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August 21, 2016, 3:07 PM

Exegesis and Hermaneutics


Matthew 10:34-49, CEB
34 “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword. 35 I’ve come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law36 People’s enemies are members of their own households.
37 “Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me.38 Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. 39 Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.
40 “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me. 41 Those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.”
 
Exegesis & Hermaneutics 
 
This is the word of God (lift up bible), for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
 
That seems like such a simple statement—the word of God for the people of God. And yet, it means something different to different congregations and different people. The word of God. Some take that quite literally. Some see it as inspired but not literal. Others, as a collection of stories and guidelines for living in relationship with God. These differences have divided friends, split congregations, and given birth to new denominations. It is part of the division we are seeing in our United Methodist Church right now, and in our nation. The word of God.
 
In living with this word of God, the people of God have many times developed some habits that are not always fruitful in discerning the meaning of this word and words. One habit that has caused some problems in our communications regarding God’s word is the habit of ‘proof-texting.’ It was the first big taboo explained to us in seminary—No Proof-texting. Automatic F. So, what is proof-texting? Simply put, it is taking a line or two from scripture and lifting it completely out of its context (the story or teaching of which it is a part) and then using it to prove your point. This lifting of the scripture to prove your point, this proof-texting, does not take into account the point of the passage of which the text is a part. The passage is used according to the agenda of the user, many times with a complete disregard as to the intention of the passage within its chapter and book.
 
Minority groups in the church have experienced this often, where verses are lifted and used as weapons against them. These are sometimes called clobber verses, scripture passages used to justify the discriminatory practices of the majority group. “You are wrong. You are a sinner. Here is the proof.” If we eager seminarians got caught proof-texting, we were in big trouble. This is not to say we can’t have a piece of scripture that is important to us, that brings us comfort. It does not mean we cannot offer a word of grace to someone in need. The warning of proof-texting is a warning of being flippant with the word of God. It is a call to be sure we read more than a passage or two, that we spend time with the word and that we read with some intentionality and integrity.
 
I offer this to you today as we contemplate the words of our Savior, Jesus, that are often troubling and problematic for us. We could never cover with integrity all of those passages that have been and could be read problematically. We cannot attend to every hard word Jesus says. What we can do together in these few moments, is explore ways to spend time with those texts in a way that allows us to hear them with fresh ears, and to put together a few tips, a few skills, to help us understand more fully. In other words, we can learn to do some exegesis and be aware of our hermeneutics.
 
First, hermeneutics—this is just a fancy word for the lens through which scripture is read. It is being aware of the point of view from which we read scripture. Many times when Christians read particular passages from the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament—they do so through the lens of Jesus, through a Christian hermeneutic. That is not to say it is a bad or good thing, it is simply acknowledging that we are viewing these scriptures through the lens of Jesus. Our Jewish brothers and sisters do not view these same scriptures with the same lens. Knowing we are looking from a different point of view is helpful and can explain why we are seeing differently. Harry Pence, in our sermon discussion groups, has used the illustration several times of a group of blind men exploring, through touch, an elephant.  Each person is touching a different part—ear, trunk, foot, tail—and so has a vastly different experience. But they are all exploring the same animal, an elephant. Knowing our hermeneutic as we read a text is helpful—we are Americans in the 21st century in Upstate New York, in a fairly progressive congregation. How we initially view a text is different than someone reading the same passage in a South African village. How we have had the text explained to us in the past also colors our lens. It is helpful to explore our point of view, to the best of our ability, when we study scripture.
 
Second, exegesis—note the spelling. It is not ‘exit Jesus.’ Exegesis is a Greek word that means ‘to lead out’ and refers to study and interpretation of a text—to lead out its meaning. It is what I do every week in preparation for this moment, the sermon. In dealing with difficult texts, like the reading from Matthew that we have today, there are some simple exegesis skills that help us to see the text from different perspectives and to hear the text more fully.
 
Let’s open our bibles to today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 10, beginning at verse 34. What are your initial thoughts when you read this passage, when you heard it read just a moment ago? (give people a moment to respond, both out loud and internally). Now let’s go to the beginning of chapter 10 and read verse 1, and then verse 5. Verses 2 through 4 list the names of the disciples. What is the context of this chapter? What is happening? (allow time for responses). A helpful practice for seeing the flow of a story or passage is to create a general outline, so as we read down through chapter 10 of Matthew we begin to see the following:
  1. Jesus called the 12 disciples.
  2. Jesus now prepares to send these disciples out to the ‘lost sheep of Israel.’
  3. Verses 6-15 offer some strict instructions for their work. What are some of those instructions? (give time for responses).
  4. What is your impression of this chapter thus far? What is the tone? Do you hear the seriousness? What do you picture in your mind?
  5. Now let’s look at the next verses, 16-23. We are still in this preparation time. Jesus is trying to get the disciples ready to go out and do what he does. Now Jesus gives them a bunch of warnings about harassment and persecution. The disciples will be treated as Jesus has been treated.
  6. These continue to some extent into chapters 24-33. Intermixed in the warnings are words of encouragement—stand firm, stay strong, persevere.
  7. Now, we finally come to our reading from today—words about a sword instead of peace, of division within the family. Do these words sound different now that we have spent time with the storyline? Now that they are in context? What is Jesus saying?
 
Jesus warns that his work and his message can be good news, but it can also be seen as threatening. Some will reject Jesus’ message. Some of that rejection will even come from their own families. This may seem shocking to us, but look at the divisions happening in families right now. Many families are divided on the issue of homosexuality, immigrants and refugees, gun violence, political candidates. Is it so shocking for Jesus to warn the disciples that giving up everything to live Jesus’ way might cause some division and anger within their own families. Though Jesus blesses the peacemakers, can we not see how his word is the double-edged sword spoken of in the book of Hebrews, a word that might divide?
 
This time of teaching and preparation ends in verses 40-42, where Jesus points out how critically important this work is—these disciples go representing Jesus. When people encounter them and the message they bring, they are encountering Jesus. It is a message of life. It is a matter of true life with God—as we talked about last week and the week before—or life without God, which is a living death. Nothing should get in the way of that message. This entire chapter, chapter 10, seeks to impress upon followers of Jesus the importance of our work.
 
One more tip: When working through a text like Matthew 10, it is often very helpful to do this fuller reading and outlining with a small group, allowing other viewpoints, other hermeneutics, to give you a fuller picture. Reading more fuller to understand the context and creating an outline of the passage is only the beginning, but it is a great beginning and can ‘lead out’ a fuller meaning and understanding. So here is your homework: choose a passage that has troubled you, or perplexed you, and practice a little hermeneutics and exegesis.  Be aware of your lens and viewpoints. Try to read from a new point of view. And exegete the text—read passages and chapters prior to the passage. Read passages and chapters after the text. Read the opening chapter of the book, and the closing. Make an outline. See if you can “lead out” a deeper meaning and understanding.
 
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

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