In Context

To recap briefly, we have completed the study of the main passage that is known as the Sermon on the Mount which is to be found in the gospel according to Matthew chapters 5 to 7. There is a section of the gospel according to Luke that mirrors this, but it is a much shorter passage of scripture and is contained in Luke chapter 6.

As we have noted before, Matthew and Luke were very different writers. Indeed, they were even from different countries and cultures. Matthew was writing from personal experience, and Luke was compiling the experiences and memories of witnesses and carriers of the oral tradition. This is the main reason for the differences between the two gospels. But we have already seen that, in the version found in Luke, there can be occasional differences in emphases. And certainly, from the point of view of Luke, there is a much stronger emphasis on not seeking worldly comfort either in goods or reputation.

And so we come to new reading, which will certainly need more than one study. And, considering the emphasis that has already been noted about Luke’s writings, it is ironic that today’s reading includes a verse which, when taken out of context by the ‘prophets’ and ‘priests’ of the ‘prosperity gospel,’ becomes a mere chant of sorcery to try to twist the arm of God behind his back to force him to something. That, of course, will not work. And it is evidenced by the huge number of believers and followers of this false gospel who, if not actually made poorer by the heavy-handed teaching about giving, are certainly not made more wealthy than when they first began to be deceived by it. If it was this ‘easy’ and if it was what the Lord meant by these words, and if it was what he really wanted, then we would be seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of new Christian millionaires. But the truth is that there are huge numbers in those congregations who are actually in debt.

The true context of today’s reading is that of judging, or rather the instruction of Jesus not to judge. We read from Luke 6:37-42

‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For in the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’
He also told them this parable: ‘Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.
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, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank from your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’

From the beginning to the end of this section, it is clear that the subject is judging. So I see no scriptural justification for removing verse 38 and treating it as a separate entity for a spurious doctrine that simply does not match up to the rest of the teaching of Jesus, or of the New Testament as a whole. This is a prime example of taking a text out of context and using it as a pretext for false doctrine.

There were many arguments by the Catholics against the translation and distribution of the scriptures, and most of them were false arguments. But even this denomination put things right and had translations made (that are pretty good translations, by the way). However, one of the original worries within the Catholic church was that there would be an epidemic of false doctrines created from bad understanding, wrong understanding, mistakes in translation, and words taken out of context. The fact that Protestants count for not one, but hundreds, of denominations is in itself actual evidence that the Catholic authorities were correct to be worried about this.

Everyone wants to take and interpret the scriptures to their own satisfaction and their own prejudices. But, in looking at the fine detail of a brush stroke, the beauty of the painting is not seen, and the subject of the painting not even recognised. So it really does not help to read all scripture with the separating out of all fine detail, without also taking into account the broader picture. It is like being a fly sitting on the nose of the Mona Lisa – because that fly can only see an individual brush stroke and not even recognise that it is on a nose, nor that it sits on such a beautiful portrait.

I am not sure if the analogy explains it sufficiently. But if more attention had been paid to the composition than a detail of the composition, then maybe the church would not be so divided. But the false teachers have gone even further. They went further than a detail of a composition and looked at the individual strokes and the patterns of lines left by the brush – the accidents, if you like – and form an opinion of the whole composition based on this. It is nonsense and sin when you allow such to divide between brothers and sisters and to split apart the family of god!

There are of course some differences between this passage and that in Matthew. Verse 38 certainly does not appear in Matthew. We also notice, before the words about judging, that Matthew includes that long section about not worrying, because the Father knows you have need of food, drink and clothes. And in this text, not only verse 38 is exclusive to Luke, but also verses 39 and 40.

There are many theories about how Luke compiled this gospel, but it is accepted that he worked diligently as an academic to create the best possible account. He interviewed witnesses or recorded oral traditions of those who were not actually witnesses. One can assume that he had many scrolls of notes collected as a result. It would not always even be clear as to where some recorded words appeared to be in terms of the chronology of events. Certainly, where things were repeated across interviews, then this added weight to the truth regarding events or words. It would also leave some parables or words where thought, prayer, and inspiration of the Holy Spirit would be needed to answer the question, “Where shall I put these?” And I think that he would only have asked such a question about words confirmed by more than one witness.

It is only my personal feeling, because there is no justification either scripturally or historically for this, that the verses 38 to 40 are of this latter category. But that would mean that Luke was convinced that these verses were about the subject of judgement – because the surrounding verses, also found in Matthew who was an original apostle and direct witness, are clearly and only about judging others. This is where the beloved scholar and physician chose to place them and this tells us much about how we are to read them. Because, of course, there are familiar teachings also from verses 39 and 40 that are not exactly about judging. In those cases, the other familiar teachings are at least in keeping with several other passages of scripture saying the same things (unlike the misuse of vs 38). But the main teaching from these verses should be seen in the light of ‘don’t judge others.’

I am well aware that there are some who will want to (or may actually) provide me with a long list of verses to support their assumptions about vs 38. I have seen these lists before. However, the divide between being rich in the nation of Israel and being rich in the Kingdom of the Father (and these are 2 VERY different concepts!!) the other disqualifying factor for many of the verses in that list is, once again, verses taken way out of context.

Context is absolutely crucial in the understanding of any teaching in the scriptures. We must remember that, with the possible exception of some of the Psalms, chapters and verses were not there in the original texts. These were created later, as a way to make references to the scriptures much easier to follow and find. But often the result has been to treat a verse as though it is an entity unto itself. It is not. It is part of a bigger picture. So always check teaching by reading the whole context of the quotes. Too often, and even from so-called ‘big name’ speakers, I have seen and heard teaching that is based on an interpretation that only works when taking a verse (or even sometimes a portion of a verse) completely out of context.

So, it seems that the teaching for this study has been to know something about the bible itself as a whole. To know something about the authors, and therefore about their motives for writing and the way that they gathered their sources affected the writing also. It is important to take time to admire the beauty of the wider context before focusing on the fine detail. And when focusing on that detail, it is important not to be distracted by individual brush strokes. Those strokes tell you more about the author/artist at that moment in time than about the subject. Or they say something about the interpreter…

And finally, look for confirmation in the rest of scripture before declaring your ‘revelation’ – and make sure that you take into account the context of the supporting verses also. It is too easy to find a verse with the aid of a concordance or bible dictionary and assume that it supports your ideas. In fact we will want to find ways of making the scriptures support our ideas – this is simply fallen human nature. But these aids only find similar words or phrases and totally ignore the contexts of the texts that they will lead you to. So always do those extra steps of work: check the context, the author, the reason for writing, and so get an idea of the picture this artist was painting. Then, and only then, will you have a better chance to interpret that verse you were given in the concordance.

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