Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). These verses claim the way of Jesus is easy. Then come Jesus’ words, “Any one of you who looks at another lustfully has already committed adultery… if you say, ‘You fool,’ (to anyone), you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:28, 22). These verses maintain the way of Jesus is exceedingly difficult. So Jesus’ way is paradoxical in nature—both easy and difficult.
Jesus’ sayings are paradoxical and multi-layered—“the first will be last,” “turn the other cheek,” “whoever is innocent should be the first to cast a stone” (Matthew 20: 16b, Matthew 5:39, John 8:7). Then we arrive at the essence of paradox: “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Throughout the parables the paradoxical teachings continue: Give to receive. Die to live. Lose to win. Paul mirrors Jesus’ paradoxes when he exclaims, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Many authors have pointed out the parables are paradoxical riddles. A couple of major examples suffice… In the parable of the prodigal son, the Jew (the chosen one) becomes the victim and the Samaritan (the despicable one) becomes the hero. In the parable of the lost sheep, the individual is the concern and the crowd is ignored. The person ignored by the crowd is suddenly all in all. And the all important crowd is of little consequence. Forget the opinion polls and popularity contests. The lone individual, sitting in a jail cell or on a cross, is God’s ultimate concern. This isn’t the world we’re accustomed to. In the paradoxical world of the parables the loafers are treated with the same largess as the diligent workers, the riff-raff get the best seats in the house and the rich are sent away empty, the speck of a town called Nazareth in an insignificant province called Galilee trumps Rome.
Many ministers and New Testament teachers avoid Jesus’ paradoxical teachings. Many prefer Paul’s straightforward approach. Yet Paul wasn’t God incarnate. Jesus was. And Jesus taught paradox because that’s where the transformational power is.