Degrees of Separation
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Matthew 5:38-39
If being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus, it seems that Christians should be taking their most basic instructions from Jesus and Jesus’ life, at least as much as is possible. This is a challenging charge since Jesus is no longer physically present. True, we have the biblical record. Even the four Gospels, however, which are the primary record of what Jesus said and did, were written by people who lived a generation or more after Jesus’ death. It is unlikely any of the Gospels were written by authors who actually heard what he said or directly witnessed what he did. Rather, they are compilations of oral histories passed down to those who were later followers. As such, even the Gospels are removed from Jesus by at least a degree, and probably many degrees, of separation.
I used to think that red-letter Bibles were a little odd. They are Bibles that have everything recorded as something Jesus said printed in red. It makes the words of Jesus (as remembered, understood, recorded, and interpreted) stand out. Although I do not use a red-letter Bible, I understand the efficacy of one. If we want to follow Jesus, why wouldn’t we want his words to stand out from everything else in the Bible? If Jesus is our foundational source of guidance then everything else is context or commentary. Not that context and commentary are unimportant, but they are always one or more degrees separated from the source, meaning they are someone else’s interpretation.
I believe one of the primary drivers of Christianity toward Churchianity has been the extent to which we are distracted away from what is primary toward that which is secondary. We find ourselves increasingly drawn away from the teachings and life of Jesus by many degrees of separation – enough so that outsiders often have difficulty seeing the life of Jesus reflected in the lives of the churches and members who bear his title. And let’s be honest, trying to live as Jesus lived and pattern our lives after his is hard! It is much more comfortable to live with a few of degrees of separation from him.
Degrees of separation are important considerations because they mean the actual words and/or events we use for guidance are not only separated by time and space, but the sacred texts, like the Bible, have gone through one or more iterations of interpretation and bias. Today, we are dependent on the accuracy of the memories of the biblical authors, their degree of understanding of what was passed along to them, and their ability to effectively communicate what they received. These degrees of separation are magnified by the various translations between the primary languages in use at the time until today, from the Aramaic that Jesus likely spoke, to Greek, to Latin, to English. Each degree of separation modifies and biases the actual events or words of the source, at least to an extent. None of which is to imply that the Bible and other sacred texts are not worthy of our study. I just believe it is important to understand how what we are reading came about, especially if we are tempted to apply the texts literally or to use them to judge others.
Interestingly, Jesus did not always interpret scripture literally, nor did he uphold everything that was written in scripture. Rather, he reinterpreted scriptural presentations of God and God’s will, modifying what was written the texts, often significantly, for his followers. One example of this occurs within his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21-48, where he takes passages from scripture (not all of which remain in today’s Old Testament) and refashions them. Jesus would say, “You have heard it said that…” and he would quote the instructions given in an ancient text. This would be followed by, “…but I say…” and he would then contradict the text. In the example at the beginning of this reflection, Jesus quoted from Exodus 21:24, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Then he responded, “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The Old Testament law was one of violence in return for violence. Jesus’ refashioning was non-violence in response to violence.
Clearly, we must be careful with our applications the biblical record beyond and including Jesus’ words and actions. So, where do we turn for clarity and guidance? I will consider that issue next week.
This is the 11th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.