Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Jesus Rewrites Scripture and So Can We

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said [this one thing]…but I say unto you [this other thing].” Y’all, Jesus is changing the bible! Not that there was a bible in his day or later when the gospels were being written, but there were scriptures: loose, separate scrolls, a very few with more than one book on them, and not necessarily all the books we have today. Plus they were reading some books as scripture that are not even in our Episcopal bible—which already has more books in it than Protestant bibles. Today’s lessons demonstrate that in more ways than one, Jesus’s understanding of scripture is different than ours and it just might be worth our while to figure out how so.

For example, it does not appear that Jesus took the bible literally, at least not all the time. Very Episcopalian of him. He doesn’t understand himself to be limited to or constrained by the words on the page. Jesus’s basic understanding of scripture here is that the scriptures are flexible and open to reinterpretation. He treats the scriptures as a living word to be read and interpreted anew. And he’s not alone in that. Heaven knows Paul and those writing in his name did the same thing, but that is an entirely different sermon. Sometimes I think the church has become so fixed on the words of scripture that we have lost sight of the models of if biblical interpretation in them.

Sometimes Jesus says something entirely contradictory to the text. Mostly he seems to be making it harder to do the right thing and some of what he says just seems flat out impossible. In the passages he reinterprets in our gospel today, Jesus accepts the basic meaning but recrafts them to say surprisingly more than they previously said. Jesus takes biblical interpretation to a whole other level.

Jesus quotes the commandment: ‘You shall not murder’ and then quotes something that is not in the bible with the authority of scripture: ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ What the Torah says was the same in his time as in ours: Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. No need for judgment, the sentence was already established. Taking it further, Jesus adds to the text: But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…

He does it again and again:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Holy One.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all…

These are some serious upgrades. What on earth is Jesus doing? I have an idea about that.

Jesus is teaching us how to read and interpret the scriptures.

Jesus is our example in all things. He is out teacher, our rabbi. We are to do what he did to the best of our ability. In this case, that means we are to wrestle with scripture, wrestle with the meaning, and when necessary, wrestle a blessing out of it, which means wrestling with those bruising passages that have been used to hurt us and so many others. That includes some of today’s lesson, verses of which have been used to keep folk in unsafe marriages, or ostracize other marriages, even in church.

It is tempting to say that these verses mean what Jesus said they mean for all time. But I believe that would miss the point of Jesus’s lesson here. Jesus is showing us, not just telling us—he understands pedagogy—Jesus is showing is that the scriptures are to be interpreted and reinterpreted in the context of their readers and hearers. His context wasn’t the same as what was already “in ancient times” by his time. And our context is not the same as his. In order to interpret the text, you have to know it. That means we’ve got to wade deeply into it and sometimes wrestle with it.

The bible is a complex text, actually it is a series of complex texts and it requires multiple reading strategies. Jesus calls us into a deep and mature faith and a deep and thoughtful relationship with the scriptures.

Again, Jesus is our exemplar. Jesus knew scripture. They were his scriptures and the scriptures of his people. They were in his language. He knew the inside jokes and cultural customs. Yes, Jesus embodied scripture, but don’t get hung up on him being the Son of God. For a moment, focus on the parts of Jesus’ life and example that we can emulate. Let’s not use his divinity as an excuse not to delve deeply into scripture. Jesus, Jesus, studied scripture. He taught scripture. And we are to be like him.

We need to immerse ourselves in the scriptures. Not just the ones we like, or the lectionary, but even the ones we don’t like or understand. Jesus doesn’t change scripture willy-nilly. His reinterpretations get to the heart of the text and go deeper. In all honesty he makes it harder.

Most of us can say I’ve never murdered anyone. But who on this earth has never been angry, never insulted anyone? That’s not possible. Jesus knows that. His revision of the text is not literal. But wait! What about murder? Shouldn’t we take that bit literally? Yes. But he’s mixing literal and non-literal readings. We can’t do that. Yes we can. He did and so can we.

The scriptures need to be interpreted and reinterpreted, continually. What’s more, we are to do the same thing, read and reread, interpret and reinterpret the scriptures in light of our context which is not the same as his, just as the first century wasn’t the same as the Middle Bronze Age in which so much of the bible is set.

So what about what Jesus says in the gospel? What are we to do with that? We are not to imagine that because we are not axe murderers that we are above reproach. Jesus is calling us to think seriously about more than what we do, but also about what we say and how we even think about other people. Whether in a killing rage or a shouting match, if we dehumanize another person and devalue their life in any way God will hold us accountable. Whether you understand the lake of fire to be a rhetorical device or an eternal destination, Jesus is trying to get our attention.

It matters how we treat people. It matters how we speak to them or about them. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, what religion they follow, what language they speak, whether they have documentation or not, who they love, or how their bodies are shaped or function.

He’s also saying that sin, moral and ethical failures are not about crossing a particular sharply etched line in the sand. When he speaks of marriage and adultery here he’s saying that an affair doesn’t have to be physical to be a violation. He’s also saying that the ties of marriage run deep, are and should be difficult to break and can linger even when one party marries another.

He’s calling people to integrity, to honor vows and commitments, to not make a vow you can’t keep and keep the vows you make. And, if you say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no, you won’t have to make elaborate promises or take extravagant oaths.

What happens when follow Jesus’s example and reinterpret his words in our time? If we take seriously Jesus’s model of biblical interpretation, we might say, “You have heard that it was said, whoever says ‘You fool,’ will be liable to the hell of fire. But I say unto you your words matter. But the intent behind them matters more. Your words reveal whether you truly love your neighbor as yourself and recognize them as your sisters and brothers, as children of God.”

Not bad. But one of my students interprets the gospel this way:

You have heard that it was said, “Do not call black people the n-word” and whoever discriminates based on race shall be liable to judgment.  But I say to you that if you stay silent in the wake of violence against black bodies, you will be liable to judgment; and if you suggest that the black men and women had it coming, you will be liable to their families; and if you say, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace, you will be liable to the hell of fire.

The same God who holds us as accountable for angry and ugly words as for lethal violence is calling us into the scriptures and into deeper relationship with God and each other. God is calling us to love one another deeply and faithfully, in word and deed. We are the children of God who is love. Let us live and love like it. Amen.

5 Responses

  1. avatar
    Lance Goldsberry

    Good word as always, Fr. Wil.

    12 February 2017 at 7:05 pm

    • avatar
      Wil

      Thank you. I struggled with it.

      12 February 2017 at 8:27 pm

  2. avatar
    Donald Johnson

    I do not think that Jesus rewrote Scripture, which in his time was the Tanakh; furthermore he could not have done this and fulfilled prophecies about him, as this would be violating Torah. I do think as the living word of God he correctly interpreted the written word of God.

    However, you ask some good questions about how we should understand what Jesus said. If you wish to discuss further, we can and if not, that is OK too, it is your blog; I do not want to be a pain.

    12 February 2017 at 10:03 pm

    • avatar
      Wil

      Dissenting opinions are welcome here when respectful. I won’t have a protected conversation here but will address one of your comments: The TNK was not canonized in or by Jesus’s time, it was in formation. When he or NT writers talked about the scriptures it was as Torah and Prophets. Only in Luke is there a mention of the third (incomplete) division as Torah, Prophets & Psalms. The same pattern is evident in the Dead Sea scrolls. Peace.

      13 February 2017 at 11:25 am

  3. avatar
    Donald Johnson

    On the Tanakh, my understanding is that the Writings section was not necessarily seen as canonically closed at the time of Jesus, while Torah and Prophets were closed, but the books in it were seen as Scripture. For example, there is an allusion to 2nd Chron 24:20-22 in Mat 23:35 with the idea being everyone that was killed for being righteous from first to last (in Scripture). And Chron. is the last book of the Writings in the Tanakh, while Zechariah was certainly not the last such in terms of time; that is, the phrase only makes sense when read assuming the Tanakh ordering of the books.

    On your refs to Matt 5, I will explain what I think is going on as you might like it. In Mat 5:17-49 Jesus first says that he interprets Torah correctly using idioms of destroy and fulfill found in the Jewish Mishnah for incorrectly interpret (and therefore disobey Torah) and correctly interpret (and therefore one can obey). This is followed by 6 examples where Jesus explains how he differs from others in their interpretation of Torah. In 3 of the examples, the interpreters subtracted from Torah and in 3 they added to Torah, but Jesus in each case “right sizes” what Torah teaches, neither subtracting nor adding. For example, Torah does not teach to “hate one’s enemies,” this is an addition.

    13 February 2017 at 7:21 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *