Not too long ago, these four letters were everywhere: on bracelets, on tee shirts,
on bumper stickers,
even, heaven help us, on tattoos.
But today, I want us to consider a different question: HWJR? How would Jesus read? First, though, a qualifier: “read” is perhaps not the best term for what Jesus was doing. Jesus did not have a Bible of his own to read and study—in fact, no one in the first century owned a Bible. The Bible as we know it did not yet exist. The various books of Jewish Scripture were written on separate scrolls, which were held by synagogues and schools.
Only a very few, very wealthy people owned scrolls of their own. Jesus would have experienced Scripture by hearing it read aloud in worship, and by singing and chanting its words along with the congregation. He would have learned his Bible by heart.
While it takes an act of the imagination to consider what Jesus would do if he was cut off in traffic, say, or if his internet provider went down, we do not have to imagine how Jesus read. Matthew 5:21-48 provides us several examples of Jesus reading, and interpreting, Scripture.
Six times in this passage, Jesus says, “You have heard it said,” quotes a passage from the Scriptures, and then declares, “but I say.” Jesus places his own words on a par with Scripture—and not just any Scripture, but the Torah (that is, the Law: the first five books of the Bible, still central to Jewish faith and identity) and even the words of the Ten Commandments! In part, this is what it means to speak of Jesus coming to fulfill the law and the prophets: he is himself the Word of God, made flesh (John 1:14). But Christian readers should not be too quick to conclude that Jesus sets the Torah aside: after all, Jesus said, “I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality” (Matthew 5:18). Jesus’ reading of Scripture is faithful to the tradition, not contemptuous of it. However, Jesus reads these texts for what they mean, within the whole body of Scripture—not merely for what they say.
For example: the Ten Commandments say, “Do not kill” (see Exodus 20:13). But that does not mean that any act of violence short of murder is fine. Jesus knows that violence begins in the heart, in the attitude that demeans and dehumanizes the other.
Words of contempt issuing from such a heart not only lead all too readily to acts of violence, they are themselves already acts of violence. Rather than narrowing the text to the letter of the law, Jesus’ reading broadens and deepens the text, seeking its spirit.
So too, though the commandment says only, “Do not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) this surely does not mean that anything short of adultery is okay! Adultery too begins in the heart, with the lustful attitude that reduces the other to an object for my own gratification.
Like violence, then, unfaithfulness begins by denying the humanity of the other—by refusing empathy. By reading the Bible this way, not narrowing and restricting the texts but broadening and deepening them, Jesus reads like the rabbis before and after him.
On the other hand, the Torah permits divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 states that if a man finds “something inappropriate about her” (Deut 24:1 NRSV; the Hebrew is ‘erwah dabar, that is “a shameful thing”), he may divorce his wife. The rabbis debate what “something objectionable” means. For example, Rabbi Shammai concludes that ‘erwah dabar means adultery, while Rabbi Hillel says, “If she burns the meat in the pan, you may divorce her.” Still, all the rabbis accept the legitimacy of divorce.
But Jesus thinks differently. In first-century Palestine, women could not own property. Divorced women could then be left homeless and hungry, unable to care for themselves or for their children. Jesus recognizes that what is permissible is not necessarily good—let alone God’s best. He therefore rejects divorce, except (like his near-contemporary Rabbi Shammai) when the relationship is already broken by unfaithfulness.
What does this mean for our own time? Does Jesus’ rejection of divorce and remarriage hold for us today? My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, recognizes divorce, and permits clergy to perform marriages for divorced persons. Is this wrong? I have many dear friends and members of my family who are divorced and have remarried; some are pastors themselves. Should I tell them that their marriages are invalid, or their children are illegitimate?
I don’t think so. Why should we read Jesus’ words narrowly and legalistically, when he himself did not read Scripture in that way? If we are to read as Jesus read, we will look for how best to live out Jesus’ affirmation of faithfulness and commitment in marriage in our own context, rather than applying to his own words a legalism that Jesus rejects.
A story is told of comedian W.C. Fields on his death bed. Friends visiting Fields in his hospital room found him thumbing through a Bible—something he had never been known to do before. When they asked him what he was doing, Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.”
A narrow, legalistic approach to Scripture leads to that kind of reading: we look for ways around the Bible’s more difficult teachings when they bind us, while applying to others the full force of judgment and condemnation. But this is not the way that Jesus reads! In each case we have considered, Jesus reads the specific texts of the Bible in the light of the highest ideals of justice upheld in the whole of Scripture, seeking God’s intention and desire. Jesus does not take the Bible literally. He takes the Bible seriously—and so must we.
May we learn to read Scripture as Jesus does: not like prosecuting attorneys looking for evidence to convict one another, or like hostile combatants looking for weapons to wield against one another, but as genuine seekers, desiring to know God and to live as God would have us live. Only then will we hear the Word of God among the words of Scripture. Only then can we be changed by what God has to say to us.