“…sell everything you have, and give it to the poor…” mat. 19.21
So…. should every Christian sell every possession? Our houses, cars, computers, the clothes on our backs? And give it the poor? A bunch of homelesss, naked, jobless, starving lunatics? Jesus literally said “everything”, right?
Interpreting the laws, commandments, and imperatives of the Bible directly and literally is not only virtually impossible, it is highly problematic. It was written between 2 and 3 thousand years ago, by dozens of writers, in three now dead languages, thousands of miles away from America, with completely different worldviews etc. The Bible is pre-Renessaince, pre-Enlightenment, pre-Modernism, pre-industrial revolution, pre-technology, pre-individualism, and pre-science, and the list goes on. In addition, Jesus spoke to very specific crowds, and all the New Testament writers wrote their works to very specific faith communities.
But not only is it impossible and problematic to interpret the moral imperatives of the New Testament literally or directly, it is also highly unbiblical. The Apostle Paul’s message to all us non-Jews was that we Gentiles did not need to adopt law in order to be justified. In fact, any set of laws was not necessary or appropriate for us. He wrote this:
“Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Love does no harm to its neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” -Romans 13:8-10
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” -1 Corinthians 10:23
“the only thing that counts is faith working through love” -Galatians 5:6
“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself‘” -Galatians 5:14
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are no longer under the law” -Galatians 5:18
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” -Galatians 6:2
“that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense til the day of Christ” -Philippians 1:8-10
“Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from a sincere faith.” -1 Timothy 1:5
In Paul’s story, he kept running into this problem of Jews trying to mount up the Jewish law upon Gentile converts. But Paul knew the Jewish law of eating kosher, Temple worship, resting on Saturday… all that was for a particular context, and that context didn’t match the new context of his Gentile communities throughout the Mediterranean.
Paul knew that the Laws of the Old Testament as well as his own moral imperatives were never meant to be universal and literal for all places everywhere. Instead, “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (gal. 3.24). In other words, Paul found laws helpful, but not authoritative.
Paul’s only universal law was love. Love God and love people. That is the purpose of any scriptural commandment, and the moment your literal application of that commandment impinges upon your ability to love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith, you need to release it (mat. 18.18). Together as we grow in the love of God, we use the commands of scripture as a foundation and guide to deciding what is right and wrong, while ultimately, love is the fulfillment of the law.
So when Paul wrote that women should wear head coverings in 1 Corinthians 7, what he meant was that in that community’s context, for whatever reason, women bearing their heads would have fallen short of loving people. Not that you women need to wear silly hats to church. Certainly not that.
So no more Bible beating! As we Christians argue back and forth about war and pacifism, women in ministry, same-sex marriage, material wealth and every other “sin”, we need to stop quoting individual verses as if they are the final word. Instead, the penultimate word is love and the ultimate word is Jesus. As we abound in love, we use the stories and imperatives of the Bible as a foundation and tutor to help lead us to truth.
Even Jesus, ministering to Jews with no intention of usurping the Jewish law and lifestyle for them, said it this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (mat. 22.37-40) And again, “This is my commandment, that you love one another”. (jon 12.15) Love is hard, challenging, radical, and world changing. Sometimes, it feels like being stapled to a cross. Sometimes it feels like stepping out of tomb you once slept in.
When we try to interpret New Testament commands directly and literally, we end up being irrelevant, arbitrary a-holes. I mean it. We end up being homelesss, naked, jobless, starving lunatics. We fail love. Jesus didn’t die to give us a new set of rules to live by. He gave us just one.