Wineskins Archive

January 23, 2014

Reading the Bible With Jesus of Nazareth (Nov-Dec 2008)

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by Mark Hamilton
November – December, 2008

FearlessWhat is the future of American Christianity? How do we prepare for it? Those of us who stay up at night trying to answer these questions offer about as many answers as there are persons answering. It all depends on how secular you think North America will become, how mission-minded our African and Asian brothers and sisters will be, how stable the world political structure will remain, and on and on. Yet, part of the answer rests where it always has, in the imitation of Jesus Christ. As we reconnect with others who are seeking the way of Christ, we can learn afresh new skills that will help the next generation of Christians make sense of their surroundings in godly ways.

As we seek the way of Christ, we must reclaim aspects of his life and ministry that easily get lost in the shuffle in our prideful, consumerist society. Among the many ways the Gospels portray Jesus is as someone who carefully, reverently, and imaginatively studies Scripture. From his Bible-duel with the Devil to his dying prayer from Psalm 22, his life and ministry was saturated by Scripture.

At first glance, such a fact shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Jesus lived in a community that took the words of Scripture very seriously. Jesus lived as a good Jew, keeping Torah carefully, if sometimes in ways others thought incorrect. No, it does not surprise us that Jesus read the Bible.

What is more surprising is how he read it. Like all of us, he read it with a particular goal in mind. That goal was not the reinforcement of ancient boundaries or the defense of the one true faith against an often hostile, Gentile, pagan world. (In fact, he apparently paid little attention to Gentiles at all, despite the influence of their culture on the towns around Nazareth, including the metropolis of Sepphoris, where he undoubtedly worked as a contractor.) Rather, Jesus focused on Israel and read the Bible for Israel, so that they could be what they already were, the people of God. Jesus sought reform, and like the ancient prophets, hoped that God’s people could be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49), God’s bridgehead in a land oppressed by spiritual invaders. Those who follow the way of Jesus must learn to read Scripture with his goals in mind.

There are many examples of his visionary way of reading the Bible. In our own time, also fraught with the evils of war, economic and political oppression, and growing gaps between haves and have-nots, we do well to pay attention to Jesus’ work with Scripture. Consider now just two examples, one in Luke and the other in Matthew. Together, they orient us to a way of reading – and being read by God – that will equip us for whatever awaits us in God’s future.

The Bible as a Word of Hope and Challenge

Luke 4:18-30 tells the story of Jesus’ first sermon, the sort of thing that should have made his mother proud. Unlike my first sermon, given at 13 to patient, encouraging saints in western Arkansas, Jesus’ ended in a lynch mob, from which he barely escaped with his life.

Though we can admire his audience’s willingness to give clear, meaningful feedback, we can question their spiritual maturity and ability to hear Scripture! They never dispute his accuracy in telling the stories of saints and sinners and divine relief. They simply believe that the stories do not apply to them in the way Jesus claims. They deny the relevance of his reading. Truth and applicability are not quite the same thing.

Luke shares this story with Matthew (13:53-58), Mark (6:1-6), and, implicitly, John (4:43-45). Yet, since none of the Gospel-writers worried about chronological order for the ministry of Jesus, Luke moves his version of the story to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a way of saying that this story tells something vital about Jesus. What does it say?

The key lies in how Jesus reads Scripture. He begins with a practice of reverence, standing at the bema, or table, at the front of the synagogue, on which the scroll of Isaiah lay. Whether because it is the day’s reading, or because of his own inclinations, he opens to Isaiah 61:1-2, a message of hope and expectation for the renewal of God’s people in their own land even amidst the terrors of foreign occupation. His text states themes that figured prominently in the life and practice of the early church, and in the thinking of Luke himself: the presence of the Holy Spirit and the call to believers to be messengers of healing and reconciliation in the world. Luke’s Jesus opens up to Christian readers a vision of themselves in God’s redemptive work.

However, Jesus’ audience needs a story to connect to the words of a vision. This is why the Bible weaves together stories, songs, prophecies, wise sayings, and calls to worship: the faithful community shaped by Scripture needs all these things to function as God intends. The story Jesus chooses, however, uncorks the fear and hatred that turns a group of friendly worshipers into a raging mob. It’s a story from 1 Kings 17 that describes the odd adventures of Elijah the prophet, rescued first by ravens and then by a desperate, starving Gentile widow. The story means, Jesus says, that a proclaimer of God’s presence may not be welcome among God’s own people, and must therefore find those who will welcome the message of hope, even if they are outsiders with no prior history with God.

Now, Christians can read Luke reading Jesus reading the Old Testament in several ways. We can say, “Those poor Jews, why didn’t they get it?” We can even extrapolate from this one group of Jesus’ friends and neighbors to all Jews. But to read the text this way is to make a serious mistake, for several reasons. First, it connects us to a way of reading the Bible that has had nasty results, which we conveniently label anti-Semitism. Second, it fails to recognize that Jews read the Bible in Jesus’ time in several ways, some much like his. Third, and perhaps most fatally, it betrays the very principle of reading that Jesus valued: one that reads the Bible as being against us when we use religion for our own benefit and when we neglect God’s power to redeem others, as well as ourselves.

This style of reading Scripture challenges all of us because it reminds us that we can never be complacent. Grace that extends only to us is no grace at all. When we forget that God’s desires wholeness for everyone and demands the cooperation of those of us who have received it, then we have forgotten everything that matters. We read Scripture so that the Spirit, dwelling in us because of our baptism, can lead us to proclaim liberty to the captive, sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. Beyond the technicalities of reading a text so as to get its literary, historical, and theological dimensions right, we read Scripture so that it helps us see ourselves aright.

The Bible and the Big Picture

Nowhere is this two-way street, on which we read the Bible even as it reads us, clearer than in the Sermon on the Mount. This great collection of Jesus’ teaching serves Matthew much as the sermon in Nazareth serves Luke: it introduces readers to Jesus, the prophet who calls God’s people to live into that name.

In Matthew’s version of the sermon, Jesus uses the Bible in several ways. In chapter 5, he sets up a series of contrasts (“you have heard…but I say”), not between the Torah of Israel and Jesus’ own law, but between two ways of reading the Bible as part of the spiritual life. One way reads the law as a limit, a rule external to one’s lifestyle. A person with such a spirituality reads the Bible as a checklist of rules that one should not technically violate, but need not internalize, feel emotionally, care about, or try to think through. In this way of reading the Bible, one can do whatever one wants as long as no verse specifically forbids it. (Or, to take an example from our own time, you can be an otherwise secular person as long as you worship without an instrument on Sunday morning.) Such an approach may be a good place for children to begin the life of faith, but as an approach over a lifetime, it may lead to the assumptions about God that Jesus condemns in the Parable of the Talents: play life safe because God is waiting to punish you for any infraction.

Jesus, however, offers another way to read Scripture, a bolder, riskier way. It is the way of the law of the heart. In pressing for such a way of reading the Bible, Jesus was not advocating anything new. The prophets had also pressed their followers to think more deeply about God’s claims on their lives. The wisdom teachers had called on their students to meditate on the Law day and night (Psalm 1). Jesus intensifies the literal demands of the law in order to get to its real aim, drawing Israel as a whole and each individual within it closer to God and thus to each other. Since Torah concerns how humans treat each other, as well as how we welcome God into our lives, he recognizes that thoughts, attitudes, and actions flow more or less seamlessly together, and thus all must be examined. Not being a modern American Christian, Jesus did not think that “it’s the thought that counts,” or that grace allows carelessness, or that, since “we’re only human,” we can do as we please and then presume on divine forgiveness. He had too much respect for us – and for God – to believe those things.

After chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount makes two other moves that help us understand how Jesus reads Scripture. First, chapter 6 sets forth the practices that will sustain the intense, morally oriented way of interpreting the Bible that chapter 5 demands.

Jesus invites us to pray. He asks us to pray without pretense, without fear of what others will say, without a need to satisfy our own egos or please those who would judge us. “Go into your closet,” he says. Talk to God in the simplest possible way. Tell God what you need. Don’t waste your time with the things that God will give you anyway. Don’t embarrass yourself with unworthy requests. But pray that God will bring in the Kingdom.

The astonishing thing about Jesus’ invitation to prayer is its rootedness in the deepest insights the Scriptures of Israel offer. God cares for people. We fight and divide because we fear things that cannot harm us and covet things that cannot sustain us. Turning ourselves to God can raise us to a higher way of living, which, at the same time, looks like the road of humility and sacrifice. Then the Kingdom will come, and God’s will can be done on earth as in heaven. As with the angels, so with the Christians!

This way of praying keeps those who read Scripture with their own lives in mind from being consumed by guilt or sucked into fanaticism and the passive-aggressive behavior that sometimes plagues serious Christians. Without a passionate life of prayer, Bible study easily becomes an exercise in intellectual gamesmanship or, worse, a training ground for religious bullies.

The second move comes in Matthew 7:12: “Everything at all that you want people to do to you, you do to them. This is the Law and the Prophets.” As so often in the Sermon in the Mount, Jesus may engage in hyperbole here. Just as we might not detect the merit of gouging out eyes or lopping off limbs to gain spiritual insight, we might well ask if absolutely everything in the Old Testament fits under the rubric of how we treat our neighbor. But as we think through the various laws, poems, stories, lists, and other literary genres of Israel’s Bible, we quickly see that virtually everything in it comes down to how Israel is to live as a people together. We also see that Jesus’ “you” in verse 12 is plural. He focuses on community, not just discrete individuals. Getting relationship right only comes through encountering the God of the Bible. We encounter this God in the face of each other. It goes both ways.

Another thing that distinguishes Christ from Christians is that he respects human beings and God at the same time. To him, we were capable of fulfilling even the most demanding challenges of the Law because they focused on our deepest needs, for God and for each other. As Studs Terkel puts it when talking about his style of interviewing, “What I bring to an interview is respect. The person recognizes that you respect them because you’re listening. Because you’re listening, they feel good about talking to you.” Jesus knew how to listen, not merely to what we say, but to what we desire in our innermost recesses.

Jesus also knew how to teach his disciples to listen to God. When we read the Bible along with him, with him in mind as it were, we hear behind its words the call of our creator, who always brings light out of darkness and pronounces over our lives, “it is good.”

Reading with Jesus after Sectarianism

In meditating on Jesus as a reader of Scripture, I wanted to say several things to those of us who are seeking reform in Churches of Christ. We have learned in the past few decades that the church is much broader than we once believed, that fellowship is the gift of God to be embraced and shared, and that we are saved by God’s stunning grace extended in Jesus Christ. We have, appropriately, begun to question some of our most cherished practices, sometimes to discard them, but more often to reclaim the vitality that made us adopt them in the first place. We have cast off legalism, sectarianism, narrow-mindedness, and excessive guilt. In short, we have opened ourselves up more fully to the company of Jesus of Nazareth.

Now it is time to take another step, and that is to recover the mission of Jesus, to announce good tidings to the destitute, to throw off the shackles of prisoners, and give sight to the blind. We cannot be satisfied with merely repeating words of grace over and over until we somehow exorcise the memories of works righteousness and division. We must move on, for our own sakes, and for the sake of those who come after us.

But how do we take the next step? One thing we know about Jesus of Nazareth – he read and meditated on Scripture “day and night.” Like the ideal reader of Psalm 1, his reading was not a casual perusal of dusty tomes, but the sort of deep practice that keeps one up at night pacing the floor, turning over every word and idea in one’s mind and then moving out the next day to put a new insight into action. Jesus and those of us who read the Bible along with him act in this way because we have found that behind the ink spots on the page comes the voice of the living God.

Jesus certainly paid attention to the shape and flow of the text in front of him and sought its deep theological truths, rather than proof texts for what he already believed. His encounter with Scripture taught him to see beyond words that provided excuses to words that provided life. He sought not merely to satisfy a God of checklists and rules, but to love a God who worked vigorously to heal the nations. He taught us to read for the sake of the lost and even for those who were righteous in their own eyes so that we could be people who bring about unity, harmony, justice, and peace. So let us read along with him as prayerful people who serve, not the works of the flesh that we have discarded, but the life of the Spirit. Amen.New Wineskins

Mark Hamilton is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. Besides being the author and editor of several books, including The Transforming Word: A One-Volume Bible Commentary (ACU Press, 2008), he is the father of two teens, Nathan and Hannah, and the husband of Samjung. He loves playing basketball with his kids and watching professional baseball, especially the Red Sox. His calling in life is to help others draw closer to the gracious God revealed in Scripture and the Christian life.

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