[July 27, 2014] As you can see from the title, I am only going to focus today on verse 52. Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all these [parables]?” and they said, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Well then, every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom new things as well as old.”
In Matthew chapter 13 Jesus tells the first four parables to the crowds. Then in verse 36 he leaves the crowd and goes indoors and tells the next three parables to his disciples alone. He then asks if they understood all seven parables. They understand but the crowds do not. Therefore Jesus calls them scribes. Being taught (so they understand) makes them scribes.
We tend to associate scribes with the Pharisees because they are often linked together, but actually, scribes described people whose business was texts. Some scribes were administrators (paper pushers), some took dictation, some were secretaries, some were copyists and responsible for the transmission of texts, some were keepers of written records (librarians and archivists), some were scholars, and some were experts in law and precedent (in the gospels, these were usually experts in the Torah, tradition and the Jewish Halakah). The writers of the gospels were scribes, the apostles relied on scribes to write their letters, and the church has existed ever since because scribes have copied and translated our sacred texts. So the word “scribe” does not always have a negative connotation. Their function is entirely necessary.
Traditionally, a scribe is one who opens the treasures of wisdom to others, who passes on knowledge and who adapts the wisdom of the ancients to new situations.
The translation above says “every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven …” Literally it is “every scribe who is taught concerning the kingdom of the heavens.” There is no such phrase in the New Testament as a “disciple of the kingdom of heaven.” The verb, “who is taught” (mathēteutheis), is an aorist passive participle of a word that literally means to learn by instruction. The disciples are those who have been taught, and can understand, concerning the kingdom of the heavens.
A householder is the one who is responsible for distributing the goods of a large household or estate to its members. The storeroom (the “treasure-house”) are where all the provisions—things like produce, grain, wine, clothes, and tools—are kept. The storeroom also means treasure which gives it a further connotation. Jesus says that a person’s treasure is where her heart is (6:21). The disciple’s treasure is in heaven (6:20; 19:21) having given up all other treasures (possessions). “Words flow out of what fills the heart. Good people draw good things from their store of goodness; bad people draw bad things from their store of badness” (12:34b-35). The disciple who has been taught concerning the kingdom of the heavens should be able to bring words out of the treasury of their heart. This means it cannot just be a matter of education but of existential adherence (attachment) and love.
Ironically, healthy spiritual “attachment” requires letting go of that to which (or rather, whom) one is attached in a movement of trust.
“New things as well as old.” The old is the Torah and the Prophets. By “Prophets” is meant the early and later Prophets, basically (but not exactly) the historical books of the Old Testament beginning with Joshua and the literary prophets from Isaiah to Malachi. See Matthew 5:17-19. The new refers to Jesus himself who fulfills the Torah and the Prophets, who is the drawing near of the kingdom of the heavens and who is the fulfillment of all that God has promised to Israel: he is what is new (the new cloth, the new wine). Notice that Jesus places the new before the old. The new redefines the old (see Matthew 5:21-48). There is continuity between the old and the new, but the new becomes the interpretive lens.
Traditionally this text was applied in the church to theologians and Biblical scholars. I think since every Christian is a reader of the Bible (the illiterate are hearers), it applies to us all—especially since we all think we are entitled to an opinion!
The Interpretation of Scripture
This is actually a very important text, because it speaks directly to the crisis in the contemporary church in our polarized society (I am speaking within the context of the United States). There is the right and there is the left and all issues are stacked accordingly with less and less in the middle, as if we were preparing for war. Are we? The two sides can barely—or cannot—understand each other.
The issue has to do with the interpretation of the Bible. Each generation hears the Scriptures differently. What God says to one generation God does not say to another. Yet God still speaks to us through the Bible. How do we recognize God’s voice? Sometimes we become so myopic in our interpretation of the Scriptures that we get stuck in a rut, unable to see over the ridges of our own making. We may be those who strain out gnats and swallow camels! (Matthew 23:24.) It is imperative that we be able to find our way back to the big picture, and not only the big picture but to the heart of what matters.
For example, in the Old Testament there are animal sacrifices which become questionable. More and more such sacrifices were confined to the Temple in Jerusalem, and when the Temple was destroyed, they stopped—for the Jews—altogether (well, pretty much). In the Torah God gave instructions for the Tabernacle but David laid down plans for the Temple, which his son built, and the worship at the Tabernacle ended. The Davidic covenant, in fact, changed other things as well. According to the Torah, David himself should have been excluded from the worship of the Israelites, having descended so recently from a Moabitess. By the time of the church, polygamy became frowned upon and eventually abolished, something that was perfectly accepted in the Old Testament. In the last two centuries the concept of monarchy has come into disrepute and democratic (republican) government is universally approved. Yet no such thing existed in the Bible. Intermarriage was once frowned upon, but in the modern world it is—and should be—perfectly accepted. Slavery was once seen as an acceptable institution that was “enshrined” (or at least well established) in the Scriptures. Now it is abhorrent to all Christians everywhere and slave-owners of the past, once respected, are perceived as monsters. Patriarchy is also enshrined in the Scriptures. Yet more and more Christians are realizing that that too is a monstrosity and completely incompatible with the heart of Christianity.
How did these changes come about? Were we being faithful to YHWH and to the Messiah when we made these changes? Were each of these changes an accommodation to culture? Or was it not that what was old was what was cultural and that the salt of the gospel changed our cultural awareness? Was it not Christianity itself that forced the end of slavery? (It definitely had a part; economically it was the rise of industrialization—wage labor—that forced the issue.) How did this happen when slavery was such an accepted institution in the world of the Bible? How is it that what seems only right now is so different that what was acceptable in the world of the Bible and even in the world of the New Testament?
Is not the concept of the rights of humanity grounded in the Christian worldview, a worldview that was born in Christianity (which was the primary influence that spread throughout the world what was originally a Jewish concept) and that developed in the medieval world as the human person was perceived more and more to be in the image of God? I would contend that it was the Franciscan worldview that most exalted the dignity of every human being (just as it was the Franciscan world view that gave birth to modern science).
Because as a child I felt such a strong sense of alienation, I was drawn to a sectarian view of Christianity. There were those on the inside and those on the outside. It seemed so obvious. Yet my view was skewed. In fact, the kingdom of God is at work in the whole world, and the seeds of the Gospel are everywhere at work. Gandhi was deeply influenced by Jesus, yet was no Christian. And this was true of countless humanitarian leaders. Even though we can hardly call the people of the Western world Christians anymore, the values of Western society have been formed in large part by Christianity (for good and ill; the values of the Hellenic, Latin, and to some extent the Islamic world also played a part). The liberation of the oppressed has been deeply inspired by the Bible, and especially by Jesus, even though many of its proponents are not Christian believers.
So before we immediately jump to the conclusion that everything progressive or liberal is an accommodation to paganism, we might consider that it might be the seeds of the Gospel itself (or at least the kingdom of God) that has brought some light into our cultural awareness and that that is why the pagan culture itself has changed. (Though this change has to be qualified: paganism has depersonalized most of what were once Christian institutions.) It would be a shame if Christians resisted God’s move while those who do not believe followed it. What if the nonbeliever is more righteous than the believer? Can it happen? Modern cultures change constantly, and some of these changes are alarming. But what if some seeds of the Gospel were finally bearing fruit, even if it be a “post” Christian society (or perhaps a society on vacation from the church—they got sick and tired of us). Meanwhile, we Christians are stuck in the past.
What does it mean when society often identifies Christians as “the haters” and characterize us as judgmental and intolerant? For some people, this is our reputation! Would Jesus have ever been perceived that way? What does that tell us?
Interpretations of the Bible change. We can read commentaries of the Bible from ancient times to modern and it is very humbling to see how what is obvious to us was not obvious to our ancestors and what was obvious to them no longer makes any sense to us. What was literal to Augustine we would consider highly metaphorical and what is literal to us he would consider childish. Modern Christians seem not to be aware of this.
This does not mean, however, that our interpretations are random, arbitrary or irrelevant. They are always influenced by culture, yes, and therefore have to be understood in their own context. But it is not a futile endeavor, and because the Bible is so influential, interpretations are critical. However, we must also be critical about our interpretations, interpreting our interpretations (the field of hermeneutics). If it was the evangelical movement that led the movement against slavery, we do not want to simply dismiss the self-perceived adherence to the Gospel of that older generation of evangelicals.
The question really is, how do we navigate our way into the future? How do we recognize the voice of God so it can guide us? How do we know that we are really hearing God’s voice?
What Is at the Heart of the Scriptures?
So, what is the treasure stored in our heart? What has really been revealed to us? Is it not Christ himself? And through him the truth of the Father and the Holy Spirit and the union of the Three? Yes. That is denotatively what has been revealed. What about connotatively? Who is God? The Hebrew Scriptures reveal God to be just and merciful and faithful. The essence of the Christian perception of God is that God is love. Ilia Delio says it thus (speaking as a Franciscan): “God is outward-moving love, deeply in love with creation.” This is what we learn from reading the New Testament, and the Old Testament from the perspective of the New. This is the thing that deeply touches our hearts; that has drawn us to Jesus in the first place. It is axiomatic of everything else. Before we go anywhere else, we need to grasp this.
The Bible also reveals who we are. We are deeply impressed by the fact that we are sinners. But there is something before this that is even more important that we need to grasp. Ilia Delio (again) says it thus: “Humanity is good and uniquely loved by God, bearing the divine image and likeness and an inviolable dignity from the moment of creation.” This puts our sinfulness into perspective. Without this, the consideration that we are sinful completely distorts the reality of the situation. This too is axiomatic.
One of the things that guides our interpretation of the Scriptures is the denotative revelation of the Triune God and of the Incarnation and Resurrection of the Son of God. The other is the connotative revelation of the goodness of God as one who is deeply in love with us, we who have been created by God and bear the divine image and likeness and are dignified by that in our every moment. There are no people who are exempt or excluded. We are not good because we do anything but simply for being ourselves. All things created by God are good in-and-of themselves. No one is evil by virtue of their creation; no one is created evil. Nor is anyone created neutral, but every human being is one who is good for being who they are and is loved by God.
Notice, we are not good by what we do. That is the story of sin. We constantly try to break away from who we are in many diverse ways.
If we analyze the Bible microscopically, it is very easy to see individual pieces that may appeal to us in one way or another (sometimes our pathologies attract these pieces like magnets) and miss the role they play in the whole, and for translators it is possible to mistranslate for the same reason. A word may not mean what we assume it means. In choosing a word there may be options available, but we do not see the correct option because of our assumptions. So we pull a verse out of Leviticus that seems to us to have a clear moral connotation but actually we are ripping it out of the fabric to which it belongs. It may have no meaning apart from the fabric of which it is playing a particular role. And because we do not see it within its proper context, we badly distort its meaning. Does that mean that only Bible scholars can interpret a text? Sometimes, until the work of the Bible scholar succeeds. That is, until she is able to teach others the proper way to consider a text and they can see it for themselves. Romans 1:27 does not require a scholar to interpret it, but most unpracticed readers see it by itself instead of in the context of Paul’s argument, and the way Paul argues as a Rabbi, and misunderstand it by applying it “literally” to a modern situation that has nothing to do with what Paul was talking about.
It may be that we have formed many assumptions that we think are clearly taught in the Bible but upon closer examination, and in light of a broader understanding of the Bible, disappear from view. Suddenly it is not there anymore where once we thought it was pervasive. The substitutionary doctrine of the atonement is like this. (Surprise, surprise!)
Paul’s argument in Galatians is an example of Matthew 13:52. In that epistle he does not by any means repudiate Judaism. It is part of a debate within Judaism—about whether gentile adherents of Israel’s Messiah need to convert and become Jews. The way Paul proceeds is to bring out the new and the old: to show what the old means in the light of the new. The new is Christ, whose faithfulness to God justifies gentiles who adheres to him, even though the gentiles be “ignorant” pagans. These gentiles do not need to be formed by the Halakah when they have Christ. Indeed, any intermediary can only get in the way and, as Paul says, put a gentile on a false basis.
A Modern Application
So the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) allows its pastors to conduct same-sex weddings, or in other words, to celebrate same-sex marriages. It also amended its Book of Order to recognize that a same-sex couple can in fact be considered “married” (something that still needs to be ratified). This is certainly a radical break with tradition. But were these decisions a betrayal of the Gospel or did the General Assembly act in faithfulness to the Gospel?
Marriage is a particular covenant that two people make to each other that the church and the civil society recognize and celebrate. From the point of view of the Gospel, must the couple be “a man and a woman”? Some argue yes and some argue no.
Behind the argument against the permission to conduct same-sex weddings is the conviction that sexual relationships must only be between a male and a female and that homosexuality—whether between men or women—is sinful and immoral. It violates the order of creation, and the order of creation is spelled out in Genesis 1 and 2. The assumption is that “male and female” in 1:27 has not only to do with being fruitful and multiplying, each species after their own kind (for which a male is—at least was—necessary for the female to procreate), but is the only way in which human beings can couple in order to form a family or household. Furthermore, the fact that God made for the adam (the androgynous human creature) a female, thereby distinguishing a male and a female human, and they were united as one flesh, is assumed to mean that that is the only kind of attractive sexual union permissible, and the only union in which the flesh of two can become one. Various theological reasons are given for this, such as the analogy marriage forms to the union of Christ and the church (which it does; though of course the abhorrent institution of slavery is also used as an analogy of our service to Christ). However, such overlays—if we are creative enough—can be formed for whatever scenario we consider. By the way, Genesis 2:24 favors a matriarchal household in which the husband becomes a member of his wife’s household instead of the patriarchal pattern that we typically see in the Old Testament.
Another assumption also has to be made: that lesbian, gay and bisexual persons were not created that way. It is assumed that who they are attracted to is (or was at some point) voluntary and chosen, and because it is a choice, it violates the goodness of their created nature. It is therefore assumed that heterosexuality reflects the image of God and that homosexuality does not. One is created by God and the other is not. The other is chosen, and therefore comes under moral scrutiny.
Yet modern science can no longer sustain this understanding. People are not all born heterosexual. Whether it is genetic or natal, at least some homosexuals are born that way. Their physical brains are actually wired that way from the time they are born. This is not an arbitrary determination. How must Christians understand the doctrine of creation in their case?
Some people are also born intersexed. They are both male and female or neither, but for social reasons were assigned one or the other and sometimes change when they are older. Are not they also created by God and therefore good and made in God’s image and likeness? When they grow up and marry, is their relationship heterosexual or homosexual? With transgender people it is even more complicated, yet medically the weight of the evidence is that they were born this way (at least a good number were). When they marry are we assigning gender on the basis of the genitalia with which they were born, or with that of which they neurologically identify, or something else?
We now realize that all these categories—gender, sexual orientation, etc.—are not so cut and dry. Things have always been in this murky way but we have been in denial of it, insisting on the binary categories of a patriarchal society. Yet we have been enlightened. Things are not so. Must the church change to accommodate this new and undeniable insight?
If we change, we would have to admit that we have treated people with great cruelty and inhumanity in the past. It is not unlike finally recognizing that slavery is a heinous crime against humanity.
If we do not change, the future church (and society) will look upon us as “haters” and see us with the same disdain that we now look upon those who were slave-owners in the past. Just as it is hard for us to take seriously the Christianity of a slave-owner, so it will be hard for those in the future to take seriously our own Christianity.
If God created a person as lesbian or gay, then is it not the commandment of God that they just be who they are? And if we cause a little one to stumble, would it not be better for us to be “drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round [our] neck” (Matthew 18:6)?
When we consider what marriage is, perhaps we should keep this in mind. If we err, would it not be better to err on the side of charity and compassion? So Calvin had advised us. Love covers a multitude of sins, and mercy is shown to those who show mercy. Otherwise, the consequences upon us can be fatal.