As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13, NIV)
In my last post, I touched on how interpreting the Bible — which we all do, in ways we’re aware of and unaware of — can become a sort of groupthink for churches and Christian groups. It’s “what we all think” and “what we’ve always thought,” in the way Jesus’ critics were certain that his healing work and concern for the needs of human beings over law-keeping violated the Sabbath. Jesus offered them a different interpretation of Scripture, one that read everything through the lenses of doing good/saving life. For Jesus, the question of what’s good — what saves life — seems to have been one of his chief criteria for how to interpret the Bible.
It’s easy for “what we all think” and “what we’ve always thought” about Scripture to mute the self-awareness that’s necessary for us to recognize how our interpretations can end up doing more harm than good. That groupthink — especially around issues, doctrines, and texts that we’ve deemed especially important — can create difficulties in seeing any other possibilities.
I grew up in Churches of Christ, part of a loose association of churches known as the Restoration Movement. (The Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and a few others also trace their roots to the same movement.) It was originally a unity movement, and in fact Christians in several different organizations joined together to create it. These Christians differed about a lot of things, but they united on the basis of one assumption: that if they could find authority for everything they did in the Bible and gave up denominational differences, they would be able to get along. They could restore New Testament Christianity by obeying what the Bible clearly said, and, crucially, not dividing over what it didn’t say.
In order to do this, leaders of the movement identified two ways to determine what the Bible required: Commands and Examples. If God commanded it in Scripture, then it was essential. If there was an example of it in the Bible (especially the New Testament and especially Acts and the Epistles), then it was essential. This method of interpretation, this hermeneutic, did offer some clarity. But it also left some gray area about which we had no commands or examples, about which Christians might disagree.
Those two categories took some fine-tuning. Some commands and examples were considered nonessential: at least four times in Paul’s letters he tells a church that they should “greet one another with a holy kiss,” but I’ve never even attended a church that had “holy kiss time.” We sort of ignored examples of people speaking in tongues after being baptized (or sometimes before). Biblical examples of meeting places for the church include an upper room (probably in a house), temple courts, a lecture hall, and a house — never once a building owned by the church.
Our inconsistency demonstrates that it isn’t self-evident that the Bible is to be interpreted solely by the categories of Command and Example. It led to a de facto canon within a canon, which I’ll say more about in another post. It left a lot of gray area about which Christians might disagree.
And that was fine, as long as Christians were allowed to disagree. But one rule of interpretation that the church has lived with probably all its life is that we don’t like uncertainty about the Bible. We like clarity and agreement, and get pretty anxious when we don’t have it. And so we came up with a third category: Necessary Inference.
Much of this category was meant to free us up, I think. We’re commanded to meet together, and have the example of the early church meeting together. Therefore there needs to be a place to meet, whether rented, borrowed, or owned. Baptism is taught by command and example, so a baptistry is OK. We’re commanded to sing, so it’s OK to have someone leading the songs. But inference could also be used to be more restrictive; an example that comes to mind is the idea that Christians shouldn’t ever drink anything alcoholic because of the Bible’s frequent warnings against drunkenness. Is it a correct inference that having a drink leads to drunkenness? Of course not — though if you prefer not to drink, that’s an honorable choice.
Making necessary inference an interpretive category has led to binding burdensome rules that God hasn’t bound on believers who are trying their best already to please him.
Yes, we can learn from command, example, and sometimes even inference. In a lot of ways, a hermeneutic of commands, examples, and inferences might be easier and cleaner. But there’s a lot in Scripture that doesn’t fall neatly in to those categories. We need other ways to understand the Bible.
One way that Jesus interprets Scripture is similar to how a musician might “cover” another musician’s song. Take, for example, the events of Matthew 9. Jesus’ critics are using inference to try to take him down; he is suspect for sharing a meal with “sinners.” Nowhere do their Bibles actually say that it’s wrong to eat with a tax collector and his buddies; they infer this.
Jesus looks to the prophet Hosea to answer their criticism. There’s no direct command, example, or even inference here. Rather, the message Hosea receives from God is about what God wants. Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means; I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
You have to realize, Jesus’ world is different from Hosea’s. Seven or eight hundred years and an exile separate them. The synagogue, not the temple, is the center of religious life. Questions about sacrifices aren’t nearly as important as questions like who you can eat with. But Jesus “covers” Hosea by applying a text about the relative value of mercy and sacrifices to this controversy over whether it’s more important to God to be picky about your dinner companions or to show mercy to “sinners.”
Much of the Bible must be interpreted this way, if at all — by “covering” the biblical texts, playing our own variations on biblical themes, and spending time reflecting on what God desires and “what this means” in our own lives, among the people with whom we live.
Try it. Try it with “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” How does that apply to you and to the people you know? How would you “cover” Jesus’ words, or the prophets words, for our time? Again, that might not be as neat and easily verifiable as command, example, and inference. But it’s more true to the form of the Bible.
That’s what we’ll turn out attention to in the next post: interpreting the Bible by understanding the forms represented in it.