Jesus' wisdom teaching takes two classic forms: parables and aphorisms. Jesus' parables were provocative and often surprising short stories that invited reflection, and his aphorisms were brief, memorable, arresting sayings. They are invitational forms of speech, inviting people to see in a particular way, or to see something they might not otherwise.
Thus, one of the most certain things that we know about Jesus is that he was a story-teller and a speaker of great "one-liners." Moreover, he used these invitational forms of speech to suggest a way of seeing that was most often quite different from conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is "what everybody knows," the cultural consensus of a given time and place. Jesus' stories and one-liners undermine the conventional wisdom of his time and every time, and invite us, like his original hearers, to see life quite differently. In this sense, they are subversive wisdom.
In the gospels, the short sayings of Jesus are most often collected into a series of sayings. This is perfectly natural in written documents.
But this is not how Jesus would have spoken them. Jesus was an oral teacher. As an oral teacher, Jesus would not have strung a bunch of unrelated sayings together in an extended series. To follow a great one-liner like "Leave the dead to bury the dead" with another one-liner like "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God" with another one-liner like "Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but humans have nowhere to lay their heads" would have been pedagogically counterproductive. It is impossible to imagine in an oral situation. His hearers needed time to digest what had just been said.
[There is a] distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus we meet in the pages of the gospel. The former (sometimes called "the pre-Easter Jesus") is the subject of the quest for the historical Jesus. The Jesus we meet on the pages of the gospels (called variously "the post-Easter Jesus" or "the canonical Jesus") is what Jesus became in the experience and developing traditions of the early Christian movement in the decades after Jesus' death..Thus, in some of these sayings, we hear the voice of Jesus, or at least an echo of it. In others, we hear what he had become in the experience and thought of his first followers.
Jesus was more than a wisdom teacher, of course. In the judgment of most historical scholars, he was also a remarkable healer-more healing stories are told about him than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition.
And, in the judgment of some scholars (including me), Jesus was also a Jewish mystic for whom God was an experiential reality. Indeed, I think Jesus' mystical experience, coupled with a brilliant and poetic intellect, is the best explanation of his wisdom teaching. He taught differently because he had seen differently.
For Christians, both in the first century and today, Jesus is more than even this, of course. In the language of Christian affirmation, he is also the messiah, Lord, Son of God, Word of God, lamb of God, light of the world, bread of life, way and truth, resurrection and life, and more. The carpenter from Nazareth made it big.
And, of course, he was killed. Even though Jesus' death is at the very center of Christian perceptions of Jesus, we seldom take sufficiently seriously that he didn't simply die-he was executed. Christians live in the only major religious tradition in the world whose founder was executed by established authority. We have domesticated that fact in many ways-by speaking of it as the will of God, as the necessary sacrifice for sin, and so forth.
But it was not Jesus' wisdom teaching alone that got him killed. Indeed, had he been only a wisdom teacher, he almost certainly would not have been arrested and executed. We need to remember that there was something about this figure that moved the authorities-the elites of power and wealth-to do away with him. They were not simply mistaken in their perception of him as an advocate of a vision that threatened the "normalcy" of the social order they had created. "The wisdom of the carpenter" is the wisdom of one who was executed by the powers that rule this world. Jesus' wisdom does subvert the normalcy of life.
In his novel The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis imagines that Jesus as a carpenter sometimes made crosses for the Romans to use to execute Jews suspected of subversion. It is a haunting image: Jesus making his own cross.
Of course, it is fiction, but metaphorically it works well. The wisdom of the carpenter is crystallized in the way of the cross: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). And the wisdom of Jesus, along with what else he was, led to the cross. The story of Jesus, and the wisdom of Jesus, is both personal and political, both spiritual and social.