I once heard of a farmer who had a complaining wife. From morning till night, she would complain about something or the other. He only got relief when he went to the farm with his donkey. One day as he was plowing, his wife brought him lunch. He put the donkey in the shade of a tree and began to have his lunch. Immediately, his wife began her complaining. Suddenly, the donkey lashed out with both hind feet, hit her, and killed her on the spot. At the funeral, the pastor noticed something odd.
When women would come, the farmer would listen for a minute and nod his head in agreement, but when men approached him, he would listen for a minute and shake his head in disagreement. This was so consistent that the pastor decided to ask him about it. After the burial, the pastor asked him why he nodded in agreement with the women but always shook his head in disagreement with all men. The farmer said, “The women would come up and says something nice about my wife — how she cooked, how good she was, and so on. I’d nod my head in agreement.” “And what about the men?” the pastor asked. “The men knew that the donkey killed my wife, and all they wanted to know was if my donkey was for sale.”
That’s a goofy way of putting it, but it does point out that we all have different ways of understanding the same set of circumstances or information. An article I was reading said that human beings have an “adaptive capacity to ‘construct their own reality’ and [this] is the way a person makes sense of things in the face of incomplete or ambiguous information…. Most of the time, we fill the gaps with our own biases, assumptions, beliefs, thoughts, ideas, and conclusions.” (Source) You look out and see a rainy day, and you may describe it as “Blah,” but if you ask a farmer, he’ll give you a very different answer. It is the same when it comes to interpreting Holy Scripture.
Consider this: a 2012 study from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary determined that there are roughly 43,000 Christian denominations and that this number would increase to 55,000 by 2025. They estimate that a new Christian denomination is formed every 10.5 hours. That’s more than two a day! (Source) So much for being “one body.” If you were to investigate why there are so many, I’m guessing that in many cases, the answer would be because of differences in interpreting and applying Holy Scripture. The problem, in this case, is a difference in hermeneutics. What is that?
In the next couple of days, Americans will spend $2.3 billion on flowers, and many of those flowers will be distributed by independent florists who are associated with FTD (Florists’ Transworld Delivery). They are the ones who link all these florists together and allow you to send flowers to people around the world.
In dealing with these florists, you may or may not have noticed the FTD logo: a man with wings on his feet (actually his sandals) and his hat. This is Hermes, one of the many Greek gods. He is supposed to be able to move quickly between humans and the other gods and act as a herald of the gods, bringing messages to us lowly creatures. Hermes was an interpreter of the messages of the gods. Picking up on this idea, Aristotle first used hermeneutics to describe the act of interpreting. There are so many different Christian denominations because we are all using different hermeneutics to understand Holy Scripture. This goes back to the fact that we all look at things differently—including Holy Scripture—with our own biases, assumptions, etc. Not only is this true within Christianity, but it is true in all religions, including Judaism.
When the Israelites received the Law, their teachers took it and gained a particular understanding of its meaning. However, even amongst them, there were differences. A different hermeneutic was applied, which is why, by the time of Jesus, there were Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Applying a hermeneutic to the Mosaic Law, the Sadducees were primarily concerned with the sacrificial system at the Temple and the application of the laws found only in the Torah. The Pharisees were focused on the Law and the intricate details of additional interpretation. They loved to argue. Modern Judaism is most closely related to the Pharisees’ understanding. And the Essenes, well, they were disgusted with both these other groups and went off and applied a rigorous hermeneutic—interpretation—of the Law. It was the three sects of Judaism that were their ‘denominations.’ Each uses a different hermeneutic for their interpretation of the Law. What does this have to do with anything today?
Today’s Gospel reading is broken down into four paragraphs. The first paragraph begins, “Jesus said, ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times.…’” The second: “You have heard that it was said.….” The third: “It was also said.….” And the fourth: “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times.….”
Each of these statements is then followed by one of the Ten Commandments or, in the case of divorce, a broader view of the Commandment on adultery. For example, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” However, in each of the four statements, Jesus adds, “But I say to you….” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you….” and he goes on from there.
The people have had the Law interpreted for them by one or all three denominations: Sadducees, Pharisees, or Essenes. Jesus was saying, You have heard it said ___, and this is your understanding, but… these teachers of yours are using the wrong hermeneutic. Their interpretation is wrong, and I am providing the correct interpretation, as God intended.
Last Sunday (and this Gospel lesson immediately follows last week’s and is still a part of the Sermon on the Mount), when Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Mosaic Law but to fulfill it, what he was saying is that he came to bring the Mosaic Law to its intended meaning and conclusion, so these statements—“You have heard it said… but I say to you.”—are examples of how this fulfilling of the Law is accomplished.
It would be very easy to look at these teachings of Jesus as a new moral law. A law that replaces the old law, but notice, Jesus only went through some of the Ten Commandments, and he barely even touched on the further expansion of the Law that the Pharisees taught, so Jesus is trying to accomplish something else by this teaching. What could it be? I think N.T. Wright comes close to answering that. Wright says, “Throughout this chapter [chapter five of Matthew’s Gospel], Jesus is not just giving moral commands. He is unveiling a whole new way of being human.” And not only is Jesus unveiling a whole new way of being human, but he is also living it. And in living it, he is showing us how to live it.
Our hermeneutic, our understanding of God, is not limited to the text of Holy Scripture. And please don’t burn me at the stake or call the Bishop for saying this, but I would dare say that our primary hermeneutic is not the text at all. Instead, it is the life and person of Jesus Christ. We don’t seek to know God by only understanding the text. Yes, we can have an academic understanding of God by studying the text, but we can only know God by knowing His son, Jesus—by joining our lives with His.
Think of Jesus’ great priestly prayer the night before He was crucified. He prayed for his apostles and then said, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me… I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.” Not one with the text, but one with Him.
When Jesus said, “…but I say to you…,” then we are to follow his teachings, but more importantly, we are to apply the idea of that teaching to every aspect of our lives so that we might discover that whole new way of being human for ourselves.
See the progression… Thou shall not commit murder. Don’t even become angry. Pray for your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Settle the argument. Give them your cloak. Love one another. That is what Jesus taught, and it is what he lived. To the letter. With Jesus as your hermeneutic—your understanding of God—go and live the same. This is the way to God.
Let us pray: Loving Father, faith in Your Word is the way to wisdom. Help us to think about Your Divine Plan so that we may grow in the truth. Open our eyes to Your deeds, our ears to the sound of Your call, so that our every act may help us share in the life of Jesus. Give us the grace to live the example of the love of Jesus, which we celebrate in the Eucharist and see in the Gospel. Form in us the likeness of Your Son and deepen His Life within ours. Amen.
2 Replies to “Sermon: Epiphany 6 RCL A – “Our Hermeneutic””
Well I’ll be there right next to you if you are burned at the stake, because I agree with your statement! Also, how did that donkey know the farmer’s wife was bad news? Maybe like Balaam’s donkey, it has a little divine intervention!
Good to know that I won’t be alone while roasting! 🤪 Never underestimate a donkey.