Jesus’ approach to
interpreting sacred text was radical for his time, yet honored his own
Hebrew Bible (or what Christians call the Old Testament). Even though
Jesus’ use of Scripture is plain enough for us to see in the Gospels,
many Christians are accustomed to reading the Bible in a very different
way. We simply haven’t paid attention and connected the dots! Over the
next couple days, I’ll share some examples that reveal Jesus’
hermeneutic so that we might follow his methodology:
Jesus actually does not quote Scripture that much! In fact, he is criticized for not doing this: “you teach with [inner] authority and not like our own
scribes” (Mark 1:22).
Jesus talks much more out of his own experience of God and humanity instead of teaching like the scribes and Pharisees, who operated out of their own form of case law by quoting previous sources.
Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources,
or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the
healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do” (see Mark 2:17, Matthew
9:12, and Luke 5:31), or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (see
Luke 16:19-31). His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider
than sola Scriptura. He even quotes some sources seemingly incorrectly (for example, John 10:34)!
Jesus never once quotes from nineteen of the books in his own Scriptures.
In fact, he appears to use a very few favorites: Exodus, Deuteronomy,
Isaiah, Hosea, and Psalms—and those are overwhelmingly in Matthew’s
Gospel, which was directed to a Jewish audience.
Jesus appears to ignore most of his own Bible, yet it clearly formed his whole consciousness. That
is the paradox. If we look at what he ignores, it includes any
passages—of which there are many—that appear to legitimate violence,
imperialism, exclusion, purity, and dietary laws. Jesus is a biblically formed non-Bible quoter who gets the deeper stream, the spirit, the trajectory of his Jewish history and never settles for mere surface readings.
When Jesus does once quote Leviticus, he quotes the one positive mandate among long lists of negative ones: “You must love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
to many post-Reformation Christians, early centuries of
Christianity—through authoritative teachers like Origen, Cyril of
Alexandria, Augustine, and Gregory the Great—encouraged as many as seven
“senses” of Scripture. The literal, historical, allegorical, moral,
symbolic, eschatological (the trajectory of history and growth), and
“primordial” or archetypal (commonly agreed-upon symbolism) levels of a
text were often given serious weight among scholars. These levels were
gradually picked up by the ordinary Christian through Sunday preaching
(as is still true today) and presumed to be normative by those who heard
different senses of Scripture were sometimes compared to our human
senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching, which are
five distinct ways of knowing the same thing, but in very different
“languages.” After both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Western
Europeans reduced our ways of knowing to one for all practical
purposes—the supposedly rational/literal/historical. We have largely
compacted and limited the Bible to this single sense for several
centuries now, in both its Catholic and Protestant forms. Our bandwidth
of spiritual access to the Bible was consequently severely narrowed, it
seems to me—and as many would say—to the least spiritually helpful
level. That something supposedly literally
happened in one exact way, in one moment of time, does not, of itself,
transfer the experience to now, me, or us. I believe that such transference is the transformative function of any spiritual text.
narrow, rational/literal/historical approach largely creates an
antiquarian society that prefers to look backward instead of forward. In
my experience, it creates transactional religion much more than transformational spirituality. It idealizes individual conformity and group belonging over love, service, or actual change of heart.
was discredited from the beginning of the New Testament through the
inclusion of four Gospel accounts of the same Jesus event, which differ
in many ways. Which is the “inerrant” one?
earlier centuries of Christianity were much closer to the
trans-rational world of Jesus and his storytelling style of teaching
(which does not lend itself to dogmatic or systematic theology). The
Gospel says, “He would never speak to them except in parables” (Matthew
13:34). The indirect, metaphorical, symbolic language of a story or
parable seems to be Jesus’ preferred way of teaching spiritual
Almost all of Jesus’ parables begin with the same phrase: “The Reign of God is like.
. . .” Jesus fully knows he is speaking in metaphor, simile, story, and
symbol. But in recent centuries, many Christians have not granted him
that freedom, and thus we miss or avoid many of his major messages. We
are much the poorer for it.
More than telling us exactly what to see in the Scriptures, Jesus taught us how to see, what to emphasize, and also what could be de-emphasized or ignored. Beyond fundamentalism or literalism, Jesus practiced a form that the Jewish people called midrash,
consistently using questions to keep spiritual meanings open, often
reflecting on a text or returning people’s questions with more
questions. It is a real shame that we did not imitate Jesus in this
approach. It could have saved us from so many centuries of
righteousness, religious violence, and even single-issue voting.
Rather than seeking always certain and unchanging answers, the Jewish practice of midrash allows
many possibilities, many levels of faith-filled meaning—meaning that is
relevant and applicable to you, the reader, and puts you in the
subject’s shoes to build empathy, understanding, and relationship. It
lets the passage first challenge you before it challenges
anyone else. To use the text in a spiritual way—as Jesus did—is to allow
it to convert you, to change you, to grow you up as you respond: What
does this ask of me? How might this apply to my life, to my family, to
my church, to my neighborhood, to my country?
biblical messages often proceed from historical incidents, the actual
message does not depend upon communicating those events with perfect
factual accuracy. Spiritual writers are not primarily journalists.
Hebrew rabbis and scholars sometimes use the approach of midrash to reflect
on a story and communicate all of its underlying message. Scripture can
be understood on at least four levels: literal meaning, deep meaning,
comparative meaning, and hidden meaning.
The literal level of meaning doesn’t get to the root and, in fact, is the
least helpful to the soul and the most dangerous for history. Deep meaning offers symbolic or allegorical applications. Comparative study combines different texts to explore an entirely new meaning. Finally, in traditional Jewish exegesis, hidden
meaning gets at the Mystery itself. Midrash allows and encourages each
listener to grow with a text and not to settle for mere literalism,
which, of itself, bears little spiritual fruit. It is just a starting
Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.  This statement from Aquinas was drilled into me during seminary. People at different levels of maturity will
interpret the same text in different ways. There is no one right way to interpret sacred texts. How you see is what you see; the who that
you bring to your reading of the Scriptures matters. Who are you when
you read the Bible? Defensive, offensive, power-hungry, righteous? Or
humble, receptive, and honest? Surely, this is why we need to pray
before reading a sacred text!
consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and
triumphalist texts in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages
that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. For example, referencing
two passages from Exodus (21:24) and Leviticus (24:20), Jesus suggested
the opposite: “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for
tooth.’ But I tell you . . . turn the other cheek” (see Matthew
5:38-39). He read the Scriptures in a spiritual, selective, and
questioning way. Jesus had a deeper and wider eye that knew which
passages were creating a path for God and which passages were merely
cultural, self-serving, and legalistic additions.
NOTE: As I said a number of times already, I believe that the future of Christianity in general, and that of evangelicalism in particular depends to a critical way on our ability to understand what is the Bible (is it a divine oracle, written by dictation, and requiring a literalistic approach, to be used as a recipe book, as fundamentalists want us to; or is it a purely human book, to be analised as any other piece of literature, as liberals want us to; or, rather, as Fr Rohr says, a divine-human book, ‘ a record of people’s experience of God’s self-revelation’, and, thus, understood according to the rules of a divinely inspired hermeneutic, dialogical, contemplative, paradoxical, in constant conversation with the changing reality around us, as we perceive it, with the help of science, art, culture, religion etc.
* * *
all its inspiration, for all the lives it has changed, the Bible is
undeniably problematic. Put in the hands of egocentric, unloving, or
power-hungry people or those who have never learned how to read
spiritually inspired literature, it is almost always a disaster. History
has demonstrated this, century after century, so this is not an
unwarranted, disrespectful, or biased conclusion. The burning of
heretics, the Crusades, slavery, apartheid, homophobia, and the genocide
and oppression of native peoples were all justified through the
selective use of Scripture quotes.
what are we supposed to do with the Bible? Today’s meditation will be a
bit longer than usual to begin addressing this question. And we’ll
spend the rest of the week unpacking what Jesus did with the Hebrew
Scriptures—the only Bible he knew.
My general approach is to change the seer and not to change the text. Only transformed people can be entrusted with inspired writings. They can operate in a symbiotic (“shared life”) relationship with words and are unlikely to use the Bible to exclude and shame others or as a rationale for their bad behavior.
Christian’s goal is to be transformed by the renewing of our mind into
the mind of Christ (see Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:16; and Philippians
2:5). That is why I try to read the Bible the way Jesus did, following
Jesus’ hermeneutic (a method of interpreting sacred texts).
Just as we are trying to do with this year’s Daily Meditations, Jesus
was a master of winnowing the chaff from the grain (see Matthew 3:12 and
Luke 3:17) and “bringing out of the storeroom new treasures as well as
old” (Matthew 13:52).
The Bible is an anthology of many books.
It is a record of people’s experience of God’s self-revelation. It
is an account of our very human experience of the divine intrusion into
history. The book did not fall from heaven in a pretty package. It was
written by people trying to listen to God. I believe that the Spirit was
guiding the listening and writing process. We must also know that
humans always see “through a glass darkly . . . and all knowledge is
imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Prayer and patience surrounding
such human words will keep us humble and searching for the true Living
Word, the person of Jesus,which is how the Spirit best
teaches (1 Corinthians 2:10,13)—through living exemplars. This is surely
what it means to know “contemplatively.”
history finally gets to the Risen Jesus, there is nothing to be afraid
of in God. Jesus’ very breath is identified with forgiveness and the
divine Shalom(see John 20:20-23). If the Risen Jesus
is the full and trustworthy unveiling of the nature of God, then we live
in a safe and love-filled universe. It is not that God has changed, or
that the Hebrew God is a different God than the God of Jesus; it is
that we are growing up as we move through the text and deepen
our experience. Stay with the Bible and with your inner life with God
and your capacity for God will increase.
as the Bible takes us through many stages of consciousness and history,
it takes us individually a long time to move beyond our need to be
dualistic, judgmental, accusatory, fearful, blaming, egocentric, and
earning—and to see as Jesus sees. The Bible itself is a “text in
travail,” according to René Girard’s fine insight.  It mirrors and
charts our own human travail. It offers both mature and immature
responses to almost everything. In time, you will almost naturally
recognize the difference between the text moving forward toward the
mercy, humility, and inclusivity of Jesus and when the text is
regressing into arrogance, exclusion, and legalism.
clearly believed in change. In fact, the first public word out of his
mouth was later translated into the Greek imperative verb metanoeite, which
literally means “change your mind” or “go beyond your mind” (see
Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15). Unfortunately, in the fourth century, St.
Jerome translated the word into Latin as paenitentia (“repent”
or “do penance”), initiating a host of moralistic connotations that have
colored Christians’ understanding of the Gospels ever since. The word metanoeite referred to a primal change of mind, worldview, or way of processing and perceiving—and
only by corollary about a specific
change in behavior. This common misunderstanding puts the cart before
the horse; we think we can change a few externals while our underlying
worldview often remains narcissistic and self-referential.
misunderstanding contributed to a puritanical, externalized, and
largely static notion of the Christian message that has followed us to
this day. Faith became about external requirements that could be
enforced, punished, and rewarded, much more than an actual change of heart and mind, which
Jesus described as something that largely happens “in secret, where
your Father who sees in secret can reward you” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18).
Jesus invariably emphasized inner motivation and intention.
For example, he taught: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall
not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman
with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew
5:27-28). Jesus made religion about interior change and “purity of
heart” (Matthew 5:8) more than visible behaviors or rituals or anything
that would have a social payoff or punishment.
Jesus didn’t focus on individual sin outside or over there,
where we can point to it,
punish it, and try to change it. That is too easy and mostly
ineffective. Without making light of evil, he showed how to actually
overcome and heal it. Sin, for Jesus, was the very act of accusing (Satan means “the accuser”). Whenever
we try to expel and accuse others, and somehow leave ourselves or our
group out of the equation, we end up “sinning.” We must first recognize
our own complicity in evil before we can transform it. We see this
pattern when Jesus himself was faced with three temptations to power
(Matthew 4:1-11). Until we face our own demons, none of us are prepared
to fight evil elsewhere.
Jesus thus stood in solidarity with individuals who were excluded,
deemed unworthy, or demonized. Why? Because the excluded from any group always reveal the unquestioned idolatries of that group!
He even partied with sinners and tax collectors, and the “pure” hated
him for it (see Luke 15:2). The way Jesus tried to change people was by
loving and healing them, accusing only their accusers. Why did we not
notice that? His harshest words of judgment were reserved for those who
perpetuated systems of inequality and oppression and who, through
religion itself, thought they were sinless and untouchable. Jesus did not so much love people once they changed, but he loved people so that they could change.
calling this year’s theme “Old and New: An Evolving Faith.” The term
“evolution” may be challenging for some Christians who believe that
science and the Bible contradict each other. We’ll look more closely at
the Bible (and how Jesus interpreted it) next week, and later this year
we’ll focus on Creation and science. For now, let’s simply consider how
the inner process of change and growth is fundamental to everything,
even our bodies. Having undergone several surgeries, cancer, and a heart
attack, I’ve been consoled by the way my body takes care of itself over
time. The miracle of healing comes from the inside—but with help from
religion, however, many prefer magical, external, one-time transactions
instead of the universal pattern of growth and healing—which is always
through loss and renewal. This is the way that life perpetuates itself
in ever-new forms: through various changes that can feel like death. The
pattern disappoints and scares most of us, even many clergy who think
death and resurrection is just a doctrinal statement about the lone
is not a single discipline today that does not recognize change,
development, growth, and
some kind of evolving phenomenon: psychology, cultural anthropology,
history, physical sciences, philosophy, social studies, drama, music, on
and on. But in theology’s search for the Real Absolute, it imagined a
static “unmoved mover,” as Aristotelian philosophy called it, a solid
substance sitting above somewhere. Theology has struggled to imagine
that once God includes us in the narrative then God is for sure
changing! Is that not what the Bible—at its core—is saying? We matter to
God and God thus allows us to change the narrative of history . . . and
the narrative of God.
Religion tends to prefer and protect the status quo or the supposedly wonderful past, yet what we now see is
that religion often simply preserves its own power and privilege. God does not need our protecting. We often worship old things as substitutes for eternal things.
Jesus strongly rejects this love of the past and one’s private
perfection, and he cleverly quotes Isaiah (29:13) to do it: “In vain do
they worship me, teaching merely human precepts as if they were
doctrines” (Matthew 15:9). Many of us seem to think that God really is
“back there,” in the good ol’ days of old-time religion when God was
really God, and everybody was happy and pure. This leaves the present
moment empty and hopeless—not to speak of the future.
keeps creating things from the inside out,
so they are forever yearning, developing, growing, and changing for the
good. This is the generative force implanted in all living things, which
grow both from within—because they are programmed for it—and from
without—by taking in sun, food, and water. Picture YHWH breathing into
the soil that became Adam (Genesis 2:7). That is the eternal pattern.
God is still breathing into soil every moment!
Evolutionary thinking is actually contemplative thinking
because it leaves the full field of the future in God’s hands and
agrees to humbly hold the present with what it only tentatively knows
for sure. Evolutionary thinking must agree to both knowing and not
knowing, at the same time.
This is hard for the egoically bound self. It wants to fully know—now—which is never true anyway.
I am aware of the phrase “true self” occurring only once in the Bible. Paul used the words to describe what he was desperately trying to locate in the midst of some major trials with his false self. He wrote of it in a telling way: “When I act against my own will, then it is not my true self doing it, but sin which lives in me” (Romans 7:20, Jerusalem Bible). Somehow, he knew there was a part of him that was authentic, steadfast, and true to its God-given and loving nature.
Paul then contrasted the true self with what we are calling the false self and he called “sin” (7:14-25). It is the self that is always passing away. This is our cozy image of ourselves as individual and autonomous, as separate from God and everyone and everything else. When this “separate” self is all we think we are, no wonder we are afraid of dying. Because this is all we know and have—if we have not discovered our soul, that is. The false self is terrified of death because it knows the mental construct that it calls “myself” is indeed passing away because it is merely self-constructed and fragile. The false self has no substance, no permanence, no vitality, only various forms of immediate gratification.Continue reading “Richard Rohr – Do Not Be Afraid”