I’ve been writing a lot of daily devotionals this year (for three different denominations!) and delving deeply into the gospel stories as a result. Last week I began an Advent series on how Jesus’ messages are challenging for those who hear and seek to follow him. Today I’m reflecting on how situational his messages are. Christians tend to read the gospels and believe that his teachings are universal, but he really tailors them to his audience, and even to individuals.

Consider, for example, these two stories. In Mark 10:17–22, a rich young man comes and asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus replies that he should obey all the commandments, and the man earnestly responds that he does. Jesus then tells him to sell everything and follow him. This shocks and upsets the man, because he has accumulated a lot of possessions. (Living in a consumer-focused society, we need to pay close attention here!) The man goes away grieving because he can’t imagine making such a radical change in his life.

In the second story, a man has been possessed by demons for many years. Jesus encounters and heals him, and the man’s response is to beg Jesus (yes, beg!) to be able to join his disciples and follow him. But Jesus refuses. Instead, he instructs the man to return home and bear witness to his friends and family about what God has done in his life. For someone who has recently been restrained by those same people with shackles and chains, this also is a radical change. This man, in contrast to the first, is willing to make that radical change—and people are amazed with the transformative story he tells.

In the first case, Jesus instructs someone to follow him, and they won’t. In the second case, someone wants to follow him, and Jesus won’t let him. Each situation is different.

Jesus doesn’t limit these situational teachings to individuals. In his parables and actions, he instructs different groups of people to act differently. Consider his relationship with the law. He heals on the sabbath, allows disciples to pick grain on the sabbath, and even praises a dishonest manager (who puts relationships before profit—another thing we in the Western world could benefit from doing!). Yet, he also chastises hypocritical religious leaders for tithing the smallest herbs but neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” He even says, “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

So, what are we to make of all this today? I believe we need to treat each situation differently too. This can be a lot harder than wholeheartedly and blindly obeying everything we read in the Bible. If we take the situational view, we understand that “slaves, obey your masters” was written for people in a culture that owned slaves, rather than a comprehensive declaration that slavery is acceptable. From a situational perspective, we also realize we need to be less focused on our possessions and bank account balances, and more focused on cultivating healthy relationships with the people in our lives. (I’m reminded of a saying that’s making the rounds: Love People. Use Things. The Opposite Never Works.)

In this Advent season, how are you called to take a situational perspective to Jesus’ teachings? Which situations seem to speak directly to your circumstances, and which are for others?

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