lenten journal: tone


⋅I have been working on a sermon for this coming Sunday. I get to preach at our church for the first time. My text is Matthew 5:21-43 that contains the story of Jesus’ healing of the woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years, which is sandwiched between the account of Jairus coming to ask Jesus to heal his daughter. Reading and studying the text has gotten me back to thinking about how we read the gospels and how we understand what’s there and what isn’t. The stories are remarkably sparse, when it comes to most details. Events move quickly and, as I have said before, inferring tone into what is being said is akin to doing the same in an email or text message.

The account of the wedding at Cana is one of my favorite examples. Here are the opening verses of John 2 from the Common English Bible.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They don’t have any wine.”

Jesus replied, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.”

As many times as I have read those verses, I am pressed to imagine the tone with which Jesus might have delivered that question to his mother in a manner that would have allowed him to live beyond that moment. And yet, not only did he live, but he became the life of the party.

I have similar questions about Jesus’s words to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane as the world began closing in on them. He asked them to stay awake while he went alone to pray; he anguished in prayer and they dozed off like children. When he returned, he woke them said, “Couldn’t you stay alert one hour with me?” Was he angry, hurt, disappointed? How did it feel to be on the receiving end of the question?

Jesus asked another question to the man at the pool of Siloam who had been trying to be the first one in the water for thirty-eight years so he could be healed. Jesus heard his story and asked, “Do you want to get well?” It’s a question worthy of the best counselor, but we have no indication of the tone of his delivery.

And it’s all in the delivery. Try these:

You look great.
Where have you been?
Why did you do that?

The tone is crucial to the meaning, and the understanding of what is being said.

There in one time where we are given more than just a hint of how Jesus delivered his words: Jesus’s encounter with the one we call the Rich Young Ruler. After they had gone back and forth and the young man appeared to feel like he was doing pretty well at keeping the Jewish laws (though we don’t know the tone of his voice), Jesus tells him to go and sell everything—a devastating blow to the young man. But before Jesus’s admonition to the man to rid himself of his possessions, the narrative says, “Jesus looked at him and he loved him.” That sentence makes me think Jesus was not throwing a knockout punch; he was issuing an invitation.

There is more to language than just the words. As we work to communicate with one another, we let loose our feelings as we speak, both consciously and unconsciously, and they land on another field of feelings with everything from the force of an air raid to the soft landing of a butterfly. Even though the gospel writers don’t fill in all the details, I can infer something of the way in which Jesus spoke to people by the way they respond to him. He spoke the truth in love.

Would that all our words would land in such fashion.



  1. I think of music as I am reading this, Milton. One can learn, and needs to learn, scales, chord structure, harmony, etc. but when it comes down to it, timing and tone are what most express the emotional content, and thus most communicate the feel of a song. Stan Getz was called “The Sound” because of his warm, lyrical tone. I am inspired by your observations to think of Jesus more as “the sound” rather than “the word.”

    • Terry,

      I love this. Timing and tone. When you talk about Jesus as sound, I think of him calling Mary’s name in the garden, and the words from the old hymn that says, “He speaks and the sound of his voice / is so sweet that the birds hush their singing,” and then of, course, John Prine: “you’ve broken the speed of the sound of loneliness.”

      I think you just gave me tonight’s word: sound.


  2. This is the area in which the English language struggles. I think other languages contain words that reflect more tone or feeling. But I am not sure. Trying to express on the page what you feel in your heart has always seemed fraught with danger to me. I love Terry’s reference to music. I love the idea of Jesus as more the sound.

Leave a Reply