Midrash

Jesus and the Bible

Midrash
Monday, January 7, 2019

More than telling us exactly what to see in the Scriptures, Jesus taught us how to see, what to emphasize, and also what could be de-emphasized or ignored. Beyond fundamentalism or literalism, Jesus practiced a form that the Jewish people called midrash, consistently using questions to keep spiritual meanings open, often reflecting on a text or returning people’s questions with more questions. It is a real shame that we did not imitate Jesus in this approach. It could have saved us from so many centuries of righteousness, religious violence, and even single-issue voting.

Rather than seeking always certain and unchanging answers, the Jewish practice of midrash allows many possibilities, many levels of faith-filled meaning—meaning that is relevant and applicable to you, the reader, and puts you in the subject’s shoes to build empathy, understanding, and relationship. It lets the passage first challenge you before it challenges anyone else. To use the text in a spiritual way—as Jesus did—is to allow it to convert you, to change you, to grow you up as you respond: What does this ask of me? How might this apply to my life, to my family, to my church, to my neighborhood, to my country?

While biblical messages often proceed from historical incidents, the actual message does not depend upon communicating those events with perfect factual accuracy. Spiritual writers are not primarily journalists. Hebrew rabbis and scholars sometimes use the approach of midrash to reflect on a story and communicate all of its underlying message. Scripture can be understood on at least four levels: literal meaning, deep meaning, comparative meaning, and hidden meaning.

The literal level of meaning doesn’t get to the root and, in fact, is the least helpful to the soul and the most dangerous for history. Deep meaning offers symbolic or allegorical applications. Comparative study combines different texts to explore an entirely new meaning. Finally, in traditional Jewish exegesis, hidden meaning gets at the Mystery itself. Midrash allows and encourages each listener to grow with a text and not to settle for mere literalism, which, of itself, bears little spiritual fruit. It is just a starting point.

Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver. [1] This statement from Aquinas was drilled into me during seminary. People at different levels of maturity will interpret the same text in different ways. There is no one right way to interpret sacred texts. How you see is what you see; the who that you bring to your reading of the Scriptures matters. Who are you when you read the Bible? Defensive, offensive, power-hungry, righteous? Or humble, receptive, and honest? Surely, this is why we need to pray before reading a sacred text!

Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalist texts in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. For example, referencing two passages from Exodus (21:24) and Leviticus (24:20), Jesus suggested the opposite: “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you . . . turn the other cheek” (see Matthew 5:38-39). He read the Scriptures in a spiritual, selective, and questioning way. Jesus had a deeper and wider eye that knew which passages were creating a path for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, and legalistic additions.

References:
[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 75, 5. Original sentence: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . .: Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013), x-xi; and

Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus’ Use of Scripture (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: Raising of Lazarus (detail), Duccio di Buoninsegnia, 1308–1311, Kimbell Art Museum.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do,” or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than “sola Scriptura.” —Richard Rohr
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