Love and Scripture
Updated: Dec 13, 2018
Even though the Bibles we read today are similar in content to the ancient scriptures around in Jesus’ day, the way we read them is remarkably different. Today, Bibles are primarily read by individuals for morning devotions, in homes/churches and other relatively domestic, private, secluded places to inspire spiritual feelings in individuals or increase one’s personal knowledge. Scriptures are usually handled like “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” The dominant metaphor I hear us using to support our contemporary scripture reading/memorization habits is the idea of “hiding God’s word in one’s heart” (Psalm 119).
Not that personal, domestic, or devotional scripture reading didn’t exist anywhere in the ancient world, but when Matthew’s gospel was written, the reading and interpretation of scripture was much more of a matter of public, legal discourse and political debate. The only analogy in American history that would seem to come anywhere close would be the social discourse about slavery that led up to the Civil War, which featured a number of public interpretations and political debates concerning the significance of biblical passages about slavery. In those days, nobody was asking, “How can I get inspiration from this passage?” They were arguing over what the Bible’s teaching on slavery commanded for their real, public actions in society today.
So it would not have been all that surprising, or a particularly unwelcome thing, for a Rabbi like Jesus to be engaged in an argument over scriptural interpretation in a very public place, particular near the temple in Jerusalem, like he is multiple times in chapter 22 of Matthew’s gospel. There was no separation of church and state, no privatization or domestication of biblical interpretation such as we know today. If they were going to talk about the Bible, it was going to be in public discourse. The first argument he engages in is about the idea of a future, general bodily resurrection from the dead, featuring a story that seems to be derived from the apocryphal book of Tobit, chapter 3. This was an issue people loved to argue about back then, perhaps because it was largely hypothetical, concerned the distant future, and there were relatively few scriptures to support the idea either way. So it was relatively “safe” to have different opinions about it. I can’t help but think it was a lot like Calvinists and Wesleyans arguing over things like predestination or free will.
And, while it would not be terribly unusual for a Rabbi like Jesus to weigh in with his own interpretation on the matter at hand, the way Jesus comes across is awfully direct: “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (v. 29). He defends the resurrection as if he had firsthand knowledge about the subject, and then supports his explanation with a…let’s say: highly creative interpretation of a passage from Genesis, one of the core books of the Hebrew Bible, Torah.
The second argument Jesus engages in gets closer to the heart of what Jesus has to say about interpreting the scriptures. The Pharisees ask him what is the greatest commandment in the law. Their Bible did not say. This question was a matter of interpretation, one that had long been at the heart of Jewish biblical interpretation. Rabbi Hillel said, “Do not do to your neighbor what you would not wish him to do to you. That is the whole law, the rest is just commentary.” Rabbi Akiba would say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19). Rabbi Samalai would go on to say, “the just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Jesus answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Deuteronomy 6) And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19) On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (vv. 37-40).
Jesus has answered well, confidently, demonstrating command of their biblical scholarship as well as a deeper spiritual kind of knowledge or intuition about the subject. Finally, he raises a question for them about the Christological interpretation of a Davidic Psalm. He raises a question, but he does not answer! He leaves it at that, suggesting that the purpose of scripture is not only to answer questions, but also to raise them. In raising this question, he calls for a spiritual interpretation of the passage as inspired “by the Spirit,” but then leaves that work to us as readers, I suppose…
Besides the interpretation of scripture, using the Bible to reform our lives in this world and learn more about our future in God, the other theme that ties all these episodes in chapter 22 together would seem to be the message of God’s Holy Spirit of Love. If we understand that the “power,” “love,” and “Spirit” Jesus talks about in these passages are roughly synonymous, signs pointing in the same direction, then the message is: we can’t interpret scripture rightly without the Spirit of love.
The Spirit of love is not just an overriding principle, or even just a great commandment, but is the very person of God, the third person of the Trinity, if you will, present to help God’s people interpret scripture, as well as the world around us, and guide us into “all truth” (John 16:13). If, at the end of the day, we think the scriptures mean anything but love, we’ve heard them wrongly. We’ve lost the Spirit’s inspiration within the sometimes difficult, perplexing words of scripture, and have failed to see the forest for the trees.
But of course, we don’t have to be lost in the pages of scripture, or afraid of public discourse, even argument about the truth. We can not only hide God’s word in our hearts, but can also speak God’s word from the heart with the help of the Holy Spirit. Or, if we are not sure, at least we have this promise from Jesus: that God, our loving Father, will certainly give the Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13). And in the Spirit, “we shall not full direction need, nor miss our providential way; as far from danger as from fear while love, almighty love, is near,” whether we are trying to find our way in the Bible or in today’s world. (Charles Wesley)
1.What arguments have you been in about the Bible, about religion or politics, theological or spiritual things? How did they end?
2. How can the Bible, with all of its violent language and imagery of war, sacrifice, and conquest, be said to be all about the love of God and neighbor in the end?
3. What lessons can we take away from the style or content of Jesus’ model of public discourse and biblical interpretation to make us better disciples of Jesus and seekers of the truth?