Interpreting the Bible: But I Say Unto You …

bible.jpgAdditional important examples of Jesus’ hermeneutics are found in the Sermon on the Mount. Early in the sermon, Jesus declares,

(Matt. 5:17-18) “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Jesus then gives several examples of bad interpretations of the Law of Moses and gives his own interpretation, giving us a marvelous example of the contrast between flawed and perfect hermeneutics.

I have on my shelf a book on divorce and remarriage by a “progressive” author that says that Jesus is “legislating” in this Sermon. He is not. He actually says that he is not overruling the Law–he is fulfilling the Law. And the examples that follow make better sense if we understand Jesus as teaching us how to understand God’s will as already expressed in the Old Testament, not legislating new rules.

(Matt. 5:21-26) “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

These three paragraphs are often interpreted as three “rules.” But grammatically and contextually, they are all interpretations of the command not to murder.

In the first paragraph, Jesus tells us that belittling our brother is the moral equivalent of murder. This is not an obvious conclusion. I mean, most of us would far prefer to have someone angry at us than kill us!

But Jesus understands that actions come from the heart. Murder follows anger. Therefore, anger is wrong as well.

And name calling is not merely to insult someone. It’s to take away their humanity. In times of war, the soldiers refer to the enemy as “gooks,” “krauts,” “nips,” or “towel heads,” because it’s easier to kill a kraut than a fellow human.

Just so, when we call someone “nigger” or “fool,” we not only insult them, but we also make them a little less human. I should feel sorry for a hungry or poor human. I don’t need to feel that way about a “nigger.”

Jesus again surprises by requiring us to work things out with our adversaries. If we have a disagreement with someone, it’s incumbent on us to try to resolve the issue. Compromise is commanded. Why? Because our adversary is human, too. Both he and I are made in God’s image. God loves us both. Therefore, my goal is not victory (that is, his defeat) but reconciliation.

Hold grudges and pushing disputes to the limit only creates anger–and sometimes even murder. Winning at any cost is not Christian because it doesn’t respect the dignity of the person we want to defeat.

“Thou shalt not murder” thus becomes “Treat everyone with the dignity God has given them.” After all, do this, and you won’t be a murderer.

(Matt. 5:27-32) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

Again, we typically interpret these two paragraphs as distinct commands, even legislation. We take the first as hyperbole. We never actually dig out our eyes! (and we go on lusting …) We treat the second paragraph as law.

However, they are part of the same thought. Read them together and they mean something like the following. A married man is bound to his wife. He may not lust after other women. He therefore may not divorce her marry someone else, as he had no business even looking at another woman, much less falling in love with her. He may not have had sex with her while he was married, but he nonetheless broke his marriage vows–and was not one with his wife–when he began flirting with another woman. You can’t avoid violating the command against adultery just by divorcing your wife before having sex.

Just so, when you divorce your wife, you make her guilty of violating her covenant with you and with God. You are a double sinner–you break your vow and you make her break her vow.

Now, this is hardly a comprehensive discussion of the doctrine of divorce and remarriage. For that, click here. The point is simply that Jesus is looking through the rule to the heart of the rule, to its purpose.

The command not to commit adultery can’t be rationalized. Rather, the point of the command is to be one with your wife, and so you may not allow yourself to be attracted to other women.

(Matt. 5:33-37) “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Some have taken this teaching and turned it into a rule that Christians may not take oaths. Some will “solemnly affirm” that they are telling the truth but won’t “swear.” It’s the same thing!

Jesus’ point is not to make a law. It’s to protect us from law and show us the way of the Spirit. Tell the truth. Don’t lie. Follow that simple rule and you won’t have to worry about whether an oath is binding.

(Matt. 5:38-42) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

The Rabbis never gouged out eyes or pulled teeth for punishment. Rather, they correctly interpreted this part of the Law of Moses as teaching that punishment should fit the crime. The fine or jail term should match the severity of the crime.

Jesus says that some had misinterpreted this passage as allowing vengeance–especially disproportionate vengeance–steal a dollar from me and I’ll take your house! (Sounds a lot like the American legal system, doesn’t it?)

However, he tells us that our attitude should be the opposite of vengeance. Rather, we should treat people better than they deserve. After all, this is how God treats us! He’s not saying we should enable criminals to live lives of crime. This does no one any good. Rather, we should love people and give them more than we have to.

The Law of Moses required the Israelites to lend to the poor, even if they knew they wouldn’t be paid back. It was a way to support the needy while protecting their dignity. Hence, v. 42 is a command to help the poor–not a command to willfully allow yourself to be taken advantage of. That’s not good for the person taking advantage of you.

Again, the natural human tendency is to seek vengeance and to do no more than we have to. Jesus tells us to be like God–filled with grace and forgiveness (v. 48).

(Matt. 5:43-47) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

The Law of Moses taught the Jews to love their neighbors. Some evidently considered only their fellow Jews neighbors. But just as Jesus taught in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbor is whoever needs us to be his neighbor.

Jesus reasons from the personality of God. God loves everyone and so must we.

(Matt. 5:48) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The point isn’t for us to be sinless. The word translated “perfect” can also mean complete or mature. Rather, the point is that we are interpret the commands in light of who God is–even to the point of letting God be an example of how to live the commands. And we should ask ourselves: what did God want to accomplish with this command? How can we be like God?

And then, rather than narrowing the command to its literal words, we should interpret as broadly as necessary to accomplish God’s purpose. And his purpose will always be based on love for us and others.

(Matt. 7:12) “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

This, of course, is the Golden Rule. “Sums up” is “is” in the Greek. The Golden Rule is the Law and the Prophets, that is, the entirety of God’s will as expressed in the Old Testament.

Jesus isn’t saying that he’s legislating a new rule. This is the OLD rule and the NEW rule. Same God … same rule.

Hence, the only portions of the Law that are truly law are those commands that interpret the Golden Rule. Why not murder? Well, would you want to be murdered? Why not commit adultery or steal? How would you feel if it happened to you?

And why is the Golden Rule the standard? Because it expresses the heart of God: love each other. And so the Golden Rule becomes a standard by which false and true interpretations can be tested.

Is it okay to call people names? No need to pull out the Ten Commandments. Just ask what the Golden Rule teaches.

But this also tells us which interpretations of the New Testament are false. The commands that matter are the commands that reflect the love of God and the Golden Rule. As previously explained, we should flee positive law. God does not make arbitrary rules. He doesn’t make rules just to test us.

Nor does God hide rules. Jesus’ teaching at first seems complicated and obscure. But on reflection, this only because we’ve tried to turn it into legislation. But if we see it as commentary on the Golden Rule and the command to love our neighbors, it should be clear.

Certainly, there will always be situations where the right answer is difficult. But it will never be because the rule is obscure. It’s really simple–love God and love your neighbor. The rest is commentary.

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