An Experiment in Reading Texts

How do we make sense of words? In some ways, it is quite easy to do, and we of course do it all the time. You are reading words right now, and hopefully they make some sense to you. The vast majority of communication occurs seamlessly and without a hitch. But, add in complications like foreign languages, cultural distance, and setting (including especially the internet!), and things can sometimes go awry. Let’s try an example:

Jesus [said], The Father’s kingdom is like [a] woman. She took a little leaven, [hid] it in dough, and made it into large loaves of bread. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!

Jesus said, The [Father’s] kingdom is like a woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking along [a] distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her [along] the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.

Jesus said, The Father’s kingdom is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in. Then he killed the powerful one.

Now, I would suspect that you went back and read those a couple times. Some things are familiar — “Jesus,” “leaven,” “kingdom.” The first paragraph sounds like something you may have read or even taught or preached, but is not quite right somehow. The phrase “kingdom is like” will signal to many people familiar with the Bible that they should expect a parable to follow. And, sure enough, in the stories that follow there are “characters” and “activities” described, and they seem to be figurative and to stand for something other than themselves. So “parable” it is.

But we still struggle to make sense of these statements: Who is the woman? What is the leaven? What are the large loaves? This seems to be describing a positive activity of the kingdom, but we can’t tell — yet— what specifically that activity might be. Moving on to the second and third “parables” is more difficult. Is the meal falling out of the jar a good thing, or negative? What is the meal? What is the house? And then the sword thrust into the wall — who is man who wants to kill the powerful one? What is the sword? Is putting a hole in your wall a good idea?

We likely came up with some kind of interpretation by making connections to other places where Jesus uses similar imagery — the “strong man” in Mark 3, for example. But should we?

Okay, I’ll spill the beans now. These three statements are from the “Gospel of Thomas,” a (likely) second-century collection of sayings purported to have been written down by “Didymus Judas Thomas.” They occur sequentially in extant manuscripts as sayings 96-98 (translation taken from this site). But here’s the problem: The people that compiled, wrote, copied, read, and (presumably) taught from and guided their lives by this text didn’t survive. We don’t know how they used this text, why they compiled this text, how they interpreted this text, what other writings they read alongside this, etc. So we have words, statements, but no one to help us understand them. We are not part of the group that read and used Thomas, and so we cannot make sense of it. What is the “clear and obvious meaning” of these texts? We have no idea, because the meaning is clear and obvious only if we have been shaped, guided, and formed to understand the texts before we even approach them.

There are a few complicating factors with this example from the Gospel of Thomas, of course. For one, there is no narrative structure to help clarify the audience (to whom is “Jesus” speaking these parables?). For another, there seems to be no thematic unity to the sayings — does the position of the statement about the leaven inform at all the statement about the jar? Is there any connection among them that helps us make sense of the individual parts? In fact, the Gospel of Thomas looks a bit like 114 notecards that were scattered by the wind and randomly picked up; there is little, if any, structure to the sequence of the sayings. But the heart of the problem is that we have not been prepared to read the text, and so we can make sense of it. The problem is us. the reader.

Enough with “Thomas.” Let’s try a New Testament example:

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Now this, hopefully, is familiar: Matthew 22:1-14 (ESV). And, being on perhaps more familiar territory, you probably have a good idea already of who the “king” and the “servants” are, who the “guests” are, and what the “wedding banquet” is. Notice, there is nothing in the text itself that tells you what these are, but you have been taught — through other texts, through the creeds, through pastors and teachers, that there will be, on the last day, a judgment followed by a banquet; that many will be invited but not all will respond; and, particularly as Lutherans, we know all about “being clothed with Christ” and passive righteousness. So it is “easy” for us to make sense of this text, even if we haven’t studied all the details of the cultural backgrounds of first-century Judean wedding invitations and attire (what, no tuxedos and teal bridesmaid dresses?). All that stuff will certainly help us flesh out the details, but the basic sense of the text we can get because we have been prepared to read this, even before we read it. “Clear and obvious” meaning only occurs if we already have a pretty good idea what to expect before we read it.

Even so, we may not (likely will not) have read this perfectly. Although we have been prepared to hear the Gospel according to Matthew, are we hearing things that are not there, and missing others that are? For example, did you notice the “to them” in the first sentence? Did you ask who “them” is? If you did, perhaps you looked back to chapter 21 and saw that the referent of that pronoun is not “a generic person” nor “a Christian,” but “the chief priests and Pharisees” (21:45). Does that affect the meaning? Does the fact that Jesus is telling this parable to people who are about to have him put on trial for death? Is the statement at the end “many are called, but few are chosen” Law or Gospel? Are we tempted to over-interpret? Who are the troops sent to burn the cities? Is that us, who “stand up, stand up for Jesus”? Or someone else? Or is the whole city-burning thing not describing the last day at all, but just part of “dramatic effect” of the story? To the text, always to the text.

The problem is not the text, it is the reader. Are we paying attention to the text, all of the text? What are we bring to the text that causes us to see some things and to miss others? As Jesus once said to someone who was absolutely convinced that he was reading the Scriptures properly: “What is written in the Torah? How do you read it?” And even though that guy could read the clear and obvious meaning, he got it wrong.





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