Shedding Our Shoulds

In a conversation on the meaning of words and their power in written form, a friend of mine recently told me that “we do well to steer clear of continually “should”ing on ourselves and others.” I realize that the connection isn’t immediately clear but it doesn’t have to be to follow this post. I want to reflect upon this idea of “shoulding on ourselves and others.”

My friend sees something unseemly about discussing what people should or should not do. In this case, the question was whether or not one should allow meaning which comes from “beyond the text” to supplant the author’s intended meaning. At least that was my question. However, my friend demurred, attempted to “do well” and encouraged me to do the same. (Or to say it more clearly, he refused to enter into the discussion because he didn’t see that “shoulding comes into play” here.)  But do we really “do well” when we avoid conversing and/or thinking in terms of “shoulds”?

There are some who might  say  that shoulds are wicked and cruel chains which enslave us to expectations to which we can never aspire. Consequently, we can only be free once we shrug our should-ers and their burdensome shoulds. Others may concede that shoulds are always with us while advising that they be trained in the art of silence, lest their incessant chattering  disturb our communion. I understand why some would think this way. I am a witness to the harm done by shoddy shoulding. Yet, I disbelieve that we do well by steering clear of the shoulds, and I do not believe that we do well in attempting to silence the should-ers. Instead, I think we do well when we learn to discern the shoulds from the suggestions.

I haven’t done any research into the matter, but I sense that Jesus didn’t tend to should a great deal. Instead, I suspect that he tended to speak in simple commands. He had the authority to do that. However, he did occasionally should his audience. When the disciples requested  a seminar on prayer, Jesus said “this then is how you should pray” and gave them  a demonstration. After explaining how some folks are so intent upon the Kingdom of God that they avoid marriage, he told the audience “The one who can accept it should accept it.” When he rebuked the hypocrites for neglecting the “weightier matters of the law”, Jesus said to them “You should have practiced the former without neglecting the latter.” Finally, in a lesson on  fear, Jesus told his disciples that he would “show you whom you should fear”.

Admittedly, seizing upon the translations of Jesus’ words which employ the word “should” is not exactly a scholarly method. (It would be interesting to know how the Greek expresses the concept translated as should, but honestly I lack the energy and resources at present.) Yet, I think it’s helpful in thinking about the problem of “shoulding on” others and ourselves. Here we have Jesus, the True Human, the most free human and he did not avoid shoulding his listeners.  Jesus, who came to set the captives free, does not appear to regard all shoulds as manacles upon humanity. Nor did he completely silence the shoulds for fear of their effect on his communion with others. However, he did not merely should his hearers. He shouldered the shoulds himself and instead of shedding the shoulds, he shed his blood.

We do well when we attempt to follow Jesus by discerning the shoulds while shouldering them as well.


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