Interpretation of Scripture

Jesus as the perfect interpretation of Scripture...

Epiphany 3c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It should come as no surprise to you that reading Holy Scripture has for a long time formed a central part of worship. Every Sunday morning we read passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (or during Easter season, from the Acts of the Apostles), and then also from the Epistles or the Revelation to John, and always from one of the four Gospels. Sometimes we also read — or sing — from the book of Psalms, or from our own Hymnal (the book Psalms being the hymnal of the Jewish people.)

It was also traditional — and still is — for Jewish worshipers to read from the Law and the Prophets and sing the Psalms in the synagogue. The privilege and responsibility to be a reader of the Holy Scripture belonged until recent times to every Jewish man — I add that proviso because women can now take on that role, at least in some Jewish congregations. So important was this responsibility to read the Scripture as a part of worship, that it formed a central part of the Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony, by which a boy entered into manhood as a “son of the commandment” by fulfilling that commandment to read the Holy Scriptures aloud — and an equivalent bat mitzvah has been added for girls becoming women in some congregations.

This reading of the text of Scripture in worship has an ancient pedigree. We see Jesus exercising this responsibility in our gospel passage today. The hometown boy — about whose doings in the neighboring towns so much has been heard — returns home and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and is honored by the people there by being given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah from which to read. And he reads that beautiful passage about God’s promises.

I will get back to those promises in a moment, but I first want to note something else about reading and interpreting Scripture. And that is brought to mind by our reading from the Book of Nehemiah. This passage describes an extremely important event in the history of the Jewish people — with Ezra and Nehemiah, they have returned from their exile in Babylon, and have set to the task of rebuilding their ruined city and temple. Because they have been exiled from the temple they have been unable to carry out any of the commandments of the Law of Moses having to do with the temple — none of the sacrifices, none of the thanksgivings or offerings, none of the feast days — perhaps most importantly no way to observe the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

All of these observances have been impossible for them in their weary exile by the waters of Babylon, where they wept and hung up their harps on the branches of the trees. There in Babylon they even objected to singing the songs of Zion when those who led them away captive asked for a song — “How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” they cried out. And ironically, their objection to singing itself became one of their best songs, and ended up in their hymnal as Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept.”

More importantly, because of their long exile most of them have probably never even heard the words of the Law of Moses, much less read it. And so this gathering, back in Jerusalem by the Water Gate, is the first time in several generations, after the 70 years of captivity, that the people would hear all that they have missed — and missed doing.

But something else has changed in the course of time — most of the people no longer speak Hebrew; in their exile in Babylon they have picked up the local language, Aramaic. The two languages are related but not enough for easy understanding. That would be like thinking I could speak Spanish because I studied Italian — I did study Italian in college but I actually discovered that when it came time for me to study Spanish, knowing Italian actually made it harder; because it was close, but not close enough: as the old saying goes, “Close, but no cigar” — just close enough as to cause confusion, as the Italian word would pop into my head instead of the Spanish word.

So it was for the people gathered there at the Water Gate. The Scripture was read in Hebrew, the language in which the Law of Moses was written — and so, as Nehemiah reports, those who read gave an interpretation — giving the sense in Aramaic line by line, in that common language that everyone spoke by then. These Aramaic interpretations, originally given on the fly, were eventually written down, so that people unable to study the Scripture in its original Hebrew could make some sense of it in the synagogue — just as we all read the Scriptures in English, rather than in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. It would not do any of us much good if I stood up here reading the New Testament in the language in which it was written — Greek.

This use of one language rather than another, a language one understands — translation — is the most basic kind of interpretation. Because when you translate you must also interpret; there is more to translation than just plugging one word in place of another, because any given word in almost every language can have more than one meaning.

Which brings me back to Jesus and that reading of Isaiah in the synagogue. He may have read from the Hebrew text and given the Aramaic himself line by line, or he may even have been reading from one of those Aramaic translations itself. But whatever he did as a matter of interpretation, he did something much more significant. He did not just interpret, he fulfilled the Scripture. He presented himself as the fulfillment of the promises in that holy text.

It wasn’t just about words of God, words spoken through the prophet; it was about the Word of God, the Word made Flesh, the Word Incarnate — Jesus himself. For we believe that Jesus himself is the living Word of God, just as we believe the Scripture is the written Word of God. You see, even the word word can mean more than one thing! Jesus is himself the interpretation, the incarnation — and in keeping with this season of Epiphany — the showing forth, the revelation, the manifestation of God’s eternal presence, word and wisdom. As a line from a famous poem attributed to Queen Elizabeth I says, “He was the word that spake it.”

Jesus, the Word, takes that written word in his hand, and then speaks it out in application to himself, saying, “Today this is fulfilled in your presence” — and now we too have this testimony coming to us in the written words of the Gospel that I read just a few moments ago, proclaimed anew today; — and today it also is fulfilled in your hearing. For Jesus is, always, everywhere, the Word of God — today and every day.

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Now I realize as I say this that our old friend Saint Augustine is watching me, from the stained glass window over there, looking past his mother Monica over my shoulder and keeping an eye on me — a good reminder for any preacher. Saint Augustine once said something very wise about interpreting Scripture, and it is in keeping with the relationship between the Written Word of Scripture and the Living Word, Jesus. Relying on the commandment Jesus emphasized, the commandment to love God and your neighbor, Augustine said,

If you think that you understand the scriptures, in such a way that your understanding does not build up the twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them... If on the other hand you interpret the scripture in ways that are helpful for building up this love of God and neighbor, but have not said what the original author actually intended, then your mistake is not damaging, and you cannot be accused of lying.

In other words, an interpretation that tears down loving relationships is always inferior to one that builds up the love of God and neighbor, even if it is not the “correct” interpretation or the author’s original intent.

Jesus shows himself at work in this, for he is the both the only completely correct interpretation of Scripture, and in a very real sense its author, since he is the living Word of God. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and he is there — and here, and everywhere, at all times and in all places — to preach good news, of release from captivity, of freedom and favor — to build up in love, not to tear down in condemnation. For as the evangelist John would later say, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.” It is about building up.

True preaching of the gospel will always point us back to those eternal truths: that Jesus is the Son of God, the word spoken through the prophets, the Word of God made flesh, fulfilled in every gracious moment, and all for the love of God. May all of our preaching and teaching and learning and hearing keep us ever mindful of that eternal Word.+

Understanding God

SJF • Last Epiphany 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.+

Paul the Apostle, in that beautiful passage we heard today, acknowledges the incompleteness of our knowledge about God. “We know only in part,” he assures us, and even what we do know is like a reflection in a dusty mirror, a dim vision of the heart of reality that is too much for our eyes to take in.

The simple fact is that, as the old hymn said, the full truth of God’s love — for God is Love — “is broader than the measure of man’s mind” — beyond our full comprehension.

Have you ever tried to get a good look at the Empire State Building from 34th street? Well, if you have, you know you can’t see much. Standing at its base, you are too close to take it in — it is so overwhelming. Even from across the street you are still too close, and if you get further away other buildings will obstruct your view. The only place to really get an idea of what how tall the Empire State Building is is to go blocks and blocks away, or even to Brooklyn or New Jersey — where you can then see it rising far above all of its neighbors.

Well, if this is true of a human construction, how much more of the creator of the world and all that is in it? We know from our reading of Scripture that Moses talked with God face to face — though even then we also know that God must have toned down his glory so that Moses would be able to converse with him. The one time Moses asked to see God in all his glory, just prior to the passage from Exodus that we read this morning, God told Moses he could not bear it and live, and so God made Moses stand in a cleft of the rock, with God’s own hand upon him until the fullness of God’s glory passed by, and only then did God take his hand away and let Moses see God’s back — the back of God’s glory — and that was enough to cause Moses’ face to shine with the reflection of that divine light. And ever after Moses had to wear a veil over his face, so that even this reflection of the back of God’s glory would not be too much for the people to bear.

And in our Gospel today, three of the apostles witness the revelation of God’s glory manifest in Jesus on the mountain-top; but even then the cloud of God’s presence mutes and filters and overshadows the dazzling scene — so that they might not be struck dead at the sight of God’s full glory revealed.

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So how can we come to any understanding of God? Well, first of all, as the doctor said, “Take two tablets and call me in the morning!” Moses comes down from his meeting with God, his face glowing from the encounter, but also bearing those two tablets of the covenant in his hand, God’s word, written by God’s own hand, ready to be delivered to the people. In this we may understand all of Scripture to be meant — all of the Word of God delivered to us in the Law and Prophets and Writings, in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, and their letters, and the visions old and new.

And yet, just as the people couldn’t bear to look at Moses’ face, so too people then as now find even the second-hand glory of God’s Word in Scripture hard to understand — it will come as no news to you that there are as many different interpretations of Scripture as there are believers. There is an old Jewish saying that if you don’t like how your rabbi interprets the Scripture, you can always find another rabbi; and that in a room with five rabbis you’ll find at least six different interpretations. The same is surely true of Christians as well.

In fact, Christians can’t even on the whole agree on what the Bible is, let alone what it means, as Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Protestants disagree about which books of the Old Testament are to be included in the Bible — books accepted by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as a part of their Bible are considered Apocrypha (suitable for reading but not for doctrine) by Anglicans and Lutherans, and not even included at all by Protestants. That’s why you’ll find different editions of the Bible with different books in different places, and sometimes going by different names.

Beyond these differences in the content of Scripture, in what the Bible is, we come to the various interpretations of Scripture. And here too, there is wide difference of opinion both between churches and within them. Every church will have a different understanding, or many different understandings, different shades of interpretation.

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So, how do we know which we should follow? Ultimately that question is rhetorical, as surely people will follow the interpretation that makes sense to them, that seems to speak to them, or else, as in the saying I quoted before, they’ll go off to find another rabbi — or priest or minister or church.

But I think there is some guidance to be found in what Saint Paul says in that passage from First Corinthians, about the need for love as the standard by which we judge whether our understanding and interpretation is in accord with God’s will. For as Paul says, even if he could speak as eloquently as an angel, or in miraculous tongues, or with powerful prophecy, or with an understanding of all mysteries and all knowledge — if his understanding and speaking and teaching were not based on love, it would all be for nothing. If his teaching or preaching or his prophecy did not ring the note of love, it would be like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And what kind of teaching would that be?

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Saint Augustine of Hippo was one of the early great expounders of Scripture. He had been a young man-about-town, living the high life, but he experienced a conversion and became a Christian towards the end of the fourth century. (He credited his conversion to the prayers of his mother, Saint Monica, and you can see them conversing in our stained-glass window in the corner.)

Augustine had a fundamental rule when it came to interpreting Scripture, and it was based on Saint Paul’s advice, under the governance of the love commanded by God — the love of God and neighbor. Augustine wrote: “If it seems to you that you have understood the Scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up the twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them... If on the other hand you have made judgments about [Scripture] that are helpful for building up this love, but for all that have not said what the author you have been reading actually meant ..., then your mistake is not serious, and you certainly cannot be accused of lying.” (On Christian Doctrine 1.36.40.)

This was Augustine’s standard, and it was wisdom then as now. Does how you read the Scripture, understand the Scripture, and teach the Scripture build up — or to use the old word, does it edify? Is your understanding set upon the firm foundation of the love of God and neighbor? That is a sound foundation, and Augustine makes clear that even if your interpretation of the Scripture might depart from what Moses or Isaiah or Saint Paul himself may originally have intended, you will not go far wrong if that interpretation leads to a greater love of God and neighbor. Love is the key that unlocks the Scripture, and that is true all the time, not just on Valentine’s Day!

For ultimately, love is God’s message, what God has been trying to get across to us from the very beginning — from the very first time God wrote with God’s own hand anything down to instruct the people, on those two tablets of stone, which I hope you will notice in the first tablet, the first four commandments how we are to love God (honoring God alone, not having idols, respecting God’s name, and keeping the Sabbath) and in the final six telling us how we are to love our neighbors (by honoring our parents, not killing, cheating, stealing, lying, or coveting).

And if we needed any further instruction, after all of that, Jesus himself provides us with a summary of the law of the two tablets as the very instruction that Augustine would later take as his key to interpreting the Scripture: to love God with your whole self, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two, as he said, hang all the law and the prophets — that is, all the rest of Scripture.

As another old hymn puts it, “What more can he say than to you he hath said?” Do you want to understand the Scripture? Do you? Let me repeat to you what God himself says in today’s Gospel in reference to Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”+