The Jesus Hermeneutic

By What Authority? (Luke20:2)

This might seem like a short but heavy introduction to a book of meditations, but I want to be clear from the beginning about where I get the authority and confidence to talk the way I do. I do not want you to think the meditations in this book are just my personal ideas and opinions. Yes, my ongoing education has largely been based in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, and I have preached and taught from them for over forty years. I have often struggled with how much damage the Bible has done in human history, and I have often been amazed at how much good the Bible has done, too! There has to be a way to maximize these inherent possibilities for the good, the true, and the beautiful. I hope I can do that here, even if you are not a reader of the scriptures yourself. They have a kind of natural and inherent authority, even if you are not a religious person as such.

You deserve to know my science for interpreting sacred texts. It is called a "hermeneutic." Without an honest and declared hermeneutic, we have no consistency or authority in our interpretation of the Bible. My methodology is very simple; I will try to interpret Scripture the way that Jesus did. This is precisely what Christians should mean when we speak of interpreting the Old Testament in the light of Christ. Ironically, then, it is no longer old at all, but always fresh and contemporary! If Jesus himself is our interpretive key, it will allow you to take Jewish texts and history more seriously than ever before, and to appreciate the honest context from which Jesus spoke.

To take the scriptures seriously is not to take them literally. Literalism is invariably the lowest and least level of meaning. Most Biblical authors understood this, which is why they felt totally free to take so many obvious liberties with what we would call "facts." In many ways, we have moved backwards in our ability to read spiritual and transformative texts, especially after the enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when religious people got on the defensive and lost their own unique vantage point. Serious reading of scripture will allow you to find an ever new spiritual meaning for the liberation of history, the liberation of the soul, and the liberation of God in every generation. Then the text is true on many levels, instead of trying to prove it is true on just the one simple, factual level. Sacred texts always maximize your possibilities for life and love, which is why we call them sacred. I am afraid we have for too long used the Bible merely to prove various church positions, which largely narrows their range and depth. Instead of transforming people, the Biblical texts became utilitarian and handy ammunition.

Biblical messages often proceed from historical events, but they do not depend upon communicating those events with perfect accuracy. That is never the point in writing, unless you are a contemporary journalist afraid of lawsuits or loss of reputation. Fortunately, Moses, Jeremiah, and the prophets did not share those concerns. Our Jewish ancestors sometimes called this deeper approach midrash, or extrapolating from the mere story to find its actual message. We all do the same when we read anything today, but Jesus and his Jewish people were much more honest and up front about this. Even more than telling us exactly what to see in the scriptures, Jesus taught us how to see, what to emphasize, and also what could be de-emphasized, or even ignored. Jesus is himself our hermeneutic, and he was in no way a fundamentalist or literalist. He was a man of the spirit. Just watch him, and watch how he does it (which means you must have some knowledge of his scriptures!).

Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalistic texts in his own Jewish Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. That becomes self-evident once you are told and begin to look for yourself.

He had a deeper and wider eye that knew what passages were creating a highway for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, and legalistic additions. When Christians pretend that every line in the Bible is of equal importance and inspiration, they are being very unlike Jesus.

He read his own inspired scriptures in a spiritual and highly selective way, absolutely ignoring and even rejecting some parts of it in favor of inclusive and helpful messages and parables. Jesus read the inspired text in an inspired way, which is precisely why he was accused of "teaching with authority and not like our scribes" (Matthew 7:29). He then accused fervent and pious "teachers of the law" of largely missing the point; "you understand neither the scriptures nor the power of God" (Mark 12:24), he told them (Mark 12:24). We cannot make the same mistake all over again -- and now in his name.

We must be honest and admit that the new Testament was largely written in Greek -- a language which Jesus did not speak or understand -- and even this was done thirty to seventy years after his death and centuries before the age of digital recorders. We can only conclude that the exact words of Jesus were apparently not that important for the Holy Spirit--or for us. We have only a few snippets of Jesus's exact words in his native Aramaic. This should keep us all humble and searching for our own experience of the Risen Christ -- now -- instead of arguing over Greek verbs and tenses.

Finally, our very inclusion of the Jewish Bible into the official canon of our Christian Bible is forever a standing statement about inclusivity itself. Our Bible structurally admits that the Jewish Bible and Jewish religion, and their painful history, was indeed inspired and led by God, long before Jesus. It is amazing that we were ever able to miss such a central point. Abraham, Moses, and Sarah were fully justified before God without ever knowing Jesus -- by the words of our own Christian scriptures. Our Bible is an inclusive text, which already builds on pre-Jewish history, pagan roots and language, intertestamental literature, and clear Greek influences. That is much of its genius and puts us on a good trajectory for always finding the sacred in what first seems secular.

Reprinted by permission of Franciscan Media and retitled the "The Jesus Hermeneutic," this article is the Introduction to Richard Rohr's newest book, Yes, And..., which explores seven themes central to his teaching through daily meditations. Join Richard Rohr for a live webcast August 6 as he teaches the ancient, sacred practice of Sic et Non, yes and no, a path to deeper knowing through both affirming and denying.