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~ Separating Inspiration from Organization ~
While the contents of the Bible are inspired by the Holy Spirit, their organization is not quite so. To realize that is to enter into a more responsible exegesis of the Scriptures. Our multiple translations divide the books into chapters and verses, each numbered for our convenience of reference. Such organization, of course, was not a characteristic of the original writings. Thus we have chapters ending prematurely which should have included the beginning of the next chapter in them.
The titles of Jesus' parables are not part of the original manuscripts and some merit reconsideration. I suggest that the parable of "The Prodigal Son" is not about the son, but about his father, symbolic of our Father, God. The behavior of his son is not new to us, but rather typical of our own experiences. The reaction of his father is unexpected and new, both to Christ's audience and to our modern experience. Perhaps this story should be renamed, "The Parable of the Unconditionally Loving Father."
Another mistitled parable is that of "The Lost Sheep." Out of a hundred sheep, one is unaccounted, deemed lost. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to look for it. This is not a story about the wayward sheep, but about the shepherd, the Christ. This parable would be better titled, "The Sacrificial Care of the Shepherd," or something like that. The story is about our God's love and attentiveness to each individual, not about a wayward sheep.
Another story is typically titled, "The Parable of the Tares (or Weeds)." Jesus begins His story, "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who planted good seed in his field.. But while people were asleep, his enemy planted weeds in the wheat field and went away. When the wheat came up and formed kernels, weeds appeared" (Matthew 13:24-26). So what is this story really about? Weeds or wheat? If you would read this parable carefully, I believe you would agree it is about the wheat, just as Jesus said it was, "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who planted good seed." This story may be best retitled, "The Parable of the Wheat and Good Seed."
I could point out many other titles of Jesus' teachings, but I think I made a point worthy of consideration. Actually, this is no trivial matter. "Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me" is a fallacy. The names we attribute to people and to stories have greater power than sticks and stones. The stones thrown at the early Christians, beginning with St. Stephen in the witness of Saul (later St. Paul), drove their bodies into death, but their stories live in our hearts to this day. Better we memorialize Stephen with, "The First Martyr for Christ" than with "Saul's Witness of the First Christian Execution." As with the two examples I provided above, the title of an event should concentrate on the essential person and teaching.
Christianity is unique in that it is the only spiritual tradition that declares that, as love personified in Christ, it "never stops believing" (1 Corinthians 13:7). Believing in what? "Things that are true, honorable, fair, pure, acceptable or commendable" (Philippines 4:8). Does that not include all else in those descriptive categories in all religious traditions? Don't we see truth, honor, fairness, purity, acceptability and commendation in so many places? Since Christianity already embraces these things from whatever their sources, it does not need to accommodate any other spiritual traditions or religions. It needs not to be politically or religiously correct or even ecumenical. We Christians already honor and embrace whatsoever is "true, honorable, fair, pure, acceptable and commendable."
The parables I mentioned above are also about sin. An event, not a parable, has Jesus meeting with a Canaanite woman, a sinner, greeting her with great respect. Matthew records (8:10) how Jesus marveled (and paid a great compliment) to a Roman Centurion. We can safely assume this Roman Officer was responsible for the torture and execution of many undeserving people. Roman soldiers under his command, or under those like him, later unleashed the most brutal and painful and humiliating treatment of Jesus in preparation of His execution. Christ's execution by crucifixion was prophesied, but not His "crowning" of thorns hammered deeply into His scalp. Christ's execution by crucifixion was enough to bring salvation to the human race, but He agreed to more suffering, beyond what was needed for redemption.
In a sense perhaps not accepted by mainstream Christian thought, Jesus was the greatest sinner who ever walked our earth. The offenses of violence, hatred, murder, adultery, theft, deception, betrayal, and all other evils were sucked away from us into His body. The Scriptures declare Jesus was the greatest sinner on earth when they state "He was made sin" for us.
And it is so for His disciples. Peter declared to the Jews, "You denied the Holy One." It is certain Peter realized he also denied Christ, three times, and wept bitterly over this sin. Yet there is no record in the New Testament Scriptures of Peter asking for Christ's forgiveness. This suggests that such asking was not necessary. Peter knew he was forgiven, for that is the essence of the Gospel. Peter proceeded from there, and assumed the bishop authority and responsibility of overseeing the church in Jerusalem. That was when Jesus, after His resurrection, asked Peter three times, "Do you love me?" Jesus was enabling Peter to make reparations for his sin of three denials. (See John 21.)
Jesus pursued Peter. He pursues us. This God of ours is unlike any others. Both His humiliation and power is beyond my understanding. It may also be beyond my gratitude, though I strive not for that to be true.
The grammar of the Scriptures is also subject to linguistics rather than inspiration. The writers were constrained to their cultural metaphors and language structure. People of the northern and southern hemispheres of our planet cannot relate to farming cycle of the Mediterranean and near eastern regions wherein the writers' lived. They, and most of us, cannot appreciate the miracle of the sheep in Psalm 23 laying down in green pastures. Sheep do not lay down in green pastures! They rather keep grazing whether hungry or not. Making sheep lay down in the midst of such bounty is as challenging as getting a child to take a nap before opening the Christmas day presents. Only Christ can surpass the lure of green pastures to entice us to rest in them without consuming them. Why do we want more than we need?
The Hebrew language has no singular form for "face," only the plural "panim." This relegates the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures to contend that neither God or humans have only one face. In English, we can easily label a person in the singular: "I'm an addict," "I'm a murderer," "I'm a convict," "I'm a Catholic," "I'm a Protestant," "I'm a wretch." The Hebrew language precludes us from assigning such singular labels to people. We are very complex beings with many dimensions, the good, the bad, and the neutral. Who of us can then feel more righteous, more enlightened, or superior in any way to others who may be unable to present a self that is admirable to the world?
The Hebrew language forces us to acknowledge our many faces. Christ has many faces as well, an infinite number of them. Given this realization, do we not see Him in the poor, the imprisoned, the homeless, the addicted, the sinners which we all join in fellowship? Do we not also see Him in every sunrise and sunset, in every flower, in every candlelight, in every child's laughter and cries?
We embrace singularity. We are either Republican or Democrat, pro-Bush or anti-Bush, left or right, liberal or conservative, for or against. The Hebrew language prohibits such demarcations. Christ, being neither Republican or Democrat, nor a fan of any sports team, nor a national citizen or guardian of any particular nation, speaks in the Hebrew language of plurality.
I have many faces, as you do. Let us pray that at least one of them reflect the face of the Christ. That is the one I desire to present to the world. You and I have that face. Only by the grace of God will others see it. And only by His grace can I present it, for it is His, not mine.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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