Lessons from Jesus on how to apply scripture (part 1)
What can Jesus teach us about appropriating scripture for the purpose of discovering and fulfilling God’s will today?
The passage in Luke 4:16-30, which sets forth Jesus’s program, is very instructive in this regard. It’s difficult to know how much of this passage, if any, is historical and how much is purely theological, since the passage is unique to Luke. Luke is setting forth the mission and agenda of Jesus as he understands it. What I find fascinating is how Luke presents Jesus’s use of scripture and what we can learn from it.
First, we learn from Jesus that there are scriptures we need to let go of because they simply do not apply to us and they have nothing to do with God’s will for us today. Luke says,
When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:14-21).
Actually the reading from Isaiah above combines both Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6 (here we clearly see Luke’s hand). In the Isaiah 61 passage Jesus stops mid-sentence. Jesus ends his application of the scripture to himself with the phrase, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” which some scholars think is a kind of veiled reference to the year of Jubilee. On the year of Jubilee, which was to take place every fiftieth year, debts were forgiven and the land reverted back to the original owners. It was designed to prevent a wealthy class from emerging and to keep some equity in the economic system.
Jesus completely eliminates the next phrase in Isaiah 61 which reads, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus doesn’t cut it out of his Bible, but he does indeed dismiss it when speaking of his mission. Why? Very simply because Jesus (and Luke) did not believe that his mission was to execute the vengeance of God. That was not on his agenda. Jesus was all about forgiving sins and debts, bringing good news to the poor, healing the hurting, and liberating the oppressed, not executing vengeance.
I do not mean to imply, however, that Jesus never spoke of judgment. In fact, his language could be quite shockingly harsh when speaking about those who neglect and abuse the “little ones.” However, judgment was a sub-theme. A good case can be made that Jesus viewed God’s judgment as corrective, restorative, and redemptive, never simply as retributive or punitive.
The late brilliant Jewish scholar and mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel said this of the classical prophetic understanding of God’s anger, which could be applied to Jesus,
The anger of the Lord [in the prophets] is instrumental, hypothetical, conditional, and subject to His will. Let the people modify their line of conduct, and anger will disappear. . . . The call of anger is a call to cancer anger. . . . There is no divine anger for anger’s sake. Its meaning is, as already said, instrumental: to bring about repentance; its purpose and consummation is its own disappearance.The Prophets, 66
In addition to learning from Jesus that there are scriptures that do not apply to us and we can simply let go of, we learn second, that there are scriptures that do apply to us which we need to lay hold of.
In addition to claiming the two texts in Isaiah as central to his agenda it’s also fascinating to observe how Jesus makes use of scripture as his talk unfolds to challenge his own people’s religious and national exceptionalism (Luke 4:25-27). Drawing from 1 Kings 17:8-16, Jesus first points out that Elijah was sent to bless a Gentile woman in Sidon outside the bounds of God’s covenant with Israel.
Next, referencing the story in 2 Kings 5:1-14, Jesus emphasizes that Elisha healed the Syrian Naaman of his leprosy. To drive the point home Jesus points out that there were many widows in Israel God could have blessed and many lepers in Israel God could have healed, but instead God sent Elijah and Elisha to two non-Jews.
The people of Jesus’s hometown who heard him at first thought his words “gracious” when they thought that his mission exclusively focused on them. But when Jesus employed their own scriptures to confront their exceptionalism they were outraged and Luke says would have killed him if they could.
So what do we learn from Jesus about applying scripture to our lives today?
We learn first that all scriptures that relate to retribution, vengeance, and exclusion can be disregarded and dismissed when it comes to discovering God’s will for our personal lives and for the church. That was not Jesus’s agenda and should not be ours.
Second, we learn that we should give our utmost attention and devotion to those scriptures that highlight what Jesus was about, namely, care for the poor, liberation for the oppressed, enlightenment for the blind, freedom for the downtrodden, inclusion of the outcasts and marginalized, forgiveness for sins and debts, and compassion for all people.
Clearly for Jesus not all scripture carried equal authority and weight. Some scriptures could be intentionally neglected and dismissed, while other scriptures needed to be appropriated. If Jesus is our guide for applying scripture today, then it is clear what our focus should be and what we need to give our attention to.
(This post was originally published at the Unfundamenalists Christians blog)