The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

What are the most surprising things Jesus ever said?

If you take that to mean “Which of his words most astonished his apostles, disciples and followers?” the answer is: everything he said after Easter Sunday. Anything from the lips of someone who has been raised from the dead is bound to be a surprise.

But if you take that to mean — as I mean it here — “Which of his utterances still surprise us?” let me suggest three that still have the power to astonish even devout Christians.

1. “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

These may be the most astonishing of Jesus’ words in the entire New Testament. A woman who is not Jewish (often called the “Syrophoenician woman” or the “Canaanite woman”) approaches Jesus during a dinner. Kneeling before him, she pleads for healing for her daughter, who has an “unclean spirit,” which at the time meant that the daughter was actually possessed by a demon or was gravely ill. Jesus answers with sharp words which by any measure are highly insulting — whether in the first century or today. Jesus seems to be comparing the woman and her daughter, or her people, to dogs.

I know of no other passage that has the power to shock people accustomed to thinking of Jesus as always and everywhere mild.

Undeterred, the woman responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Hearing this, Jesus seems to soften and says, “For saying that you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”

Why did Jesus speak to her like this? Was he testing her faith in a blunt way? If so, it’s at odds with the compassionate Jesus we meet elsewhere in the Gospels. Earlier, Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus went into the house and “did not want anyone to know he was there.” So perhaps the fully human Jesus was simply tired.

But there is another possibility: Jesus learned something from her. The woman challenged Jesus to recognize that his ministry would extend beyond the Jewish people. Whatever the reasons, I know of no other passage that has the power to shock people accustomed to thinking of Jesus as always and everywhere mild.

2. If you call someone a name, you’re going to hell.

Admittedly, this is a paraphrase of Jesus’s actual words. But it is an accurate one. In a sentence almost universally overlooked by modern-day Christians, Jesus says, “If you call your brother raca [idiot], you will be liable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says ‘fool’ will be liable to the fires of Gehenna.”

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Read more on Jesus in James Martin’s new book.

New Testament scholars say that when the Gospels preserve Aramaic words, we can be almost 100% sure they came directly from the lips of Jesus and were not added in the later construction and editing of the Gospels. That is, the words themselves made such an impression on the original hearers that they remembered the precise Aramaic phrase and passed it along in oral retellings. Later, when the Gospels were written (several decades after Jesus’s time on earth), those words were carefully recorded by the evangelists — that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

In other words, the preservation of this Aramaic word for “idiot” means that it is one of the most historically authentic of Jesus’s sayings. Yet it may also be the most overlooked. Quite literally, Jesus says that if you call someone a bad name, you’ll be liable to either the Jewish council or, worse, the “fires of Gehenna.” Gehenna, the site outside Jerusalem’s city walls, where garbage burned incessantly, was the image Jesus often used for hell.

So from the lips of Jesus we have this injunction against trash-talking. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to call someone a jerk.

3. “Remove this cup.”

In other words, “I don’t want to die.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, after the Last Supper and before he is arrested by the soldiers, Jesus “falls to the ground” and utters this utterly human prayer to God the Father. This passage from the New Testament provides us a window into an intimate moment with Jesus as he contemplates his upcoming Passion.

Once Jesus realizes that it is the Father’s will that he die, he accepts his fate. But in his prayer in the Gethsemane, we are afforded a glimpse of a human being in distress. Some scholars have even translated “falls to the ground” as “collapsed.” To describe this moment, Luke uses the vivid word agonia.

[T]here is no pretense here, only honesty.

Knowledge of the local topography helps us to understand that at that moment, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus could easily have escaped by fleeing into the nearby Judean wilderness. (And his disciples would have probably applauded his eluding the authorities.) But, through prayer, Jesus realizes that is not the way set out for him. Yet, like any human being, he does not want to die.

Many of us think of Jesus as someone unmoved by such basic human instincts as the desire to stay alive, the desire to avoid pain, or even the desire to continue his work. But here we see the fully human one expressing fully human emotions. “Remove this cup” is often a surprise to those who tend to view Jesus as God pretending to be human. But there is no pretense here, only honesty.

Perhaps you already knew these three quotes. But if not, they may serve as a reminder that there is always something new in the Gospels to be discovered, no matter how many times we have read them. God, as the disciples would realize on Easter, is always a God of surprises.

Image via Shutterstock

James Martin SJ
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  • Dottiepark

    I am sooooo in trouble!

  • http://www.samuelmahaffy.com/ Samuel Mahaffy

    Beautifully written. I would add the injunction we love to overlook: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus stood pretty clearly against condemnation and we do a pretty poor job of following that injunction.

    • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

      Except the story that quote comes from is not authentic, it was entirely fabricated and added on in a later manuscript then copied from there. It’s a nice quote, but not jesus’ words.

      • Sean

        And W. Maxwell was there, so knock it off, folks.

        • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

          By comparing the older copies to the newer ones, there’s a clear point in time that this story is suddenly written in by one of the scribes who was copying by hand. From there as that altered manuscript continued being copied the story stayed in, and by the time the gospels had been codified (popular gospels selected to be in the bible and unpopular ones tossed out) the story was in.

          This is how we know the story is not authentic, though even if I had been alive back then my testimony as an eyewitness would be just as worthless as anyone else’s, since eyewitness testimony is an incredibly weak form of evidence.

          • http://www.samuelmahaffy.com/ Samuel Mahaffy

            Setting aside an historical critique of whether the words were actually spoken by Jesus–“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”–it is a deep and profound truth of the Gospels that Jesus stood with those who were the most outcast in the society of his day–the lepers, the tax collectors and those judged by the Pharisees to be among the greatest of sinners. We miss the import and the importance of the Gospel if we do not ask what that message means for us today. The compelling question must be “who are the outcasts in our society and how does the Gospel call us to respond to them?” The call to mercy and compassion in the Gospels echoes the Old Testament call–i.e. in Micah–to seek justice and to walk humbly with our God. If we take this out of the Christian faith it becomes a sham, in my perspective. It is no longer ‘good news’ if the prisoners are not being set free, the lame made to walk, the sinners and transgressors forgiven. Let us celebrate that Good News on this Easter day.

          • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

            The selection of wisdom from a holy book is a separate topic than whether the depictions in the holy book are real or mythical. Myths can contain wisdom without being real, though I don’t think christianity has much of either. I would say that christianity becomes a sham when read plainly as presented in the bible, it takes spin-doctoring or selective reading to sock-puppet it into saying wise things.

    • Sean

      Overlooked??? That citation, used completely out of context, was quoted almost daily by one media talking head after another during the two years the citizens of the US had to endure Bill and Hillary Clinton lying, his being impeached, and, eventually, losing his right to practice as a lawyer in his home state for perjury.
      “Judge not lest ye be judged” remains a shibboleth of the Left in response to anything one of their favorites do when they violate common decency.

  • TapestryGarden

    I knew them but I definitely didn’t understand the context, particularly of the first two.

  • carlos

    I’ve always wondered how the Gospel writers knew what Jesus did and said when he was alone at the Garden.

    • drrabbit

      He was not alone in the Garden. Three of his disciples including one who would write a gospel and one who would tell the story to one who wrote one were with him where he went to pray. While they did fall asleep, they were not asleep the whole time.

      • carlos

        Thanks for this clarification.

      • Tom from North Carolina

        And yet the bible says he was alone.

        • drrabbit

          One–someone can be ‘alone’ in a crowd. Two–we would have to look at the words in Greek, not the English translation to understand the meaning of each word well. Three–He spent 40 days after the resurrection appearing to His Disciples (as many as 500 at one time). Most of those are not recorded as to what He said. This information could have been in one of the conversation–we would never know. Four–The gospels are written under divine inspiration. No one was an eyewitness to the creation and, while we don’t read that part of Genesis as literal science since it was never intended to be, we consider there to be truths in both stories of creation. (ie–God made the physical world including space and time, creation–including us–is good, we had original parents that sinned, God promised redemption from the beginning, redemption would come from the seed of the woman, etc.)

          • Tom from North Carolina

            Try reading Misquoting Jesus for an indication of how inaccurate the new testament is. The author is a biblical scholar and did try to interpret the Greek and Aramaic segments. Not only are all uncovered sections incomplete but there is no way to determine which ones are closer to the originals since no original texts have been found.

            Another problem is that copying was error prone since they were often copied by people who we would consider illiterate today being unable to read their copied work.

            And then there are those copiers who felt compelled to improve the stories either by improving the message or by trying to clarify the wording. To illustrate, look no further than the beginning of the resurrection story. It is replete with contradictions among the gospels. A sampling of just the very beginning follows.
            1. Matthew 28:1 states two women (Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary) came to the tomb; Mark 16:1 states it was three women (Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome); Luke 24:10 agrees it was three women but gives a different list of three than Mark (Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James); John 20:1 states it was only Mary Magdalene.

            2. Mark 16:2 states “the sun had risen” at the time of this visit, while John 20:1 states “it was still dark.”

            3. Matthew 28:2 says “an angel” “came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it”; Mark 16:5 says the women encountered “a young man sitting at the right” of the tomb (rather than upon the stone); Luke 24:4 says they saw “two men” who “suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing”; in John 20:1, Mary Magdalene saw nothing other than a moved stone.

            Most apologists I know are forced to pick and choose what sections are accurate and which can be ignored. My conclusion is it’s a work of fiction with a few moral lessons.

          • JESUS_CHRIST_LIVES

            Your objection is noted.

          • drrabbit

            The best way to understand the nuances of the ancient Greek and Hebrew scriptures is to read the writings of those who spoke it fluently and lived in those cultures. People like Irenaeus of Lyon (died 202), Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107), Justin Martyr (d. 165), Origen (d. 252), Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), Jerome (d. 420), and Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) had reason to know the nuances.
            The variation in the testimonies are typical of eye witness accounts. None of these men of course were sitting outside tomb with pad and pencil in hand taking notes. But none of the accounts really contradict each other. The stone may have been to the right of the tomb. Just because a gospel says that a certain women went to the tomb, it does not mean that she was alone.
            The difference in light and dark on any given morning is 15 minutes but John would have written that the morning started in darkness regardless. Throughout his gospel he has the theme of emphasizing re-creation. Just as creation started on the “first day of the week” and in darkness, so does this day of new creation.
            There is no historical event from 2000 years ago that is so well documented by so many different accounts.
            But you can chose to only believe what details are identical in all four gospels. The tomb was empty.

          • Tom from North Carolina

            But you can chose to only believe what details are identical in all four gospels. The tomb was empty.

            Or you can attempt to be objective recognizing that no detail can be believed since so many others contradict each other. Since there’s disagreement as to who they were talking with – was it Jesus or an angel – it seems that the most likely explanation for an empty tomb, even if there was an empty tomb, is that someone moved the body or it was never in that tomb in the first place.

          • drrabbit

            No two eyewitness accounts ever match. Trust me, I try to get histories from care-givers. And any policeman can also tell you that. There will always be variations. But none of the explanations explain the rise of Christianity historically. No one dies a horrid death for a lie about a dead man whom they know is dead.

          • Tom from North Carolina

            Really? So no one died for Zeus, Odin, Jupiter or any of the thousands of other mystical gods? I disagree. In fact, haven’t there been relatively recent occasions of people in mass, committing suicide with the full confidence of eternal life? Remember the Hale Bopp comet and the 38 people who committed suicide in the 1990’s? The idea that people people die in the name of really stupid beliefs is only slightly less common than the number of people who commit awful acts in the name of stupid, many times, religious beliefs.

            And aren’t you making my point for me when you claim eyewitness accounts are unreliable? If your point about policemen claiming current eyewitness accounts are unreliable why in the world would you think that eyewitness accounts passed down by word of mouth for a few hundred years, enhanced and exaggerated in the retelling, then copied by hand for hundreds of years more, each introducing their own mistakes or “spin” would resemble at all what really happened?

          • drrabbit

            The Heaven’s Gate group was basically just a rehash of Gnosticism. People die for many reasons including things that they think is true but are not 100% sure but those who saw Christ and died for Him rather than repudiate were not dying for something they had heard and believed but something they had seen and believed. The eye-witnesses numbered more than 500. To tell the truth, I, personally, do not believe in God because of the bible or because of any miracle that has or has not happened.

          • Tom from North Carolina

            Just like many people die for what they “believe” to be true, many people believe for no other reason than that’s how they were brought up or because they want to believe. It’s like the conspiracy emails I get from my conservative friends. They make the most outrageous statements, mostly about president Obama, and pass them on because they don’t bother investigating And because they want to believe them.

            Why to you believe?

          • drrabbit

            It is difficult to explain/understand unless one has received the grace of the sacraments. The best way I can express it is that I know Him. And because I know Him, who is love, I believe. (The internet is the most difficult place for this type of discussion because I cannot express emotions well.) But joy is a flowing thing in my life to the point that even suffering has been a great source of joy. I understand that one cannot love without sacrifice and have the wisdom to know that the opposite of true love is selfishness. I can honestly say that I only wish the best for you Tom. May God bless you now and always. You will continue to be in my prayers. :)

          • Tom from North Carolina

            Your comment is so well said and so genuine that it needs no reply from me. Although my faith journey has taken me somewhere else with an amazing amount of joy, I’m glad god has brought comfort and joy to your life.

          • drrabbit

            I did not say that eyewitness accounts were unreliable. But they do vary. Sometimes it is because of the point of view or point of telling.

          • Tom from North Carolina

            I would classify eyewitness accounts that differ substantially to be unreliable. Certainly a police officer who had 4 eyewitness accounts identifying the same people doing the same things would be far more credible than if those same people couldn’t agree on who was there, who they saw and what was said. The latter is what reading the bible as an accurate historical rendition is like. It’s not accurate.

          • Tom from North Carolina

            There is no historical event from 2000 years ago that is so well documented by so many different accounts.

            And yet those accounts are simply altered copies of each other. Generally, bible scholars have concluded that three gospels are based on Mark’s. One would expect them to be very similar. But outside of Christian accounts who obviously had an agenda to spread the word, corroboration is sorely lacking. None of the miracles described in the bible appear in non-christian writings.

          • drrabbit

            So you want to believe in miracles that are in non-Christian sources? Then I assume that you believe in the “miracle of the sun” at Fatima. The communist newspapers in Portugal sent reporters to cover event to prove that it was false. They ended up reporting the miracle’s occurrence–documenting it in eyewitness accounts of the reporters themselves.

          • Tom from North Carolina

            I would check your facts before concluding a miracle unless you are predisposed to want to see one. For example, there were no communist newspapers in 1917 since the communist party was not founded in Portugal until 1921. The people of Portugal at that time were primarily catholic, not particularly objective when it comes to recognizing miracles as evidenced by the 2 most recent saints. In fact, the catholic church even declared it a miracle in 1930. Again religious people corroborating each other’s stories is simply not believable.

            Now that nearly everyone has a cellphone with a camera, I suspect we will hear about far fewer close encounters of a third kind, far fewer stories about big foot and far fewer claims of miracles.

          • drrabbit

            Sorry it was the secular Anti-Catholic government-run newspaper in the 1917. The secular government took over in a revolution about 1910. Of course the Atheist have frequently been invited to examine certain relics such as the shroud of Turin and are included on the committees of the Catholic Church that looks into miracles. Of course many have ended up giving up Atheism and becoming believers but they were at least Atheists when they were invited to join those groups.

          • Tom from North Carolina

            You aren’t claiming the shroud of Turin was from Jesus’ time are you? That’s been definitively shown to be from medieval times.

            And sun miracles like those in 1917 are fairly common. Try staring at the sun for just a few minutes and the after images from your eyes will appear as a dancing son. Neither this sun miracle or the ones in Denver and Georgia in the 1990s are particularly believable nor particularly miraculous.

          • drrabbit

            No the Shroud of Turin has never been declared authentic.

          • Tom from North Carolina

            So what point where you trying to make regarding the Shroud of Turin?

        • JESUS_CHRIST_LIVES

          Jesus prayed alone.

  • Bagbabe53

    Re: dogs comment, we went over this in a class I took in my parish. I always took it as a test of faith as if Jesus was thinking, “let’s see how far she’s willing to go for her child; let’s test her faith in Me a bit.” Re: the garden, Jesus showed his human side; most people don’t want to die, plus he was understandably depressed in His human side over a number of things…yet He still rose from the dead a few days later. Will definitely remember the Gehenna thing in the future!

  • SisterMaryAlt

    I’m so glad you wrote about this! I have always loved the story of the Canaanite woman and her quick response. I do think Jesus was tired and cranky and learned from her. I think he had a sense of humor and admired hers. Now, why did he kill that fig tree?

    • Sean

      Always, Sister? Or just from the year 2000, when the “Jesus” miniseries with Jeremy Sisto posited the idea that Jesus learned all his important teachings from women?

  • Mary Lee

    When my children started fighting and name calling, I always used that quote from Our Lord about Fool and the fires of Gehenna. Worked like a charm (at least for the name calling).

  • Ellie

    I don’t think it was the Father’s will that Jesus be executed. Often bad things happen to good people, and God does not intervene. That does not mean that God wills these things to happen.

    • Sean

      An intriguing idea, Ellie, except that it kicks the guts out of the entire reason for Christian belief, negates both Old And New Testaments and relegates God the Father to the status of Zeus or Jupiter – a magnified version of human strength but with the same human passions and foibles which are too often our downfall. It’s as though you believe that God “has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man” but you then deny Him the divine ability of omniscience and so create a god of comic book proportions, much as the Greeks, Romans and Norse did.
      If you read a bit more deeply into both Old and New Testaments, Ellie, you’ll see that Jesus and His sacrifice were prophesied in both word and deed; there are many prophesies, for instance, which predict the holy Eucharistic Sacrifice of Jesus. In the New Testament, the Fathers of the Church see one of many implications by Jesus to the Holy Eucharist in the Syro-Phoenician woman’s reply, “The dogs under the table eat the crumbs of the children’s food.” Sts Cyprian and Augustine complement each other in saying that the Jews are the children and that the Gentiles are the dogs. The Jews were first offered the Holy Eucharist and the Gentiles still obtain the crumbs, “But each Crumb is more precious than gold.”

  • Jon Humphries

    Great post. I got myself in trouble, or at least upset people when I spokenon syrophonecian woman passage a few weeks ago and suggested that Jesus’ comments, although very out of character, were possibly sexist or racist. Earlier in the text he had healed the servant of a Roman centurion. He had healed a woman who touched him. So this passage is doubly confusing. The woman clearly showed both great faith and courage to break cultural and religious taboos to approach an unknown man outside her culture and faith. So to be ignored, rejected on race/religion and then deeply insulted with the dog reference and to persist is amazing.

    Why Jesus hassles her seems, when you probe it, to be based on his prejudice against the people of Tyre and Sidon. The woman showed faith more than others and yet Jesus pushed her harder than others. The ‘test her faith ‘interpretation seems week given he didn’t test others and the woman demonstrated so much faith in just approaching. It just seems he just falls short of grace until he changes his mind.

    So out of character and inconsistent. With other stories. Thus it is so surprising.

    • JESUS_CHRIST_LIVES

      Jon,
      Only in post-modern America can one call Jesus Christ “sexist” or “racist” because he used the word, “dog”. I suggest that Jesus talked to the woman the way He did for a very good reason – she was tenacious! Matthew says she “kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter”. My own dog, a sweet little beagle, will get under my feet when I am fixing some food that she really likes. I really can’t get her to leave me alone! The only way to get her to back off, short of throwing her outside, is to give her a little taste. Then she is satisfied for the moment.

      First, Jesus’ ministry was devoted to bringing salvation to the Jews. The Syrophonecian woman was not Jewish at all. She was a person who loved her child deeply, and was looking for anyone, anything, that could heal her daughter, and perhaps thought of Jesus as a magician, not the Savior of the Jews and the Gentiles. Yet she believed He could do what no one else could do. She was tenacious as well, making her way up to Him, falling at his feet, continually asking Him to heal her daughter. which could not have been easy. I imagine people were trying to pull her away, and I imagine that she fought them. Second, since the main focus of His ministry was the Jews, He would “feed” them first. Anything he did for the Gentiles during His ministry would be incidental. But the woman recognized that even the “little dogs”, the Gentiles, like my beagle, often times get “crumbs” from the children’s table; i.e., the left overs. That is enough to satisfy them in God’s economy.

      So stop trying to equate an offensive statement to Jesus! Only in our current culture would one ascribe a derogatory meaning to what Jesus said in this context.

  • Jon Humphries

    The other surprising thing is when Jesus misquoted the shema to say that we should live God with all our heart, strength and MIND. To take such a significant verse for Jewish people who literally write it on their door posts, and strap it to the arms and foreheads when they pray it morning and night was a bold statement and the change would not have gone unnoticed and clearly made a point that reinforced his modus operandi .

    • Sean

      Jon, Jesus didn’t misquote.
      First off, Jewish translations and paraphrased manuscripts (“targum” is the Hebrew word for “a paraphrase”) abounded in the 1st century AD.
      Secondly, Jewish Scripture did not crystalize into a “Canon” until the end of the 1st century AD, mostly as a defensive response to Christian claims regarding the divniity of Jesus. If you look at the short letter of Jude, you will find reference to “The Assumption of Moses”, “The Book of Enoch”, and “The Book of Jubilees”, none of which made the final cut in either Jewish or Christian canons. They were, however, still regarded as Scripture by many Jews in the 1st century, the concept of “scripture” being a lot more fluid than today.

  • Mikebert

    I did not recall the story about children and dogs. I looked it up (Matt: 15:21-28)

    A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and
    suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

    The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

    I see nothing startling about this at all. As I see it, put into modern terms, we have the equivalent of an illegal alien asking for free healthcare through Medicaid. Jesus responds that Medicaid is for American citizens. The alien insists, saying her daughter could die without it. Jesus responds that it is not right that taxpayer funds* allocated for Americans be spent on non-Americans. She then pushes further asserting her belief that Jesus could grant her this boon if he so chose. Jesus then relented and the woman was enrolled.

    On what Authority did Jesus override the will of Congress and the people?** That Jesus (or as he dubbed himself, the Son of Man) has this Authority was demonstrated over and over by the miracles Jesus worked. Jesus made an extraordinary claim and backed it up with extraordinary proof in the form of miracles. We cannot know directly whether any of this actual happened, but we do know that shortly after Jesus’s death many of his followers were convinced that Jesus indeed had this authority and that this notion was steadily accepted by more and more people until it conquered an Empire. This sequence of events is extraordinary evidence in favor of the power of Jesus’s message, even if nobody was ever completely sure exactly what it was. Such a power message must have had an origin in powerful experiences witnesses by those who knew him, but none of the other preachers like him at the same time ever amounted to anything, even those (e.g. the Eqyptian”) who made a more impressive splash than Jesus.

    *Here the taxpayer funds represent God’s favor, which was reserved exclusively for the *Chosen* people..
    **Here Congress and the people refer to centuries of tradition as recorded in the Scriptures.

    • Tom from North Carolina

      Because primitive people succumbed to rumors and fictionalized stories doesn’t make it the truth. There is no evidence of miracles.