I don’t read writings about which I have no interest – not even when I have nothing else to occupy my time. And what I’ve learned about myself is that I’m self-conscious about what and how I read. Because reading the Bible is so commonplace among Christians, it has occurred to me that all of us need to think seriously about how we read the Bible. So I want to ask straight on: has anybody ever asked you ‘how do you read the Bible?’
That’s an important question, especially when reading stories like the one in today’s gospel in Luke. Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms are put there mainly for people to read for comfort and inspiration. Others may read the Bible for entertainment – or for its poetry or its history – and still others may read the Bible for instruction. In fact, there are many ways to read the Bible – and I want to say a brief word about why how we read, specifically in the Bible but also any literature, is critical.
A huge differ-ence lies in whether our reading is what scholars call eisegesis or exegesis. Very briefly, eisegesis means reading into the text our own biases, agendas, or presuppositions. Eisegesis is used to ‘prove’ a point – to confirm a bias according to the reader’s prior agenda. Eisegesis occurs when a reader imposes his or her interpretation into and onto the text. So, for example, any time you hear a preacher citing a verse to prove a point, you can suspect eisegesis. On the other hand, exegesis undertakes to allow the text to speak for itself – to permit the meaning of a verse or passage to accord with the historical and cultural context of the text – to identify the particular audience to whom it was addressed – and to try to discover some of the author’s purpose. In a word, eisegesis is mostly subjective interpretation whereas exegesis is mostly objective interpretation of a text.
Kaye Sullivan is going to share some African wisdom with us later and one of them strikes me as spot-on regarding the task before us. It’s an Ashanti proverb that says “one falsehood spoils a thousand truths” – an aphorism that clearly bears on how we read texts. Think of biblical literal-ists who read the Bible eisegetically as barren of imagination and plain matter-of-fact. Just find the right chapter and verse to ‘prove’ your point and the rest is simple. The familiar formula is ‘God said it, I believe it, end of discussion’. But there is a richness and depth in the Bible that is ignored by literalists and only emerges when we read the books in this library critically and seriously. Of course, that presents problems that fundamentalists don’t have – and a good exam-ple occurs with the reading from Luke that is appointed for today. Serious students of the Bible call it the ‘Synoptic problem’.
‘Synoptic’ usually means summary but here it means alike or parallel – and refers to the similarities and differences in the stories and teachings that occur in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There is actually lots of that in these three gospels. We know that all of them were oral traditions that were written several decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And we know that while each Gospel contains some unique material, most of Mark and about half of Matthew and Luke contain stories and teachings that are not only similar but also occur in much the same place in the three narratives. One could add that the stories these three share are often almost verbatim. Were there pew Bibles, I could refer you to Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-45, and Luke 5:12-16 and the story of a leper’s healing that is about in the same place and virtually verbatim in all three. All of these ingredients together constitute ‘the synoptic problem’. Given so much parallel material between and among the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – the ’problem’, simply put, is to discern the specific literary relationship and probable common source that they share.
Specifically, our story in Luke also appears in Matthew (8:5:13). But the similarities they share are marked by differences. In Luke a centurion’s servant is facing death and a group of Jewish elders intercedes with Jesus for healing on behalf of the centurion’s servant. In Matthew the servant is paralyzed but not facing death and the centurion is himself said to be speaking to Jesus and pleading in person for his servant’s healing. A literal reading of the Bible has a prob-lem here. But biblical scholars think that both stories, despite their differences, are authentic, and that they were written for different audiences. So the question occurs: if both stories are credible and both are true, do their differences make a difference? Does it matter that the slave is dying or paralyzed? Is it important that the centurion sends intercessors to Jesus and doesn’t know him personally? Is it credible that the centurion had faith in Jesus after only hearing about him?
Beyond questions like these, I think that Luke’s account of a centurion and his servant is interesting in some subtle ways that Matthew’s story is not. Here is obviously an army officer who cares deeply about his servant. He is a military leader not too proud to ask for help. And he is a foreigner who appears to understand better than most in his time and place that Jesus’ authori-ty extends to strangers as well as intimates. But most important, I think, is the difference that this centurion has only heard about Jesus, had never met or seen him face-to-face, and does not know him up close and personal.
Rome occupied Judea in the 1st c. AD and garrisoned troops in Jerusalem and Caesarea where puppet kings governed and had their own military forces – but it is unclear that this centuri-on was a Roman soldier billeted to Capernaum. Because the Jewish elders who plead his case say to Jesus that “he deserves to have you do this because he is our friend and built our synagogue”, it is clear that the centurion was not a Jew. All the same, he is deeply respected by the Jews and he is obviously sympathetic to their faith. In addition, centurions in foreign lands did not typically show their authority by being humble and asking the natives for help when a slave is dying. But this centurion shows deep concern for his highly valued slave which most English translations, including the KJV, call ‘servant’. The Greek word, however, is doulos which means slave. Does that matter? I’d say ‘yes, it does matter’ because slave and servant are not synonymous. Maybe translators softened doulos because this was a special slave and the centurion was a man who did not let rank interfere when he needed help.
So he sends some Jewish elders to represent him and ask Jesus to come and heal his slave – but he adds this interesting codicil: “don’t inconvenience yourself, Lord, by coming to my home because I’m not worthy even to come and meet you. You need only to say the word and my ser-vant will be healed”. I think those are remarkable sentences that invite serious attention because the centurion’s address of Jesus as ‘Lord’ implies a clear sense of who Jesus is and great respect for his authority. Some interpreters think that this might not be a confession of faith at all because they remember that Jesus’ disciples had to be with him, see him exerting extraordinary power in a variety of settings, and that their faith came only gradually, not instantaneously.
They had seen the miracles – the blind given sight and lepers healed and a powerful storm on the Sea of Galilee calmed – and they had heard his sermons and other teachings – but it still takes them a good while, indeed an extended time, to figure all this out and understand who Jesus is and what his mission is about. In fact, it takes post-resurrection appearances for most of them to get on board. But in Luke’s story, a Roman centurion who has had none of these experiences, and presumably had only heard about Jesus, acknowledges his authority and asks for his blessing. And Jesus doesn’t say a word but heads straightway to the centurion’s house.
Meanwhile, the elders who were the centurion’s emissaries had returned and found the servant completely healed! Apparently Jesus had just said the word as he did earlier with the leper – nothing more – and the slave was healed. Then, as if to reinforce the suggestion that faith does not require a face-to-face encounter – being up-close-and-personal with the Lord – at the end of Luke’s story (7:9) Jesus himself defines the centurion’s response to him as ‘faith’ and contrasts it with the lesser faith he had observed in Israel. Isn’t that a stunning commendation of that centurion!
I think some clear lessons emerge from this story. Among them is that Jesus delegates his power and authority; that other people can convey Jesus’ power and authority. If I’m right to read the text this way, I think it altogether remarkable that Jesus would delegate his power and authority. Even without the digital technology of an internet, knowing Jesus is not dependent on his being face-to-face present with him – and that is wonderful news for us. Having faith in Jesus as God’s Christ can be distance-learned. Unlike the woman with the hemorrhage who said about Jesus to herself, ‘if I only touch his cloak I will be healed,’ the centurion in today’s story simply trusted that a simple request for help would suffice. In Matthew’s account, Jesus tells the centurion “as you have believed, so let it be’ – and at that moment the servant recovered. In Luke’s account, Jesus tells the crowd he has not observed such faith as the centurion displayed and the Jewish delegation returns home to find the servant in good health. Can faith in Jesus be distance-learned? Of course it can – how else have we come to trust in Jesus!
This should not be absurd news in our cultural and religious milieu. Social psychologists try to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals are influenced by the actual or imagined presence of other human beings whom they believe to be important in some way. I’ve seen that happen and can suggest how common it is by reminding us how modern people mimic the ancients who believed that eating gazelle meat would make one run fast, or drinking the blood of valiant gladiators would make one brave. We mob celebrities of all sorts to get an autograph or a selfie or maybe touch the hem of their garments and believe those artifacts will somehow transfer part of them to us. More to the point, we acknowledge that con-nection when we come to Holy Communion. Is that the meaning of Luke’s account – that Jesus does not have to be bodily present in order to be really present? Isn’t it remarkable that he some-times delegates his authority and power?
When most of the nation is preoccupied with delegates to political conventions, maybe this is a good time to acknowledge that you and I are the appointed delegates of our Lord’s mini-stry and mission. He has given the exercise his power and authority to us if we but have faith to embrace and use it to his glory. Perhaps, like me, you’ve found it easy to believe that Jesus in person can do anything – but to go beyond that and assert that he delegates his power and authority to us sounds not only bold and pretentious but also sobering.
Every generation should think that this commission comes when the challenge of witnessing to the power and authority of Jesus has never been greater. So my take on today’s story is that the Lord’s own power and authority has been let loose in the world – and that he speaks to you and me across time and space as active agents for continuing his work. That seems to me to be the central meaning of this story for us. I bid you therefore give thanks that faith in Jesus is not buried in the first century but that it has been extended over time and space to us here and now by his gracious disposition to share his power and authority with us. And I might just add that here is another instance in which the difference between exegesis and eisegesis returns to remind us that it is his power, not ours, that we are given to exercise on his behalf. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.