Context and Exegesis

Let's read the Bible literally for a moment... yes, you're going to hell.
Matthew 25:41-43 says
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."
Pretty much everybody in the U.S. is going to hell. Everyone who spends money on themselves withholds their money from someone who needs it more. Everyone who buys ice-cream neglects someone who just needs some bread. Everyone who drives to Starbucks and buys a coffee every single morning neglects those who can't even walk to a place where clean water is available to them. Every person, young and old, who sees a homeless man or woman and decides not to sit down with them, visit with them, clothe them, feed them, or even give them a dollar ignores Jesus and condemns themselves to hell... at least those are the things we'd have to believe if we really took the Bible at face value, taking everything literally regardless of context.

Now, though we always need to be careful that we're not just on the lookout for a good cop-out, though we need to be wide open to the possibility that the text may indeed require a literal interpretation even if it hurts, I must say I think there is more going on with Matthew 25 than meets the eye. It is, after all, apocalyptic literature and should be read through that lens. Jesus' concern is not a quantitative analysis of how much we give or don't give. Jesus' concern is that the poor become "our people," that we find ourselves in solidarity with the poor even to the point where we don't even really see them as poor and us as rich and so we don't even realize that we're "giving them a drink," so that we find ourselves asking, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?" Jesus is making a strong point but I hardly think he's setting a theological tenet into stone. I think it's safe to say that just because you live in the suburbs, buy coffee, eat ice-cream, and drive an SUV you are not automatically destined for eternal punishment (although it would be a cop-out to say that this shouldn't be examined).

But the real question and the source of my frustration is this: why are so many people so ready to take some verses so literally but are so quick to ignore or rationalize passages like Matthew 25. People are ready to accept verses like Romans 10:9, 6:23, and Matthew 10:28 so quickly at their face value, even condemning anyone who tries to investigate the context, but then they don't see their own contextualization and rationalization when it comes to Matthew 25 and Mark 10.

The truth is that context ALWAYS matters. We always need to allow context to speak into our interpretation and exegesis. Having recognized this we need to look for the plank in our own eyes and we need to see when we're really taking the scripture seriously and when we're just doing exegetical gymnastics so we don't have to really sell all we have or do something uncomfortable. If we're not being challenged and stretched by the Bible, if we're not being called toward new presuppositions and new imagination for the world, we may very well be rationalizing and justifying ourselves too much.


nate said…
huh...I always thought that Jesus was making it crystal clear that Democrats are doomed to hellfire. He did, after all say, "To those on his left."