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Order of Operations
The Rich Complexity in the Stories of Jesus
I wonder how preacher Charles Sheldon’s Kansas congregation reacted when he first began using the cliffhanger question “What Would Jesus Do?” to end his weekly sermons in the late 1890s. I don’t know whether the innovation made a measurable difference in the lives of many of his followers, but his now-famous rhetorical question had a big impact on his own life. Sheldon was soon preaching to packed crowds, and his novel popularizing the question became one of the best-selling books of all time.
Since the idea’s revival in the 1990s, we see it referenced on many a bumper sticker and wrist band. I wasn’t certain why “What would Jesus do?” had never fired my own imagination, but the question didn’t seem like a tool I could use. The more I thought about it, the more it went from being a limited idea to a potentially problematic or even a dangerous one.
We can acknowledge that the question will not have a definitive answer. But simply granting the premise that someone can predict what Jesus would do can be a problem on its own. The Dunning-Kruger effect posits that those of us who are least insightful, who are unaware of our lack of understanding, tend to overestimate our abilities, which in this case would be knowing what Jesus would do. I’ve seen it foster an overly simplistic view of the world and our place in it, as well as of the gospel. If we combine our unwarranted confidence that we understand Jesus and what he would do with some convenient lapses of memory about our own challenges and shortcomings, we can position ourselves to be judgmental and intolerant of others whose lives don’t look like ours.
Here’s what that can look like: believing that we can know exactly what Jesus would do, we begin to feel that we know him very well, which leads us by extension to the idea that he’s a lot like us. Such assumptions put us at risk of thinking that given our closeness he’s likely to approve of our own actions and views, including our opinions of other people and their weaknesses and faulty notions. And in that direction we find the likes of Westboro Baptist Church and their protest signs confidently asserting that God Hates Fags. The climb back up from such thinking is both unlikely and long.
I’m not going to wage a campaign to prevent anyone speculating about what Jesus would do, but I think spending energy examining what we’ve been told that he did do is more productive. For me, doing that effectively means trying out some unconventional approaches: working to get past the preconceptions I’ve developed through long familiarity; studying his actions not only for what they were, but for what they were not; thinking about how they fit into a sequence of choices, and whether they were part of a larger pattern. Developing better questions about the life and teachings of Jesus can lead to a more nuanced understanding of both the gospel and our place in the communities we’re part of.
Let’s look at the account of the woman taken in adultery described in John 8. In the King James Version, archaic language presents an outcome that is both known and anticlimactic. To shake myself out of the same old reading, I first begin with another translation, and then try to imagine myself there. I picture someone pushing forward to get a better look at the woman at the center. I wonder whether the people in the crowd already hold rocks in their calloused hands.
Someone among the scribes and Pharisees tells Jesus that the woman has been caught in adultery, and reminds him that according to Moses the woman’s fate is decreed: death by stoning.
And Jesus is there, silent, drawing in the dust. When they continue to question him, he suggests that the one who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. Are there murmurs then? Mutterings? Eventually the crowd disperses, and Jesus and the woman exchange a few words:
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Everything that Jesus does in this setting is familiar to us. But because he has to manage competing priorities in a complex situation, there’s more here than what Jesus does. What does he refrain from doing? The record contains no account of him arguing with the Pharisees about whether Moses should have commanded death by stoning; he also doesn’t tell the woman that adultery is just fine.
Next, I’m interested in the order that Jesus chooses for his actions, and how order can influence outcomes. This isn’t usually what we mean when we speak of “the Lord’s timing,” but I’ve found it to be a potent idea.
We find a great illustration of this in a mathematical concept known as “order of operations.” When solving an equation, the various operations are computed in a set order. If you want to solve the equation 5 + 6 x 4, you might add the 5 and the 6, then multiply by 4, which yields an answer of 44. If, on the other hand, you multiply the 6 and the 4 first and then add the 5, the result is 29. (Here’s where we protest that math is not supposed to work that way!) To prevent the possibility of two different answers to the same question, we’re guided by the order of operations, represented by the initialism PEMDAS: first do anything inside parentheses, next handle exponents, then start on the left and do all the multiplication, then the division, and finally addition and subtraction. With 5 + 6 x 4, doing the multiplication first was the right thing to do. Critically, our sample equation is a case where getting the order wrong means getting the answer wrong.
Applying this idea to the story in John 8, we notice that there’s more to what Jesus does than the actions he takes—there’s the sequence of those actions, the way he prioritizes certain actions and holds back on others. Allegiance to the declaration that “Moses said to stone her!” is not his first concern. Christ is in the middle of a complicated situation involving the need to teach and foster the personal growth of many people at once. And his timing here is unexpected: he focuses on what he can do to call the would-be executioners to repentance before turning to extend compassion and guidance to the woman. By dealing with them first he creates the space for the powerful interaction that follows. And Christ’s assurance that he does not condemn her, first in importance, is the last thing to happen. The last shall be first.
In Mark 10 we read of Bartimaeus, a blind man who calls out to the Lord.
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more,
“Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.”
Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
From this account we learn that “fix the obvious problem” is not necessarily the first priority. Faced with a blind man begging on the side of the road who is calling for his help, Jesus first asks a question. He doesn’t muscle in to take charge of the life of a blind beggar, but listens to Bartimaeus, shows him respect, and asks him what help the man wants. It turns out that he wants what most people might have guessed, but Jesus doesn’t just do the obvious. The first thing he does is to honor the man’s dignity and agency, allowing Bartimaeus that moment to act, and not simply be acted upon.
Jesus also invites us to think about his timing, about which things get done, and when, through his telling of a parable. In Luke 15 we hear about a younger son who took the portion of his father’s money that was to be his, and went off to spend it in riotous living, until he had lost all.
When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Knowing how this story unfolds, we might look past elements of what is arguably a complicated situation. There are fraught family dynamics: issues of trust, of sibling rivalry, of parental responsibility and fairness. We can imagine neighbors and religious leaders that would think the father should immediately call his son to repentance, but in his telling, Christ signals his priorities. Apparently, “point out how stupid your wayward child has been” is not his first concern. It may not be the second or third. Perhaps it’s not necessary at all. The parable indicates that the priority is to rejoice, show forth an outpouring of love, to let this son know how deeply he was missed, how vastly he is loved, how happy the family is to see him and hold him close.
The father’s response to his returning son has always warmed me and filled me with joy and gratitude. But picture a contrasting scene: the son taking weary and perhaps hesitant steps as he nears his family’s estate, and in the distance, his father turning toward him for a long moment, then turning away, entering the house, and closing the door. We might picture the tension in both figures as they finally meet: does the father begin with chastisement, or with a show of cold tolerance? Does he start by rehearsing the many failures of the son, and move on to ultimatums, or to a decree of the terms that are to govern his reduced status in the family? We don’t know how events might have played out if the father had chosen recriminations rather than compassion. We don’t know not just because events didn’t happen that way—these events didn’t happen at all, but were put in the story by Christ to convey a message. And the central message I hear is the preeminence of all-encompassing love.
These New Testament stories remind me that no matter how often I come to the scriptures, they contain hidden lessons, elements that in their unexpectedness pull me towards wisdom. Seeing Jesus act in unpredictable ways reminds me that perhaps we overstate the simplicity of the gospel. It is one thing to assert that the gospel is simple in order to reassure people that living it is not beyond their abilities. But I think that sometimes there is a layer of warning that underlies the assertion of simplicity, that it’s not safe to explore beyond this well-defined path, that we’ve been told exactly what we ought to do in every circumstance, and ours is not to reason why. The gospel may well contain simple truths, but the way they fit together and their implications for real-life situations are not always a simple matter. The progress we make does not grow out of performing simple responses to a set of predictable scenarios.
I’m not advocating for complication for its own sake. But looking beyond the mark is not the only way to miss it. In our quest for simplicity we can unintentionally limit what we’re able to learn from a rich context designed to foster our becoming.
What would Jesus do? I’m still reluctant to venture an answer. But by re-examining his words and actions with fresh eyes, I’m learning to see complexity in situations where I hadn’t noticed it before. Paradoxically, that expanded view enriches my understanding of the simple truths of the gospel.
Lori Thompson Forsyth is a writer and freelance editor currently working on a Maxwell Institute series on the Doctrine and Covenants. She is Senior Editor of Wayfare.