Jesus, the Radical Reader

From John Frye, Jesus the Radical Exegete

Good, proper biblical exegesis is a key task to be learned in seminary. With the caveat that exegesis is both a skill and an art, most schools want to train students to rightly divide the Word of truth.

My seminary years are far behind me and Jesus is teaching me another type of art: to exegete lives. Exegesis comes from a Greek word that means “to lead out.” It is the discipline of studying a text and “leading out” the proper meaning. Exegesis focuses on biblical texts. Pastoral exegesis zeroes in on human lives. Scholars primarily exegete ancient texts. Pastors, who can be scholars, too, primarily exegete present human lives.

In the Western world, the developing Christian pastoral ministry took a sad turn and a horrible confusion occurred. Pastors were taught to deal mainly with the sacred text, the Bible. Peoples’ lives were disposable; the Word was eternal. Pastors with Bibles in hand, therefore, were called and paid more to talk than to listen.

I was trained to transfer truth into people’s lives without knowing much about those lives. People are transitory; the Word is eternal. Pastors forget that the Good Shepherd said, “I know my sheep…by name.” Many pastors today could not tell you the names of the people to whom they weekly “exegete” the Scriptures. The text is supreme; people are Styrofoam.

Am I saying that biblical exegesis has no place in pastoral work? Of course not. If we take our cues from Jesus, we will learn to listen long and well to people before we start strutting our exegetical stuff. Every seminarian should spend maybe 30 years in obscurity like Jesus did before he or she is inflicted on the people of the land. I am convinced that the stories Jesus told were based on years of listening to the concerns, the dreams, the pains, the histories, the passions and the hopes of his people. I imagine that when Jesus went public, the people said, “Finally, someone is speaking our language.” We can only speak a person’s language when we know the person’s story. Jesus was a radical exegete.

Some people think Jesus was clairvoyant, with supernatural powers to read minds. I think he was a keen listener and sharp observer. One time his disciples freaked out when a woman poured expensive perfume on him. Jesus, however, “exegeted” the woman and her actions with exceptional sensitivity, turning her outrageous deed into a lesson for the ages.

When pastors, of all people, in the USAmerican church are too busy to exegete lives, then they betray their primary study. People are amazingly unique human beings made as God’s Eikons and redeemed by God’s Son and loved by God’s Spirit, each one with a story uniquely his or her own. The pastor’s task–a diligent, artistic contribution–is to show people how their stories may be caught up into God’s grand story. Perhaps pastors should be sent to detective training school rather than to seminary. It’s a thought.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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