Today we will continue looking at the way Jesus used the Scriptures with some specific examples:
- He openly disagrees with Scriptures that emphasize non-essentials and “mere human commandments” that made their way into what are presented as divine commandments (see Mark 7:1-23 and almost all of Matthew 23).
- He consistently and openly flouts seemingly sacred taboos like not working on the Sabbath, not meeting with women, not eating with sinners and non-Jews, not touching lepers, and purity codes in general. He is shamed and criticized for ignoring: sacred hand washing (see Luke 11:38, for example); taboos against touching the dead, unclean people, and unclean foods; and the practice of stoning women adulterers. Jesus has Jewish common sense and can never be called a legalist or a “conservative.” In fact, he is accused of being a libertarian and a non-ascetic, instead of following the strict fasting of John the Baptist and his disciples (see Matthew 9:14).
- Jesus reduces the 613 clear biblical commandments down to two: love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40).
- He minimizes or even replaces commandments, as when he tells the rich young man that it is all fine and good that he has obeyed the Ten Commandments, but what he really needs to do is sell everything and give the money to the poor (see Mark 10:21).
- He omits troublesome verses with which he does not agree, as when he drops the final half verse from the Isaiah scroll when he first reads in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:18-19). The audience would be familiar with the final line of Isaiah 61:2: “to proclaim a day of vengeance from our God.” Yet Jesus ends earlier with “proclaims the Lord’s day of favor.” There he goes again, light and easy with the sacred text! Good Protestants would call that “selectively quoting” and pious Catholics would call it “cafeteria Catholicism.”
- Jesus uses Scripture in rather edgy ways to defend people, like when he says that David went into the temple and took the loaves of offering to feed his troops (Mark 2:26) or tells the story of the poor man who works on the Sabbath to get his donkey out of a ditch (Luke 14:5). His general principle seems to be summarized in his famous line that “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This sounds a lot like what many Christians would today call “mere humanism” or “situation ethics.”
- Jesus feels free to reinterpret the Law—for example, when he says, six times in a row, “The Law says . . . but I say” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48).
The key text for us to explore in this section will come from Jesus’ inaugural sermon at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth found in the Gospel of Luke (4:16-30).
To be fair, many critical scholars see the hand of the Gospel editor all over this text, noting that many phrases are typical of Luke. Nevertheless, I suspect that there is an authentic story underlying this text inasmuch as Jesus’ first sermon almost gets him killed.
There is also a tremendous congruity with how Jesus interprets the Scripture in this text and his way of understanding both theology and ethics that we find in his teaching, e.g., in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6).
I’d like to offer some spiritual advice so that you can read Scripture the way that Jesus did and use it for good purposes.
Offer a prayer for guidance from the Holy Spirit before you make your interpretation of an important text. With an open heart and mind, seek the attitude of a beginner and learner. Pray as long as it takes to feel any certitudes loosen.
Once you have attained some degree of openness, try to move to a position of detachment from your own egoic will and its goals and desires—to be correct, to be secure, to stay with the familiar. This might take some time, but without such freedom from your own need for control, you will invariably make a text say what you need and want it to say.
Then you must listen for a deeper voice than your own, which you will know because it will never shame or frighten you, but rather strengthen you, even when it is challenging you. If it is God’s voice, it will take away your illusions and your violence so completely and so naturally that you can barely identify with such previous feelings! I call this God’s replacement therapy. God does not ask and expect you to do anything new until God has first made it desirable and possible for you to do it. Grace cannot easily operate under coercion, duress, shame, or guilt.
If your understanding of Scripture leads you to experience any or several of the fruits of the Spirit—
- gentleness, and
(Galatians 5:22-23)—I think you can trust that this interpretation is from the Spirit, from the deeper stream of wisdom.
As you read, if you sense any negative or punitive emotions like
- morose delight,
- feelings of superiority,
- arrogant dualistic certitude,
- desire for revenge,
- need for victory, or
- a spirit of dismissal or exclusion,
you must trust that this is not Jesus’ hermeneutic at work, but your own ego still steering the ship.
Remember the temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:3-10). Three temptations to the misuse of power are listed:
- religious, and
Even Jesus must face these subtle disguises before he begins his public ministry. Only when he has found freedom from his own egoic need for power can Jesus teach with true inner authority and speak truth to the oppressive powers of his time.
Jesus’ approach to interpreting sacred text was radical for his time, yet honored his own Hebrew Bible (or what Christians call the Old Testament). Even though Jesus’ use of Scripture is plain enough for us to see in the Gospels, many Christians are accustomed to reading the Bible in a very different way. We simply haven’t paid attention and connected the dots! Over the next couple days, I’ll share some examples that reveal Jesus’ hermeneutic so that we might follow his methodology:
- 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).
- Jesus talks much more out of his own experience of God and humanity instead of teaching like the scribes and Pharisees, who operated out of their own form of case law by quoting previous sources.
- 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). His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than sola Scriptura. He even quotes some sources seemingly incorrectly (for example, John 10:34)!
- Jesus never once quotes from nineteen of the books in his own Scriptures. In fact, he appears to use a very few favorites:
- Hosea, and
- Psalms—and those are overwhelmingly in Matthew’s Gospel, which was directed to a Jewish audience.
- Jesus appears to ignore most of his own Bible, yet it clearly formed his whole consciousness. That is the paradox. If we look at what he ignores, it includes any passages—of which there are many—that appear to legitimate violence, imperialism, exclusion, purity, and dietary laws. Jesus is a biblically formed non-Bible quoter who gets the deeper stream, the spirit, the trajectory of his Jewish history and never settles for mere surface readings.
- When Jesus does once quote Leviticus, he quotes the one positive mandate among long lists of negative ones: “You must love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).