Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Glimpse into Jesus’ Hermeneutic

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

One of my growing passions over the past few years has been to address the scandal of the use of the Scriptures for the support or promotion of oppression, injustice and the abuse of power in the world. I have commented on this in several previous posts (see, e.g., this post on Fredrick Douglas and this post on confronting the Bible’s “double life”).
I was reminded of this theme again (as it seems I almost always am when reading Scripture!) when I was reading Mark 3 just the other day. It offers a sharp comparison between Jesus’ own hermeneutic and that of some of the scribes and Pharisees of his day:
Mark 3:1-6 (NRSV): 1Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward." 4 Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Those Pharisees wanted to use the Scriptures as grounds for marginalizing (or doing worse to) those who disagree with or differ from them. A cure on the Sabbath would be a good thing, since it would allow them to condemn Jesus. They were not concerned about the man with a withered hand. He may be useful to them. They are interpreting the Scriptures literally, woodenly and in a way that fits their ideological interests.
Why does Jesus ask about whether it is lawful to do good or harm to save life or kill on the Sabbath? Because he seems to be interpreting the Scriptures in light of the two great commandments – love of God and love of neighbor (which is a proper manifestation of true love for God).
Jesus’ anger relates to the hardness of heart and the fact that their interpretation of Scripture was not guided by the same love for people and fundamental commitment to their wellbeing that mark the God who revealed himself to his people through the Scriptures in the first place.
Upon seeing the remarkable way Jesus loves his neighbor and interprets the law of the Sabbath in a way that rejects the idea that it should be understood to prohibit doing good to others or saving others those (particular) Pharisees decide he must be destroyed.
For too long much of the Christian church (and perhaps my/our evangelical wing in particular) has been content to think that it was merely responsible for reading the scriptures and doing what they say, and the consequences or implications for others were beyond our responsibilities. So abused wives were told to stay home and simply do a better job of submitting to their husbands. And slavery was defended as being condoned by the Scriptures. And Jews in general (and of every generation) could be condemned based on what John the Baptist and Jesus had to say about some of the hostile Jews that they had encountered (despite my love of Martin Luther, it must be admitted that some of his statements about the Jews, in which some biblical statements are applied globally to all Jews as a people, are blood curdling and had a horribly regretful impact on some Christian attitudes towards Jews for many centuries).
We thought we were good at recognizing hard-heartedness in others, but were abysmally weak in recognizing our own hard-heartedness and that of our own leaders and peers. We are now at a stage of history when the rest of the world is fully aware of some of the areas in which the Christian church has failed to reflect true love of neighbor in its interpretation of Scripture, and of ways in which those who brought the message of the gospel, and translated the Scriptures, also communicated harmful cultural prejudices and ideological interests despite their good intensions.
Again, it is easiest to see how other people in other places and other times may have fallen short in this area. What I need, and perhaps we all need, is for God to help me/us see the extent to which I continue to be blind to the ways in which my own interpretations of Scripture are informed by my own interests or the interests of my own kind of people. What could tear at the hearts of Christian people who love the Bible more than knowing that the revelation intended to bring light and life to people’s lives is being or might be used in ways that do harm rather than good to others? May God give ever greater wisdom so that people’s use of and engagement with Scripture become ever more consistent with both the love of God and the truest love of our neighbors, for the sake of Christ, who was willing to give his own life so that others might find freedom, life and the righteousness and justice of His kingdom and reign. May we learn to interpret God’s word as Jesus did, with a concern to make sure it is only used to do people good, and never harm…

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