S E R I O U S L Y
B U T N O T
L I T E R A L L Y
Dr. Robert R. Ball
September 19, 1971
S E R I O U S L Y
B U T N O T
L I T E R A L L Y
Dr. Robert R. Ball
Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church
Houston, Texas * September 19, 1971
” Every one then who hears these words of mine
and does them will be like a wise man who built
his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, the floods
came, and the wind blew and beat upon the house,
but it did not fall, because it had been founded upon
the rock. And every one who hears these words of
mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man
who built his house upon the sand; and the rains fell,
and the floods came, and the wind blew and beat
against that house, and it fell;
and great was the fall of it.”
–Matthew 7:24-27 (RSV)
THE title of this sermon represents what is to me one of the
most intriguing insights that has recently come my way. If we really
want to understand what people are saying to us, we need to take
what they say seriously but not literally. Too often we do just the
Let me try to explain what I mean by beginning at a very simple
and obvious level. I doubt that there is a parent anywhere who has
not at some time or another become absolutely furious with his
child who was taking him literally but not seriously. The child might
say, “You just told me to check and see if the dog had been fed.
I did and he hadn’t. How was I supposed to know you wanted me
to feed him?” Or the child, an hour late for supper, “Yes, I heard
you say that I should call if I was going to be late, and I did call but
the line was busy. Is that my fault?”It makes me think of the girl who
said to her date, “My mother said she would worry if I let you kiss
me on our first date, so I’ll kiss you and let your mother worry.”
These are examples of being taken literally but not seriously. It
makes me furious when people use our literal words as an excuse
for misunderstanding our meaning.
What may not be so obvious but even more destructive is
when parents do the same thing to their children, and I suspect
that it happens just as often. When a small child says to his
mother, “I hate you.” He doesn’t by that all the horrible things that
the word “hate” suggests in his mother’s mind. But he is serious!
He means that at that moment he is just about as unhappy as he
can be that he has to go to bed, or whatever, and she is the one
who is making him do it. He also means, however, that he trusts
her very much. He is willing to trust his negative feelings to her
without fear that she will quit loving him. If the mother reacts by
telling him that he is such a bad boy for saying such a horrible
thing to her, the child is likely to pull back into his shell. Something
important will have gone out of the relationship. He will be less
willing to trust his real self to her in the future.
IN most cases, it seems to me, taking a person literally is a
refusal to take him seriously – a refusal to deal with the real
meaning he is trying to communicate. Take, for example, the
young people of our day who are trying to say to us, “Everything
about democracy and the free enterprise system stinks.”
We have pretty good evidence that they don’t mean that
literally. Most of them are quite willing to make use of such
portions of the system as are agreeable to their needs – like cars
and fancy electronic equipment and parents with money to bail
them out. And yet, even though we know that what they say is not
precisely what they mean, our tendency is to take them literally – to
throw their words back in their faces, to become defensive, and to
condemn them for their ungrateful inconsistency. All this achieves
is to make them more rigid and more radical.
If we were to take them seriously but not literally, then I
suggest we would hear them saying that there are things about the
present system that make them feel unnecessary and
unappreciated. We could understand that. There are times when
we feel that way ourselves. Working WITH our young people, we
could begin the construction of a better system. We get furious
when they refuse to listen to us and to take us seriously. How do
we take them – literally or seriously?
It happens in all our relationships. Certainly, husbands and
wives know what it is to throw each other’s words back and forth –
with NO communication.
* By being literal, we give ourselves the illusion that we are taking
people seriously. . . “But you said…” Actually, we are only
dealing with them in a surface sort of way.
* It is easier to receive people’s words than it is their meanings.
To understand their meanings makes us feel responsible and
frightened and vulnerable.
* To take people’s meanings seriously might require of us
more than we are willing to give – perhaps more than we
feel able to give.
* That’s why very often we turn away from a person in
deep sorrow. We feel so helpless; so, to protect
ourselves, we go around taking people literally but not
The result is that most of our relationships get pretty superficial.
They are so fragile that even routine storms of life threaten to
What we do to other people, we do to Jesus Christ – and for
exactly the same reason: to relieve ourselves of the responsibility
of dealing with him seriously. It is easier to argue about the literal
truth of the seven days of creation than it is to live as the sons of
God in a world which God has made.
The scriptures give us a perfect example of someone taking
Jesus literally in an effort to avoid taking him seriously. A man
once stood up and asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal
life. Jesus asked him what his reading of the Bible offered as an
answer to that question. The man knew his Bible and answered
“You shall love the Lord your God with all
your heart, and with all your soul, and with
all your strength, and with all your mind;
and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said, “That’s it! Do this and you will live.” But the man
was smart. He recognized that to take the commandments
seriously placed him under tremendous responsibility. He
wanted an out. So he went to work on a literal loophole – like we
look for in the income tax law. So he said to Jesus, “Be more
specific, Jesus. Just who is my neighbor?”
As we say today, Jesus saw the man coming. He wasn’t about
to let himself get trapped in an insidious word game. So Jesus
answered the question, not by some long, rational explanation,
but by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the close of
the parable, Jesus asked the man, “Which of these three do you
think proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
There was no way out. The meaning was crystal clear. The
literalist could only say, “The one who showed mercy on him.”
Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount with almost exactly
those same words. In essence he is saying, “You have heard all
that I have said about life – about how it becomes real life and not
just a meaningless existence. I have talked of your relationship
with God, with other people, and with yourself. I have spelled it out
with many pictures and illustrations. My meanings are abundantly
clear. Now, then, are you going to take me seriously and do what I
have told you? Or are you going to listen politely, nod your head in
sage agreement with the wisdom of my words, and then go out
and ignore it all – refusing to take me seriously?”
That is the question. What Jesus says is not all that hard to
understand. What IS hard is the willingness to take him seriously.
Jonathan Swift once wrote,
“NONE ARE SO BLIND AS THOSE
WHO REFUSE TO SEE.”
Those who hear my words and do them, says Jesus, are like a
wise man who builds his home on a strong foundation. Such a life
will NOT be spared the winds of change or the floods of broken
dreams or the rains of dispair; but that life WILL stand – no matter
what. It is sound at the center. Nothing can ever destroy it.
Those who hear his words but refuse to take them seriously are
like a foolish man who builds his home on the shifting sands of
superficial slogans. Such a life may have a pretty facade, but there
is no depth to it. When the storms of life come, that life will be
devastated. It is anchored in nothing but itself.
We should be able to understand this. Today many of our
oldest and most trusted institutions are under heavy attack. We
fear that they may collapse from under our feet.
Home and marriage, government and law, schools and
churches – all are being buffeted so severely that some
commentators say they have no hope of survival. We see them
tottering, and we get frantic. Sometimes we would be willing to
grab hold of anything that seems to offer stability and control. The
time is ripe for literalists – those who promise us safe hiding
behind the very empty phrases whose lack of depth have gotten
us in this weak position.
Jesus presents himself as the only foundation on which a life
may be built securely, but Jesus does not become our foundation
by the literal recitation of a few biblical phrases. Jesus deserves to
be taken as seriously as we want to be taken ourselves. Jesus
calls us to deal with him and his meaning seriously and personally.
Aren’t the needs of our day urgent enough for us to quit arguing
whether or not the world was created in seven 24-hour days;
whether Mary was really a virgin; whether God will save or damn the
Jews; whether or not the church should restrict itself to a limited
area of life labeled “spiritual”? The whole world is collapsing for a
lack of UNDERSTANDING and COMPASSION and
ACCEPTANCE. Dare we to stand here and ask, “Can you tell me
more specifically just who my neighbor is?”
Jesus says that those who take him seriously are those who
hear his words and do them. The first word Christ speaks to us is
that we are loved. Have you ever really taken that seriously? Have
you ever treated it as more than a sing-song rhyme you learned as
a child? Have you tried living as a person who is loved by God?
Have you ever tried making the knowledge and the security of
God’s love for you the foundation on which you built everything
else that is going on in your life? The Son of God gave his life
FOR YOU! That is serious business! Have you ever really taken
Christ and his love seriously and personally?
The second word Christ speaks to us is that we are to love as
he has loved us. Have you ever taken that word seriously, ever
regarded it as a real possibility?
IT MEANS taking others as Christ takes us – seriously but not
literally: listening to their meanings, accepting their
longings and fears, sharing their lives with them.
IT MEANS believing in the triumph of love over hate – believing it
enough to continue loving and forgiving even in the
midst of the darkest storm.
IT MEANS believing that God is at work in the world, bringing his
purposes to be, and sharing that hope with a world
caught in the grips of despair.
This is what Christ says to us. These are the meanings he begs us
to take seriously, to take them into ourselves. When we do, we
allow Christ to live within us.
C O N C L U S I O N
Christ appears so weak to a world built on a literal ledger of
profit and loss. He never was able to say in one literal phrase what
he means by the kingdom of God.
He said it’s like a farmer plowing his field who finds a pearl of
great worth; and like a father who welcomes his foolish son home
with great rejoicing; and like a great king preparing a magnificent
wedding feast for his son and heir.
Try to make literal sense out of all those images and you get
nowhere. All of them are efforts to say something that cannot be
“THIS IS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU.”
The literalists seem to be the rock. Their rational arguments
appear to be much stronger than faith – just as the military might of
Rome appeared to be so much stronger than the man hanging on
the Roman’s cross – Deserted,
bleeding in anguish,
But it is THAT man, and not Rome, who has survived the wars
and epidemics and revolutions of the last 2,000 years! The
storms have continued to come with ever increasing intensity,
BUT THAT MAN CONTINUES TO LIVE. And he offers
indestructible life to us.
SERIOUSLY and PERSONALLY.
From the archives of
Pamela Mudd Conlan