Thursday, June 2, 2011

An Example of Emergent Interpretation

In light of our topic last Sunday night on the Emergent view of the Bible, I thought it would be helpful to give you an example of the kinds of biblical interpretation you can find among Emergent leaders.  We’ll use a message that Rob Bell preached on Matthew 5:38-41 several years ago.  In this post, I’ll give Bell’s interpretation and then allow a few days for you to look at the passage yourself and try to determine where he is off.  Then in subsequent posts, we’ll walk through the section verse-by-verse showing why Bell is wrong and how we can know what the correct interpretation is.  This will not be a difficult exercise - the passage is so straightforward that finding the correct interpretation is as simple as just reading the verses.   

Matthew 5:38-42
38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Okay, here is a close paraphrase of the Bell interpretation:

To understand what Jesus is really saying here, we need to know a little about the culture of that day. The Jews in the 1st century were a downtrodden people living in an extremely violent world, oppressed by the Roman Empire.  They were poor, overtaxed, and brutalized in every way.

So here comes Jesus with a message for these people – people who know that violence is wrong but who need some way to resist, reclaim their dignity, and assert their rights.

Let’s look at the first few lines: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist an evil person.”  What Jesus is saying is that the eye for an eye thing is out.  You shouldn’t engage in violent resistance.  So if someone hits you, you shouldn’t hit them back.  
But Jesus offers another way to resist: “but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”  Now there are some things we need to know about the culture. Back then people used their two hands for very different things.  Your left hand was your bathroom hand and you didn’t use it for anything else.  So if you were going to hit someone, you would use your right hand.  Also, you would never use a closed fist to hit someone whom you thought was beneath you.  You would slap them.  It was a degrading gesture and the Jews were well accustomed to being slapped by the Romans.

So let’s think about this.  If I slap someone – again, only using my right hand – and then they turn the other cheek for me to strike them again, they have put me in a very awkward position.  Slapping them on the other cheek would be impossible to do.  I would be forced to use a closed fist.  So what has that person done? That person has said, “No. You will not treat me this way anymore.  You will treat me as your equal!”

Now the people listening to this would have been thinking, “This guy is a genius! This is awesome.” Jesus had just given them a way to reclaim their dignity, to assert themselves and stand up in a non-violent way.  This is Non-Violent Resistance 101.

Jesus then gives another example: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.”  Now, back then people only wore two garments - an inner shirt and an outer coat.  To sue someone for their shirt was a pretty low blow.  You would be leaving them with only one garment.

Again, we need to know something about the culture at the time.  Back then, to see someone naked was shameful.  Remember when one of Noah’s sons saw him naked and then was cursed?  Yes, it was more shameful to look at someone naked than to be naked.  So, in this situation, if someone wants to take my shirt and I give them my coat also, I have just gotten naked in front of them and I have heaped shame on them.  Now, they are in a position of weakness.  Once again, non-violent resistance.  Don’t allow someone to take the upper hand and treat you poorly – you turn the tables on them, and force them to treat you well.

Can you imagine what the people in the crowd must have been thinking? “I love this guy.  This is great.”

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He gives another example: “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.”  Now, back then the Roman soldiers were permitted by law to force a Jew to carry their stuff for them for up to one mile.  To have someone carry something more than a mile was a violation of the law.  So what Jesus is advocating is to take the soldier’s stuff and when the one mile mark comes, just keep going.  Now that soldier is in violation of the law and if his superiors see this, he’ll be in all kinds of trouble.  Who is in a position of power then?  Yes, the person carrying the stuff has put the soldier in a position of weakness, who is forced to say, “Hey, stop, stop, please give me my stuff.”  So the Jew will have asserted himself, turned the tables, reclaimed his dignity, and forced the Roman to treat him with respect.

The people hearing this would have been pumped. “This guy is a genius!”

What does this mean to us?  Whenever we are in a position where we are being victimized, rather than responding with violence on the one hand, and rather than just letting them walk all over us on the other hand, we should look for a third way.  Look for a way to respond that will say, “No, you will not treat me like this.  You will respect me and treat me like a human being.”

I want to assure you that I have not caricatured Bell’s message at all.  This is a true synopsis of what he proposes.

I really want to challenge you to take some time and work on this.  Look at the text.  See if it supports this interpretation.  As you do, here are some things to consider:

1. Does the plain reading of the text support this?  Does Bell’s interpretation require these words to mean something other than what they say?

2. Does the immediate context support this?  Look at the section before and after.  What is Jesus trying to get across?  I’ll point out that Bell did not include v42 in his message. Why not?

3. Does the larger context support this? If you have time, read the entire Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7. See if this interpretation is consistent with the other things Jesus is saying.

4. Are Jesus’ own actions consistent with this interpretation? Is Jesus practicing what He preaches? Look especially at the Passion.

5. Does the NT as a whole support this? Can you find any clear teaching anywhere in the NT consistent with what Bell has proposed?

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