I have come to seriously dislike verses. Not specific verses from the Bible, nor the convenience they provide when referring to passages and looking things up. But the fact that so many Christians, when seeking guidance from the Bible, look for relevant verses just irks me, because in the original texts there were, strictly speaking, no verses (Hebrew poetry does break down nicely into two-line units, most of the time, but even here those who create the verse numbering system seem to have managed to split up natural units in the Hebrew text). Looking for a verse to guide you will often lead to two things: either one will take the verse out of context, or one will miss other relevant verses, or both.
But I’ve been tagged by a meme, calling upon me to choose my top ten verses. This has been interpreted in several different ways by some who have been previously tagged – as favorite verses, or as verses that accurately summarize the book they are from, and presumably other interpretations have been or will be forthcoming.
I find, nonetheless, that I can’t quite bring myself to do this simply in a subversive sort of way. But I will provide some favorite verses, some ‘great summary of the book/Bible’ verses, and some ‘this is what one can do with a verse or part of a verse taken out of context’ verses. When I can, I will combine them. Here goes…
1. “eat whatever is put before you, raising no questions…” (1 Corinthians 10:27).
This is, of course, a great phrase to use to justify all sorts of eating habits. But in its context, it does in fact summarize a useful (and at times neglected) aspect of this letter, which was typical of Paul’s approach as a whole. Paul pragmatically teaches that, on the one hand, food is not an issue, but that, on the other hand, one should think about what doing even minor things like eating or not eating might signify to someone else. It is also important to note that Paul does not seem to be worried about causing offense, which is a rather unfortunate way of translating a Greek word that really means causing to stumble. The issue is not behaving in a way that will satisfy the the most sensitive legalists and those most prone to take offense. It is in behaving in a way that will cause others to act in a way that does not leave them with a clean conscience, even though it may be something you yourself could do with a clean conscience.
Paul’s highly contextual approach can be seen in a comparison of Galatians and Romans. In Galatia, Gentile Christians were having details of the Jewish Law imposed on them, and Paul fought it with some harsh words. In Rome, where the Gentile Christians were in the majority and were not in danger or having things imposed on them, Paul encouraged them to make allowances for the minority of Jewish Christians who once again might stumble and fall away as a result of the Gentile Christians’ freedom. Interpreting Paul’s letters as thought they were systematic treatises rather than pastoral responses to specific needs and issues will inevitably lead to misunderstandings.
2. “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28).
This verse summarizes a key emphasis of earliest Christianity, namely the imminent return of Jesus. It is not a verse one encounters quoted out of context, but rather one that is regularly ignored. Yet it is crucially important, since it indicates the humanness of Jesus and/or the authors of Scripture, and can remind us of the extent to which our view of the world is different than the earliest Christians. This is not a theological problem unless one assumes that the authors of Scripture were inerrant, or that our views should be precisely the same as theirs. This verse helps us to see that the Bible itself offers a challenge to those assumptions.
Anyone aware of the textual critical issues here might well cry ‘foul’ and object to the inclusion of these words as though they are ‘from Scripture’. But if Scripture is ‘the original form’ then none of us knows what Scripture is anyway. This story almost certainly was not an original part of the Gospel of John. That doesn’t mean it is not a story that goes back to Jesus. But it doesn’t seem to be something written by the author of this Gospel. The story, however, is a challenging one, and that challenge doesn’t seem to depend on the questions of authorship, historicity, or canonicity. It is challenging – whoever said it, whoever wrote it.
4. “I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair” (Nehemiah 13:25).
This verse always makes me laugh, just because it isn’t what most people expect to be in the Bible. But it does say something about the Book of Nehemiah as a whole. Although Nehemiah prays, he doesn’t depend on miracles to sort things out, as some other characters in the Bible do. He prays, but he also talks to the king. He prays, but he also pulls hair. Nehemiah is a useful corrective to anyone who assumes that the whole Bible is all about “letting go and letting God.”
5. “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
The Golden Rule (not even a complete verse, but famous in this form) is one of the ways that Jesus is depicted as summarizing his teaching, and one of the ways his followers have summarized the heart of his teaching and life. It also nicely illustrates how Christianity (like any religious tradition, presumably) is neither simply the same as all the others, nor completely and utterly different. The teaching that one should not do to others that which one would not want done to oneself is widespread among humanity’s great teachers, whether Rabbi Hillel within Judaism of Confucius in Chinese tradition. But Jesus’ version of it, which asks one not simply to avoid doing but to do, is certainly distinctive (if not unique) in important ways. It calls us not to simply do no harm to the person in need at the side of the road, half dead (which always makes me think of “mostly dead”). We are called to do something, to help as we would want to be helped in that situation. This is a profoundly challenging teaching, embodied as I’ve already alluded to in the parable of the good Samaritan. This story, found only in Luke’s Gospel, is usually felt to be an authentic teaching of the historical figure of Jesus, since it coheres so well with this core emphasis of his. In the end, though, it is the story itself that offers the challenge, irrespective of whether we know who ultimately composed it in the form in which it is familiar to us.
“Go and do likewise”, the words at the end of the narrative setting of the parable, do not make sense when taken out of context (or better, they make too much sense when read immediately after another verse read at random, such as “Judas went and hung himself”). They don’t make sense after Augustine’s famous allegorized interpretation. They make sense when we know about relationships between Jews and Samaritans in this period, and think about the prejudices we might include in the story if we composed it today. Historical study raises difficult issues for those used to treating the text as factual after reading it at face value. But careful historical contextual exegesis is the way to find out what the text says, rather than conveniently avoiding its challenging by making it say whatever we would like. It is not the only way to approach a text, but it is not one that should ever be set aside altogether.
These first five have filled enough space. Five more will follow soon. At the end, I’ll decide who to infect next…and tell them “Go and do likewise”!