So if you saw the beginning of
the most horrifying and nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done the Sermon Podcast, you saw that I preached on Luke 5:4-15 on Sunday. If you listened to it (you did listen to it, didn’t you?), you know that I focused on the metaphor of the soils, like every other preacher in the world does. For the sermon, that is where the focus had to be, but there was something that I didn’t get to address in this sermon that has been stuck in my craw since exegeting the passage.
No? Doesn’t feel great? Feels pretty crappy, actually? Great, then you are where I was.
I really struggled with this. The idea of making the entire sermon about that one verse briefly crossed my mind because of just how difficult I find that verse. It strikes me as deliberately deceptive. If I reworded that honestly using just English translations, I would word it as, “I’m talking in parables so other are confused and don’t understand, and it will blind them so they don’t see the glory of God.”
If you want to scream shenanigans at this sort of method, I agree with you. I have always had a problem with deceptive preaching and deceptive teaching. I know preachers who will start a sermon by preaching at the congregation believes and they attach those beliefs with “true” teachings – though, oddly, those “true” teachings often come down to interpretive issues, not strong immorality – and, though effective, is also rather condescending and self-righteous. I can see validity in this method for humble prophetic messages – an emphasis on “humble” and “prophetic” – but for standard correction of teaching, I think this is unacceptable.
To address those who may say it’s really effective, I make my congregation question their beliefs regularly (for the sake of questioning, not necessarily because they are wrong) and search for deeper, truer truths and beliefs closer to Christ’s actual call in the gospel, and I’m straight and honest about it. I don’t like being deceived or lied to, and that shows in my preaching.
Okay, off my rant horse for a bit. I just have a problem with this who idea of hiding the message. So, as a good exegete and horrible procrastinator, I went down the rabbit hole of Isaiah 6:9. I looked at the Hebrew (and learned how rusty my Hebrew skills have become) and tried to rationalize a different translation. I’ll tell ya, my BibleWorks is set up with many good and different translations and I couldn’t come to a different translation than I already had in front of me that got me past this hang-up and to a point where I wanted to pull a Thomas Jefferson and start cutting verses I didn’t like out of the Bible.
So how do I deal with this? What am I missing?
When you don’t understand something, ask someone for help. In life, that usually means a call to a trusted elder, in career, a trusted mentor. In biblical exegesis, though, we don’t often have that person who was can call. Instead, we have to hope someone has written something somewhere that will answer our questions and not make more1. So I looked up at my book shelf, saw an Isaiah commentary that I bought cheap and haven’t used yet, and found the entry on 6:8-11.
Baumgartel, by way of Otto, wrote something in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament that started to chip away at this very difficult passage:
Every word of the prophet will merely make them (his hearers) even wiser in their human thoughts, and will make them more determined not to abandon their human attitude, in which they consider they are so firm and unassailable2.
At the moment I read it, it put the idea to rest enough for me to abandon it at the moment and go back to sermon writing. Sermon came out fast, I got all of my worship materials finished, and I rewarded myself with a beer. Life was good.
At the same time, I still struggled with that one verse. Even when I was standing at the pulpit, trying to impress visitors and preach something better because I was recording, this verse caught me up. I glossed it over, as my sermon needed, but I still find it festering in the back of my mind.
So Wednesday, days removed from the sermon and the next sermon leering from the distance, I’m still wondering about this verse. What does it mean?
Look back at what Baumgartel said. When I read these verses, I get stuck on the speaker. I get stuck on how it seems that the speakers intent is to deceive and condemn. If you look around this blog, or hear my sermons, I focus a lot on love, and that is certainly not a loving act.
I get stuck on the speaker and I don’t even consider the ears that are hearing it. I don’t consider that they may not be in a position to hear what they need to hear, or that these teachings are going to turn them off. I want so badly for every prophet to have the success of Jonah but that isn’t the case3.
God wasn’t telling Isaiah to make the people daft and to make reject the message. He was telling Isaiah to go to the people and preach the message even though they would refuse to understand it and refuse to see it. It seems like a bit of a stretch, but it works and here’s why:
God isn’t above being a bit passive-aggressive. Read it like this: Listen, even though you won’t understand; watch, even though you won’t see. It’s subtle, and I would listen to arguments that this doesn’t paint God in the best light, but it’s there.
This may seem weird, but read it through the lens of Nineveh. If the Judeans would have approached Isaiah’s message with humility, God probably would have changed His mind. If they had heard the message, and I mean heard it in their hearts and not just the physical and intellectual act of hearing. If they were humble enough to recognize their own flaws, they could have avoided this. If they would have understood that they were fallible, they could have avoided this. If they had repented, they could have avoided this.
If Isaiah were to go to humble people and give this message, they would change. He isn’t going to humble people, and so his message will do nothing but shut them off and make them fall deeper down the hole that leads to the exile. In the command in Isaiah 6:9, God is telling Isaiah to say, “Listen to me even though you will hear and not understand; watch as I teach and even though refuse to see the message.” Yes, it sets them up for condemnation and assumes it before he even starts, but, again, though the lens of Nineveh, they aren’t condemned until it is over. God just knows their hearts, and knows the outcome.
Back to Luke. What exactly is Jesus saying here? I’m going to conjecture a bit here, but I think, when we read “disciples” in the gospels, we wrongly assume it’s only to the 12. In all honesty, we have no reason to assume that. There are multitudes there, and Gingrich (according to BibleWorks) says that we can, in practice, use the word “Christian” to translate “μαθητης”4 in Acts, even if it isn’t the best literal translation, which means we can probably assume that this means something more than the 12. So, when Jesus is saying this, he is saying that those who are followers have been shown and will be taught; those who aren’t will be confused and refuse to learn. He isn’t being intentionally deceptive; just that his teaching allude those who are unwilling to follow.
Kind of, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink no matter how hard you whip it.” Something like that.
So there you go. If you have ever wanted to see what it’s like in my mind when I exegete, there you have it. If not, then why did you read this whole thing?
To curiosity in exegesis, not just the task at hand,
1Just need to say that getting more questions than answers is great as a mental exercise and desiring that a philosophical position, but it screws with sermon writing. You can’t say, “I don’t know” at the end of a sermon more than a couple of times a year before they start asking why they need to listen to you say your understand isn’t any greater than theirs. Even if we are humble, teachers have to accept and act within the authority they have, even if it requires speaking in truths instead of questions.
2Kaiser, Otto. The Old Testament Library – Isaiah 1-12. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1972). p. 83.
3I love Jonah. Even though he runs away, gets swallowed by the whale, begrudgingly preaches the prophetic message, and wants so badly for the people to be condemned, they still turn it around and follow God. Makes me smile, even if Jonah was a bit of a drama queen about it.
4What I could do in WordPress for Greek word. I know it’s missing an accent; sue me.