Saturday, July 22, 2017

Detective Work: How to Put the Bible in Context

So for my birthday this year, I was gifted a DNA test at Ancestry, and like many people who have taken one, I was surprised with the results. I'd always been told by both sides of my family that we were straight 50-50 Scot-Irish. Since I was in first grade, whenever St. Patrick's Day came rolling around, I was entrenched in hunting leprechauns and telling people I had "an Irish temper."

But all that changed with those DNA results. It turned out that my DNA makeup is 71 percent British. And when I started chasing threads of family members, the way it ended up breaking down (so far) was that about three-quarters of my ancestors were from England ... and one quarter, from Scotland. In one thread, I have traced the line as far back as 1585 in Somerset, England. And I'm still doggedly untangling these threads with gusto.

Now what, you ask me, does this have to do with doing "detective work" in the Bible?

Well, just like with my ancestry hunt, I dig through the origination of Scripture verses to find out from whence they came.  And just like an ancestry DNA test, I am usually surprised that the "meaning" I originally derived from reading one single Bible verse is usually not its original meaning. Sometimes it has to do with the original language. A word may translate into modern day English with a completely different inference than it had in the original Hebrew or Greek. Or there may not even be a word in our language that fully matches the robust meaning of the original.

Other times, I discover that a cultural or modern day application I am applying to the verse does not match the era, history or cultural context in which it was written.

And then there are times like this morning, when, just like in my Ancestry family tree search, I have to go back not one, but several, preceding chapters to find the full context of where a verse fit into a bigger story that is being told.

And that brings me to Matthew 7:6. I memorized the book of Matthew when I was 16 years old, so I should have known this automatically, but it's been a few decades. I woke this morning thinking about the words of Matthew 7:6:

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces."

People may struggle with the original meaning of this one, and I have always applied it generally: Do not expose something that is important to you to someone who is not trustworthy, or they may, in Jesus's words, "trample" on it and then "tear you to pieces."

Seems pretty straight-forward.

But one thing that has nagged me is Jesus's strong description of the people who are doing this. He calls them dogs and pigs. Nice. If you, like me, believe He is the Son of God, why would a deity use these words to describe PEOPLE? His creation? His children? It seems a little harsh to the outsider.

So I looked at the preceding verses in the chapter, and here, He's talking about ... wait for it ... hypocrites.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye."

Hmmm, that's interesting. The "dogs" and the "pigs" in the verse that follow are obviously people who are judging others and, in doing so, are hypocritical of their own sins.

So what was going on that prompted Him to be talking about hypocrites in the first place?

For that, I had to go backwards ... all the way back to the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5. This was beginning to feel like tracing my family tree on Ancestry.

At the end of 4, we read that large crowds were following Jesus:

"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed,those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him."

And then at the beginning of chapter 5, we finally get to what was going on when he said the verses about hypocrites being dogs and pigs:

"Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them."

This was the beginning of the famous "Sermon on the Mount," and I have always ascribed it to the Beatitudes (the "Blessed are the .... fill in the blank ... you remember those). But that sermon goes on for a long time ... all the way to the end of chapter 7, where it wraps up the sermon:

"When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law."

OK, so now we know that these verses about hypocrites were within the Sermon of the Mount. And we don't really know what prompted them, but in the rest of chapter 7, Jesus continues to go after the religious leaders of the day -- the people who were Pharisees. He also goes after "false prophets" and "false disciples." But in the verses that precede that rant, he's addressing the crowd in general, explaining how God will bless them and telling them not to worry about tomorrow, etc.

What happened between chapter 6 and 7 to make Him change tack and address a separate audience?

Unfortunately, Matthew doesn't tell us. Matthew, the writer of this Gospel, was a tax collector who was one of Jesus's 12 disciples. So we know that he was there when Jesus said these things, and we know that if he had wanted to, he could have taken us into the back scene of what was happening in that crowd when Jesus ranted at the religious leaders. Because Matthew didn't do that, at this point, our detective work has to only go into supposition. 

Maybe Jesus spotted a group of them in the crowd laughing at what He was saying. Maybe He saw someone in the crowd who He knew had been spiritually hurt by a hypocritical religious leader and was offering them solace. We may never know, but the important realization over this exercise is that He was angry enough at religious hypocrisy to call the offenders "dogs" and "pigs" -- and to issue a warning to His listeners that they should not give them "anything that is sacred." 

So the work here showed me that Jesus was not speaking in generalities. He was addressing a certain group in society and warning the rest of us that it was okay to avoid them -- as well as telling us what would happen to us if we didn't. That's an important finding, because suppose you go to a church with a charismatic pastor, and everyone is telling you to hang on that pastor's words. But you discover the pastor is a hypocrite (for whatever reason) ... and that may be time to change churches, depending on the discovery.

As you ponder and apply this verse to your own life, by having the full context of to whom it was originally directed and the circumstances under which it was said, you can proceed confidently with a decision to ... say .... pull away from a Bible study when members reveal who they really are. The repercussions of continuing to "throw pearls" at hypocrites are enormous -- they "may turn on you and tear you to pieces." Now you have a firm and full understanding of what Jesus meant and why He said it. 

I know this may have seemed complicated (and long!), and if you've followed me this far, thank you for your patience. 

One other thing I would note about deciphering the Bible as you apply it to your life is that prayer is your other key element in making large decisions. For example, last November, I made a decision to move to a new church after an incident at a Bible study. It was not out of hate or anger or hurt, as much as it was that I was being guided by Matthew 7:6. But it also was because I prayed about it. I told God about the struggle and cried a lot over it. The next day, through an unexpected (and miraculous) series of events, He led me and my son to our current church. We have found a community of sincere and loving believers ... without a hypocritical bone in their bodies.

Next time you are curious about the meaning of a verse -- or struggling with a life decision and pondering a verse as your possible solution -- don't just leave your searching with the verse, standing alone. Dig backwards. 

As you can see with my own family tree search on Ancestry, I was able to crack up some family mysteries -- and frankly, I'm not done. I have discovered some patterns of behavior in my family that I believe are tied to a history of ancestral slave ownership. And I've also unearthed the lines going across the Atlantic and through the centuries. 

How much more can be said of Scripture, when we delve into the context of what was going on at the time something was written, why it was going on, the original meaning of the words and the culture surrounding it?

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