Matthew 4 & The Importance of Interpretation

IMG_0461I noticed something interesting in reading my Bible this morning, and I wanted to share it here: Based on Jesus’s example, the ability to critically read and interpret Scripture is important. 

I’ve been reading the Gospel of Matthew, and I came to Chapter 4. There, as you know, Jesus is tempted by the devil.

The first two temptations caught my eye particularly:

Satan starts off a little naively, suggesting that Jesus put aside his spiritual growth for his physical comfort, suggesting that he turn stones into bread. Jesus of course rebuts this, reminding Satan that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”.

So Satan ups the ante. He tells Jesus to leap from the high cliffs. He assures Jesus that the Psalms teach that God will protect Him.

Jesus rebuts this temptation too, reminding Satan that we are not to “tempt the Lord [our] God”.

Here’s what struck me:

Neither of these first two temptations ask Jesus to do anything that is, on the face of it, sinful. It is not sinful to eat. Nor is it sinful to trust in God’s promises of protection. But in both cases, Jesus refused to do Satan’s bidding and supported his decision with Scripture.

The reasoning for Jesus’s refusal does not particularly interest me; when we study these passages further, it’s clear that Jesus refused Satan’s temptations because Duh, it was Satan, but also because Jesus refused to put physical comfort above spiritual well-being and because He preferred not to exert his own willpower.

But putting that reasoning aside, what interests me is that Jesus quoted Scripture to justify his reasoning for refusing to do something which was not sinful and could even be construed as virtuous. Jesus’s ability to do this rested on an ability to read Scripture interpretively.

He was able to take a general principle, on the necessity of God’s word to our life, and apply it to a specific context.

He was able to weigh the Scripture Satan quoted against the passage He Himself quoted and determine which was more relevant.

He was able to draw inferences and conclusions about God’s expectations for Him from the passages He read.

He was able to read between the lines.

Reading between the lines, drawing inferences, determining relevance, making general principles specific (and vice versa): all of this is interpretation. It gets beyond taking what we read at face value to making judgments about what we’ve read.

So often, when we approach Scripture, we do so with an eye to proof-texting. We want Scripture to spell out exactly what we should do in any given situation.

And sometimes it does do that. When I am angry, Scripture is pretty clear that I should not lose my cool (That’s a hard one for me.) But on many occasions, Scripture is less clear. What do we do then?

Jesus’s example suggests that in such circumstances, we should not twist Scripture into pretzel knots trying to make directives out of general principles. Rather, we should approach Scripture with an interpretive eye, able to infer from what is said and done in a passage who our God is and how we should interact with Him.

And that brings me to a particular soapbox of mine. Increasingly, people think that studying literature is not worth spending time on. Many of my brightest students do not take Intro to Literature, because they’d prefer to spend time taking more “practical” courses for their major.

I want to be clear that I don’t blame my students, and I respect whatever decisions they make, even when they choose not to take my courses. Nonetheless, the culture they make those decisions in is one that emphasizes job skills and downplays the humanities. In that culture, literature is seen as a luxury course, something that you take only if you have interest, and room among the multitudinous courses for your major.

But Jesus’s example proves that literature is not a luxury course. 

The ability to read literature interpretively is dying. The ability to read at all is dying. I had a conversation with an old grad school friend of mine this past week, and we agreed that while many students are technically literate, able to read basic material for information, they often struggle to read more thoughtfully. They are not readers.

Yet to apply Scripture successfully demands that we be thoughtful readers. 

So let’s be thoughtful readers.

So let’s take more literature courses. Or if we’re not in school anymore, let’s just read more literature, period.

Let’s not expect Scripture to spell everything out for us. Let’s stop having so many Bible studies where we sit and passively listen to someone else spell out what Scripture means for us. (I’m thinking of those videotaped Bible studies). Let’s learn to interpret it for ourselves, and think deeply about it.

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One thought on “Matthew 4 & The Importance of Interpretation

  1. Yea to the importance of interpretation and of literature! (the latter maybe as a course and not as a major for many .. i was just looking at the August issue of Consumer Reports which has some deeply worrying stories of graduates deep in debt and with few prospects of paying off their student loans).

    I feel interpretation is key especially with documents such as Scripture and our Constitution. We know in the light of history and science that some of the contents of these important are not factual. So it is critical how we interpret them, to continue to build our values and our democracy while acknowledging there are different ways of interpretation.

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