Exegesis #1 Why you can't take Jesus literally

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

I thought I'd do a series on biblical exegesis. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately. For the first installment we begin with the rather provocative statement: you can't take Jesus literally. To do so leads to horrific interpretations! In fact, if you take a look at anti-Christian propaganda like the Skeptics Annotated Bible, 9 times out of 10 this is exactly the mistake they make, and the results are some of the most horrible interpretations of Scripture you can imagine. So this is a really important exegetical principle, that is not often communicated.

Now let me say strait away that I do not mean we should not take Jesus seriously. But I am saying it is almost always wrong to interpret him literally. Let me begin with a rather obvious example: In Mt 5:30 Jesus says "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off" I think we would all agree that Jesus did not mean for us to take that literally. Anyone who disagrees please raise your hand... oh that's right, you can't! Jesus is not advocating amputation as a method of character development, he is using hyperbole, exaggeration, to make a statement that says "hey, wake up man! Listen!"

Jesus does that all the time, over and over. I'm sure you can think of a lot of examples. For instance, how about Lk 14:26
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."
Does Jesus really want us to hate our parents or our own children as a part of loving him? Does following Jesus mean self-hatred, and being a bad parent? If this is taken literally, the results would be horrible advice.

Whether we have really thought about it or not, I'd say that most- if not all of us -do not take Jesus literally in any of these above examples. So what I would like to propose, here is that once you are aware that this is a major way that Jesus communicates - through dramatic over-exaggeration intended to jar you into seeing things from a different perspective - that suddenly you can see Jesus doing this all over the place. Think of the way Jesus talks: He uses hyperbole as we have discussed above, he also uses paradoxes like "the greatest are the least" and "lose your life to find it," which at face value sound crazy. He uses symbolism like "you must be born again," to which Nicodemus himself is confused when he tries to think about how one could literally re-enter their mother's womb,
Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" (Jn 3:4)
Here's some news for you Nick: it's not literal, it's symbolic. Or how about taking the eucaristic symolism literally when Jesus says "drink my blood, and eat my flesh"? Is Jesus wanting us to be vampires or cannibals? Nope, it's symbolism. He's taking a spiritual reality and making it visceral, putting "flesh on it" so to speak.

Think too about how Jesus teaches in parables. These are stories that all have a twist at the end. They are not intended to be taken as verbatim accounts. If you do, the whole point is lost. Take for example the story of the landowner (Mt 21:33-45) who sends his servant to collect his money from the tenants. The tenants kill his servant, so he sends another. Same thing happens. Finally he sends his son whom they also kill. Now the point of this is that it is supposed to illustrate the injustice of how the prophets have been treated, how people miss God when he comes to them. But if we were to take this literally we would have to think that this landowner must be pretty irresponsible and foolish to send his son after he saw what happened to the servants. Taken in a literalistic way this becomes the parable of the stupid father who is more concerned about getting paid then he is about his child. Horrible lesson. And you can misread all of the parables like that, taking them in a wooden literalistic way and completely missing the real point.

So based on this, here's where our application comes in: Now that we know to look for this, suddenly we have a clue as to how to interpret difficult passages from Jesus. Take for example his statement in Mark 3:28-29
"I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin."
This passage has haunted lots of believers, myself included. Have I accidentally done this? The autobiography of John Bunyan accounts how he is tormented by this fear over and over. And it seems to go contrary to everything we know about grace. 'Mess up once, and it's all over' it seems to say. But what if this is hyperbole? What if Jesus is emphatically saying that the worst thing you can do is miss out on recognizing God's work in people's lives, that this is the thing that is really really bad. Then it's not about a legalistic statement of 'one strike and you're out,' but about the opposite. He's saying: Be open to the moving of the Spirit! Don't miss it! Don't be so religious that you miss what God is doing, because that's the worst sin you could possibly commit!

Or to take another rather subtle example, think about what Jesus says in the next chapter of Mark. After telling the parable of the sower to the crowd he says in private to his disciples,

"The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, " 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'" (Mk 4:11-12)
Now if we take this literally, it sounds like the Gospel is meant for elite insiders, and hidden from outsiders, whom Jesus apparently does not want to repent. That can't be right! Now, what if Jesus is being provocative and sarcastic here? What if we read this with a New York Jewish accent like it's being said by Woody Allen: "Well it sure is a good thing no one is getting this, because otherwise they might repent and be healed! Now we sure wouldn't want that , would we?!" What if Jesus said that with a wry smile, and not in the somber stately tones actors always give him in those Jesus movies. What if Jesus was shocking, provocative...and funny?

Now let me stress that Jesus, even when he's funny, is still as serious as a heart attack. We shouldn't think that Jesus is "just kidding" when he says we must be born again, or that we should love our enemies. It is not meant to be ignored as "exaggerated hyperbole" as if Jesus is just ranting. But at the same time if we do want to take what he says seriously, and put his words into practice then we need to also not interpret him like we would the directions for a cookie recipe (take a cup of forgiveness, and 2 teaspoons prayer, mix vigorously until it forms fluffy peaks, and bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes). We need to get that most of the time Jesus is saying things in a non step-by-step instruction book way. He's being dramatic, colorful, provocative, and creative in order to help is read between the lines of life, and see God's way that is so easy to miss if we just look at things in a flat, wooden, recipe-following kind of way.



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