Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

The Interpretation of Love

Deuteronomy 6: 1-12, 11:8-9

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love theLord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

12take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery… (Deuteronomy 6)

 Keep, then, this entire commandment that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy, 9and so that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey… (Deuteronomy 11)

Mark 12:28-34

28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

The podcast

Richard Beck:

[This] is a point that has been made many, many times. We all have a hermeneutic. We are all interpreting the text to some degree. We are all privileging--deferring to--certain values, doctrines, creedal commitments, traditions, or biblical texts. Something somewhere is trumping something else. In a document as multivocal as the Old and New Testament this is unavoidable.

So we all have a hermeneutic. The only question is whether you are consciously vs. unconsciously using a hermeneutic.

The deepest arguments I've observed in church come down to this.  There are times when self-interest, winning for its own sake, holding the power, and so on, have largely been eliminated. Or, at least, we have seen them clearly and have them under control. But something else has meant an irreconcilable difference has persisted. In our hearts we have felt of each other: "you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God… you are quite wrong." (Mark 12:24-27) And sometimes we have said as much to each other.

The text this week describes the fundamental difference in hermeneutic between Jesus and his opponents. Mark takes good care to list all Jesus' opponents in Chapters 11 and 12: "the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders," (11:27)  the "Pharisees and Herodians," (12:13) and the Sadducees. (12:18) Although "the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching," (Mark 11:18) he was attacked by the entire religious establishment.

But there is one scribe who is not listed among them. Through him, Mark makes sure to remind us what is at stake, for Jesus tells this scribe, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

We have come to the centre of the gospel and its hermeneutic, for Jesus' first words in this gospel are, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." (Mark 1:15) And here, talking with this scribe? We are "not far from the Kingdom of God." It has indeed come near.

In one sense, Jesus is no revolutionary in this text. Both he and the scribe lay out their understanding of what is most important, by quoting Scripture.

It is Deuteronomy 6 which says

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

It is Leviticus 19 which says, in an entire chapter devoted to holiness, (19:2)

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (19:18)

And the scribe carefully re-states and reinforces each of these texts.

There is nothing here with which anyone could argue.

The point of argument is the hermeneutic: which texts are being privileged?

And the scribe makes it clear. In a clever rhetorical strategy, Jesus' hermeneutic is validated by one listed among his opponents:

“to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.

It is this understanding which has brought the scribe "not far" from the kingdom of God and wins Jesus' approval. 

Even this hermeneutical hinge is not new. Hosea 6:6 has already said, "‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice." Micah 6:8 has already said, "the Lord require[s] of you… to do justice, and to love kindness..." What everything swings on, and what kills Jesus, is his agreement with the scribe, his absolute committment to privileging love:

the Scribe doesn't just say, "more important;" he says, "MUCH more important." (David Ewart)

Bill Loader outlines this in some detail, and I commend his post on this text.

… by citing the second command, Jesus is making a profound theological move which seriously defines the first command and reveals his theology. The God to be obeyed is the God of love and compassion and, by implication, that understanding will determine what loving God and keeping God’s commandments means. There is no room for a tension or opposition between the two, no divided loyalties. Where love and law conflict, law gives way, or, better, love always goes beyond and, in that sense, fulfils the law. It controls law and not vice versa.

In the gospel of John, (John 7:53 – 8:11) the hermeneutic of the scribes and Pharisees who bring the woman to Jesus, privileges Law. The Law says the woman must be stoned. Love is not part of the equation. The woman is reduced to a test of Jesus' holiness before God; she is dehumanised.

Jesus is all Love. He does not condemn. It is almost as an afterthought that he says, "Go and sin no more."

What hermeneutic drives us as we meet our neighbour in need? When we meet this woman, do we even see her as neighbour, or as someone in need? So often, I think, we want to get people right with God, (according to our definitions of right,) whilst ignoring their need:  Do the right thing, and then we will help you.

Jesus' approach simply asks, "What do you need?" And then, and only then, "You know, if you change the way you live (repent) you will find you are much closer, and much more open, to the God who wishes only to bless you that you may live long in the land."

•••

I began this post with Richard Beck's assertion that we all have a hermeneutic. Beck suggested "a fundamentalist is a person who thinks he doesn't have a hermeneutic."

What is interesting to me in this phenomenon is not that we are all engaging in hermeneutics, acts of interpretation. That is a given. What is interesting to me is how self-awareness, or the lack thereof, is implicated in all this.

Basically, fundamentalism--denying that you are engaged in hermeneutics--betrays a shocking lack of self-awareness, an inability to notice the way your mind and emotions are working in the background and beneath the surface.

I think statements like "this is the clear teaching of Scripture" are psychologically diagnostic. Statements like these reveal something about yourself. Namely, that you lack a certain degree of self-awareness…

[What is at] issue… [is]… emotional intelligence, the degree to which you are reading the bible with a degree of self-awareness.

This emotional intelligence goes beyond interpretation. It affects how we relate to our neighbour. It determines who we see as neighbour.  It affects how we love God. It is the measure of our conversion.

Emotional intelligence— emotional maturity, indeed— will determine how free we are to abandon the safety and certainty of rules, and step into the uncertain realm of love, where there are no boundaries on our responsibility, and no points at which we can limit love. It is to enter the realm of Spirit not far from the Kingdom of God. In a sense, this maturity, this conversion, ceases to be a hermeneutic, and becomes a way of being. It is who we are— or not.

What do we privilege? Do we place law over love and compassion, or love and compassion over Law? Our behaviour is psychologically diagnostic. It measures our conversion to the way of the Kingdom of God. It questions our emotional maturity. But in the gentleness of God, Jesus never condemns us. He says, "You know, if you change the way you live, (repent) you will find you are much closer, and much more open, to the God who wishes only to bless you that you may live long in the land."

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Barbara Cairns 30-10-2015
Thank you for the insight especially the notion of being self aware and how we our own agendas, emotional intelligence, and compassion interplay. Very Zen like and Christ like.
Chad Hale 31-10-2015
My comments have to do with the practice of what you teach, which I hope is not unfair here. In my experience, agreeing with you does not free me to actually do what Jesus calls for. For me, it is difficult to be free to love over law, for I even make “love over law” a law. My own need for some Archimedean place from which to judge others, some “secure” place other than the Holy Spirit is strong. I even immediately leap to self-satisfaction over my agreement with you. I find I must often be in prayer and self-examination in order to be able to put certain people above my law, and am frequently in the position of asking forgiveness, even from those I judge to be off base, because my actions toward them did not come from a place of compassion, but from my “better law.” I live in the South of the United States and experience that it very easy NOT to have compassion for certain folks, for instance, Confederate flag fliers and those who obviously are proud to be in the lineage of white privilege, most particularly the ones who are vocal about being “Christian,” even though they need to be delivered from their fears and hatreds. There are many competing Jesuses and few seem to be based on a hermeneutic that has any degree of self-awareness. For me, your focus is an ongoing work, which adds to the “problem,” for if I did not have such a hermeneutic of suspicion about myself, it would be much less effort and I could be so much quicker and more satisfied bringing swift and righteous judgment to or about certain others. In all honesty, I do hate having to give that up and do so by degrees!
Andrew 01-11-2015
Thank you Chad. A valuable comment! Practice is long and slow! I do find it begins to heal me, perhaps most of all by increasing "my hermeneutic of suspicion about myself!"

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