Saturday, December 06, 2014
There are a number of trump card proof-texts that get brought out to defend the way of unquestioning obedience. One of them comes from Jesus himself when he says, "The Scripture cannot be broken."
Checkmate. End of discussion.
The problem is that this "plain reading" of Scripture completely misses the context of what Jesus was actually saying. Let's take a look:
The setting is one of violence in the name of religion. John tells us that the "Jews" were going to kill Jesus for blasphemy. It's important to stress that Jesus was a Jew, too. So the problem is not with "the Jews" or even with "the Pharisees" but with religion being used for harm. The problem is with violence in the name of religion. So when Christians later persecuted Jews, and based this on John's statement that "the Jews" wanted to kill Jesus, this is an example of tragically missing the point.
The NT critique of the Pharisees (including John's term "the Jews") is misunderstood when it is read as a critique of Judaism. It is rather an intra-religious critique within Judaism of a particular way of reading the Bible which is characterized by unquestioning obedience regardless of the harm it does. This toxic way can be found in all religions. So to read this right we need to begin by looking at our own hearts and lives--getting "the plank out of our own eye" as Jesus says before we go pointing our finger at some other group.
Okay, with that very important idea in mind, let's return to the text. Jesus, likely with a sarcastic tone, asks them which of his good deeds they are going to kill him for? They answer,
"For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God" (John 10:33).
This is where Jesus says that famous line that is so often taken out of context,
Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:34-36 NASB)
Note first of all that Jesus does not say "it is written in the law" but "it is written in your law." Why does he stress your law? I'll return to that in a second, but first let's look at the Psalm Jesus is quoting. This is Psalm 82 which begins,
God stands in the assembly of El;
in the midst of the gods he renders judgment. (Psalm 82:1 NET)
This reflects a very early view which saw Yahweh as a member of the pantheon of gods presided over by the high god El. At this stage Judaism was not yet a monotheistic faith and instead believed in multiple gods. The move towards monotheism at this stage was to regard Yahweh as above the other gods. (Note that the reason "gods" is not capitalized is not pejorative, but because it refers to the concept of a god, as opposed to a proper noun which is always capitalized.)
The reason the Psalmist says Yahweh stands superior to the other deities is because Yahweh shows justice in caring for the oppressed,
He says, “How long will you make unjust legal decisions
and show favoritism to the wicked? (Selah)
Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless!
Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!
Rescue the poor and needy!
Deliver them from the power of the wicked! (Ps 82:2-4)
Note that the one speaking here is Yahweh and those addressed are the other gods. Next we come to the part Jesus quotes,
I said, 'You are gods; all of you are sons of the Most High...' (verse 6)
and it continues,
'...Yet you will die like mortals; you will fall like all the other rulers.' (verse 7)
So it's a Psalm about Yahweh executing judgment on the other gods in defense of the "poor and needy."
We can see progress here in that their view is moving away from a pagan conception of amoral tribal deities exercising raw power to harm the weak, and towards a conception of deity characterized by defending the oppressed. The idea is emerging that God is not just about raw power, God is good, God is righteous, God is just. This is a radical idea in a world of despotic kings and tribal warfare. God is not defined from the perspective of the powerful, but from the perspective of the poor and needy.
At the same time we are still at an early stage, both in their view of God as one among many other gods in the pantheon of El, and also in that the way the poor and needy are defended is by killing others. We are a long way here from the way of Jesus and enemy love. When Jesus, God incarnate, comes to defend the poor and needy he does not do this by killing anyone. The expectation however was that the Messiah would do exactly that. They awaited a warrior-king messiah who would kill the enemy oppressors, the hated Gentiles. Jesus was a very different messiah who declared God's way entailed a message of redemption for both Jew and enemy Gentiles.
While the judaism of Jesus time still embraced violence as a means to bring about justice, it had changed quite a bit in regards to how it viewed other gods, developing into a strictly monotheistic faith that denied the existence of all other deities. What we need to appreciate here is the irony of Jesus' statement that "the Scripture cannot be broken" since Jesus is rather obviously not reading the very Scripture he is quoting as it was intended by the original author. No one was, because Judaism no longer believed in multiple gods as it had before.
What this gets down to is how we read Scripture. If we read it in a wooden "God said it, that settles it" way then we need to believe in multiple gods. It is written, "I have said you are gods" and the Scripture cannot be broken. That gets us into a pickle.
That "pickling" is exactly what Jesus is doing in his encounter with the religious fundamentalists of his day. He is trapping them in their own logic. He says "it is written in your law" stressing the your in order to emphasize their particular way of reading which was characterized by unquestioning obedience even when that interpretation led to harm.
What we need to do instead is learn to read the Bible like Jesus. His way of reading allows for questioning, allows for change, always motivated by compassion. Scripture should not be followed unquestioningly even if it hurts people, rather Scripture serves a servant function which is meant to lead us to love. It is read right when it leads to love, and it is read wrong when it leads to hurt.
When Jesus says "the Scripture cannot be broken" it is said with a sting and a smile, knowing he has caught them in a trap of their own making. We read this best when we imagine Jesus saying it with a wry smile on his face, "the Scripture cannot be broken."
It is sarcasm. It is said ironically. This kind of wry humor is typical of Jewish exegesis. This type of humorous response of Jesus is typical. Think of his retort "Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar" Or the story of the good Samaritan where the hated Samaritan is the example of the good neighbor. We find example after example of Jesus making these "gotcha" statements, and I think it would do us a lot of good to imagine him getting laughs from the people when he said it.
We laugh at a good joke often because it is true. It's so spot on, so painfully ironic that we have to laugh. Comedians and prophets in this sense are not so far apart.