Jesus and the Bible

Nov 08, 2012 | Updated Jan 08, 2013

When we Christians are tempted to lob Bible verses at one another like hand grenades, we might do well to consider Jesus' example.

On a certain day, Luke tells us, Jesus was in his hometown, Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). He stood up in the synagogue to read, and he was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. Scrolling through, Jesus read from two verses. Actually, a verse and a half.

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor (Isaiah 61:1-2, NRSV).

Having closed the book, Jesus sat down. With everyone's attention still focused on him -- that's how Luke describes it -- Jesus pronounced, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." The synagogue crowd, Luke reports, affirmed Jesus' proclamation, responding with wonder.

In Luke's telling, this moment, the reading from Isaiah 61, marks the real beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Jesus defines his ministry as good news for those whom society grinds down into powder, healing for the brokenhearted, a ministry of freedom and release for prisoners and slaves alike.

When Jesus announces, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing," he is taking sides. Everybody in the synagogue approves, for Jesus is taking sides with them, with ordinary people seeking to scratch a living out of tough land. Jesus takes sides with small landowners, who find themselves beset by wealthy speculators and creditors who seek every opportunity to foreclose. Jesus takes sides with ordinary faithful Jews, who find Roman taxation, and local taxation, too much to bear, who fear the loss of their households and land, who might easily imagine themselves as prisoners or slaves.

Jesus, following Isaiah, is drawing upon a great biblical tradition, the Jubilee. Jewish law stipulated that every seven years all debts would be canceled. All Israelite slaves would be set free. And every 50th year -- "the year of the Lord's favor" -- all land would return to its original owners and clans, those enslaved because of their poverty would be set free. On this 50th year, Leviticus says, "You shall proclaim liberty" (25:10). Every 50 years, a fresh start. Imagine: "the year of the Lord's favor."

It's so easy to resonate with Jesus' message that we often overlook a key detail. Jesus reads a verse and a half, but then he stops. He cuts off part of Isaiah's proclamation. He skips the part about God's vengeance upon Israel's enemies (61:2). He does not bother to read the section that calls for exploiting "strangers and foreigners," who will tend to the flocks and cultivate the fields while Israel lives in luxury (61:5). Jesus reads some parts of the passage, but not the whole passage.

Not only does Jesus cut off Isaiah's words, he blends in others. Where Isaiah proclaims God's promises toward Israel and at the expense of Israel's neighbors, Jesus turns to 1 and 2 Kings, where God's blessing extends even to Gentiles. He recalls the widow in Sidon, whose son Elijah blessed, despite her living beyond Israel's borders. That story's not in Isaiah; it comes from 1 Kings (17:8-24). Jesus appeals to the story of Naaman, who received God's blessing even though he was a Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-19). Within the words of Scripture, Jesus discerned God's words for his day -- and instead of exalting Israel over his neighbors, he went on to promise God's blessing beyond Israel's borders. Jesus adapted Isaiah's words to his own vision of Jubilee, to his understanding of good news.

Without discernment, we can easily turn the Bible to evil ends. People do all the time. Working my way through grad school, I worked for a program that offered education and counseling to domestic violence offenders. Very few of these men were churchgoers, but it seemed that about half of these men would mention that somewhere the Bible teaches that women are obliged to provide sex to their husbands. I don't recall any of these men knowing exactly where the Bible says such a thing. (The passage in question is 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.) But their ability to use the Bible to justify their own violence proved deeply chilling.

Biblical interpretation requires discernment. It will not do simply to open the Bible and start talking. It's not adequate to collect favorite proof texts and stick them to contemporary questions. It won't do to repeat everything we've been told, all that's passed down to us. Right from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus practices discernment. Like the scribes in his parable, Jesus brings forth things old and new (Matthew 13:52). Grounded in Scripture, shaped by the church and its history, in conversation with other interpreters from around the world, and in profound prayer and humility, we practice discernment, bringing forth things old and new.