Thursday, April 7, 2011

My "favorite" misintepreted Scripture passages

One of my pet peeves is the misuse of Scripture to make points that it simply doesn't because of either misunderstanding its context or distorting its meaning to make a cheap political point. Below represent some I'm aware of:

1) "The poor you will always have with you ... " -- Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8

These words of Jesus are often used to suggest that nothing should be done for the poor on a political/structural level and that the truly Biblical way to deal with the poor should always be through private charity.

However, consider the background: All the references make clear that a woman had anointed Jesus with some extremely expensive perfume as a symbol of his upcoming burial; in response, His disciple Judas Iscariot had complained that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Indeed, the rest of Mark 14:7 reads: " ... and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have Me." Nothing at all concerning the "justice vs. charity" argument.

2) "For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.' " -- 2 Thessalonians 3:10

This passage is often used to say that people should find work and not mooch off others or the government. However, the church of that day was convinced that Jesus would be returning in the next few years, so a few folks were just sitting around and waiting, not being active in any way. While telling people to find work is a good thing, it's not provable using this specific reference.

3) "No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again ... " -- John 3:3

Two problems with this passage. One, I understand that the original Greek renders the phrase "born again" as "born from above." Two, we often misinterpret it as accessing the afterlife. But it's clear from the conversation with Nicodemus, who as a Jew wouldn't have focused on that, was trying to pay Jesus a compliment by saying "You must be from God because Your teachings are first-rate"; Jesus responded, "If you don't look at things from His perspective, you won't recognize what He's doing in the here and now." Essentially, He was telling Nicodemus, "You miss the point."

4) The woman caught in adultery, John 8.

Here, Jesus is often referred to as being merciful toward her by telling the Pharisees who were about to stone her to death, "Let him without sin cast the first stone." However, this was a case where He went completely "by the book."

First, the Law made clear that her partner in crime was also to be stoned to death but, conveniently, was nowhere to be found. Second, to accuse someone of a capital crime you had to have at least two eyewitnesses; however, to watch people actually having sexual relations also was illegal, leading me to believe that it was a "sting" operation. Third, and most obscure, according to Leviticus 15:18: "When a man has sexual relations with a woman and there is an emission of semen, both of them must bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening" -- that is, assuming that her partner had an ejaculation, they brought a ceremonially unclean woman into the temple, where Jesus was teaching. Bottom line, the Pharisees, who were trying to nail Jesus in a Catch-22, instead were forced to withdraw the accusation.

That's what I have -- anyone have any others?


Robin Wallace said...

One of the biggies: Romans 13. Paul is telling the people in Rome that, at this particular time, it is unnecessary and probably pointless to resist the imperial government openly. The implication that is often read into this - that Christians should at all times obey the governing authorities in all things - is completely unwarranted. It is the misreading of this passage that allowed Hitler to do what he did with only token resistance from the German church.

Don Plummer said...

Absolutely, Robin. Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder devotes a full chapter of his book The Politics of Jesus to a proper understanding of the first seven verses of Romans 13. He argued that the context (beginning with Romans 12:1) demands a subversive interpretation of the passage.

More recently, as you know, Romans 13 has been invoked by some Christians to justify the mistreatment of undocumented immigrants--we have to obey the law, after all, and they are breaking it.

BlueDeacon said...

That's right, Robin. Paul is saying in Romans 13, "Obey the law -- but here's how you get around it and glorify God. Don is also right in that the early church operated a strategy of subversion, to twist Roman law in a way it was never intended.

One example: When Paul tells women to be subject to their husbands, they were legally required to do so; however, when he tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church ... now that was radical because women were literally the property of their husbands.

~sas~ said...

To your first point: It's not that "nothing should be done" for the poor. If you read George Grant's Bringing in the Sheaves, for example, you'll find that the statement is understood to reflect the reality that people are poor for many reasons, including immoral living, and that addressing the causes and effects of poverty is a perennial task and furthermore that the solution begins with knowing Jesus, not with re-distributing wealth.

BlueDeacon said...

~sas~ -- I did read a few pages in that book several years ago and dismissed it out of hand. Part of the problem is that the poor cannot simply be "saved" from poverty by mere correct moral behavior; more than anything else they need access to the same opportunities that everyone else does, and I've heard no one on the political right ever make any noise about doing so. (That's why, for example, the civil-rights movement not only came from the left but also opposed by the right.) See, people who subscribe to that ideology are willing to help the poor as long as it doesn't cost anything to them.