Most Christians read the Bible. Still the best-selling book, according to the Guinness World Records, the Bible is available in numerous languages as well as more than enough English translations. For many Christians like myself and especially evangelicals, the Bible is regarded as the inspired word of God and therefore is regarded as authoritative in matters of faith. So it really goes without saying that reading the Bible is a good thing. But… as I have said before and will say again, how we read the Bible matters too!
In fact, how we read the Bible may matter more than whether or not we read the Bible. That’s because a bad reading of the Bible most surely leads to bad theological praxis, which means that a poor reading may be just as dreadful not reading the Bible at all.
The Interpretation of Loving Thy Neighbor
In the Gospel of Luke there is a story in chapter 10 about a lawyer, an expert in Jewish law, who approached Jesus with a question. The lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. So in v. 26 Jesus responded by pointing this lawyer back to what is written in the law. However, knowing that just reading the law does not necessarily mean that this lawyer will live out the intention of the law, Jesus also asked him about how he reads the law.
The question in v. 26 is pōs anaginōskeis and though some English translations differ, it is likely best rendered as “How do you read it? (NIV, ESV). The adverb pōs is a common interrogative asking “how” or “in what way.” The present tense verb anaginōskeis means “to read” and is referring to the law which Jesus has pointed the lawyer back towards in response to the question of inheriting eternal life. The question itself is about the lawyer’s “legal interpretation” of the law (cf. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 428). That matters because nobody just reads the law and does exactly what it says in literal fashion. Every reader is an interpreter and so how this lawyer or anyone else reads/interprets the law matters.
In the story, the lawyer goes on to correctly point out that the law is summed up with the two commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. Jesus agrees. But when the Lawyer continues, asking Jesus who exactly is a neighbor, Jesus presses in with the utmost of challenges… Jesus goes on to tell a story about a neighbor and in that story the neighbor happens to be a Samaritan (you can read the story of “The Good Samaritan” here). This is critical because Jesus is identifying a Samaritan, people whom the Jews hated, as a neighbor and therefore someone who this Jewish lawyer must love as his neighbor. Further more, when Jesus finishes the story by telling this lawyer to do as the Samaritan did, who acted with “mercy” (v. 37), he is telling him to treat all people with compassion (cf. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 175).
And Our Neighbors Are…
Going back to the question Jesus asked of how that lawyer reads the law, Luke is reminding us that how we read the Bible matters. However, the discussion here isn’t about how we understand the doctrine of end times or the doctrine of atonement correctly, not that such doctrines are unimportant. The discussion is about how we love our neighbor and whether our reading of the Bible moves us to love our neighbors as ourselves by extending compassion to all people.
If we leave the discussion right there, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves doesn’t seem so difficult. However, when we remember that Jesus spoke of a Samaritan in order to define just how this Jewish lawyer’s neighbor was, we must own up to the fact that our neighbors include those whom we just may in fact dislike, fear, and even hate.
For a White Christians living in America, like myself, the story told in Luke 10 is a reminder that our neighbors include people who are Black, Latino, and Muslim. I mention these three groups of people because of the tensions that still exists between them and many White people, including White evangelical Christians. It also seems necessary as certain politicians and talking heads preach a message of fear and animosity among White evangelical Christian voters, appearing as guardians of their livelihood at the expense of compassion for minorities.
A Final Word
The story that Luke tells involves a question about how one expert in the law reads or interprets the law. It also raises a question for us Christians as to how we read or interpret the Bible. For Jesus, any reading of the law that allowed a Jew to disregard a Samaritan as a neighbor was wrong. For Christians then, particularly those of us who are White evangelical Christians living in America, any reading of the Bible that allows us to disregard a minority person as our neighbor is wrong. In fact, any reading of the Bible that allows us to disregard anyone as our neighbor is wrong.
The story itself tells us how Jesus expects us to treat our neighbors… with mercy! We must treat all people with such compassionate acts that they will know us as merciful people. It doesn’t matter how well versed we are in the doctrines of Nicene Christianity, how quickly we can recite passages of scripture, or even if we read our Bibles, if in doing so we fail to show mercy to all people. Any lack of mercy is a sure indicator that we are not reading and interpreting the Bible rightly. Showing mercy is how we love our neighbor as ourselves and just as our neighbor is the good Samaritan, so also our neighbor is the good Muslim, Latino, and Black man!