When we talk about the interpretation of the Bible, there two Greek words that frame what everyone is doing. The first word, which is much more well-known is, “Exegesis.” The word literally means, “To lead out.” It’s related to the English word, “Seek.” We commonly define it as, “to interpret a text by way of a thorough analysis of its content.” For the Bible and Christians, we say exegesis is seeking to discover the Spirit was saying through its human authors in each text.” The dangerous opposite of this term is called, “Eisegesis,” which means, “To lead in.” Basically, we interpret a text based on our pre-conceived ideas or theology. We make the text say what we already believe. The second word, which is less known, but often more important is, “Hermeneutics.” The word literally means, “Interpreter.” We commonly define it as, “the science of interpretation of a story or text, and the methods used in that science (emphasis mine).” For the Bible and Christians, we say hermeneutics is the way we discover meaning in the Bible for our life, faithfully taking its intents into today’s world. In other words, exegesis is faithfully seeking what the Spirit says in the Word. Hermeneutics is how we go about that seeking and applying it to our lives today.
With that introduction, I want to turn next to Jesus’ hermeneutic. I believe this is our essential work in trying to understand how we go about interpreting and applying Scripture for our lives. We’ve already hinted at Jesus’ exegetical practice. You can read my second letter below about reading Bible with the eyes of Christ. Jesus’ hermeneutic is a little more difficult to decipher. While we see him exegete the Hebrew Scriptures, he never says, “This is my hermeneutic,” so we need to look at his patterns and try to draw some conclusions. Here are some patterns that I see throughout the gospels.
First, Jesus actually does not quote Scripture that much. In fact, he is criticized for not doing this: “you teach with [inner] authority and not like our own scribes” (Mark 1:22). In order to understand this criticism, we must know that the typical hermeneutic at the time involved two basic structures. Anything a scribe or Pharisee said needed to be supported a reference to Scripture. Second, Jesus talks much more out of his own experience of God and humanity instead of teaching like the scribes and Pharisees, who operated with a style like a form of case law by quoting previous sources. This style is traditional. Each teacher was almost required to lean heavily on the influences of previous Rabbis, building their teaching on the proclamations of those who came before them. We see this practice in most present day dissertations, laying out the full range of scholarship on a topic to build a case for the author’s new assertions. Jesus never really uses this case law form of teaching or approach to his hermeneutic.
Third, Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do” (see Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:12, and Luke 5:31), or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31). He moves beyond references to scripture in order to understand the teaching of scripture. In fact, in an instance that might scandalize us, Jesus seems to quote some sources incorrectly (for example, John 10:34). Here he references the Law, but the most likely place of scripture for this reference is Psalm 82:6-7. There is definitely no place in the Law for this quote. Fourth, Jesus never once quotes from nineteen of the books in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, his focus is on: Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Hosea, and Psalms—and those are overwhelmingly in Matthew’s Gospel, which makes sense, since Matthew is the one gospel written for a Jewish audience. What might it mean that Jesus focusses almost all of his attention on these five books (two from the Law, two from the Prophets, and one Worship or Wisdom book)?
Fifth, Jesus appears to ignore most of the Hebrew Scriptures, yet these scriptures clearly formed his whole consciousness. On the surface, this appears to be a paradox, but if we look deeper it makes complete sense. Because Jesus’ character and worldview are shaped and defined by the Word of God, he feels no need to proof text his teaching. And yet, if we look closely at what he doesn’t say or doesn’t use from scripture, we find a clear pattern. He never uses scripture to legitimate violence, imperialism, exclusion, purity, and dietary laws, even though there are plenty of references to support these ideas. Why would Jesus avoid these strands of the biblical vision? I believe Jesus understands the trajectory of scripture, which moves us forward with inclusion, grace and love. Sixth, when Jesus does once quote Leviticus (the one rules based portion of the Law), he quotes the one positive mandate among long lists of negative ones: “You must love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).Why would Jesus avoid the negative lists and focus on the on positive mandate?
This forms the pattern of Jesus’ hermeneutic, his how he goes about seeking and applying his scripture for his day. I believe this pattern sets forth a life giving pattern for how we might seek and apply our scripture for today. In my next letter, I will say more about Jesus’ hermeneutic and how we might emulate it for our study of scripture.
Grace and Peace in Christ,
The Bible (Part 2): Reading Scripture with the Eyes of Christ
My first blog spoke of the struggles we have with scripture, how we use it, how we interpret it, and how we are called to wrestle with it, to expand our capacity for God, and to be transformed into Christ. I hope the writing encouraged you and helped you think more about your heart and mind, as you engage the Spirit in the scriptures. With this blog, I want to move forward and address what Jesus taught us about the Bible in the way he interacted with the Bible and used the Bible in his life and ministry.
Jesus practiced what the Rabbis called midrash. It is an approach to scripture that consistently uses questions to expand spiritual meaning, to find more and deeper meaning, and to open the text up. Richard Rohr explains it this way, “More than telling us exactly what to see in the Scriptures, Jesus taught us how to see, what to emphasize, and also what could be de-emphasized or ignored.” If we seek to follow Jesus, to be transformed by the life and ministry of Jesus, it begins with imitating Jesus in this approach.
Midrash never searches for certain or unchanging answers, rather it seeks many possibilities, many levels of faith-filled meaning. The Rabbis taught that every text is like a carefully cut jewel. As we turn the jewel, the light reflects a new vision, a new insight, and a beauty of empathy, understanding, and love. We understand this to be true intuitively. Otherwise, a single sermon would suffice for every text. The deep truth is every text is relevant and applicable to you and your life because it has many possibilities and meaning. It speaks to the white man, the black girl, the Honduran immigrant, and the wise grandmother. Each life is different with a million variations, and the scriptures speak to all of them. If you can believe the truth of this approach of midrash, then you must first let a passage challenge you before it challenges anyone else. Rohr puts it this way, “To use the text in a spiritual way—as Jesus did—is to allow it to convert you, to change you, to grow you up as you respond: What does this ask of me? How might this apply to my life, to my family, to my church, to my neighborhood, to my country?”
When we discover this spiritual reading of Scripture, the historical events from which it proceeds becomes less vital. I need not fret over the perfect factual accuracy of Scripture’s history, because the writers were not journalists, they are engaging us spiritually to convert us and change us. When we engage in this spiritual reading of Scripture, this midrash, we discover that Scripture can be understood on at least four levels: literal meaning, deep meaning, comparative meaning, and hidden meaning.
Rohr breaks down these four types of Spiritual reading in this way:
The literal level of meaning doesn’t get to the root and, in fact, is the least helpful to the soul and the most dangerous for history. Deep meaning offers symbolic or allegorical applications. Comparative study combines different texts to explore an entirely new meaning. Finally, in traditional Jewish exegesis, hidden meaning gets at the Mystery itself. Midrash allows and encourages each listener to grow with a text and not to settle for mere literalism, which, of itself, bears little spiritual fruit. It is just a starting point.
We find Jesus practicing this spiritual reading quite often when engaging with Scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ (A reference to both Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20). But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39). Jesus reads Scripture in a questioning way. He expands it, opens it up, and moves beyond a literal reading of the text to reveal a hidden meaning. And in doing so, Jesus suggests the opposite of what Scripture teaches in its literal meaning. There is no better reflection of what we said last week, “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.” Jesus has a vision of empathy, compassion, inclusion, mercy, justice and love, so rather than teaching us what to see in Scripture, he teaches us how to see through his vision.
For some, this wrestling with Scripture to open up possibilities and new meaning feels reckless or radical. The criticism is that it’s a soft way to make Scripture and its commands lighter, easier, or less weighty for how we live. But this is not the case at all. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus again uses this spiritual reading to wrestle with Scripture. He says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’ (Exodus 20:13); and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” In living out his vision of empathy, compassion, inclusion, mercy, justice and love, Jesus expands and opens up the possible meanings of Scripture and does not lessen its weight in any way. Again, Jesus is not so much teaching us what to see, Jesus is teaching us how to see through his vision.
Grace and Peace in Christ,
The Bible (Part 1): Wrestling with Scripture
The Word of God has always held a special place in my life. When I was younger, my mother worked with me to cultivate my gifts for memorization by grafting the Scripture into my heart and mind. I memorized dozens of Psalms, large sections of the prophets, most of what Jesus teaches in the gospel, the book of Philippians and Colossians and many other writings of Paul. I cannot see the world without looking through the lens of God’s Word. It shapes my relationships, my ministry, my politics, my spending habits, and every part of my life. I cannot say that I have lived it out faithfully at all times and in all places; therefore, it remains chief disciplinarian for how I live, breath, and move.
And yet, as much as God’s Word has formed the whole of my consciousness, it remains problematic for me in many ways. In the hands of egocentric, unloving, or power-hungry people, scripture has been used to burn heretics, legitimize the Crusades, slavery, apartheid, homophobia, and the genocide and oppression of native peoples. If the Bible can be used in such wicked ways to bring such horrible disasters, what are we supposed to do with it?
I love one of the ways that Richard Rohr describes what the Bible actually is …
The Bible is an anthology of many books. It is a record of people’s experience of God’s self-revelation. It is an account of our very human experience of the divine intrusion into history. The book did not fall from heaven in a pretty package. It was written by people trying to listen to God. I believe that the Spirit was guiding the listening and writing process. We must also know that humans always see “through a glass darkly . . . and all knowledge is imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Prayer and patience surrounding such human words will keep us humble and searching for the true Living Word, the person of Jesus, which is how the Spirit best teaches (1 Corinthians 2:10, 13)—through living exemplars. This is surely what it means to know “contemplatively.”
This description lays out our humble wrestling with the Word, as we seek to be transformed by the renewing of our mind into the mind of Christ (Romans 12:2, 1 Corinthians 2:16, and Philippians 2:5). What I have discovered is the Risen Lord reveals the very nature of God and that we live in a Christ filled, therefore, love filled universe. In this unveiling of God in Christ, I am transformed, growing up as I move through the text and deepen my experience of God through the Holy Spirit. I implore you; stick with God’s Word and with your inner life with God, and your capacity for God will blossom.
As our hearts grow to receive more of God, our lives are transformed into Christ. The depths of scripture are revealed, and we are opened to more and more of God’s love, grace, mercy and forgiveness. This opening of our heart has profound effects on how we live and how we read God’s Word. The great theologian, Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.” Richard Rohr offers us this understanding …
People at different levels of maturity will interpret the same text in different ways. There is no one right way to interpret sacred texts. How you see is what you see; the who that you bring to your reading of the Scriptures matters. Who are you when you read the Bible? Defensive, offensive, power-hungry, righteous? Or humble, receptive, and honest? Surely, this is why we need to pray before reading a sacred text!
Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It seems to me that our handling of scripture, our interpretation of it, is that active and living Word.
With this in mind, I offer you these final words: wrestle with scripture. Pray every time you engage with Christ in the Word. Ask God to renew your mind into the mind of Christ, to shape how you see what you see, to help you be humble, receptive, and honest in knowing yourself and in seeking God’s goodness, truth, and beauty. Let the Holy Spirit transform you with love, mercy, and grace, so that your heart and mind might expand for more God in your life. As you move through the travails of what it means to be human, recognize these same travails in the scripture, a testimony to the people of God’s experience of God’s self-revelation in Christ and in the Bible.
Grace and Peace in Christ,
A New Year and a Thankful Heart
It is the beginning of a new year, and as the calendar turns, I think it’s natural to spend some time looking backward and then spend some time looking forward. When I look backward, I’m encouraged and inspired by who you are and what you have done over the past year. With this in mind, I offer this first paragraph as a thank you letter. I’m grateful for your love and support. Jen and I were overwhelmed once again by your generosity in our Christmas gift and your many kind words in the card. I have saved every one of those cards, and from time to time when I’m feeling down, it does my soul good to take one out and re-read the encouragement and love that you share with me. It means more than you could ever know, thank you. I’m grateful for the support that you offered with my sabbatical. The bulk of that work happened in 2017, but after Easter in 2018, you entered into a time of reflection on discipleship and our bodies. You read my little “booklet” on my experiences and how I grew find hope and meaning in the connections between our spiritual walk and our physical bodies. You might have considered some changes or learned some new ideas or even been challenged to think of things a little differently. You gathered together as a community every Saturday to try new things (Yoga, Praying through a Labyrinth, Art) and you enjoyed some old things once again but together (A Game night, Scavenger Hunt, Cooking a Meal together). You gave your time and energy to this 40 Day Event together, thank you.
I am grateful for your spiritual maturity, as we worked our way through the process of approving a new welcoming statement. You attended Bible studies and educational meetings, you talked with each other, and some of you served on a leadership committee for all that work. You agreed, and you disagreed. You listened, and you learned. You came to a place of real inclusion, and in that you never sought to exclude those who disagreed with you. This is not easy work, and holding the tension of that real inclusion is counter-cultural, but reflects the Gospel of Christ, thank you.
I am grateful for the new things that you’ve tried over the last year. You worshipped outside for the month of June, a way of moving the gospel out of our building and into the community. You put up a prayer fence, engaging and encouraging the community to share their joys and concerns. You continued the Circle of Friends dinners and expanded that ministry by continuing to partner with different groups. You supported missionaries abroad and in our country. You held an awesome Church picnic and invited everyone from the community to join us … thank you.
You did so many little things that always seem to slip through the cracks. You came to church, and invited friends. You taught our children. You attended Bible studies. You lead worship and read scripture. You hosted fellowship. You cleaned up the church. You gave generously. You decorated the church. You welcomed newcomers. You shared your faith and life together. You hosted small groups. You invited me into your homes, stopped by to talk and ask questions. You gathered to pray for the church, for me, for the community … thank you.
I could say more, but then this letter would go on forever.
In looking forward, I read this devotional by Richard Rohr that got me thinking about our life together and our faith in Jesus Christ for 2019. Here are some excerpts:
Jesus clearly believed in change. In fact, the first public word out of his mouth was later translated into the Greek imperative verb metanoeite, which literally means “change your mind” or “go beyond your mind” (see Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15). Unfortunately, in the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the word into Latin as paenitentia (“repent” or “do penance”), initiating a host of moralistic connotations that have colored Christians’ understanding of the Gospels ever since. The word metanoeite referred to a primal change of mind, worldview, or way of processing and perceiving—and only by corollary about a specific change in behavior …
This misunderstanding contributed to a puritanical, externalized, and largely static notion of the Christian message that has followed us to this day. Faith became about external requirements that could be enforced, punished, and rewarded, much more than an actual change of heart and mind, which Jesus described as something that largely happens “in secret, where your Father who sees in secret can reward you” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18) …
Jesus didn’t focus on individual sin outside or over there, where we can point to it, punish it, and try to change it. That is too easy and mostly ineffective. Without making light of evil, he showed how to actually overcome and heal it. Sin, for Jesus, was the very act of accusing (Satan means “the accuser”). Whenever we try to expel and accuse others, and somehow leave ourselves or our group out of the equation, we end up “sinning.” We must first recognize our own complicity in evil before we can transform it … Jesus thus stood in solidarity with individuals who were excluded, deemed unworthy, or demonized. Why? Because the excluded from any group always reveal the unquestioned idolatries of that group! He even partied with sinners and tax collectors, and the “pure” hated him for it (see Luke 15:2). The way Jesus tried to change people was by loving and healing them, accusing only their accusers …
Jesus did not so much love people once they changed, but he loved people so that they could change.
There is a truth in these words that I need to hear as much as anyone else, but I also think that we need to hear it as a Church. I think it can encourage us, as we move forward, trying to follow Jesus, letting him love us, so that we can change, and following Jesus by loving people, as they are, and thus allow Jesus to bring the change that they may need in their life.
I’m not really big on New Year’s resolutions, but I think we might consider something a bit more honest but still hopeful, and that is intentions. I wonder as a church if we can make it our intention to let Jesus love us, even as the gospel seeks to bring a primal change of mind, worldview, or way of processing and perceiving. I wonder as a church if we can make it our intention to focus less on outside or over there, less on accusing, and recognize our own complicity in evil. I wonder as a church if we can make it our intention to pay attention to those who are excluded, deemed unworthy or demonized and maybe even stand with them in solidarity. I wonder as a church if we can learn to see how those we exclude reveal our unquestioned idolatries … This is not an easy group of intentions, but when I turn back to all the things I’m grateful for with you, I think they are possible. Let us begin with #1 and let Jesus love us, and then see where the adventure takes us.