by Johannes Hartl
Bold, plain, and sharp as a razor
These aren’t mere words. Socrates’ speech in his own defense at his trial in Athens remains an unforgettable document in favor of freedom of conscience – even after almost 2,500 years. Unforgotten also is Churchill’s “blood sweat and tears” speech, which infused new confidence into the demoralized English nation and focused them on victory over Hitler Germany – a victory they only gained five years later. Great orators don’t just utter fine words. Their words create something. Great orators have always fascinated me.
And actually it was the first thing that fascinated me about Jesus, when I was a teenager and had first started to read biblical texts for myself. Even though I had heard many parables or sayings of Jesus, this was my first experience with a whole book of the New Testament (it was Luke’s Gospel) and something struck me that I’d never seen in other great speakers. Really, the first thing that fascinated me about Jesus was his powerful use of words.
This observation may seem at first almost trite. To proclaim great words – any ad writer can do that. But everybody who knows about the power of language will start to listen for nuances. And with Jesus every nuance rings true. It begins with his parables and figures of speech. Even two thousand years later, everyone can understand what it means to build a house on sand or can imagine a debtor who would choke and threaten somebody who owes him much less, even though he himself has just been forgiven his own debt.
The greatness of a speaker is often revealed by the greatness of the images he uses – intuitive, vivid, stirring, and profound. And Jesus can also be poetic and full of deepest wisdom. Like when he speaks about the lilies of the field and the birds of the sky in a language whose simplicity is full of beauty and whose beauty is full of simplicity. And then again, his words are incredibly bold like the Beatitudes. In a few sentences – eight in all – Jesus can outline a complete reorientation of the whole world. Who else has ever dared to do this and still avoid inaccurate trivialities?
And Jesus can be razor sharp. Mercilessly he unmasks the hypocrisy of the scribes. Even his enemies were left speechless: “And no one was able to answer him a word, and from that day onward no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:46). Even bleeding and bound he reveals that there is no real power behind Pilate’s official power – the same Pilate who will sentence him to death. That’s fearlessness. The ones who were sent to arrest him came back empty-handed. And what did they report? The same as somebody who opens the New Testament expecting someone who ranks between ancient orators and modern politicians: “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46).
Harmony and Balance
Of course, there are lots of people who can utter great words. It’s said that the philosopher Max Scheler was once accused of not practicing what he preached. He replied by saying, roughly, that a finger that points at the moon, does not travel to the moon. The meaning? That you can speak the truth even if you yourself are not attesting it with your own life. And then there is the other extreme – those who let their actions speak louder than their words. They would prefer to do the good than talk about it. That also has greatness, but there is poverty when the spoken word is missing. And there is something compelling when there is resonance, balance, between words and life.
It’s exactly this balance which is so striking with Jesus. Which is more impressive, his words or his life? We could go even further. Was he focused more on God or on people? Did he live more actively toward the external or was he more internal and reflective? Wherever we look at Jesus’ life as the scripture recounts it, we encounter this captivating balance. Jesus the Jew. Jesus the revolutionary. Jesus the friend of the poor. That’s what he was called. Researchers found Pharisaic theology in him. They found Greek philosophy. They found apocalyptic thinking of the time. And they discovered secular practice.
Again and again there has been this attempt to limit Jesus to one of these aspects. But in Jesus there are all these – in such a way that from an inner integrity there is no belabored attempt to make sense of contradictions but instead a manifestation of an unfolding of spectrum of colors, a restful abundance. Not only is this true of his words and deeds, but also the person of Jesus himself is maintained by a symphony of proportions, a remarkable balance. Harmony, symmetry and integrity are essential traits of beauty. The nature of Jesus is beauty.
Not from others …
And in the end it was just a small sentence in John’s Gospel that brought me to be in awe of Jesus – how he made me horrified about my own heart. It was the simple sentence: “I do not receive my honor from men” (John 5:41). This sentence has a totality. It is so fundamental. For Jesus, the question does not arise about whether people agree with him, or how they evaluate him or whether they acknowledge him. Those are not an issue.
It’s interesting that Jesus does not claim that honor and appreciation are unnecessary. Everybody needs them. But Jesus has a different origin. How very different we are from him! We could fill books with all the activities we engage in just for the sake of receiving more appreciation from others. Whole markets evolve around products whose value derives solely from making the owner “seen,” praised, and acknowledged. What would life look like if a person took the radical approach of just doing what was right – what God approves of – and was completely unconcerned with what others thought of it?
Jesus led such a life – straightforward and uncompromising, but also humble. Because only the person who knows that he is seen and honored by God gains the inner freedom to serve. He gains the freedom to be humble and to serve without inner strain and without cheapening yourself. “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet” (John 13:3-5).
It’s Jesus’ gifted use of words which delighted me from early on. It was his balance which put me in awe of him. But it is his humility which brings me to my knees, and it’s the gift of his love even to the death, which brings me to tears.
In 2011 Ryan Thurman and Thomas Cogdell had a chance to visit Johannes Hartl and spend time in the Augsburg House of Prayer in Germany. To learn more about Johannes Hartl you can click this link