Monday, February 16, 2009

Jesus Christ and the continuity of scripture in Scripture

Here are a few further thoughts as I work on a presentation at ACANZP's next Hermeneutical Hui ...

One of the most difficult texts of the Bible is Luke 16, with the Parable of the Dishonest Steward (16:1-8, 9-13) a frontrunner for status as ‘the most difficult parable to understand’. On one thing all readers of Luke 16 can agree: the chapter is mostly based on stories and sayings involving money. But this highlights another difficulty: why in the midst of all the talk on money matters is there an isolated saying about divorce and remarriage (16:18)?

Here is one explanation of this puzzle in Luke 16. Luke often works his source material into his particular ordering of it according to catchwords or catch phrases. In Luke 16 the first parable begins ‘there was a rich man’ and the commentary following it ends with ‘You cannot serve God and wealth’ (16:13). The catchwords of riches and wealth lead into an account of Pharisees present making comment. They are described by Luke as ‘lovers of money’ (16:14). But they also ridicule Jesus so this leads to a counter-charge from him that they are those who ‘justify’ themselves. This sets up a new line of thought for Luke’s reporting of Jesus’ speech and his next pericope concerns the law and the prophets and the good news of the kingdom of God (16:16). Incidentally, one of the acute exegetical difficulties in Luke 16 then arises at the very end of Luke 16:16: what does entry into the kingdom by ‘force’ or ‘violently’ mean?

Luke 16:17 then offers a counterpoint to any reader tempted to take Luke 16:16 as licence to ignore the law and the prophets in favour of the gospel: ‘But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped’. I suggest we are entitled as readers of Luke’s Gospel to presume that 16:17 reflects some sensitivity on Luke’s part to debates about Christian understanding of the Jewish law – a sensitivity attested to in the Acts of the Apostles. The charge that the new Christian movement is ‘soft’ on the law is rebutted. Luke 16:18 then becomes an illustration of the depth of Jesus’ own commitment to the law: he prohibits divorce, with no exceptions, and, pointedly, is ‘harder’ than the Pharisees themselves on this issue. The oddity of a ruling on divorce and remarriage in the midst of a chapter on riches and wealth is explained through the sequencing of Luke’s topics: riches and wealth, money-loving Pharisees who justify themselves, the law and the gospel, the permanency of the law, an example of the permanency.

If we accept that no oddity is involved in the reference to divorce and remarriage in 16:18, nevertheless we might be tempted to judge that it is then odd for Luke to return abruptly to money matters with the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31). Yet even here we observe that this story connects back to the topic of the law and the prophets in 16:16-18: the ending of the story makes reference twice to ‘Moses and the prophets’ (vv. 29, 31).

Many implications follow from this reading of Luke 16. Here I mention only one. In the estimation of Jesus there is both difference and continuity between the law and the prophets and the gospel of the kingdom. In the fullness of the revelation of God which expresses God’s rule, what will later be called the “Old Testament’ represents the continuity of the scripture, which was known and taught by Jesus, in the Scripture. This Scripture, the combination into the canon of the church of the Old Testament and New Testament, will include the difference and the continuity between the law and the prophets and the gospel of the kingdom.

There have been many questions arising in the history of the church concerning the practical implications of the continuity of scripture in Scripture. Sometimes the church has been severely tempted to ditch the Old Testament. But the resistance to that temptation has its beginning in the example of Jesus Christ himself.

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