Do you ever have difficult conversations with extended family or social media “friends” about how we approach Scripture? I seem to have these conversations frequently. Someone’s “plain meaning of Scripture” is another’s “twisted interpretation,” and vice versa. Yet, the ability to reinterpret Scripture in light of new contexts is what makes words that are thousands of years old continually relevant.
As but one example, the words of Habakkuk 2:4, “the righteous shall live by faith[fulness],” were originally intended as a contrast between the faithfulness of some Judeans and the pride and arrogance of the coming Babylonian conquerors of the Kingdom of Judah. Paul reinterpreted the verse to point to the importance of faith over obedience to the law (Galatians 3:10-12 and Romans 1:16-17). The writer of Hebrews included the previous sentences’ Septuagint Greek translation to understand the verses as encouraging patience and persistence in waiting for Jesus’ return (Hebrews 10:37-38). Martin Luther and other reformers reinterpreted the verse further to emphasize the trust and belief in Jesus as that by which a person receives salvation, rather than through meritorious good works.
This one verse from Habakkuk has been interpreted across time to contrast Babylonians and Judeans; reliance on the law or on God/Jesus’ faithfulness; patience and impatience as the disciples waited for Jesus’ return; and, finally, salvation through faith rather than works. In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus practices reinterpretation of a familiar passage from Hosea for his audience.
Jesus had just returned to his own city (Matthew 9:1) of Capernaum (Matthew 4:13), where he was well-known and well-supported. Capernaum (the “Village of Comfort”) was a small but thriving town of about 2,000 residents. It was a prosperous fishing village because the natural harbor and the nearby warm springs that emptied into the cold Sea of Galilee supported abundant aquatic life. But small Capernaum was also an important site for international trade and politics. It sat on the Galilean side of the border between the tetrarchies of Herod Antipas and his half brother, Philip. Probably more importantly, it was a stop on the Via Maris, one of the main trade routes between Egypt and Damascus.
Jesus wants us to go and learn how to interpret Scripture like him: in ways that help us to practice loving-kindness with all our neighbors.
Like any border town on a major international highway, Capernaum was populated by currency changers, merchants, soldiers, tax/duty officers, sex workers, people conducting religious outreach, and those who wanted to spread and hear the latest ideas from across the world. We should probably understand Capernaum as something like a tiny El Paso/Juárez or Detroit/Windsor.
The city’s tax collectors took money to pay for the pleasure palaces of the Herods and to fund the Roman occupation. As collaborators with the forces oppressing their neighbors, they were regarded as sinners. Much later, rabbis would recall that the testimony of Jewish tax collectors was to be regarded as automatically false (BT Sanhedrin 25a). Rabbinical students who collaborated with the occupying Romans were automatically expelled from school and weren’t readmitted even if they quit their tax collecting job (BT Bekhorot 31a).
Jesus’ Pharisee colleagues were shocked when he associated with the town’s lowest strata. Jesus went to the tax booth that others scrupulously avoided (either out of religious sensibilities or out of desire to avoid making payments) to call Matthew to follow him. Later that evening he went to a party primarily attended by several tax collectors and “sinners” (elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus will speak explicitly of tax collectors and sex workers as matched groups; see 21:31). Jesus got comfortable and reclined for dinner, as was the custom.
Jesus’ easy association with people who earned their living from sin was absolutely as scandalous to the Pharisees as it would be to many of us today! The Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples (with whom they were in an ongoing relationship) how their master could eat with such people. I don’t see ongoing antagonism between Jesus and the Pharisees here in Matthew—at least not yet. I think the Pharisees were asking an honest question. Jesus was clearly empowered by God to perform miraculous healings and exorcisms that would have been well known in his base of operations. How could a holy man hang out with such unholy people?
Jesus overheard their questions and suggested a metaphor: the healthy do not need a doctor but only the sick. Jesus came not to call the righteous but to call sinners. Jesus’ call to sinners was not shaming them or ostracizing them. Instead, Jesus called Matthew to follow him. And then he had a party with Matthew’s friends and colleagues. To support his action, Jesus invited those who questioned him to a Bible study: “go and learn what this means ….” I love this about Jesus—he gives each person what they need. For sinners, a party to be accepted. For the righteous, an invitation to study Scripture.
The Scripture that Jesus focused his interlocutors on is Hosea 6:6—“I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” But Jesus radically recontextualized and reinterpreted the passage. Hosea prophesized against the very things the sinners that Jesus partied with did: radical unfaithfulness to God through too close relations with other nations, symbolized by adultery and sex work. Hosea 6 was originally a call to loving-kindness to God by returning to covenantal faithfulness rather than simply bringing meaningless offerings. Jesus deploys the verse from Hosea to describe how he, as God’s messiah, will practice loving-kindness to humans. Other humans should emulate his example by practicing loving-kindness toward neighbor, rather than giving up on people or sacrificing relationships. Jesus told the Pharisees to go and study his reinterpretation of Hosea, to see what God desired in their day.
Most of you reading this don’t live in a border town and probably few make your living through explicitly sinful practices. But the lesson of the Gospel stands. Jesus wants us to go and learn how to interpret Scripture like him: in ways that help us to practice loving-kindness with all our neighbors.