One day, a teacher, a person who studied the bible for a living, asked Jesus a question that is on the mind of anyone who wonders what happens when we die. Jesus answered with another question. And His question is critical to anyone hoping to answer the question posed by the teacher.
The Good News Translation reconstructs the question Jesus asked as, “What do the Scriptures say? How do you interpret them?” Jesus acknowledged that the teacher’s answer was good. But the teacher wasn’t satisfied and asked a followup question.
This is the nature of biblical interpretation. We try to answer Jesus’ question. But try as we do, we have followup questions. And just as we think we reached a point of consensus, more questions arise. God invites each of us to look for answers. And to keep an open mind to the possibility that the answer is not what we expect.
Throughout history, humankind interpreted scripture and lived out their interpretation. The more convinced the teachers were that they finally figured it out, the more society became indifferent to the suffering of those victimized by their understanding. The gospel stories are rich with illustrations that illuminate the pitfalls of certainty when it comes to biblical interpretation. For any who believe they finally figured it all out, the gospel is less a story of revelation filled with new possibilities, and more like a recipe book.
The colossal failure of the current administration is renewing interest among psychologists to determine how we arrive at different conclusions given the same results. In a recent opinion article in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall offers a reflection on several theories. One of the questions raised by his article considers why we don’t agree on whether scientific information should drive policy decisions.
His article reminded me of a concept from sociology known as cultural lag. Cultural lag is how long it takes society to acknowledge a brewing problem in sufficient numbers to address it. Climate change comes to mind. For me, and thankfully the vast majority of people, this growing problem must be solved now. Yet, there remains a large enough group who prefer to let it go for now.
My own political ideology changed over the past fifty years. Which party’s platform I supported flopped back and forth a few times. My approach to choosing the person that got my vote depended on my assessment of the candidate’s character. I don’t have to agree with a candidate on every issue, but I want to trust them when they think no one is watching. Integrity and transparency are essential attributes for me. But that’s me.
One of the greatest benefits of democracy is that diverse opinions are voiced and debated. And as frustrating as it can be to hear the arguments from persons that see the world differently than I do, I’m grateful that my ideas aren’t always the ones that win out. I’ve been wrong enough times to realize that collective wisdom is far superior. And humans are terrible at mitigating their own power.
Edsall’s article recounted a well-known quote found in an article by John Stuart Mill, titled “On Liberty.” His quote captures the importance of accepting the possibility that our ideas about a particular subject are entirely wrong. Trusting a person’s judgment should be based on a perception of whether the person can listen to opposing views. And whether they admit when they are wrong, and go a different direction than they initially planned. Democracy relies on this sort of leader.
Sadly, in politics, political candidates are apt to cite examples of flipping on particular issues to demean their opponents. While consistency and even a little stubbornness are helpful in public debate, a healthy democracy depends on finding common ground. And our collective ability to respond to new information, such as global warming, determines our future.
The church is among the oldest institutions. Withstanding changes in national borders, new ways of thinking, monumental shifts in culture, such as the enlightenment, the church weathered numerous storms. Some argue that the church’s stubbornness to give-in to new ideas is one of the church’s greatest strengths.
The church is not a democracy in its purest sense. It is a monarchy with Jesus Christ as the ultimate authority over all matters. Yet, God appears to leave mere humans in charge of decision making, using an ancient book of laws, stories, poetry, letters, declarations, and history, as a guide. “What do I do if…” questions come up every day. And we who claim some authority in this ancient institution, are expected to use scripture as a reference to guide our answer.
This was true before the time of Jesus, and it was true when the teacher asked his question about eternal life. While our scriptures expanded after the time of Jesus, most of what we have available today existed before that day.
What do the Scriptures say? How do you interpret them?
“What must I do to receive eternal life?” the teacher asked. And Jesus answered him, “What do the Scriptures say? How do you interpret them?”
We call our new series Shameless. This title comes from a book of the same name. The author raises our awareness of this issue of interpretation and its impact on the answer the teacher gave.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” the teacher answered “You are right,” Jesus replied; “do this, and you will live.”
I pray that you will join us each Sunday morning at 10:30 am. We plan to be live via webinar, through Facebook live, or you can call (929) 436-2866 and enter the meeting number — 324 841 204. We go live at 10:30 am. You can find these links along with more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.