Recently, I wrote about the challenge we face when we are taught to “do what the Bible says,” as though it is a rulebook. Specifically, I wrote about the challenges of genre, context, and authority. I ended with this:
“ All that to say, when we ignore these challenges of genre, context, and authority, we wield the Bible in very problematic and hypocritical ways. We need to wrestle with these and struggle with them together, rather than calling our own assumptions the truth of the Bible and then excluding people on that basis.
How do we do that? What do we do? That’s for another post. But I’ll give you some hints:
1. Look for how Jesus interpreted the Bible. If we have to pick and choose, why not look for how Jesus did it?
2. Develop a personal ethic within diverse community: finding diversity not only in culture, race, gender, and sexual orientation, but also from experts in ethics, a local church community, and yes, the Bible (based on #1 above).
3. Be open to change as we learn more. For some reason, we think of ethics like its God: unchanging and unmovable. Rather, ethics should be viewed more like science: always learning and open to improvement.”
So for today, let’s look at how Jesus interpreted the Bible. It seems reasonable that if we are supposed to follow Jesus it might be helpful to follow how he uses his Bible (which of course would have only included the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament). While this is a big topic with a lot of branches, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Jesus’s Interpretation is People-Centered
The Jesus we see in the Gospel of Mark seems intent on challenging the rule-making and burdensome interpretations of the religious leaders, instead seeing Scriptures as a tool to bring healing and life to people. Jesus begins his ministry by calling his disciples and healing people and then the next several episodes we have recorded seem to challenge the pastors of Jesus’s day.
Episode 1: Jesus eats with sinners, the teachers of the law imply that he should not be, and Jesus replies: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
Episode 2: Jesus’s disciples pick heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. “24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:24-28)
Episode 3: Jesus went to synagogue on a Sabbath and healed a man, knowing that the teachers of the law would accuse him of breaking the rules. The text says: “3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” 4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. (Mark 3:3-5)*
For me, Mark gives me permission to do the same. It might do us well to substitute Jesus’s words about the Sabbath with the Bible: “The Bible was made for man, not man for the Bible.” That is to say, the Bible is a tool to bring healing and life to people. If a reading of the Bible does not, it is not a Jesus-shaped reading.
Jesus’s Interpretation is Love-Centered
Related to our first point, a Jesus-shaped reading of the Bible is love-centered. Again, we find examples of this in Mark where healing takes precedence over abstract understanding. But more pointedly, Mark again captures Jesus saying something very profound about how the Bible (in their case, the Torah) guides us. When asked what the most important commandments are, Jesus replies, “29The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
Jesus is pretty clear here and says the same in Matthew 22. In fact, Matthew records it as Jesus ending by saying, “40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:40) In other words, the proper interpretation of the Law and Prophets (we might extrapolate that to include the entire Bible) is through a lens of love. I appreciate St. Augustine’s interpretation of Jesus’s words here in his book On Christian Doctrine:
“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”
In my mind, when we begin to read our Bible in a Jesus-shaped way, that is, when it is people-centered and love-centered, we naturally will do steps two and three above.
Being people-centered and love-centered leads us away from reading the Bible as a moral rulebook and invites us to ask the question: what does being people-centered and love-centered look like today?
Which is another way of asking: what do I think love looks like in my context?
And when we realize how critical that question is, we begin to be open to change as we learn more. Rather than thinking of ethics like its God (unchanging and unmovable) we start to see ethics as a tool that we can use to love people better. In other words, maybe we can again substitute Jesus’s words in Mark 2.
“The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”
“The Bible was made for people, not people for the Bible.”
“Ethical principles are made for people, not people for ethical principles.”
* For more examples of this, see also Mark 7:1-23