Looking at the Trees
by Mark Gutman
Recently I listened as a Sabbath School class discussed an issue in the “minor prophet” book of Hosea. The big question was why God told Hosea to marry a prostitute. One view was that the prostitute had reformed at the time God asked Hosea to marry her, although she relapsed after she married Hosea. The other view was that God saw that she would become a prostitute after marrying Hosea, and the story was being presented in retrospect. Either way, the discussion could contain some relevance to daily life. For instance, some people who do strange things can claim that they were directed by God. What God told Hosea to do seems strange, so why not the same for them now? Although there were practical points to draw from the discussion, I thought of other passages in Hosea that could have been discussed. Why did this issue take up so much time on an unanswerable question when we only had a couple hours to spend on Hosea this quarter?
The book about the “minor prophet” Jonah is also prone to have one debate cause people to forget about the main point of the book. Some Bible readers become quite agitated when they discover that not everyone believes that a real person named Jonah was swallowed by a real fish. Since Jesus referred to Jonah (Matthew 12:40), Jonah must have been a live person, and he must have actually ended up in the stomach of a big fish. What good is any other point in the book of Jonah if you don’t believe in the historicity of the story?
Alden Thompson devotes a chapter to discussing the differences between the accounts of the story of David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. (See Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers, pages 173-186.) Early in the lengthy chapter, he writes: “. . . a question might help us see the matter in a more practical light. If I were telling this story in the primary division at Sabbath school, would the amount paid, for example, make any difference in the punch line or application of the story? Not in the slightest” (page 175). Even though he is helping readers deal with concerns about the implications of Bible stories that seem to disagree with each other, he is reminding us that the main point of the story is unaffected.
Wait a minute! How do we decide what is important? Or at least, what is important in Hosea or Jonah or the rest of the Bible? The Bible gives us some examples. For instance, the story in Luke 10:25-37 (using the NIV): “An expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: ‘Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?’” The expert went on to answer Jesus’ follow-up question with ‘“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus agreed with the expert’s answer, leading the expert to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story that we commonly refer to as “the Good Samaritan story” (or parable), and asked, “’Which . . . do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”
In Speaking Christian, Marcus Borg points out that “. . . the man wounded and brutalized by thieves hadn’t done anything wrong. Compassion is a better word than mercy for the way the Samaritan acted” (page 129*). What’s the point of the Good Samaritan story? It was Jesus’ answer to one man’s question about what we should “do” to inherit eternal life. And what stood out was the importance of being compassionate. The theology of the religious people who bypassed the wounded man had not helped them act as neighborly as the pagan Samaritan.
Another example of “important” was provided by Jesus’ comments to certain religious people who followed him around complaining about his conduct, or the conduct of his disciples. These people would be ideal church (or synagogue) members, by some standards. They not only had no question about the inspiration of the Scriptures; they studied the Scriptures (John 5:39). They were active evangelists (Matthew 23:15). They were strict tithepayers (Matthew 23:23). And when it came to Sabbathkeeping, they were certainly stricter (or narrower) than Jesus. They kept complaining that Jesus or the disciples broke the Sabbath (e.g., Matthew 12:1, 2; John 9:1-16).
But when Jesus defended his disciples against the charge of Sabbathbreaking, he told the Pharisees, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy [compassion, per Borg], not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matthew 12:7, NIV). And when scolding the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23, he referred to their appearance of orthodoxy: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23, NIV). The Message renders part of the passage as “You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required.”
We might say that the Pharisees had “gone after a red herring.” They’d found something in the sacred writings that they could focus on, but they’d overlooked the whole point. In their focus on outward appearances or even a regard for the Scriptures, they’d turned into condemning judges.
On this website, concerns for orthodoxy on both sides of an issue are seen in articles and blogs and comments on several topics. Creation/evolution, a worldwide flood, inspiration, and women’s ordination are issues that stir up strong emotions. In Sabbath School classes, some are eager to make sure that others aren’t led away from traditional teachings, while a different group of attendees are just as eager to provide the class with more progressive views of the traditional teachings. In trying to move (or keep from moving) the listeners, sometimes we may forget how we come across to those listeners. I used to hear Graham Maxwell quote a name I can’t remember: “You cannot antagonize and persuade at the same time.” Sometimes people who agree with our logic are reluctant to identify with our position because of our attitude.
If I were to lead the Sabbath School class, some members would wish that I led the discussion in a different direction. We have different interests, at different times. But in the Gospels, we’re reminded not to miss the forest for the trees. When there are lots of topics to catch our interest, it’s not always easy to sort out what is most important. But let’s remember the importance of being compassionate even as we gain new understanding or try to get our favorite topics across to others.
*The quotation is taken from chapter 11, “Mercy,” which makes an excellent case for often translating the Bible words mercy and merciful as compassion and compassionate.