No saying of Jesus in the gospels is ‘easy.’ Our Savior’s commands to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and forgive those who wrong us seventy seven times are challenging, to say the least.
But there are some statements of our Lord that are particularly difficult, seemingly defying our ability to fathom them, much less follow them. These have tested the faith and understanding of Christians over the centuries. Here are some of these so-called ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus:
‘Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’
In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 12 and verse 31, there is a verse that has likely haunted anyone who reads it. Jesus says: Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. This is sounds almost scandalous to us because both Scripture and the Church teach that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven. Christian history certainly serves up many examples of seemingly unpardonable sins that were forgiven: Saul converted and became the Apostle Paul after the stoning of St. Stephen. The first anti-pope, St. Hippolytus, was later reconciled to Rome. And the men guilty of the brutal murder of St. Thomas Becket later repented and were given a crusade as penance.
But, in the above verse, Jesus seems to be saying that there is such a thing as an unforgivable sin. What are we to make of us? Doctors of the Church have always understood this verse as referring to impenitence—the absence of sorrow and the resulting refusal to seek forgiveness of sins. This impenitence is blasphemy against the third person of the Trinity because it is through the Holy Spirit that Christ forgives, according to St. Augustine. Such blasphemy could take other forms as well, according to medieval theologians: despair that one’s sins are greater than God’s goodness and mercy, presumption that one has earned forgiveness, persistence in deadly sin, and feigned repentance. The common thread is rejection of God’s forgiveness. In this context, Christ’s saying makes sense: it stands to reason that if one does not ask for forgiveness, one cannot receive it.
While this interpretation may come as a relief to us, it certainly doesn’t leave us off the hook. It should put a kind of renewed holy fear into our hearts as we approach the confessional: Are we truly sorry or are we going through the motions? Do we despair of forgiveness? Or, conversely, do we think we deserve forgiveness?
‘I came to bring a sword’
In John 14:27 Jesus says, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. But then in Matthew 10:14 we read: Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. So which is it? More disturbingly: In what possible way did Jesus come to bring a sword?
According to St. Jerome, the ‘sword’ was the division between believers and unbelievers: “For in the matter of belief in Christ, the whole world was divided against itself; each house had its believers and its unbelievers; and therefore was this holy war sent, that an unholy peace might be broken through.” Likewise, for St. Hilary, the sword symbolizes the authority of the gospel truth: “Mystically, a sword is the sharpest of all weapons, and thence it is the emblem of the right of authority, the impartiality of justice, the correction of offenders. The word of God, we may remember, is likened to a sword … so here the sword that is sent upon the earth is His preaching poured into the heart of man.”
The peace of Jesus, then, is not a peace that seeks to avoid conflict in order to please others, but a peace that rests in the truth, even if that should prove divisive. As Aquinas wrote in his commentary on Matthew: “So it must be said that there are two kinds of peace, namely, good and bad.” (This also explains what Jesus next says in the chapter—that He came to pit sons against their fathers and daughters against their mothers.)
‘Let the dead bury their own dead’
In Matthew 8:21, an unnamed disciple says he wants to follow Jesus but first asks leave to go bury his father. Jesus responds: Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead. This seems unduly harsh—to be sure, we must forsake all worldly attachments in following Christ, but did Jesus really want this would-be disciple to leave his father unburied? John Chrysostom explains: “This saying does not condemn natural affection to our parents, but shows that nothing ought to be more binding on us than the business of heaven; that to this we ought to apply ourselves with all our endeavors, and not to be slack, however necessary or urgent are the things that draw us aside. For what could be more necessary than to bury a father?” The radicalism of this saying is reinforced by the fact that the disciple remained with Jesus, according to Chrysostom: our calling to follow Christ is indeed more urgent than anything else in this world.
‘Gouge out your eye’
If skipping a parental burial is a steep price for discipleship, what Jesus says in Matthew 5:29 seems to push this ethos to masochistic extremes: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. In the next verse, Jesus says to do the same with your ‘right hand.’ Church Fathers have understood both the eye and the hand to be metaphors. For St. Augustine they symbolize contemplation and action. Another sees them as intention and desire. Either way, the Fathers take this verse to be a call to amputate sinful desires from our souls, a painful process, at least spiritually, if not physically. As if that wasn’t hard enough—just ask a former addict or alcoholic—we also are called to cut ourselves off from the outward circumstances that lead to sin. As Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary puts it: “Whatever is an immediate occasion of sin, however near or dear it may be, must be abandoned … though it prove as dear to us, or as necessary as a hand, or an eye, and without delay or demur.”
‘Renounce all your possessions’
We have all heard the story of the rich man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to obey the Ten Commandments, which the rich man says he has done. Jesus then replies: There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. This story underscores the radicalism of the gospel message when it comes to worldly things. Still, many of us probably think the story doesn’t apply to those of us who don’t own yachts and summer in the Hamptons. But then we run into this verse in Luke 14, where Jesus says: In the same way, everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. This is troubling to us—not only because of the call to renounce everything, but the statement that it’s a necessary condition to follow Jesus.
Venerable Bede offers this clarification: “But there is a difference between renouncing all things and leaving all things. For it is the way of few perfect men to leave all things, that is, to cast behind them the cares of the world, but it is the part of all the faithful to renounce all things, that is, so to hold the things of the world as by them not to be held in the world.” This clarification sharpens the challenge posed to us: Have we truly renounced all our possessions? In a sense, this is more difficult that merely ‘leaving’ all our possessions behind. The word renunciation it suggests an act of lasting consequence. We think of the person who ‘renounces’ his citizenship or the monarch who ‘renounces’ his throne—those are things you don’t go back on.
‘Eat My flesh and drink My blood’
The only place, at least in the Douay-Rheims Bible, where one of Jesus’ sayings is described as ‘hard’ is in John 6, where Jesus tells the disciples: Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Jesus said this before the Last Supper, before His crucifixion, before His resurrection. Before all those events, this was an indeed hard saying for the disciples. But is it hard for us today? It should be. The catechism teaches that in the Eucharist the Church unites herself to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. This teaching should shock us: it means that we mystically share in the sufferings of Christ on the Cross. Consider this prayer from St. Gemma Galgani:
Do grant, oh my God, that when my lips approach Yours to kiss You, I may taste the gall that was given to You; when my shoulders lean against Yours, make me feel Your scourging; when my flesh is united with Yours, in the Holy Eucharist, make me feel Your passion; when my head comes near Yours, make me feel Your thorns; when my heart is close to Yours, make me feel Your spear.
Note: Direct quotations from Scripture are taken from either the Douay-Rheims Bible or the New American Bible, Revised Edition.