Saturday, July 24, 2010

Exegesis that Makes Me Nervous

Sometimes the text of Scripture is pretty simple. Too simple, in fact. So it seems that some commentators and preachers begin to look for something to beef up the biblical record. The problem is that it is not always firmly rooted in the text. And this makes me nervous.

Consider this example from a commentary on Mark addressing Mark’s account of the feeding of the five thousand:

Mark next vividly describes the orderly seating of the crowds on the green grass. Is he just creating a vivid narrative? Is he preserving historical reminiscences, passive proofs that the account is factually reliable? Or is he dropping hints as to the secret meaning of the feeding?  Interpreters have suggested that there are subtle clues here:

  1. Green grass is possible in this desert place only in early spring, thus around Passover time. That may mean that the feeding foreshadows the Lord’s Supper and Jesus’ death as the Passover lamb.
  2. Green grass echoes Psalm 23:2; “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Mark is still portraying Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
  3. Green grass is not characteristic of a desert. The greening of the desert is evidence that God is fulfilling end-time promises (cf. Isa. 49:9–10; 51:3). That in turn makes the meal a foretaste of the end-time feast that God prepares. NRSV says the people sit, but the Greek says they recline, the posture of a feast, not a normal meal.

Timothy J. Geddert, Mark, Believers church Bible commentary (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001), 148-49.

What if the “green grass” simply means that the grass was green? It may indicate something about the time of the year, as his mentioned in point 1. But foreshadowing? Psalm 23? Eschatology? It simply isn’t in the text.

The fact is that nothing in this “exegesis” is actually rooted in the text. There is simply no textual reason to suggest this understanding. It preaches really well, but it abandons the preacher’s only authority – what the text actually says. And that makes me nervous.

It’s hard to imagine Mark’s audience hearing “green grass” and thinking of Psalm 23 or end-time promises. It’s easier to imagine them hearing “green grass” and thinking of ground cover of a particular color that was the seat upon which people sat.

If you want to talk about Jesus as the Shepherd, why not go back to v. 34 where the text addresses that. (Perhaps the most poignant point about the Good Shepherd metaphor in this passage is that Jesus taught shepherdless people. He didn’t do great miracles to win their confidence and belief. He opened his mouth and taught them many things. The miracles only come later. That should inform those who want to minister like Jesus did. But I digress.) Or go to John 10.

If you want to talk about Psalm 23 and green grass, then go to Psalm 23 and talk about it. If you want to talk about eschatology, the Bible says a lot (much more than some people think and much less than other people think), so go to where the Bible says it and talk about it.

But don’t abandon this text because you are familiar with other texts. If you are going to appeal to people to understand God from the text of Scripture and to live a certain way because of the text of Scripture, then preach the text of Scripture. There is plenty there. We do not need to find more.

Explaining the text this way may cut a 40 minute sermon to 20 minutes, but I’m told that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It has the added benefit of not only rooting your message in what God said here, but also showing your congregation how they can study the text for themselves.

And then when people are called to live a certain way in response to the King, they can point to the words and say, “This is why.”


Jason Harris said...

Good call. That's not exegesis. That's speculation.

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