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How Does Jesus Interpret Scriptures? The Way of Love

The Word Became Flesh

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… 

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…

 Not a book. Flesh.

Christians affirm Jesus is the Word of God. But many ask, “If the Bible isn’t also the Word of God, how can we trust that what it says about Jesus is true?”

Here’s where things get complicated. The Bible does reflect God’s wisdom, processed through human language.

But the “Word” of God isn’t dictation. It’s the Logos, the logic of God, the structuring principle of reality, as theologian Michael Hardin puts it. God is Love; God’s logic is love. Love is the essence of God and the raw material out of which God creates all things.

And Love is the message and language of God.

Deuteronomy 30:14 says, “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” God speaks to us through our deepest longings, through our compassion and connection. As we help each other flourish, we follow the logic of love God implants in our hearts.

The logic of love comes in part through wisdom passed through generations. So the “Word of God” is woven through scripture.

But through the lens of scripture, we see not only God’s wisdom, but also humanity’s misunderstanding. We see humanity’s conflation of violence with righteousness, a confusion in which we continue to be mired today. The logic of sacrifice — living at the expense of others — is entangled with the logic of love within scripture, just as these logics are entangled within us.

The problem with calling the Bible the “Word of God” is that it gives the sacrificial logic in scripture equal divine agency with the merciful logic, dangerously entangling love with violence. The Bible is all true in the sense that it records and reflects the human journey in all its paradoxes and contradictions. But it only reflects God’s truth insofar as it reveals God operating according to the logic of love.

Jesus reveals this truth, affirming God’s complete rejection of violence, when he says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

We can look to Jesus to disentangle the logic of mercy from the logic of sacrifice not only in the Bible, but in our lives. He interpreted the scriptures through the lens of love and unravelled the truth of mercy from the deception of over-againstness that distorts human understanding. Following him is how we shift not only our interpretative principle, but our operating principle, from sacrifice to mercy and transform our world of violence into the Beloved Community.

… Love is the message and language of God.

From Moses To Jesus: God’s Solidarity With the Marginalized

The Bible is a window into an ancient world governed by sacrificial logic into which the Logos, the logic of mercy and love, continually breaks through. Love breaks through a world of violence and suffering first at the beginning of Israel’s history with the call to Moses and again in the incarnation of Jesus.

Jesus’ life parallels the history of Israel and illuminates the message that God is in solidarity with the vulnerable, outcast, and those deemed unworthy of love.

While the Bible begins with a theological reflection in Genesis, the historical narrative starts in Exodus, in a world steeped in sacrifice. It tells the story not of heroes or kings, but slaves.

The Hebrews were not a tribe of their own, but a mixed multitude of exiles and refugees on the underside of power, as Dr. Anthony Bartlett explains. As the Biblical narrative begins, they have been rounded up and taken into captivity in Egypt, and the gods, as they know them, are not on their side.

God’s call to Moses and the Hebrew people, that they have been heard in the midst of their oppression, is a breakthrough. Those who had experienced a merciless existence gradually come to recognize that they are beloved of God and become a nation.

marginalized

Framing the Hebrew scriptures in light of God’s liberating love for the outcast, we can readily see parallels between Jesus and Israel itself.

Before Jesus is even delivered into this world, there is no room for his parents at the inn. He is an outcast from his first breath. The people who would become Israel are enslaved in Egypt when Moses is born; Israel is occupied by Rome when Jesus is born. Jesus, like the Hebrews, begins on the margins, on the underside of empire.

The message starting in Exodus and culminating in Jesus is this: God chooses the outcasts to rebuild the world on a new foundation of inclusion, not exclusion; connection, not estrangement. God chooses those who have lived on the underside of sacrifice to be instruments of God’s peace by revealing mercy to and through them.

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone…”

It’s only when the human story is told from the position of the outcast that humanity can learn to live without casting anyone out.

And in Jesus, God becomes the outcast.

The journey into the Promised Land parallels our continuing journey into understanding the depths of God’s love. The Hebrew people first had to recognize that God loved them. But that revelation came against the backdrop of a sacrificial mindset. God’s love, it was believed, came at the expense of enemies and was conditioned upon perfect obedience.

It would take a long time and a complete reorientation for the Hebrew people to learn not only that they were worth more than being on the underside of sacrifice, but that the world didn’t need to turn on sacrifice at all. We’re still learning that lesson.

If Moses led the Hebrews into the awareness that God loves them, Jesus leads humanity into the understanding that God loves all. Jesus expanded the law’s directive of “love your neighbor” to “love your enemy,” erasing all limits and conditions of love.

And as the Word Made Flesh, Jesus collapses the divisions between love of God and love of neighbor by showing us that whatever we do to each other, we do to God.

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The Law As An Instrument of Mercy

Jesus extracts the logic of love from the logic of sacrifice when he interprets the Torah (or Law) as an instrument of mercy, not condemnation.

It’s easy to see why the law isn’t always interpreted mercifully. We want abundant mercy for ourselves, but without strict punishments, how will order and safety be maintained?

But Jesus wants to turn us from our idea that life is maintained through violence, either against “enemies” or in the form of punishments for disobedience. He wants us to see that the consequence of acting contrary to the logic of love is not punishment from on high, but catalyzing disharmony within creation and provoking discord between people.

One of the major ways Jesus extracts mercy from sacrifice is through his interpretation of the Sabbath. Jesus recognizes the Sabbath as a gift, that people may rejuvenate themselves and enjoy the abundance of God’s creation. The abundance of God’s creation, in turn, is maintained in part by the keeping of the Sabbath because the prohibitions against working the land help the land to thrive, so that it can provide for humans and animals. Further provisions of the Sabbath lead to social, economic, and environmental harmony.

Failing to maintain the Sabbath is failing to maintain the balance in which God created the interconnected world, and thus has consequences. But work that heals and cares for others is in the same spirit of generosity and compassion that the Sabbath itself is a part of. Jesus maintains, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” The death penalty for violating the Sabbath violates the Sabbath in itself!

Jesus’s many healings on the Sabbath show a merciful, as opposed to sacrificial, interpretation. When he heals the man with the withered hand, he alludes to Deuteronomy 30:15-20: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. … Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Death is not God’s punishment for violating the law, but the consequence of failing to choose life. Jesus chooses life when he heals on the Sabbath.

Jesus’ merciful interpretation of the Sabbath is part of his connection between worship of God and compassionate living. Another aspect of that connection is the way he emphasizes the commandments that show humanity’s responsibilities to one another over those that show our responsibilities to God.

When a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus quotes five of the ten commandments. Interestingly, he only quotes commandments that have to do with human relations, not obligations to God. Don’t murder, commit adultery, lie, or defraud, and honor your parents. When the man persists, Jesus then tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor and “ you will have treasure in heaven…” The man is instructed to re-orient his desires so his wealth is not defined by material goods, but by good relationships with the poor, those who had previously been outside his circle. Jesus doesn’t tell the man to do this so that he will be rewarded in another life, but so he can realize that the abundant life he seeks is already his when he treasures people over possessions. God isn’t mentioned, because by loving the vulnerable, we fully honor God.

Similarly, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a lawyer asks Jesus the same question as the rich man: how to inherit eternal life. The man answers with the two greatest commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. Yet the story of the Good Samaritan focuses entirely on love of neighbor, expanding the concept of neighbor to include even enemies.

We honor God when love breaks through limits and defenses. Hating in the name of God can feel righteous. But to let enmity be transformed into trust takes strength, humility, and mindfulness. God doesn’t require any separate offering; the commandment to love God is met in the commandment to love neighbor when neighbor is defined inclusively as everyone.

Righteousness As Mercy: The Sermon on the Mount

The centerpiece of Jesus’ faith, the Sermon on the Mount, definitively expands upon the logic of love woven through Torah and refutes the logic of sacrifice that has been intermingled with it from the beginning.

It begins by recalling God’s blessings to those on the underside of sacrifice. The blessings on the poor, meek, mourners, and the persecuted refute sacrificial interpretations of the law that blame people for their suffering with the reminder that God’s kingdom is being built by those on the underside of worldly power.

Jesus then warns of the dangers of living against the logic of mercy. He exposes the cycles of violence and destruction we get ourselves into when we nurture a sacrificial mentality. The hell of which he speaks is not God’s punishment, but the end result of living against others.

When Jesus advises us to cut out our own body parts rather than lash out in anger or lust, he uses extreme metaphorical language to tell us to do whatever it takes to hold ourselves accountable rather than harm others.  And there is a further anti-sacrificial dimension to these words. Leviticus states that no one with a blemish may approach the altar to sacrifice to God.  A sacrificial mindset puts our own well-being ahead of helping our neighbor, believing that we are more acceptable to God if we keep ourselves spotless.

Jesus didn’t do spotless. He was born in a barn and died bloody and beaten, and he was the living image of God through it all. He lived on the underside of sacrifice to show us how to stop violence and exploitation in their tracks with compassion. Living at the expense of others in pursuit of perfection misses the mark and misses God, because God is the source of our interconnection.

Jesus calls for a kind of perfection that has nothing to do with blemishlessness. The instruction to love our enemies in the Sermon on the Mount concludes: “Be perfect.” But the Sermon on the Plain uses a different word: “Be merciful.” Seek perfection, and you might end up being merciless. But be merciful, and you’ll come close to God.

“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus says, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” When we read scripture through the lens of the living Logos, the very embodiment of love, we learn that we can only love God when we unconditionally and without exception love one another.