Picking and choosing from Jesus’ commands (pt. 2)

[see the Jan 27 post for pt 1]

If I were a betting man I’d wager that BL is more concerned with the inconsistent application of Mat 5:27-28 than he is with inconsistent interpretation . However, interpretation will always have a bearing on one’s application so something should be said about the way we go about making sense of Jesus’ teaching in Mat 5 especially since BL astutely observed that none of us are hacking off limbs in obedience to Jesus’ teaching on lust, theft, etc. What follows is the 2nd half of my response–again, w/ a few edits–to his questions/comments:

4) Jesus’ teaching on divorce seems to be an open & shut case when compared w/ the rest of Scripture. By tht I mean there just doesn’t seem to be any other passages that would add qualifications to what Jesus teaches. [The one exception would be what Paul says in 1Cor 7:15 but on that point Paul refers to “mixed” marriages whereas Jesus is speaking to covenant community.] Other passages that directly speak of marriage end up as a “yes…and” complement to Mat 5:31-32 whereas passages like Rom 13:1-4 create something of a “yes…but” contrast to the “don’t resist the one who is evil” of Mat 5:39. Consequently, Jesus’ divorce/remarriage command seems to have a greater across-the-board clarity than does His resisting evil command.

5) Biblical instruction can mix literal & figurative statements without forcing us to pit a literal interpretation against a figurative interpretation. Human language works that way all the time: “If you smart off to me or your mom you are breaking a house rule. It’s better to zip your lips than to have your rear end beat black & blue.” [even in that statement the “figurative” discipline (beat black & blue) refers to literal discipline (spanking)]

6) The over-the-top “tear out your eye” has to be considered w/ the rest of Jesus’ teaching on sin, righteousness, judgment. Would Jesus have us believe that physical maiming was a real way to escape sin & judgment? A radical approach to sin eradication is what Jesus means to address, but even gouging an eye out isn’t radical enough.

Picking & choosing from Jesus’ commands

The following is a portion of an e-mail exchange I had with a long time friend. Let’s call him B Lamb…actually Benjy L…better yet we’ll just call him BL to protect his identity. Anyway, BL’s questions surround a church’s seemingly arbitrary application of Jesus’ teaching in Mat 5:27-45 (take a quick read for yourself if you’re not familiar w/ the passage). BL’s questions/comments lead off (italicized) w/ the first half of my response (w/ minor editing) following. The 2nd half of my response will follow in a subsequent post.

Why do we take the words about divorce so literally when we do not take anything else taught in that passage literally? No one cuts out their eye or cuts off their hands. We make promises all the time instead of just letting our yes be yes. We fight back against those that hurt us. And we kill our enemies instead of praying for them and doing good to them. But we have strict guidelines about who we allow to get married in our church based on this verse!?! So the only logical conclusion that I come to based on how we practice these verses is that everything Jesus taught in this passage was metaphorical except His teaching about divorce – that is literal.

1) Sadly, it’s easier to hold a literal interpretation on a teaching that doesn’t affect you personally. Many (most?) of us don’t think they have to worry about divorce so it’s easier to take a hard line there than on persecution, swearing, etc. where we’re more likely to be confronted w/ Jesus’ teaching in real life.

2) Christian obedience will always be a progressive work. To a certain extent I shouldn’t find it shocking to find inconsistency in our application of Scripture. Our objective is to commend Spirit-led obedience where it’s found and to challenge ourselves in those areas where we lack. The church’s fidelity to Christ’s teaching on marriage/divorce can be used as a platform to promote greater fidelity to swearing & persecution teaching. (see, for example, Jesus simultaneously commending & convicting churches in Rev 2-3). As we commend & challenge we serve the church well to pray for a greater work of the Spirit to get our eyes wide open.

3) Cultural setting can affect how we interpret & implement certain commands. “Pray for those who persecute you” has a radically different meaning for a constitutionally protected American Christian when compared to an Afghan Christian. It can be difficult to chart a path for living out Christ’s commands when society affords me additional privileges and protections—especially when those protections are God ordained. In certain instances even Paul took advantage of civil law rather than take a beating or suffer a miscarriage of justice (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11).

Jesus in 2D

In the course of a casual conversation a friend mentioned a book he was reading that had him rethinking his picture of Jesus [I haven’t read the book]. I don’t know how much my friend had read but at this particular point the projected image of Jesus was that of “playful”.

Certainly the author had read the Bible enough to know that no such description is applied to Jesus which is why, through a bit of spiritual extrapolation, he discovered “playful” Jesus by observing that Jesus spent most of His time with 12 other guys {exercise your sanctified imagination}. Along this line of thinking I would surmise other “proofs” could be found in Jesus’ love of children, his ability to tell a good story, and his use of sarcasm.

Now I don’t doubt for a moment that Jesus smiled and laughed or that he was anything but a dour personality. However, I must admit a significant level of discomfort when I hear someone promoting a novel description of Jesus:

1. These new pictures of Jesus are akin to what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”. That is, it gives the impression that previous generations of Christians were oblivious to some espoused truth that only now has come to light. Maybe there’s a reason why 1000s of years church teaching never saw fit to describe Jesus as “playful”. [just as an aside, it’s interesting to note how often reviews and blurbs of these novelty books invite the reader to “discover” this new truth which apparently had been hidden in previous generations]

2. New pictures frequently lack an appreciation for the distinction between the humiliated Son and the glorified Son. Consider that during the days of Jesus’ earthly humiliation John laid his head on Jesus’ chest (Jn 13:23) but when he saw the glorified Jesus John fell to the ground in fear (Rev 1:17).

3. New pictures–especially those that emphasize Jesus’ humanity–are colored almost exclusively by the Gospels rather than a broad reading of Scripture. At the very least this risks an imbalance in which Jesus’ humanity overshadows his divinity [I don’t think this is the normative impression one gets from reading the Gospels]. A full reading of the NT just doesn’t seem to lead one to the impression that Jesus is primarily a comfortable friend.

4. New pictures often speak where Scripture is silent. Closely related to #3, this practice usually comes by a narrow or selective reading of the Gospels. As narrative literature, the Gospels are rarely explicit on subjective details like facial expressions, tone of voice, inner motivation, etc. Consequently, readers often feel a certain freedom in applying his/her own spin on the unmentioned details.

Purveyors of these novel depictions of Jesus promise to deepen our love and respect for Him but I suspect that in the long run such pictures will diminish Him. Rather than marvel at His majesty we settle for sentimentality that is more flat than full.