Don’t Just Read, Interpret! 

“Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by the Devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when the time was up, he was hungry. The Devil, playing on his hunger, gave the first test: ‘Since you’re God’s Son, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: ‘It takes more than bread to really live.’ For the second test he led him up and spread out all the kingdoms of the earth on display at once. Then the Devil said, ‘They’re yours in all their splendor to serve your pleasure. I’m in charge of them all and can turn them over to whomever I wish. Worship me and they’re yours, the whole world.’ Jesus refused, again backing his refusal with Deuteronomy: ‘Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.’ For the third test the Devil took him to Jerusalem and put him on top of the Temple. He said, ‘If you are God’s Son, jump. It’s written, isn’t it, that “he has placed you in the care of angels to protect you; they will catch you; you won’t do much as stub your toe on a stone”?’ ‘Yes,’ said Jesus, ‘and it’s also written, “Don’t you dare tempt the Lord your God.”‘ That completed the testing. The Devil retreated temporarily, lying in wait for another opportunity.”                                           Luke 4:1-13 (The Message)

Familiarity is often one of the greatest enemies to faith. It has a habit of lulling folks into a spiritual innocuation that all but dismantles any need for faith, in the name of “I know that!” Like those folks who can ace a test, but have no actual grasp of the course content, faith-based familiarity can leave one with a tragically false sense of intimacy with the Divine.  I myself have been a Christian since 1999, and have a B.A. in Christian Studies, and an M.Div with a concentration in Apologetics, so that familiarity sticks to me like tar and feathers. And it’s usually not until life happens that I (once again) come to the realization that I lack the convictions of my courage. 

The wilderness temptation of Jesus is one of those things that suffers from that familiarity. The passage was one of the readings in my morning prayers recently. I almost didn’t even read it because I already knew what happened. “Yeah, yeah. Satan tempts Jesus. Jesus resists. Got it!”

You know that scene in Home Alone where Kevin just keeps walking around the house, “I made my family disappear,” and then he stops: “I made my family disappear!”?  I had that moment with this passage. “Satan tempted Jesus using Scripture…Satan tempted Jesus using Scripture!!!” 

This made me think: If Satan tempted Jesus himself with Scripture, why do we not think of this when listening to preachers, teachers, and politicians? It’s like certain Christians don’t even want to try to engage the Scriptures prayerfully. All that matters is that one merely quote the Bible. 

Jesus shows here that merely quoting the Bible does not mean that what is being proposed is godly. (Oddly enough, I had always been warned that “even Satan knows the Bible! So be on your guard!” But those same folks seem to fall for anything when it has been sprinkled with Christianisms.) Notice that Satan quoted Scripture, but Jesus interpreted it. Satan wanted Jesus to focus on a line or two taken out of context, like a bumper sticker. Jesus brought attention to other parts of Scripture that needed to be taken into account. And this begs the question, If Jesus interprets Scripture, shouldn’t we?

Now, I know that hearing that word brings much fear and trepidation to some. “You mean I have to become master of interpretation??? That’s hard!” But if I may counter that, we are masters of interpretation for matters far less important. We learn not to take things at face value for the silliest things. “That speed limit sign says 65, but I’m allowed to go up to four miles over.” “My friend said ________, but what they meant was _______.” “That’s his game face. He’s actually quite humble off the field.” We learn to interpret other things, why not the Scriptures? Why do we turn our interpretive skills off when it comes to someone quoting the Bible? Is it because we think it means more than it does? 

Jesus himself, in a dialogue with a lawyer (an expert in the Mosaic Law), asked, “What do the Scriptures say? How do you read it?” In other words, based on all you know of Scripture, how do you make sense of this part here? 

A good way to think about it is to consider book series. Think of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Outlander, or Game of Thrones. You can read any one book in those series, and follow along well enough. But unless you read the previous books, or the books that follow, you will be left in the dark. If you stopped reading Harry Potter at Half Blood Prince, for example, Snape is the worst kind of traitor. But if you read on, you know that he is a great hero. 

Certain literary characters are complicated, and are developed over time. And unless you consider the fully developed character, you will not see them as they are. The same is true with Scripture. 

Jesus showed Satan (and us) that merely quoting a passage did not make the temptation godly. In a world of competing ideologies, and swirling notions of what it means to be biblical, we need to do the same. 

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