Tag Archives: interpretation

Jesus with a wink and a glint in his eye

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Matthew 15:21-28, NIV

Not long ago I had a conversation with my oldest daughter about the above passage. In the course of our conversation I realized once again that interpretation of scripture does not begin after we’ve read a passage, but the reading of the passage is itself part of the act of interpretation. I touched on this a little bit in a previous post, but with this passage it became that much more clear to me.

My daughter’s concern with this passage was that Jesus seems to be indifferent to the plight of this woman’s daughter and then appears to speak downright insultingly to her. This is a common common response to this passage, I think. I have had those concerns myself.

My daughter and I talked about how Jesus’ mission really was first and foremost to the Jews, that ministry to the Gentiles (i.e., everyone else) was left to the apostles after Pentecost, though Jesus also alludes to this expansion of the kingdom. Still, Jesus nevertheless seems unreasonably rude to this woman.

So then we talked about why this passage troubles people: it’s mainly because it seems so inconsistent with how Jesus tends to speak to and deal with people. I can think of at least a couple of places in the Gospels where Jesus happily grants Gentile requests for healing without bringing up his mission to the Jews or making seemingly insulting comments. I suggested that because of this inconsistency in Jesus’ behaviour, perhaps we should consider that maybe we’re missing something in this passage or misreading it.

It’s interesting, for instance, that this Canaanite woman goes along with Jesus’ “insult” and has a comeback. That’s when it started dawning on me: what if this story is not about this woman or Jesus’ mission at all? What if this story is about the disciples and how they perceive things that are “unclean” or defile (which is what the passage before this is about)? What if it’s simply about faith?

In other words, what if Jesus isn’t insulting the woman? What if as he’s saying these things, he winks and smiles at the woman with a glint in his eye, but is really saying it to or for the benefit of his disciples? It might be that “dogs” was a Jewish insult and Jesus was challenging his disciples in their attitudes and the woman’s appearance simply presented an opportunity for Jesus to teach his disciples something. The woman, seeing Jesus’ wink and smile, would have been in on the “joke”—Jesus has invited her into this teaching moment.

This is conjecture, of course. We can’t be sure what Jesus’ tone or facial expression was. But my point is simply this: we tend to read scripture in a certain way; we assume a certain tone in the voices of the speakers. Jesus tends to be heard as a dead serious speaker, rarely, if ever, joking around. So our tendency when we read a passage like this is to imagine Jesus frowning, crossing his arms, and turning away from this woman. But that, too, is conjecture. We simply don’t know. And we simply shouldn’t assume—either way.

Adding tone and using our imagination is virtually unavoidable when reading scripture. But as we do so, we are already interpreting the passage without realizing it. So it is good to at least be aware of this, and beyond that, to try out different tones and inflection as we read and hear scripture. This is a good reason for the public reading of scripture or audio Bibles, to hear different voices speak scripture in different ways.

Hermeneutical trump cards

In order to produce a ‘normative’ statement out of the New Testament it is practically inevitable that one will emphasize one part of the text at the expense of the rest. This functions, at both a scholarly and a popular level, by means of elevating certain parts of the theology of the New Testament…into a ‘canon within the canon’…. This is not to say that one should not operate with some sort of inner canon: all interpreters do, whether they admit it or not, in that all come to the text with some set of questions that begin the encounter. The question then is: what should we do with this starting-point? Should we use it simply as a way in to the material, remaining conscious of its implicit bias? Or will it be used as a Procrustean bed by which to measure, and condemn, the other bits that do not fit? (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 21-22.)

Hermeneutics is not just a question of what we do with the text. It is also about recognizing what we each bring to the text or impose on the text.

One of my papers for my hermeneutics class last semester was on the subject of infant baptism. The assignment was to take an issue that has divided our church (or the church in general) and examine the hermeneutical questions and challenges of each position. What made this paper particularly interesting and useful was that we were not to take a side on the issue, not to argue for one or the other, but simply to present the respective arguments and then examine and critique the hermeneutical issues at hand.

I chose infant baptism because I grew up in a believer baptism setting. That is, the denominations in which I participated did not practice infant baptism, but only baptized adults (or individuals beyond a certain age) who have made a personal decision to follow Christ. The denomination of which we are now a member and in which I hope to be ordained practices both infant and believer baptism.  What this means is that the child of believing parents is not automatically baptized. Instead, parents choose whether they want their child baptized or simply dedicated so that they can choose to be baptized on their own when they are older. After writing this paper, this conscience-based position seems like the sensible thing. However, pastors in our denomination are required to do both. If the parents want their child baptized, the pastor has to be willing to administer it. So this paper was a useful exercise for me.

There are a number of issues at stake in this issue, but I won’t get into all of them now, but one hermeneutical issue in particular stood out to me: giving certain verses or passages precedence over others. Among the various arguments for or against this position, there is one significant place where both sides use the same passages to argue for opposing positions: the household baptisms in Acts. The text is technically silent on the presence of infants in these household baptisms. The believer’s baptism-only side (credobaptists) argues that since infants are not specifically mentioned, they must not have been included. The infant baptism side (paedobaptists) will say that while infants are not specifically mentioned in the text, a household would by definition and in all likelihood have included infants.  In this instance, both sides are using the silence of the text to argue for their position. In other words, the Bible itself nowhere else explicitly states whether there were or were not infants included in these household baptisms. The interpreter has to make a hermeneutical decision as to how to approach these texts and “outside” (that is, from other parts of scripture or theology) influences inevitably come into play.

Of course, both sides have ways of supporting their position by drawing on other Biblical texts which indirectly relate. The credobaptist, however, will say something like this: “Every instance of individual baptism in Acts is preceded by belief/decision, so it follows that the same happened in the household baptisms.”  This is where it gets interesting. Here’s how I put it in my paper:

The question must be asked…whether the cases of believer baptism and the cases of household baptism are to be understood in the same way.  Is it reasonable to set a pattern for baptism that runs straight through both individual baptisms and household baptisms? Should the clear cases of individual believer baptism be given hermeneutical precedence so [that] they define the parameters of the more ambiguous household baptism passages? The believer’s baptisms are clearly dealing with adults, so it is not clear how they apply to the baptism of infants…

We do this sort of thing all the time, of course.  We use the passages that support our current position to smother the passages that seem to suggest something else. We are not comfortable living with the tensions of scripture. We like everything to be smooth and unambiguous, so we either overpower contrary texts  with the texts that support our position or ignore the contrary texts altogether.

But there’s no good reason that I can see for doing this sort of thing.  This is an example of what Wright calls “a canon within the canon”. We give certain texts more heremeneutical power than others, and it’s usually the passages which support our current position.  It looks kind of like this:

Paedobaptist: I think the household baptisms may at the very least allow for the possibility of infant baptisms.

Credobaptist: Every instance of an individual getting baptized in Acts shows clear personal commitment to the way of Christ.  So, I don’t think so.

Somehow, we think that simply naming the supporting texts is enough to deal with the contrary texts. But there’s no real reason for this.  The same thing will happen with many other issues. Christian universalism is a subject that I keep returning to.  It seems to me that the “hell passages” have been given trump powers over passages which may hint at something else or beyond.  So the conversation may look like this:

Universalism: I think the New Testament certainly allows for the possibility for universal reconciliation. Take, for instance, Paul’s writing about Christ dying once for all and Christ being the new Adam who does the sin of the first Adam.

Exclusivism: Yeah, but the New Testament has all sorts of references to hell and judgement.  So, I don’t think so.

End of discussion. But this kind of trump move is hermeneutical dishonesty.

Buy me this t-shirt:

Somehow or other last week I wound up at the Cafe Press website looking at this t-shirt. It reads:

God said it.


I interpreted it
as best I could in light of all the filters
imposed by my upbringing and culture,

which I try to control for but you can never do a perfect job.


That doesn’t exactly settle it
but it does give me enough of a platform
to base my values and decisions on.

It is a satirical reworking of the old saying, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  If I didn’t have such bad experiences with fun t-shirts shrinking and wearing out very quickly, I might order one.  Perhaps there’s a mug available.

My hermeneutics classmates and I had a good laugh over that one, as it happens to be a fitting t-shirt for the stuff we’ve been discussing in class.

A couple of friends and I were talking about some “facts” one of them read on the internet and we came up with another variation: “The internet said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  Good times.