Formation: The Bible - How Jesus changes the way we read
The author of John’s gospel begins their account of the life of Jesus with a profound theological and mystical statement: Jesus is the word. What does this mean for the way Christians read and interpret the bible? At the very least, I think it is a reminder that the phrase “the word of God” is not used in the text to refer to “the bible”, but rather to those things that God has said. And in the Christian tradition, Jesus becomes the embodiment of that “word”. The Bible is the text that leads us into engagement with this Jesus the Christ; in other words, one of the primary ways that scripture helps us, is in the way that it bears witness to Christ.
And when we see Jesus engage in scripture, he does so in creative and provocative ways. He is not stuck in a fundamentalist universe, but instead offers reimaging and reinterpretation. His common refrain in the sermon on the mount is “You have heard it said, but I say unto you…”. He starts with an ancient Old Testament text and then in the tradition of wisdom, engages with it, interprets it, argues with it, and pushes it forward.
Sometimes he’s selective in the way that he uses Old Testament texts. When Luke records the first sermon of Jesus in which he quotes from Isaiah 61, we find that Jesus omits the final sentence in Isaiah’s refrain. He quotes the following:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
But he leaves off the last line:
“and the day of vengeance of our God”
Jesus is reinterpreting this text. He’s engaging with it and then pushing us forward, suggesting that this God he’s here to proclaim and embody is not about vengeance in the way that the old prophet might have imagined.
We also find that Jesus changes the way that other New Testament writers think about, read and interpret Old Testament texts. Paul’s entire understanding of the purpose of the law in the Hebrew scriptures is turned on its head because of his encounter with Christ. For Paul and for us, if Jesus is the “word”, then this has to change the way that we think about God and about all of scripture. From a Christian perspective, Jesus shows us what God is like and this must reshape the way we read everything else. Jesus becomes the interpretive lens through which we read.
We also find that Jesus’ interpretation of his role as Christ is radically subversive of power structures. He constantly subverts and challenges the way religious or political power is used to control, manipulate or generate fear in people. And so if we read the text in the Christian tradition, then we should be asking critical questions about power. When we read a passage we can be asking about the view of God that the author holds, and whether or not it lines up with the kind of God we see in Jesus, and whether people are using God, religion and power to control or create fear in others.
Here are some interpretive questions that can help us engage with all scriptures in light of the story of Jesus:
What kind of God do I see embodied in the Jesus story?
How could that impact on the way I read this passage of text?
What would the Jesus character do or say if they entered this story?
How might Jesus by mysteriously/mystically present and at work within this story?