Lessons from Jesus on how to apply scripture (part 2)
What was behind Jesus’s use of scripture? In my last blog, I noted that there were some scriptures Jesus let go of while others he held on to, some scriptures he ignored while others he emphasized, some scriptures he dismissed while others he applied to his own mission and ministry.
What guided his process of sorting through the inconsistencies, contradictions, different perspectives, and theological views in his Hebrew traditions and scriptures to discover and discern God’s will for his life and for the world? The scriptures themselves that pass on to us the Jesus traditions give us hints. The answer is not explicit, but it is implicit.
In the Synoptic Gospels, before Jesus begins his ministry, he encounters God at his baptism by John. Mark’s version says,
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
I read this metaphorically, not literally, but the description above depicts a vivid, mystical encounter with God, which functions both as a revelation of God and a revelation to Jesus of his true self as a beloved son of God.
John’s Gospel describes Jesus’s baptismal encounter with God from the perspective of John the Baptist,
And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:32-33)
So, from the outset of Jesus’s ministry, Jesus is described as a Jewish mystic, a Spirit-endowed, Spirit-filled person who is capable of immersing others in the same Spirit. The Synoptics speak of Jesus being led and filled with the Spirit, and the Gospel of John (which is sometimes called the mystical Gospel) often speaks of Jesus’s intimate awareness and experience of God employing union language like: “The Father and I are one” (10:30); “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:38), etc.
Joachim Jeremias was one of the first scholars to call attention to Jesus’s description of God as Abba, an intimate, personal term for Father that a Jewish child would use affectionately, sometimes paraphrased as “Daddy.” Jeremiah has been proven wrong in his assertion that this term was unique to Jesus. Other scholars have shown that it is a term that was used by other Jews to address God, and was not used exclusively by young children to speak intimately of their father (adult children used the term as well). Nevertheless, it was a term used quite often by Jesus to reflect his intimate experience of God. (Abba is, of course, Aramaic and the very fact that it occurs twice in the Greek New Testament transliterated, rather than translated, demonstrates how important this designation of God was to Jesus’s early followers).
While the Hebrew scriptures speak of God’s tender-loving care for the creation, they most often speak of God in transcendent and monarchical terms as “king,” “ruler,” “almighty,” or “holy.” The common Hebrew admonition is to “fear” God; not in the sense of “be afraid of God,” but rather, reverence or respect God. Some distance between God and the creation is implied.
Jesus never denied the transcendence of God — God as “other” or as “holy,” though he interpreted holiness as a holiness of compassion, rather than purity. (Jesus frequently violated purity laws, which the Hebrew scriptures attributed to God, in favor of compassion toward human need.) Jesus spoke frequently of the closeness and nearness of God. He spoke of the kingdom of God as being “within” or “among” human beings (Luke 17:21) and emphasized God’s intimate care over the creation, especially God’s human children (Matt. 6:25-33). Jesus didn’t learn this from his Hebrew traditions and scriptures as much as he did from his own personal experience of Abba.
Another hint that Jesus drew from his own personal experience of God as much as from his Hebrew traditions and scriptures is seen in his instruction to love enemies,
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:27-36).
Certainly there are many passages in the Hebrew scriptures that speak of God’s steadfast love and compassion for God’s covenant people, Israel, but few texts that extend that same love and compassion toward Israel’s enemies and those outside the covenant relationship. There are exceptions, like the book of Jonah, that challenges the conventional and popular theology of Jewish exceptionalism, but they are clearly a minority voice. The covenant with Abraham contains a universal emphasis stating very clearly that God’s intent is to bless the nations, not just Israel, a blessing that is envisioned in several prophetic texts. Rarely, however, does the reader see this given much emphasis in the overall narrative.
Jesus’s depiction of God as a God who loves those set squarely against God and God’s covenant people was most likely drawn from his own personal experience of God, rather than his Hebrew traditions and scriptures. In other words, his own experience of God led him to side with the minority voice in the Hebrew scriptures rather than the conventional more popular voice that spoke of a God who takes vengeance on Israel’s enemies.
So if we let Jesus’s personal experience of God be the lens through which we read and apply scripture, then we will follow his example of ignoring, dismissing, and relinquishing those scriptures that depict a vengeful, war-mongering, exclusive God, and we will acknowledge, embrace, and cling to those scriptures that describe a compassionate, peace-seeking, inclusive God.
There is a story I love to tell, which I first heard from Richard Rohr, that beautifully illustrates the limitations of scripture for discovering God’s will in a particular context. A Jewish fugitive was fleeing the Nazis who had just overtaken his small village. He fled to the door of the pastor of the village church seeking refuge. The pastor had been warned that any person or family caught hiding a Jew would not only bring the wrath of the Nazis upon their house but upon the whole village. So the pastor had the young man step inside, while he went to pray for guidance and read the scriptures. As the pastor prayed and searched the scriptures, he came upon the verse that read, “It is better for one man to die, than the whole people perish.” Feeling confident that he had his answer, and though it was hard for him to do, he turned the young man out to an almost certain death. That night an angel appeared and confronted the pastor. “What have you done?” asked the angel. The pastor explained how he prayerfully sought guidance through the scriptures. The angel said, “If you would have looked into his eyes, you would have seen that that young man you turned away was the Christ.”
One could say that Jesus did the opposite of the pastor in the story. Jesus looked straight into the eyes of God and met a completely nonviolent, justice-loving, peace-seeking, forgiving, compassionate Abba. Out of that experience he knew what scriptures and traditions were harmful or helpful, life-diminishing or life-enhancing, oppressive or liberating.
I’m not suggesting we excise from our Bibles all the punitive and petty texts we come across. They still have instructive value. What they teach us, however, is not what God is like or what God’s will is for our lives, but how people of God who think they know God can get God so very wrong.
Perhaps the most important value of our sacred scriptures is that they invite us into the struggle to know God and to discern and appropriate God’s will for our lives. They keep God before us on center stage. The scriptures do not offer us easy, simple, or even correct answers, but they confront us with the questions that really matter. If we put our trust in the God of Jesus, then we too like Jesus will gravitate toward the truly enlightened, transformative texts that can help transform our personal lives, communities, and our world.
(This piece first appeared at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog.)