I was thinking about a social media exchange regarding the theological abilities of our nation’s new President that I participated in this past Saturday after our congregation’s annual “Getting Organized” meeting. But before I share its importance with you, I should probably start with a different conversation that occurred earlier in the week. I hope you’ll bear with me. I think it fits.
I had an interesting conversation with a group of students in my 7th and 8th grade religion class last Wednesday. Knowing that far too many folks these days appear to interpret the Bible according to some pretty messed up criteria, my goal this semester has been to walk the students through the process of completing an exegetical study.
Essentially, I’ve divided the class into two groups. One group is wrestling with Mark 10:46-52 (the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar), and the other is handling Luke 10:25-37 (the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Both groups are tasked with studying from at least four different English translations of their assigned text (I’m helping with the Greek if they discover the need to dig deeper). They are to be concerned with discerning keywords, studying context (genre, writer, major and immediate sections, and the like), exploring parallel texts (which includes non-canonical resources), and so much more, all with the hope of exposing the primary purpose and meaning of the portion of God’s Word they are to be handling.
Pedagogically speaking, I’m not a big fan of small groups in an academic setting. I’m not convinced it’s the best way to learn. Still, I went against my own rule and gathered the students into groups according to their respective texts in order for them to discuss with one another the particular keywords they’d each discovered and were considering for his or her exposition. I hovered closely among the two groups.
For the most part, and interestingly, the students gravitated toward many of the same words. On occasion, however, one or two students would suggest the importance of a word that none of the others had considered. I was glad for that. I could go into greater detail as to why, but rest assured from their discussion, it was proof to me that they were really digging in and taking the assignment seriously.
At one point along the way, I suggested to both groups that they try to imagine themselves as onlookers to the situation, paying close attention with the mind’s eye to the visual flow of events. When they took time to do this, other aspects became visible.
With respect to keywords, an example of an obvious one from the Luke 10 text was the NIV’s term “expert in the Law” in comparison to the ESV’s rather simple descriptor “lawyer.” That’s an easy one. Does the difference matter? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the students are going to figure that out. But when they placed themselves as observers of the conversation unfolding between Jesus and the expert in the Law, a few of the students noticed almost immediately a very strange shift. On the surface, Jesus seemingly commended the lawyer in verse 28 for giving the right answer to his question. “You have answered correctly,” Jesus said. “Do this and you will live.”
That’s great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be commended by the Lord? But in the very next verse, the lawyer appears to cop an attitude, feeling the need to justify himself, as if he’d somehow been insulted.
So, what happened?
One student in the bunch took the lead in the hunt for an answer. Eventually, he circled back around to the Lord’s reply to the lawyer, guessing that it was either the way the Lord said what He did (which we can’t necessarily determine His tone), or something wasn’t quite getting through in the English translation. Ultimately, he focused on the Lord’s words, “Do this and you will live,” because that seemed to be the critical moment of engagement in the Lord’s commendation. After a little more discussion, “Do this” became the student’s sole focus.
And that was it. In the Greek, the verb reveals the Lord’s insinuation that the lawyer, a man who thought he was keeping the Law of God perfectly, hadn’t been performing in the way he believed himself to be. “Do this” meant that if perhaps he actually got started right then and there, he might discover eternal life. Of course, that was a short, but loaded, reply to the lawyer’s self-righteous answer. To gain eternal life by way of keeping the Law is impossible. No one will pave their way to heaven with deeds. Jesus knows this. That’s why He came. But the lawyer was under the impression that he, an expert in the Law, was doing a pretty good job at actually accomplishing it. Jesus pointed out in front of the massive crowd that the show-off’s expertise in this regard was clearly lacking.
In short, here was a man whose trust for eternal life was located in himself, and the Rabbi he was challenging in that moment believed he was failing desperately at it. Like everyone else in the crowd, the lawyer needed a Savior.
This offended him. It embarrassed him, too. That meant he needed to do something to justify himself in order to regain his previous standing before the onlookers.
Knowing this particular detail in the exchange completely changes the trajectory for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. My guess is that most interpret the parable apart from this introductory text, and when they do, it becomes little more than a Sunday School story about how Jesus wants us to be good to others. But if we’re going to handle it honestly, that’s not why Jesus told the parable. The purpose of the parable is to point out how we fail, and by doing this, He’s putting before us the opportunity to admit we actually need a Savior. The astonishing part to this is that when we actually know the Lord’s real reason for teaching the parable, and then we dig into the parable itself, we may actually see the Gospel woven into its fabric. In other words, Jesus laid some gut-wrenching Law on us, but He didn’t leave us without hope. For the expert in the Law, Jesus foreshadowed the work of the Messiah—Jesus’ approaching work to accomplish our rescue—which is to say that He told the story of us and Himself.
He described someone who’d been pummeled and left for dead, and unless the wretch received help, his permanent end would be inevitable. That’s us. Sin has more than seen to this. Fascinatingly, the well-known animosity between the Jews and Samaritans is a hint to the vastness of the chasm that separates Man from God. And yet, the fact that the dying man’s chief enemy, a Samaritan, is the one who helped him is a glimpse of our Lord’s crossing over that divide in order to save us. As the story unfolded further, the scene became even clearer. The One who would be our enemy, rather than leaving us in our predicament, came down into the valley of our sorrow to be with us, to reach to us in love. He bandaged up our wounds, took us to a place where He arranged for our care, and then He promised to return to settle all accounts.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s an image of the Lord’s incarnation all the way through to His return at the Last Day, with the in-between time being His wonderful work to rescue, forgive, and sustain us as His people.
I expect that the students assigned to this text, with a little more recalibrating of their exegetical lenses, are going to discover these gems in the text for themselves. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this note, I suppose the reason I was moved to share this particular moment from my 7th and 8th grade religion class with you is because of a conversation I had on Saturday with a Christian who felt the need to defend Joe Biden’s supposed “devout” Catholicism. One tritely employed phrase that was used during the conversation (and I say “tritely” because far too many Christians believe this): “Well, you interpret the Bible one way, and Biden interprets it another way. Maybe he doesn’t accept parts that you do. That doesn’t necessarily make him wrong.”
God didn’t give us His Word so we could do whatever the heck we want with it, picking and choosing this or that portion, ultimately making it say whatever we feel like making it say. It is divinely inspired, inerrant, and immutable—and with that, there are intentions behind every single Word. If you don’t believe this, not only will you never be able to secure a faithful interpretation, but in the end, you’ll see it as having very little value to begin with. When this happens, you’ll have become no different than the self-righteous lawyer in Luke 10 who felt he had no need for Jesus, because after all, Jesus is the very Word made flesh (John 1:14). If you reject the Lord’s Word, by default you reject Him. That leads to big trouble. Eternal trouble.
I doubt our new President will ever allow a faithful pastor thirty or forty minutes of his time to exegize alongside him some of the Biblical texts he believes give license for murdering babies in (and out of) the womb, for allowing men who think they’re women to compete in women’s sports, or so many other ungodly ideologies. In fact, I know he won’t do this. He’s already verbally condemned the catholic bishops who’ve said he should be excommunicated for his radical handling of God’s Word in these particular arenas.
In the end, I guess I’m just going to continue to work with what I have—which means doing what I can to teach the students in the 7th and 8th grade at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran School in Hartland, Michigan, the powerful contents of God’s Word. And as I do this, I’m going to do what I can to help carry them into a love for Biblical study, one that continues into adulthood. God willing, it’ll be a love that sees the value in taking time to wrestle with what God’s Word actually teaches, rather than relegating it to a thin scan and the shallow realm of “What does this mean to me?” as so many Christians are in the unfortunate habit of doing.