other “hard sayings” Morris addresses are equally familiar.
Obeying “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he says, makes one more sympathetic to a person’s flaws and struggles without condoning wrong-doing.
Jesus’ declaration about adultery in the heart draws a line between appreciation and covetousness: “‘I see, I like’ is one thing,” Morris writes. “‘I see, I want’ is another.”
In addressing Jesus’ admonition to “deny [oneself] and take up [one’s] cross daily and follow me,” he concludes that “Denial of self does not mean an elimination of self but a reordering of priorities in which self needs are last and the needs of Christ’s ministry are first.” Taking up one’s cross daily implies intentionally accepting burdens not of our own making, and following Jesus usually “has nothing to do with martyrdom and everything to do with obedience to God’s will for us.”
“There are things I wish Jesus hadn’t said, not because they are hard, but because they are easy and allow us wiggle room with the hard sayings,” Morris writes. “They are easily ripped from context, manipulated and distorted to allow excuses for behavior denounced in Jesus’ tough sayings.”
One of those is Christ’s admonition, having encountered people unwelcoming of the gospel, to “shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.” Morris concludes that it is not a ritual abandonment or disdainment of such people but rather a “sacrament of failure” that recognizes the limits of time and geography on evangelism.
“Jesus gave the Disciples a simple ritual to perform. It was not to be done in anger,” he writes. “They had made their best effort and the rest was in God’s hands.”
When people criticized a woman’s anointing of Jesus with costly perfume as wasteful when it could have been sold for the benefit of the poor, Jesus countered, “The poor you will always have with you.”
Those words “are used as an excuse for not helping the poor, to reduce or eliminate programs for the needy,” Morris writes. “The key message of the passage, the one intended by its authors … is the extravagance of love and adoration of the deity.”
Then there’s Jesus’ statement, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” – sometimes used as a justification for conflicts ranging from interpersonal to international.
Morris says the statement underscores Jesus’ sense of urgency in calling people to redemption.
“The sword becomes an eschatological symbol of decision that cuts through people’s lives, their families,” he writes. “Trust supersedes harmony and peace. The kingdom of God is ultimate. Strife will come before it is established.”
Another “easy saying” of Jesus is “Ask and it shall be given to you.”
“Jesus did not make a mistake,” Morris writes, asserting that the statement is not intended literally.
“To pray with the belief we are going to get what we request … diminishes God, yanks him out of heaven and reduces him to an earthly plane,” he writes.
Rather, Morris adds, “To ask, to seek and to knock are exploratory petitionary prayers within the grand context of God’s will. … God always answers our prayers, but in love and according to his wisdom, not ours.”
The final exploration in “Things I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said” is the familiar instruction for Communion – “Do this in remembrance of me” – which had hit Morris as too passive a response to such profound symbolism. He reconciles it by understanding it from its connection to the Passover.
“For Jews, Passover is not a memorial to recall a distant event that occurred millennia ago. Memory is involved, but Passover is not a happening Jews ‘remember.’ It is a reoccurrence, a present actuality,” he writes. “When Jesus says ‘do this in remembrance of me,’ he is a Jew speaking, not a Greek. … He is saying that in the partaking of the elements of bread and wine the moment is transformed, the last supper is happening again; he is present again.”
Trestle Press recently released “Things I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said” in digital form on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, and within two days the $4.99 e-book had become a Kindle Bestseller. The hardback of “Things I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said,” expected to be about 175 pages, will hit stores next month, including Gumtree Books in Tupelo.
An early-morning writer for two decades, Morris’ previous works include the historical novel “Land Where My Fathers Died” and a legal text on jury selection, among others, and the 10 passages he addressed in “Things I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said” do not begin to exhaust his reserve of troublesome scriptures. Other ongoing writing projects and his practice keep him busy, but penning a sequel isn’t out of the question.
“I’ve got to get all these books out of the way before I can get to something else,” he said, “but I could very well do that.”