How To Not Understand The Bible

I have such difficulty reading the Bible. I can’t understand what the words mean. It’s like the characters are speaking in code and I don’t have the key to decipher it. Plus the words themselves keep shifting depending on which translation I read.

Case in point. This morning I was reading the passage in chapter 18 of Luke’s gospel where Jesus tells the ruler to sell everything he has and give it to the poor — then he will be cool. (In Luke’s version, by the way, the ruler is neither rich nor young.) It’s been a puzzler for generations, right? Why would Jesus ask someone to do that? OK, so I think I will have a go at it and I start by trying to read the story as if I’d never heard of it before. Right away I run into problems.

First I pick up the New Revised Standard translation and they start by having the guy ask Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”.

Well, naturally the first thing I think is, “Well, you can’t really do anything to inherit something – it’s just coming to you when your parents die. So maybe he’s worried God is going to disinherit him because he’s been so bad. If he thinks that, then he has a problem, and Jesus is going to have to set him straight about God’s love for his children – like tell him the story of the prodigal son, or the lost lamb, right?” Well, Jesus doesn’t take that route.

So then I think, “Well, maybe I should look at another translation. So I pick up the New Living Translation, and they have the guy saying something completely different: “What should I do to GET eternal life?”

In their version the ruler doesn’t think he has eternal life and he wants to know what to do to get some. He wants some nice rules, like in “How do I get from here to Topeka?” or “How do I get a discount on this?” This ruler sounds kind of simplistic and a little foggy in the brain. So Jesus will have to go easy on him. But Jesus doesn’t take this route either.

So I pick up yet a third translation (the New English Bible), and this time the ruler says “What must I do to WIN eternal life?” Now he apparently sees life as a game to be played or a war to be won and he is asking the really good teacher for a winning strategy. How can we beat the Red Sox next week so we can take the pennant?

Luke intended one of these meanings, and I’m pretty sure at least one of these is wrong. But which one?

We haven’t even started on whether the question asker is a 1) ruler – a real bigshot, like King Herod, 2) a member of the ruling class (a lesser bigshot, maybe a prince or something), or 3) a religious leader (somebody who already knows a lot and has an interest in maintaining the status quo). And we haven’t even begun to start on what eternal life might mean to him.

So I haven’t even got through the first sentence and I’m already tired. Now I have to go find a word by word translation of the original Greek. It makes me tired and I haven’t gotten anywhere. I don’t even understand the first sentence. I mean really grok it.

I don’t just want to make stuff up – I want to know this character’s motivation, why he would be desperate enough to seek a really good teacher out and ask him this serious question. I’m not even sure what he’s really asking, so how can I understand Jesus’ response, let alone apply it to my life?

By the way, the one thing every translation agrees on is that the question asker wants to either inherit, get, or win eternal life. I think most people assume eternal life means “go to heaven.” But hey, I don’t know anything. So I got out my little book called Christianity 101, which purports to explain the “eight basic Christian beliefs.”

If I can believe this book, I must conclude that Christians haven’t the slightest interest in eternal life. Neither eternal life nor heaven is mentioned in the index or anywhere on the pages I leafed through. So maybe it’s a code for something else.

Look, I’m not recommending this approach, which I could call the “can’t see the forest for the trees” approach. I’m probably a lot like this ruler guy myself and I need to learn from his sad fate — walking away disconsolately when he could be grooving at the big party in the sky after he die.

I crave joy too. I don’t really want to be walking around watching the autumn leaves fall and the little ducks quacking as they lift up their wings and fly away south. Left behind while everyone else is having a great time.

But what am I supposed to do? Pretend I understand when I don’t? Join a monastery and let somebody else take the controls? I’m stumped.

How do you ponder the imponderable?



One thought on “How To Not Understand The Bible

  1. I don’t know whether or not you meant this to be a humorous piece, but it made me laugh. Good writing, Ponderer!I reread the passage in Luke 18 (RSV) you were referring to and noted it says (verse 23) “But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich.” Luke, however, doesn’t mention what the rich ruler’s decision was after hearing these words; maybe he complied, maybe he didn’t. We have to read Matthew’s or Mark’s account of this happening, presumably it is the same story in each, to know the rich ruler sadly walked away from Jesus when he heard these words of “Sell all that you have, and distribute to the poor.” Of course, even then, the ruler could have had a change of heart later on, reconsidered his initial decision, and decided to follow Jesus after all. I sometimes think jokingly, Why didn’t the ruler simply sign everything over to his wife (if he had one – it doesn’t indicate he was a single man), then he and the children (if there were any kids in his family) wouldn’t have to go without, if things didn’t work out following Jesus. But this didn’t happen.Earlier in the gospel of Luke, in chapter 12, Jesus gives the directive of “Sell your possessions, and give alms” to all of his followers. It reads at Luke 12:32-34, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” So Jesus, later on in chapter 18, was simply repeating to the rich ruler words he had already given to each of his many followers, rich, or poor, or otherwise.Luke doesn’t say in chapter 12, either, whether any of Jesus’ disciples actually complied with this seemingly life-changing instruction of Jesus, but I would suppose they all did, even though I doubt if any of the original flock of disciples were wealthy to begin with, let alone very wealthy, except maybe Matthew the former tax collector. It sounds to me like a more than fair trade: a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, in exchange for one’s possessions and funds that may someday fail. This doesn’t say followers will no longer have any possessions to use, however, they just won’t own anything to speak of. The disciples, I recall, always seemed to have a boat available to cross over to somewhere else, when necessary. This treasure in the heavens sounds like mental treasure that can be carried around in one’s thoughts. One of Jesus sayings goes, “These things I have spoken unto you that in Me you may have peace…” (John 16:33). Living in the Me of Jesus is a concept for pondering. Is it possible that THIS is the treasure in the heavens that does not fail – and is eternal Life? I know, the consensus will be something like, But why can’t Christian’s have both, a little of each, some treasure in the heavens, and some treasure on earth too, not either/or? I’ve given a little background on Jesus’ teaching of “Sell what you have, and give alms.” Some Christians don’t seem to be aware of this instruction Jesus gave to all of his followers. Yet Jesus’ last words to his flock of followers were to teach new disciples to observe everything he had commanded them to do. Paul, in his writings to the churches, gave some warnings about having a desire for riches, and he himself offered a simple life-style to emulate, but I doubt if he was familiar with this particular teaching of Jesus. At least Paul never mentioned it that I know of. Following Jesus, however, is free-will, done through love and trust. It is not a sin, I believe, to option not to follow some of his teachings, as it was for the Hebrews not to follow some of the teachings of Moses. How do you ponder the imponderable, you ask? James would say to pray for wisdom, nothing doubting … and then to start doing it. Please excuse the long-winded comment. Hope it is somewhat helpful and doesn’t just add to the confusion.


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