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.+