About Me

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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Big Question...even Bigger Answer!

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denari and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, ESV)

Who is my neighbor? It is a question full of import and weight. And if most of us are honest with ourselves , we probably ask it with much the same mindset as the Pharisee in Luke 10. After all, if there is someone who can be excluded from the list, then our disrespect, our low opinions, or even our relative apathy toward others has a loophole. Love is big call – it is an act of the will, a commitment, not simply to tolerate someone, but to seek the best for them; to give our best to them; and to relate to them with forgiveness, compassion, and benevolence. Indeed, “who is my neighbor” is one of the biggest questions we will ever ask.

It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that the answer should be just as big. And the answer comes in the form of a story. The story Jesus tells in response to the Pharisee's question is probably the story Christianity has done the most damage to in terms of where we have taken it versus what Christ intended by it. Commonly known as the story of the Good Samaritan, the early Church Fathers typically allegorized the parable of the Good Samaritan – ingeniously piecing the elements together to make it the story of man’s fall and redemption, but in doing so, ripping it out of its context and causing it to offer no real answer to the question. Modern interpreters have too often made the story into an almost vacuous reflection on the importance of helping people – suggesting that the point of the story is that we should be like the Samaritan in the story and help those who are different then us. While this approach does generally offer a response to the question and is instructive in the example given, I believe it fails to hit us as directly and completely as Jesus intended and, in fact, works more to confirm our prideful heart than to correct it.

As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart point out, the most important aspect of interpreting a parable of Jesus is asking who is the audience He is telling the story to* – what are their prejudices, what is their theological baggage, and what is the response Jesus is trying to elicit from them because of their perceptions? In other words, their response to the story is as important to understanding its meaning as the content itself. In this particular case, as the Pharisee is hearing the story, he would have assumed that the neighbor was the wounded man. Hearing of the priest and Levite’s failure to love their neighbor, he would have thought to himself, “I would expect as much from them,” since although they were fellow Jews, they would have been from rival parties within Judaism. Certainly, he thought, as the climax of the story approached, Jesus would use a Pharisee (since Jesus’ himself would have been categorized as someone of the pharisaic tradition) to help the man out and he could walk away having been given a good example to live by and having a renewed commitment to try harder to help those around him. But Jesus is not interested in confirming the Pharisees prejudices and making him feel good about his commitment – Jesus is trying to break through a prideful and calloused heart. So, the hero is a Samaritan! In the eyes of the Pharisee, a sinner in every possible description of the word – he didn’t worship correctly, he questioned the truthfulness of the Torah, and he lived in state of thorough uncleanness! God couldn’t love him and so therefore I certainly don’t have to! And therein is the meaning of the parable – those feelings of anger, hatred, disbelief that such a person would be used as a positive example experienced at that moment laid bare the fact that this Pharisee did not love his neighbor, because in the eyes of the Pharisee, his neighbor wasn’t worthy of love. And so Jesus asked him, “Which of these three proved to be a neighbor?” Forcing the Pharisee to consider the possibility that someone so unclean could be his neighbor too. The Pharisees response is telling…he can’t even name him! All he can say is, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus’ point had been made and so all that was left was the challenge – you go love that Samaritan!

When we read this story some of the power of it has been lost because most of us relate more closely to the Samaritan than we do to the Jew. We hear the story much as the Pharisee first thought he was going to hear it – someone like me (a Gentile) is going to be the hero, so we can walk away having been given a good example to live by and with a renewed commitment to try harder to help those around us. But, rephrase the hero into someone we consider unclean and unworthy and we will hear it as it was intended. As verse 33 begins, input “But an activist homosexual, as he journeyed to where he was…” or “a radical Muslim” or “a leftist democrat,” or for my left leaning friends “a Tea Party activist” and you begin to feel the weight of the call to love our neighbors. If they bleed, they are not our enemy – they are our neighbor!

I’ll admit, I struggle with this mandate. It’s hard to see the value in others who voice opposition to my core beliefs and priorities, sometimes in expressing that opposition in a desire to kill me or those who believe as I do. But that is what I have been called to. That is what it means to take up my cross and to die to myself! That is what it means to be a disciple of the One who prayed on the cross for those who were crucifying Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”

One final note, because I feel it is necessary and because I know someone may assume certain things because of their omission. I am not saying we cannot challenge people with their false beliefs or call them to repentance for their sin. Disagreeing with someone is not the same as not loving them. To know someone is on the path of destruction and to say nothing about it is not love. But my goal and challenge is to model my approach after my Saviors when He met a Samaritan who was by every definition of the word “unclean.” He pointed her to the truth, He identified her sin, He corrected her misconceptions, He challenged her to holiness, and He offered her hope – simply by listening; recognizing her as a person, not a sin; and by revealing that He is the answer to every need she had. May I learn to do the same!

*Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Most of the interpretative directions of the comments that follow grow out of their observations and exegetical methodology…in fact, they themselves use this parable for their methodological example.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Part 2 – The Sacred Task of Interpretation… is for Everyone

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:14-18, ESV)

A question (or challenge) that often comes up when I raise the issue of proper biblical interpretation is, “What about those who don’t have knowledge about the historical background, knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and knowledge of the genres and idioms present in Scripture?” Such a question usually comes from those who desire to know God’s word, but are worried that somehow they fall short; whereas, the challenge usually comes from those who want to undermine the premise that there is a correct interpretation of the text or that their approach is somehow inadequate.

To the first group I would simply say that God’s word is a powerful tool that even in simply reading it, we experience things He wants us to – it will not return empty. The reality that we should all grow in our faith and understanding in no way undermines where we are at the moment and how God can use us, even in our limitations, to His greater purpose. To the second group I would simply say that, “Yes, the Bible is something all can understand.” But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be using the best means available to us and it also doesn’t mean that everyone understands all of it. Some of Scripture is easy to understand because it is a living word and God is a God of understanding, not confusion. But the gaps in time and experience between our world and theirs do render other parts difficult. Even in their day, some of it involves depth that strained even the trained in understanding. Didn’t Peter himself observe that some of the things Paul wrote were difficult to understand even as he challenged his readers to grow in wisdom and understanding (2 Peter 3:16)?

I stand by my assertion that not all interpretations are equal and those who are able to use such skills, in many cases, have a leg up on those who can’t. But I also do believe the Bible is accessible and capable of being interpreted by anyone who has a solid translation in their language. I believe previous generations, faithful servants all over the globe, and “average” Christians who simply want to study God’s word and glean truth from it can do so, even without the knowledge into historical backgrounds and the ancient languages? But this still comes through proper methodology.  All one need do is look at where the church sometimes went during the Middle Ages and where cults and sects still go today to see that my argument is valid.

I would suggest the following steps belong to every believer as they pursue understanding the Bible better and that all of them can happen, wherever a person is in their knowledge or physical location:

- Dependence on the Holy Spirit – For me, the issue is two-fold. First, bathing any reading in prayer for understanding and clarity and listening to the prodding of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to interpretation. Second, the Spiritual Gifts of knowledge and teaching play a fundamental role in whom we listen to. We do damage to the body of Christ if we fail to take note of the place of such gifts in the well ordered church and in our own learning experience (1 Corinthians 12, esp. 4-10).  I would trust an "untrained" believer who begins with the conviction that the Holy Spirit is necessary for interpretation over any brilliant scholar who didn't!

- Logical consistency – Understanding that the Bible will be consistent in what it communicates about God and our life before Him helps us avoid all sorts of interpretative mistakes. If there is an apparent inconsistency, the problem is in the interpretation of one, or both, of the texts involved. What is more, make this easy on yourself - let clear, repeated truths interpret hard to understand passages. I might not be able to tell you exactly what a particular difficult passage definitely means, but I can often tell you what it cannot mean based upon a multitude of texts elsewhere that say something else.

- Literary Context – Even if you cannot pinpoint all the rules connected to a specific genre, or even identify what genre every passage is connected to, common sense and general reading knowledge helps with conclusions. Proverbs are not the same as narratives, psalms/poems are not the same as letters. The biblical books, more often than not, will communicate what type of literature they are. Use your own general knowledge of that type of writing to help you know what you are looking for. Also, NEVER, EVER pick one verse out and run with it in interpretation without reading what precedes and follows it to understand where the entire argument is going.

- Multiple Translations – For someone who doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew, take the time to read the passage in multiple translations in your native language. If possible, find translations with different philosophies or ways of dealing with the original text. Use a translation that is a formal equivalent (word for word) and one that is a dynamic equivalent (thought for thought) in order to see both the specific words being used and how those words work together. I would strongly recommend not using Greek or Hebrew helps unless you have had training in Greek and Hebrew. More often than not, these helps and the observations they make can lead to faulty conclusions because languages are more nuanced than any help of this nature can provide.

Whatever we do, we need to remember that the text we are dealing with is Sacred. It is God’s revealed word, not a tool to be manipulated (even on a personal level) to our own ends. Take time with it, pray over it, and maintain a teachable spirit. God did not give us all the Spiritual Gift of knowledge and/or teaching, but He has given us all the Spirit that brings knowledge through His word. Submission to the teachings of the word and taking that responsibility seriously is an expectation for every believer – especially if we are sincerely pursuing our role as disciple makers.