We’ve all been there; sitting in class watching some kid annoy another student and the moment they respond the teacher turns around, interpreting the reaction as the provocation. If the teacher fails to get to the bottom of the story and interpret it correctly, things can turn out badly for the one who reacted, while the instigator gets away with it.
Science and Art
And so we come to the Bible. Exegesis and Hermeneutics. These terms sound like they were invented by Seminary professors in an attempt to protect their jobs by throwing off the un-initiated, but they are really easy to understand. One (exegesis) is simply the science of figuring out what is being said, often by whom and when, the other (hermeneutics) is the art of understanding the meaning of what was said and it’s application.
Today there is an enormous debate raging between what the Bible says and what it means. This has always been so of course from the earliest days.
The reality is that facts don’t change but meaning does. One is a science and the other is an art. Fortunately the Good Book itself is amply furnished with examples that can help us balance these two components. Lets look at a couple of them.
In John 7:53-8:11 we read the story of the woman taken in adultery. In this emotionally charged account, the scribes and Pharisees demand of Jesus: “Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” What Jesus said is well know: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
According to the Bible, (Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:222) the Scribes and Pharisees were correct, that is what it said. So why was there even any debate?
In another instance Jesus is walking through the fields one day with his disciples and they glean some corn to eat as they pass though. The law allowed you to snack on a neighbors crops in this way, as long as you didn't bag any of it up for later, it was like the first "all you can eat" buffet idea. However in this instance there was a problem, it was the Sabbath day and no work was to be done on the Sabbath. The kind of work that was forbidden specifically included creative or commercial work such as gleaning, and the penalty for transgression was death. Check out Exodus 31:14: "Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.…". So once again, the Pharisee's exegesis was correct, what Jesus and the disciples were doing was a clear violation of the law. Jesus however responds to them with a surprising statement: "If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent." (Matthew 12:7 NIV)
So then who is right? And why? To unpack this a little we have to look at what Jesus said in Matthew 12:7: "If you had known what these words mean". He affirmed their 'scientific' understanding of the law and what it said, but berated them for their failure to artfully see the bigger picture, the meaning behind the words.
He pointed to the law of God's Desire upon which the law of Moses was constructed. The law to which Moses was and will always be subject.
This was the genius of Christ. He took every jot and tittle of the Mosaic Law and drew out the meaning, freeing it from itself and re-imaging it through the eyes of love, and mercy. He turned it around from something that we served to something that serves us. From a law we had to keep to a law that keeps us.
Was then Jesus pleased with the woman taken in adultery? Was he blessing her failure. No. But by showing the law that appeared to condemn her was actually the law that cared for her, he unleashed the mercy, the optimism, and the love that could now power her recovery.
The reason for the failure of the scribes and Pharisees to get it right stemmed from their motive. They were economically and socially committed to supporting the law. If Jesus were to show a better way of interpreting the law then they would need to change or go out of business.
They were thinking about themselves and about preserving their way of life. The woman was expendable. Jesus thought about the person of the woman and about her restoration, while modeling a new way of approaching the law to the leaders. He was all about a better tomorrow, they were all about the status quo, no matter how it was failing the people.
You've got to love Jesus for that! But you know, when you look down through history you see this kind of thing happening all the time. It seems we are predisposed to sticking to our exegesis of the text, because interpretation is so much more messy.
Seeking to grow in wisdom and understanding, working beyond what the Bible said yesterday to what it means today can sound a bit like the road less traveled, but if you are bold enough to take that road, it will surely lead to more justice, inclusion, mercy and love for all of us, inside or outside of the classroom.