Last week I wrote about how the Chapel staff meets weekly to discuss all aspects of worship, and the process that we undertake to create a sacred space for worship each week. Amidst the prayer, thoughtful discussion, and opening ourselves up to the voice of God speaking to us about preaching, music and themes, we get down and dirty with some good old-fashioned biblical exegesis. Which is just a fancy way of saying we try to figure out what the heck is really being communicated.
Remember the old TV show, “Diff’rent Strokes”? Gary Coleman’s adorable character made himself famous by saying, “Whatchou talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” When trying to understand scripture, sometimes it works best if we cock our heads just so, scrunch up our faces, and say in our best Gary Coleman voice, “Whatchou talkin’ ‘bout, Jesus?”
Historical Criticism is one method that informs the way we read the Bible, and it helps us to better understand what was happening given the cultural, political, and societal climate in a particular time and place. (Historians are going to have a heyday looking back at the 21st century, don’t you think?! But I digress….) Literary Criticism is another method. It takes into account the written and oral traditions which show up in unexpected places throughout the Bible. For example, in Matthew 22:41-46 Jesus asked the Pharisees a question about the Messiah (“Who’s son is he?”), and then he quotes from Psalm 110 to basically answer his own question. By quoting the ancient Hebrew Bible, Jesus helps modern day scholars (and Snowmass Chapel staff members!) tease out more meaning by taking us back into the world of the ancient texts to which he refers. That Jesus — he doesn’t miss a beat, does he? He knew the Psalms were an important part of the Jewish faith and he used them to help the Pharisees make sense of the long-awaited Messiah standing before their very eyes!
And here’s where literary criticism gets rather fun. What if we omitted this passage completely from the Gospel of Matthew? Would it make a difference? Of what significance is it? This is a technique that literary scholars employ to get more information. In the case of Matthew 22:41-46 a quick analysis demonstrates that the final verse of the passage (“from that day forward, no one dared to ask him any more questions”) relates us right back to the beginning of Chapter 21 when the Pharisees were scrutinizing Jesus’ authority (Matt. 21:23). They began to question him on many of his teachings, trying to entrap him (22:34). But Jesus was having none of it. This passage IS significant because it’s critical that you and I, some 2000 years later, know this: Jesus SHUT THEM DOWN. In his very Jesus way he simply outsmarted, outshined and outdid the highest, most respected religious leaders of the day. “You think the Messiah is David’s own son? Um. No. Let me just school you on this one, boys.” End of conversation.
This passage, then, is sandwiched right here for a reason, and literary criticism shows it is a necessary thing. Jesus has just finished telling everyone that the most important commandment is to love God and love people. In a few verses he is going to give the Pharisees a piece of his mind about hypocrisy and being good role models and how the kingdom of heaven is for EVERYBODY. But first he needs to settle a little matter of his Sonship once and for all. No more questions.
And this, my friends, is how a sermon theme begins to percolate.
I can’t believe I am thisclose to graduating from seminary! I actually had to fill out my official graduation request yesterday so it’s getting real, friends. Three years have flown by; but, honestly, if I could I would keep registering for courses because there is still so much to learn!
One of the things we do as a Chapel staff each week is bible study and planning Sunday worship. It provides lots of opportunities to dive into the Word and wrestle with a phrase or a particular theme, setting, or — this week’s question of the day, for instance — why would Matthew put that paragraph there; it seems out of place? There is such rich and authentic discussion around the table each week, and as you can probably guess, a diversity of voices and perspectives — and I think Jesus would just love it!
This kind of examination of scripture is what theologians call exegesis (or as my husband likes to say: “exe-Jesus”). Exegesis is a fancy word that seminarians like to throw around, but it’s really a foundational practice of trying to understand what someone is communicating. You do exegesis every day! When you read or listen to someone speak you are, whether consciously or not, asking, What is being said? Is the speaker or author preaching, teaching, exhorting, singing, lamenting? What literary form is being used? What is the literal or nonliteral meaning? Who is the intended audience? In other words, what the heck is really going on here?
Biblical exegesis simply looks to interpret our sacred texts through different lenses such as history, form and function, tradition, original sources, textual variants, etc. It allows us to sort of interrogate the text, asking a variety of questions.
I recently studied a particular passage in Matthew (Chapter 22, verses 41-46 if you’re curious!) and used the Historical Critical method to do some exegesis for a paper. By employing the historical critical method we get to see not only the history in the text but the history of the text. For instance, the passage I studied deals in part with the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees. Using historical information, we know the Pharisees were religious leaders, zealous in upholding religious laws of the Hebrew Bible and who were, perhaps, threatened by Jesus who claimed a new way of interpreting the law and who had amassed a large following. Historical criticism allows us to peek inside the first century and to understand the political, social, and economic climate of the times.
But it is the history of the text in question that is really bolstered by the historical critical method. Why did Matthew include this very short paragraph in his Gospel? By whom and for whom was it written? What is depicted in the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees that may not be overtly described? Where (and why) is the story situated within history? Again, by examining the lives of first century Christians, both gentiles and Jewish Christians, and by acknowledging the long-standing religious assumptions of the Jews and the Pharisees in particular, we can better understand the historical situation out of which this biblical text arose. This is just one example of the exegetical methods theologians (that includes YOU!) use in interpreting scripture. For more exegetical methods….stay tuned next week. 🙂 I warned you there is a lot to learn!
Exegesis is a good reminder to me to expect the unexpected when reading scripture. It does not so much allow us to master the text as much as it enables us to enter into the text. I may have read a passage a hundred times before, but if I open my Bible with a new set of “lenses” on, I am opening myself up to new insights and perspectives. After all, the scriptures themselves tell us they are God-breathed; the Holy Spirit is constantly moving and shaping and speaking to us through them.
The Super Bowl game this last Sunday was special on a number of different levels. While I am heartbroken that the sport can cause life-diminishing and life-ending brain trauma, I remain a fan for a variety of reasons. The sport teaches people, young and old, about teamwork, overcoming challenges, and the value of grit. Sunday’s game certainly highlighted these values and was entertaining to watch for all of us who have grown up loving the sport.
That said, however, there was a standout moment in the game and it happened during the half time show. The immensely successful Lady Gaga took the stage in a superbly choreographed show. But what struck me was when she sang her song, “Million Reasons.”
While I am not a mind reader, I believe it is not a stretch to say the lyrics get into a variety of issues including heartbreak, being let down, frustration, and having faith that is challenged. Lady Gaga, who grew up in the Catholic Church, inserts the following lyrics into her song.
I bow down to pray. I try to make the worse seem better. Lord show me the way…Can’t you give me what I’m needin’, needin’, every heartbreak makes it hard to keep the faith.
These words are those of a person whose faith has been challenged by life, something that happens to each and every one of us. What moved me greatly was to have her sing these lyrics on national television and to observe her willingness to make reference to prayer, faith, and our Lord.
While some may condemn her for her inclusive progressive social values, and a few for her dance moves, my hope and prayer is that she will move people who are otherwise unmoved to begin to think about prayer, faith and God in their own lives.
Jesus was deliberate about the people he chose to serve others and spread his teachings. If you look at their biographies, I believe that each one of them would have been happy to have been on stage with Lady Gaga. Not because they could necessarily dance or sing, but because they understood you have to meet people where they are to reach them. What a great lesson for us all.
I celebrate whenever God shows up in mainstream culture in a non-threatening, inviting way. While a life-long fan of football, I’m a new fan of Lady Gaga and her Gaga expressions of faith. May we all be so bold to lead others to our Lord who loves and forgives us all.
The City by the Bay is a special place and I have left my heart in San Francisco many times. With its distinct neighborhoods, hills, fog, enriching ethnic diversity, food, cable cars, bridges, and much more, the city exudes character and charm.
For a number of years I have enjoyed the Pier 39 area. Yes it is full of tourists and stores that sell things I have no interest in, but it is a blast to spend a few hours among the throngs of people. Since the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, it has also become the place to watch California Sea Lions up close.
For some reason, following the quake, the sea lion population grew tremendously in the Pier 39 location. Now dozens of sea lions flock to floating wood pallets strewn about in an area within the adjacent marina.
It is fascinating to simply sit and watch these creatures and the antics they engage in. From barking sounds to shoving matches, I can watch sea lions for hours. One thing, however, especially intrigues me.
Sea lions seem to like hanging out together on just a few pallets rather than spreading out among the many empty ones that are available. What is interesting is that dominant males spend hours pushing other males off the pallets they happen to be enjoying.
I have to wonder, why on earth don’t the males just spread out and have their own space? Why the fighting and territorial aggression? There is plenty of room and many pallets floating nearby with nothing but a gull or two on top.
Perhaps the sea lions are dealing with the age-old question, “Is there plenty to go around or is there barely enough so I better hold onto what I have and get even more?”
All of this reminds me of the great story in the Book of Exodus, chapter 16. The people are wandering around the desert, totally dependent upon God. God does provide, daily in fact. When the people take just what they need and nothing more, everything is fine. When others, however, try and hoard more than their share, the extras rot and become worm filled.
Although I have no clue why the sea lions behave the way they do, or why some people in the Exodus story had to pick up more than they needed, watching the seals and thinking about the Exodus story causes me to pay attention and ask questions about my own attitude about space and what I am accumulating.
Questions such as, “How much do I really need? Is there room for more than me? Can I take another person into account? How might I see this situation from the other person’s perspective, the one who has no place of his or her own? What might happen if I make room for the other?”
The sea lions, the story in the Book of Exodus, and our journey in faith all compel us, I believe, to explore where we are with possessions, assets, and space when it comes to others. I for one, need to spend some time with Jesus getting a clearer picture of what Jesus would have me do with regard to all of this, especially in a time when “me” is a much louder voice than “we.”