When reading the Bible, especially the words of Jesus, have you ever wondered why Jesus did not speak more plainly? He was a man of few words, and I often find myself wishing for more words from him—more detail, more explanation. Only a part of the problem is the brevity of Jesus’ remarks. Part of it is an assumption of knowledge on the part of his listeners. Jesus is building on a foundation, and he expects the people standing around him to be acquainted with the scriptures.
Part of our modern problem, too, is that we have a lot of preconceived opinions about what Jesus said, and when we encounter something in his words that doesn’t match that opinion, we get confused. More often than not, we dismiss what we just read or reinterpret it to fit the model we have always believed. The result is sure to be imperfect understanding of Jesus and his words.
Another part of our problem is that Jesus spoke in the idiom of the time, and some of that idiom is lost on the translators. An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual grammatical rules of a language or from the usual meanings of its constituent elements. For example, try translating someone
kicking the bucket into another language. There are a number of idioms in the New Testament, and translators do their best with them, but they drive the literalists crazy. Another reason why Jesus often seems obscure is that he was positively curt with the religious establishment of the time. Let’s examine an interesting example of this, found in Matthew 12.