I addressed the “priority problem” of Bible reading in the lives of many Christians in my last article. Here, I want to address the “professionalization factor,” which is what happens when Canadian Christians, and there are many of them, look to experts—pastors, priests, scholars—to read, study and unpack the Bible for them.
This is not a new trend in church history. In fact, the “professionalization” of biblical interpretation was one of the issues 16th-century Anabaptists rebelled against. They believed that every individual with the Holy Spirit was capable of understanding Scripture regardless of status or education level. The Anabaptist “community hermeneutic” was based on all members of the community interpreting Scripture together. Although many early Anabaptists acknowledged teaching and discernment as special gifts, and believed church communities needed teachers, they stressed the importance of teachers and preachers guiding, not dominating, the study and interpretation of Scripture.
Unlike most Reformers, the Anabaptists thought the majority of Scripture, especially the New Testament, was easy to understand. They argued that the real difficulty was found not in understanding texts, but in applying what they clearly teach, so they encouraged Christians to focus their energy on applying what they understood as they read Scripture, rather than worrying about the parts they didn’t get.
I agree that the “professionalization factor” is a problem when it hinders Christians from regularly reflecting on and applying the teachings of Scripture on their own. However, it is more positive than negative, in my opinion. The need for educated professionals who can provide greater understanding of biblical texts has never been greater. As much as I agree with early Anabaptists that much of the New Testament is easy to understand, there are many passages that seem obvious, but are not straightforward at all upon scholarly analysis.
Take the parable of the pounds (minas) in Luke 19 that resembles the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. I had been raised to believe the message of these two parables was one and the same. The traditional interpretation proposes that people who effectively use what they have been given, whether it be money, gifts, abilities or faith, for example, will be rewarded by God as a good and faithful servant, while lazy servants will be judged.
This is not what Jesus is communicating in Luke 19 at all, and it took an expert in biblical studies to show me this:
• First, look at the placement of this parable in the narrative. Luke has Jesus telling this parable right after the story of Zacchaeus, a man who had “effectively” increased his money. Yet Jesus tells us that he found salvation in giving it away.
• Second, historical research reveals that Jesus is most likely referring to the story of Herod Archelaus, a claimant to the throne of Judea, in this parable. Just like the ruler in Jesus’ parable, Archelaus travelled to a foreign country, Rome, to appeal to Caesar. A Jewish delegation opposed him because of his ruthless cruelty and greed. Rome made him king anyway and he came back and killed his opponents, including three thousand of his own countrymen, in the temple precinct. The parallel between Jesus’ parable and the story of Archelaus is no coincidence. The direct contrast to what is about to happen to Jesus is also no coincidence.
Luke strategically records Jesus telling this parable right before the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, where people welcome him with the title of king. Disciples expect him to take the throne now, for he is the rightful claimant to the throne.
However, a delegate of Jewish leaders oppose Jesus’ kingship. Jesus is then taken to the Roman embassy, but not to make a bid for kingship, like Archelaus. He is taken by his opponents and, instead of being made king by Rome and then slaughtering those who oppose him, like Archelaus, he is slaughtered by Rome and his opponents.
Finally, instead of three thousand of Jesus’ own countrymen being slaughtered by his faithful soldiers, three thousand of them are converted to Christianity at Pentecost by his disciples near the temple, proclaiming, “Jesus is Lord [King].”
Jesus is clearly telling this parable to contrast his kingdom with the kingdoms of this world. He is preparing his followers to expect his kingdom to be the opposite of worldly kings like Herod Archelaus. Jesus is certainly not comparing God to a cruel and ruthless ruler in this parable, as traditional and “obvious” interpretations imply. Neither is Jesus saying that God rewards those who effectively increase what they have been given. God and Jesus are on the side of the poor servant who wasn’t “successful” and the bystanders who question the unjust economic management of this ruthless king.
This is a serious difference in interpretation! Thank God for professional scholars!
Troy Watson is pastor of Quest Community, Saint Catharines, Ont. This is part of the series, “The role of Scripture in the postmodern shift.”