Monday, April 3, 2017

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- According to Contemporary Cultural Interpretations

This posting covers the last lesson in Presbyterian Women’s Horizons Bible Study, Who is Jesus? What a Difference a LensMakes. Author, Judy Yates Siker, could have helped the reader of the whole Bible Study by placing this lesson, “According to Contemporary Cultural Interpretations,” or at least its underlying theme about biblical interpretation, as a part of the introduction. Looking back over the nine lessons one sees the real cheat—there is, according to Siker, no absolute answer to the question about Jesus—instead there is personal opinion.

I have already quoted twice, in other parts of my continuing review, from this lesson. Siker’s words are the mainstay of all nine lessons whether they be orthodox or heterodox.  She writes:

“As we become more and more conversant with our sacred text, we begin to understand that to seek the meaning of a text is not as useful as seeking what New Testament Scholar Brian Blount calls ‘meaning potential.’ Some who hear this term may fear that it is watering down the biblical text, allowing it to mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. After all it is much more comforting to think that if we try hard enough or if we study enough, we can know the one true meaning of the text. I would like us to consider, however, that the approach of ‘meaning potential’ is a more honest reading of the sacred text. This way of approaching our Bible acknowledges the reality that every reader is an interpreter standing within his or her own community. Each interpretation is a conversation between the biblical writing and the biblical reader, most often mediated by centuries of tradition and immediate experiences and situations of the reader. Along the way, we encounter many potential readings of the text, some more compelling than others. There is no such thing as a completely objective reading of a text.”

Siker, using a radical feminist and liberation theologian, Leticia Guardiola-Sáenz, to exegete Matthew 15:21-28, attempts to explain how ‘meaning potential’ works. The effect is a Jesus who errs since he seemingly excludes the ‘other’ and needs to be “humanized” by the other.

The story in the text is about Jesus’ response to a Canaanite woman whose daughter is demon possessed. The story is problematic because at first Jesus apparently refuses to help stating that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman’s response, “…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table,” is seen by most progressive theologians as a wise means of getting Jesus to see the other as equal to himself and others, also encouraging him to change.

Siker writes of Guardiola-Saenz’s view of the story as a liberation story. Her take, to say the least, is horrific:

“Reading the story this way, Jesus represents the powerful ones who demand that she stay in her place, as it were. This kind of power play is dehumanizing, even as we are surprised to see Jesus treating the Canaanite woman as less than a full human being. A culturally sensitive reading suggests that, rather than succumb to being dehumanized yet again the Canaanite woman stands firmly in her place and leaves Jesus speechless. The woman is able to awaken Jesus to the dehumanization that she has experienced, and the result is that she humanizes Jesus.”

I want to deal first with the story and then look deeper into the problems connected to Siker’s statement about biblical interpretation.

This particular story about the Canaanite woman is not a good story to come to the text with the question, “who is Jesus?” That is because who Jesus is informs this story. The text does raise questions. Why did Jesus tell the woman “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”? (NASV) And why did Jesus in the former part of the story tell the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

This latter question is simply addressing the scope of Jesus’ earthly ministry although it did entail a few gentiles. R. T. France answers the question in his Tyndale commentary on Matthew, covering both Matthew 10:5-6, Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, and 15:24, “To call Israel to repentance was the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry; the call was urgent and demanded total concentration (cf. 10:23). They were lost sheep, a common Old Testament metaphor (Je. 50:6; Ezk. 34:1-16; cf. Is. 53:6. …”[1]

The former question about Jesus’ reply to the Canaanite woman fits well into Jesus ministry to the ‘lost sheep of Israel.’ As John Calvin points out in his commentary, the “bread” that Jesus speaks of is not the good gifts that are given to all of humanity (God’s general grace) but the gifts of the covenant God made to Israel.[2] (Even Paul states that the gifts are first offered to the Jewish people and then to the gentile. Romans 2:9-11)

And while biblical scholar Richard Bauckham posits the idea that the woman had changed Jesus’ mind with her perseverance,[3] and biblical scholar, R. T. France believes that Jesus’ seemingly harsh words were said with a twinkle in his eyes, neither of them see Jesus as someone who views the outsider as ‘other.’ For them he does not represent the powerful. Nor do they see him as someone who needs to be humanized.

In the text, the Canaanite woman sees Jesus in a special way. She addresses him as ‘Son of David,’ a reference to his Jewish messiahship, and she worships him. She believes that he can do what she is asking of him; in humility she perseveres. All reasons for granting her request, and reasons for granting Jewish supplicants as well. It is who Jesus is that informs the text. He is son of David, the messiah king of Israel, the healer and the granter of covenant gifts. May his crumbs, marvelous crumbs, fall to all of us.

If there is a seeming problem in the text, the reader should apply other scripture to the text. Who is Jesus in all of scripture, not just in one particular passage? Is the whole passage being used to gain an understanding? For example in this story of the Canaanite woman, neither Siker nor the author she is using includes the titles that the woman uses to address Jesus. Nor do they comment on the fact that she worships Jesus and believes he is able to answer her request. They begin with their own feelings about being excluded and interpret from that position—they don’t ask what is God saying to me through this text, but how does my perspective or experience inform this text, or even how do other people’s perspective experience inform the text.

Scripture informs scripture and a commonsense reading of the text is important. Above all Scripture is God’s story not ours. The Holy Spirit is the giver and interpreter of the word. (2 Peter 1:20; 2 Timothy 3:16) Jesus cannot be both the compassionate savior and at the same time representative of the powerful oppressor. Siker rather than insisting that some interpretations are simply wrong, allows Jesus to be maligned—like the evil persecutors of the 17th century Christians of Japan, Siker and Guardiola-Sáenz might as well ask Presbyterian women to step on the face of Christ.[4]  

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has proclaimed him.” (John 1:14, 18)


[1] R.T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, reprint, (Leicester, England; Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans 194).
[2] John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol.2, found at Christian Classics Ethereal Library
[3] Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the named Women in the Gospels, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans 2002) 41-46.
[4] See Shusaku Endo’s Silence and The Samurai.

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