Hearing this statement at a Young Life conference 35 years ago set me on the path to discovering the Jesus of scripture. The speaker (I think his name was Bob) wanted the audience to understand that we tend to eisegetically read scripture. Eisegesis was a newer term to me – one of those theological terms that I thought was of no practical use. The speaker proved to me otherwise.
Eisegetical scripture reading, Bob explained, happens when we read the text through the lens of what we already believe to be true. What we read is shaped by our preconceptions. As I took notes, this cognitively made sense to me. I prided myself that I certainly was above reading scripture through such lenses. Then the speaker rocked my world, wounded my pride, and pretty much disrupted everything for me.
Turning to Jesus’ parable we know as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Bob showed us just how real and subtly we read eisegetically. I remember him asking the audience, who in the story we most identified with. It seemed like we all figured we were the Good Samaritan, or at least tried to be. I know I assumed as much – after all, that’s what Jesus was asking of us, right? It’s what we learned in Sunday School.
Then the unraveling began. Bob helped us understand that Samaritans were despised (nay, hated) by Jesus’ audience, the Jewish theologians of the day. Some members of the Jewish nation had long prior compromised their charter and beliefs and married people outside their faith and ethnic group. These were the Samaritans. They were called half-breeds and dogs. When people traveled to Jerusalem from Galilee to honor God through the various annual festivals, they added days to their journey just to avoid Samaria. The parable, the story that Jesus told, was in response to a religious expert’s question:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?” The expert answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
As Jesus told the story, one could envision the legal expert understanding why the priest and Levite passed to the other side of the road, away from the robbery victim. They were on their way to serve in the Temple and contact with a bleeding person would have disqualified them to do their jobs. It was the law. However, what probably made the expert’s hair stand up on the back of his neck was Jesus’ introduction of the Samaritan as the ‘good guy.’
Wanting us to get the effect of what Jesus was saying to his audience 2000 years ago, Bob retold the story in modern terms. He talked about a pastor or a Young Life leader passing to the other side of the injured man. Then Bob went on to say, “But a Homosexual, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.” The hair stood up on the back of my neck! Not so much because he said ‘homosexual’ but because he had messed with scripture, that he had messed with the neat, domesticated story I was so familiar with. I was no longer the good guy – that was no longer on the table as an option.
What’s more, Jesus’ primary point wasn’t to be a ‘good’ Samaritan. The expert wanted to know who his neighbor was. After hearing the parable, he had to admit that his neighbor was, in fact, the Samaritan (though he couldn’t bring himself to utter ‘Samaritan’), and that’s who he was to love.
Who might Jesus substitute for ‘Samaritan’ today, if he were to tell the story in a manner that might make the hair on the back of your neck stand up? It’s an important question that we may not want to think about. Discovering the Jesus of scripture is a wonderful thing, but doesn’t come without the undoing of our domesticated version of Him or without some angst. But, as I said in the previous post, it’s well worth it!