A couple days ago, we talked about how God speaks to us where we are, then brings us to something more. We used the story of the dinner guests from Luke 14 as an example. Attendees of a banquet were trying to claim the highest spots at the table. Jesus told them, “If you want honor, that’s not the way to achieve it. And by the way, there are more important things than just your own honor at stake in your actions. The honor you give is more precious than the honor you get.”
Jesus’ habit of talking to each audience in their own language about their own situation influences how we read his words. They certainly apply to us! Human beings have enough in common that phrases spoken 2000 years ago in a different part of the world can touch us meaningfully today. But the words may not apply in the same way if we have different assumptions about life than the original audience did.
If the point of trading dinner chairs was, “Here’s how to give and receive honor,” the question arises, “What if that’s NOT the point of our lives?” We don’t live in an honor-intensive society the way the people around Jesus did. We mark prestige and purpose by different signs: money, power, might, effect on the world. Honor exists, but the word doesn’t mean the same thing to us that it did to them.
This is not a problem if we understand that Jesus was speaking to people in a certain context, then try to find the parallels between that context and our own lives. We could easily find the exhortation, “It’s not the money you get, but the money you give that brings fulfillment.” We could do the same with power shared or might exerted for the sake of people in need. All of these would be permissible interpretations of the basic lesson, translated into our lives.
The problem arises when we try to lift Jesus’ words out of their context, making each utterance into a universal law for all people to follow at all times. This doesn’t uplift God’s word, it breaks it.
If we try to make universal law out of all the passages in Luke 14, we go from this:
“If honor is the point, here’s how to get it. But giving it is more important.”
“Honor IS the point. Be humble so you get more of it! Also share it.”
Those are two different readings. The first acknowledges the viewpoint of the audience, but doesn’t make it the center of the universe. The second claims that the viewpoint of the audience and the good thing that God is trying to teach us are equally important, equally central.
The first interpretation says, “Your experience is valid, but you need to learn more about what it means.” The second says, “Your experience is everything, and it is coequal with God.”
Attempting to enshrine God’s word as universal, we actually put ourselves at the center of the universe. That is not our place.
We dare not assume that God has always spoken to his followers the way God speaks to us. We dare not assume that we understand completely what God said to the people around him in the words of scripture. Instead we’re called to ask questions about both, respecting the commonality between ourselves and the people of the Bible, also acknowledging the differences. In the space between us, we find God’s words resonating and shaping us, just like they shaped the people we read about.
Beware whenever anybody tells you they know the universal, unchanging truth about God or his word. At that moment they are claiming that God and every human being who has ever lived is just like them. This is not wisdom, but idolatry.
Remember that God speaks to us where we are, when we are, and how we are. God does not leave us unchanged, but the ways in which God changes us might not be the same way God changes other people. We don’t control this process. We stand in awe and wonder, marveling at God’s many works among us, sharing the goodness God shows with each other.