Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reading The Words Of God But Hearing The Voice Of The World.

It is inevitable I suppose that our interpretation of the Scriptures, timeless documents written in a culture completely unfamiliar and foreign to us today, gets muddied with our cultural presuppositions. Add to that the stifling religious culture we exist in as the church in America and the process of interpretation and application becomes supremely challenging.

I was thinking about this last night when looking over the admonition of James in chapter 2 to not show partiality to the rich and snub the poor...
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or, "Sit down at my feet," have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9)
Oh what a supremely uncomfortable book that James wrote and the Spirit preserved for us!

Why would this exhortation even be necessary to a people who were taught the words of Jesus? Even more so why is it necessary today 2000 years later with all that time to parse and analyze the words? More troubling, why does it seem that we need these words even more today than in days past? Given the cancerous growth of the oxymoronic "Prosperity gospel" it is clear that we need to read these words afresh today and do so reading what is written in God's voice, not the world's voice.

What do I mean by that? Here is an example I hear all the time among religious folks in America. Something great happens, a higher paying job, a bigger house, a newer car, the latest iPhone. Our immediate response is to make our exuberance holy by telling our fellow religious folks just how "blessed" we are. That doesn't quite mesh with what Jesus taught.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12)
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
It seems like He is maybe saying that our blessings carry eternal weight but the world's notion of blessing is fleeting and temporal because it is based on comfort and wealth. That is what it seems like anyway. 

Likewise we look at words like "rich" and "poor" and so often think of those words as the world defines them. Someone who is "rich" is marked by having lots of money and lots of stuff. Someone who is "poor" is notable for not having much money and not having much stuff. Poor people are losers, rich people are winners and Americans love a winner and love even more to identify and be identified with them. When viewed with the mind and eyes of Christ often the opposite is true. I have said before that in my career in financial services and banking most of the people I knew who were legit rich people were also miserable people. That is a trite saying but it absolutely is true. We do know a very well to do family that are also solid and generous Christians and not ostentatious about their wealth but I would say they are the  (very, very rare) exception rather than the rule. But read through the eyes of the world those with the most are the happiest. That lie has led to error, misdirection and sadness in the church around the world as we take our erroneous understanding and export it along with our missionaries to the mission field. 

I think this is where a community hermeneutic comes into play. When all of the brethren of the church are involved and engaged in the mutual teaching ministry it is easier to catch blind spots but when it is a top down system where one guy tells everyone else what to think who is going to call him on it if he is wrong on something? The idea of questioning a member of the clergy on an issue of faith is considered to be a mortal sin in the church, a sign of a rebellious heart that is "anti-authority". I believe that when the brothers can speak freely the church is more alive and less likely to slip into error.

As the era of Christendom-lite evaporates into the mists of time, will we once more see, hear and more importantly live the words of Christ in His spirit and with His heart? Or will we keep perpetuating the error of seeing the words of Christ in the voice of the world?

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