MANY of us glaze over when preachers utter that dreaded phrase: “As it says in the original Greek. . .” Imagine the thought-bubbles: “Who cares?” “This isn’t helping!”
I have probably been the cause of such dread myself, for the urge to dive into linguistic derivations is irresistible. Still, you do not need ancient languages, only your own mother-tongue, to see how verbs teach a message. Look at the form, as well as the meanings, of each. In this Gospel, much of what Jesus teaches is cast in the form of an imperative — a command — of which there are eight: “Do not be afraid . . . sell . . . make . . . be dressed . . . have . . . be . . . know . . . be ready.”
Imperatives are the most basic form of teaching. When you teach a toddler, or a dog (Daniel the spaniel strikes again), you keep it simple: “Stop!” “Down!” “Leave it!” Once children mature into reasoning, self-aware beings, commands alone are insufficient. Unlike a dog, a child can ask (and does so repeatedly) “Why?”
There are different ways of managing this teaching transition. Some parents never progress beyond the imperative form. Perhaps they enjoy power and control. Or they may lack confidence in the reasons underlying the command, so try to cover up their insecurity or inconsistency (“Do as I say, not as I do!”).
By being taught well, people learn to progress beyond imperatives to subtler forms of teaching: narratives, and stories such as this one about Abraham in Genesis 15. Bible readings about Abraham speak loud and clear to modern blended families which, like his, are touched by sibling rivalry, or long for posterity through children, or fight over inheritances. If we are looking for something to learn, we will not only find it spelled out for us in simple commands. We have to respond to the imperatives (“do not be afraid”; “look”; “count”), and learn the story, and contemplate the meaning, all at the same time.
The Greek storyteller Aesop lived when the book of Genesis was being compiled. He gave us tales with simple moral messages, such as the hare and the tortoise, or the frog and the scorpion. Jesus, in this Gospel, blends together commands and stories: he takes teaching-by-story to a higher level in the form of parables with many layers, and messages which look simple but are quite the reverse.
The best parable-stories connect with our own experience, and help us to see through the eyes of other people: for example, the good Samaritan, the sower, and, here, the servants and their master. Two non-scriptural parables that I would love to preach on but cannot (because both make me cry) are the Selfish Giant, and Mary Jones and her Bible. As with Gospel parables, we may identify with the rescuer or the rescued, the seeker or the giver.
There is a third form of teaching in scripture, of which Hebrews is a prime example. In chapter 11, the writer lists some of those who lived in faith before the time of Christ; then gives an interpretation. This leads on to Abraham, who left all that he knew to follow a command (“Do not be afraid,” Genesis 15.1), trusting in a story as yet untold. The logical conclusion (“therefore”) is that “God is not ashamed to be called their God.”
Hebrews will not be most Christians’ favourite book, but it is part of the New Testament because it is full of reasoned teaching that we need to know, even if it lacks the purity of commands or the appeal of stories.
All scripture is “God-breathed” (or “inspired by God”: 2 Timothy 3.16), and every verse contains meaning. But not every verse contains the same meaning for everyone, or at all times and in all places. Some parts speak to us at particular stages of life, or in particular moments of need.
The clearest teachings will always be commands, from the moment of creation (“Let there be light”) to the end of Revelation (“Come, Lord Jesus”). The most moving will be stories, in which we find ourselves and our families, friends, foes, and fellow-worshippers.
But there must always be room for theology, as the glue binding verse to verse and Christian to Christian, across centuries, continents, and testaments. For theology shows us how to proclaim, and defend, the authority of our texts of transformation.