I’ve learned something over the past few years that I had not always realized but it’s of vital importance and it’s totally unavoidable because we all do it. Everyday. Intentionally or not. What I’m talking about here is interpretation. We can’t escape it. For our purposes here I’m particularly interested in the interpretation of scripture. “The Bible says so!” Perhaps you’ve heard someone say this (or perhaps you’ve said it yourself, I know I have). Nowadays when I hear Christians say this I kind of chuckle to myself, partly because I know what it’s like to be there and partly because I think it would be more accurate to say “my interpretation of the Bible says so!” Because, I mean, if we’re honest with ourselves nobody just reads the scriptures (or any text for that matter). We all interpret. In fact, it could be said that reading is interpreting and the two cannot be separated.
As a result there’s really no limit to the sorts of interpretations we can come up with. One of the things that we’ve learned from postmodern philosophers and psychologists is that there are no autonomous people. Rather, we are all shaped. Therefore, the ways in which one is shaped can/will influence the ways in which we hear and understand a particular text. Now in saying that there are a plethora of possible interpretations of a given text I’m not saying that all interpretations are of equal value. In fact, plain and simple, some interpretations are better interpretations. Again, I’m primarily concerned here with how we interpret the scriptures so perhaps looking at the scriptures will help us see this in a fresh light.
It’s no secret that Jesus subverted much Roman and Jewish thought. Here’s an example from the gospel of Matthew:
“At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’
He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him,” (Matthew 12:1-14, NRSV).
I don’t think there’s much debate as to what Jesus was doing here. It’s clear that he broke the law by working on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14). But did Jesus sin by breaking the law? I don’t think anyone reading this will agree to that. This being the case how is it that Jesus could have broken the law without sinning? Better yet, is it possible that by breaking the law Jesus actually fulfilled the law? I think it’s an issue of interpretation. The Pharisees were the law keepers. They interpreted the law one way, literally. Therefore, when the scriptures say that we are forbidden to do any work on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14) God literally means that we should not work on the Sabbath and for the Pharisees this included any acts of healing. Then Jesus comes along and heals on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, because of their interpretation of the law, considered Jesus to be a law breaker and the scriptures say that they “went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” Yet Jesus was without sin (2 Cor. 5:21). The only way then that Jesus could have broken the law and been without sin is if he interpreted the law differently than the Pharisees did.
In the scriptures Jesus proclaims that he came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17). How do we then understand this in light of Jesus’ antics in Matthew 12? I think it must be said that Jesus fulfilled the law by breaking it. Again, this comes back to how Jesus interprets the law. If the Pharisees interpret the law by the book then how does Jesus interpret differently? A man once approached Jesus and asked him a tricky question, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responded, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” (Matt. 22:37-40). According to Jesus all of the law hangs on love. Love. Do this and you’ve fulfilled the entire law. At least according to Jesus. Oh, and Paul also: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’” (Gal. 5:14; see also Rom. 13:8).
And so the story goes, Jesus enters the synagogue where there is a crippled man. Now the law says that work is forbidden on the Sabbath. So what does Jesus do? He goes to work. According to Jesus the law is to love. Did Jesus break the law? Yes. But in breaking it he perfectly fulfilled it because love was the correct interpretation.
As Christians there are many ways we interpret the scriptures. Sometimes we do a terrible job while other times we get a glimpse of what it looks like to fulfill the law. Sadly, we often are guilty of interpreting the scriptures in a manner that allows us to treat ‘others’ as less-than-human, as less worthy of dignity and respect. In other words, sometimes we are so adamant that we keep the law that we lose sight of love. In seeking to keep the law we actually end up breaking the law. In these cases may we break the law in order to fulfill it. May we go out into the world as lawbreakers because sometimes that is the only way we can keep the law and thus remain faithful to Jesus. Perhaps it is only then that we will find ourselves close to the kingdom (Mark 12:34).
How ought we interpret then? Love. Sometimes it really is that simple.