Let’s start with a familiar story:
There was once a young Shepherd Boy who tended his sheep at the foot of a mountain near a dark forest. It was rather lonely for him all day, so he thought upon a plan by which he could get a little company and some excitement. He rushed down towards the village calling out “Wolf, Wolf,” and the villagers came out to meet him, and some of them stopped with him for a considerable time. This pleased the boy so much that a few days afterwards he tried the same trick, and again the villagers came to his help. But shortly after this a Wolf actually did come out from the forest, and began to worry the sheep, and the boy of course cried out “Wolf, Wolf,” still louder than before. But this time the villagers, who had been fooled twice before, thought the boy was again deceiving them, and nobody stirred to come to his help. So the Wolf made a good meal off the boy’s flock, and when the boy complained, the wise man of the village said: “A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth.”
Thus Aesop delivered to us a cautionary fable encouraging truth telling. At least that is how we will read this if we are careful and notice particularly the wise man’s concluding sentence.
If we are NOT careful, however, we might write an entire essay on the struggles of loneliness in agrarian society. Preachers might take such a text and preach a sermon on how economic ruin can come to a community if it marginalizes any of its members in the way this poor shepherd boy had been marginalized. And they might conclude with a stirring challenge to look around and find those marginalized people and reach out to them before they revert to antisocial behavior to gain attention and acceptance.
Not a bad challenge, for sure, but it is NOT what the fable is about. And the preacher, in fact any interpreter of language, has as his first task to understand what a text is about. That may seem obvious, of course, but what is obvious is not always practiced.
When I finished preaching on 2 Samuel 6 on Sunday, two comments following reminded me of the importance of getting the text right. In this passage, David determines to bring the Ark of the Covenant into his newly minted capital city of Jerusalem. The first attempt is met with a troubling death, but eventually the Ark is brought successfully into the city. This is to David’s delight, as he is pictured dancing at the head of the procession. His behavior elicits the disdain of his wife Michal.
One person commented that when she had heard the passage preached before, its focus was upon whether dance should form a part of Christian worship and liturgy. I think it is safe to say that this text is NOT about dance. Yes, David is said to have danced. That is a fact of the text, but it is not what the text is about. To attempt to make it so is to distort the text.
Another, though, said that my treatment of the text went in what he considered to be a unique direction. And that comment concerns me. I never want to come to a text with the intent of taking it in a unique way. I cannot consider that I am the first to have opened a text. I hope that my preaching exposes to the hearer the fundamental intention and application of the text, which would have been seen and preached by others before me. When someone finds my treatment ‘unique’ I’m always concerned that I have imported too much of my own interpretive spin into the text and perhaps have missed myself what it was intended to be about.
It is also possible that I have gotten the text ‘right’ and have helped this person and others in the way they see such texts. I’ll trust that this indeed is the case. But I never want to let the prior concern grow silent. It keeps me from too many flights of interpretive fancy.
This is a great concern of mine because I have this notion that the Bible is disrespected by so many not because the intellectual arguments against it have been so great, but that the Christian misuse of the Bible has been so widespread. If we are not careful, we can make the Bible say just about whatever we want it to say. But when we can make the Bible say anything we want, then it really says nothing at all.
By extending the authority of the Bible beyond where it intends to go, we run the risk of undermining its authority where it does speak authoritatively. If, for example, there are Christians arguing with great passion that the Bible teaches a capitalistic economic system, and other Christians arguing with equal passion that the Bible envisions an economic environment of communal ownership, there will be a large number of those looking in from the outside who will have a hard time believing that the Bible speaks with authority on things of greater import, such as the deity or resurrection of Christ. Our carelessness undermines our testimony.
I once had a couple of people ask me to preach on things the Bible “clearly” taught, such as an alleged prohibition against women working outside the home or its supposed ban on contraception. I have opinions on those matters which are biblically informed and which I’m happy to discuss. But I pray I never confuse in the pulpit my biblical opinions with the true direction of the the message of Scripture. I hope only to preach what a text is about that we might come to know the mind of its Author.
[I will, of course, get it wrong. Soon the sermon on 2 Samuel 6 will be posted here. There you can judge how close I came.]