Then Jesus said, "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light."I looked up and saw a couple confused faces. As I was about to discuss how this passage relates to our lesson, one of the girls blurted out, "Why does Jesus have eggs?"
It took me a second, but then I realized she was asking about the yoke. What a great question! We happened to be discussing burden so I asked, "Who knows what yoke is?" Hands rocketed up! ". . . That is not part of an egg." Hands went down almost as fast. Blank stares all around. I drew a yoke (the farming type, not the breakfast food) on the whiteboard and we discussed what a yoke is, its purpose, and what Jesus meant by his statement (to contrast Jesus' statement and his "yoke" with "religion" We also read Matthew 23:1-4).
After church that Sunday, my mind was still in high gear. I couldn't help but think about how much of the Bible requires an understanding of the culture and vocabulary in order to comprehend it. I don't believe any of these kids have lived on a farm, and I don't suspect they ever will. Sure, we can reduce the word choices to meet a fourth-grade reading level, but that really doesn't help the situation. They can read and spell "yoke," but if they don't understand what a yoke is and how it is (or was) used, it doesn't help. For children, we often have to provide a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible and lots of teaching. Then, over time, we need to introduce historical culture and vocabulary.
Adults are faced with the same situation. Some of the Bible reads easily and smooth, but most of what is said requires a little work. The same is true of Shakespeare. Imagine how much understanding is lost without a little comprehension of the script. Not realizing that something is comedy or satire could have tragic ramifications. Realizing the significance of Shakespeare's use of iambic pentameter greatly brings about his intended meaning and focus. One must take time to see how the play would have been understood and received by the audience of Shakespeare's day. It is nearly a requirement to know the political and social constructs of that time period. Often, these things are not self explanatory within a single play, that is, the play doesn't always provide us with these necessary details. The more plays by Shakespeare one reads, the greater overall understanding one gains. But sometimes one even needs to research beyond the work of Shakespeare. And by no means could a guy pick up Hamlet, flip to the middle somewhere, read one or two lines for the first time and claim he understands the entirety of the play, or even more arrogantly, that he knows all about Shakespeare. Understanding Shakespeare takes a little work, but the payoff is absolutely worth it. How much more does this apply to the Bible!
It seems almost nuts to think that someone would pick up the Bible, mine out a few passages, and claim he or she understands the whole of the Word of God. Yet, we see this happen all the time. Nobody would claim to do this with any other book, so why is it acceptable to do so with the Bible? (It seems that even critical scholars feel this is an acceptable practice, although they would never allow their students this type of research in any other field of study.)
To understand the Bible means to do a little work. It helps to know the meta-narrative, that is, the story from start to finish. Other aspects are necessary too, such as the genre and writing style of the individual book and its author, where it fits within the meta-narrative, who wrote it and why, who the intended original audience was and how they may have received it, the cultural and political context, and the time period. We need to be sure we understand the words and phrases. And by no means should we read our own culture back into that period. (Slavery, for example, was substantially different then as compared to how we know it today-- even to the extent that Joseph, a slave, was able to rise to become the second in command of all of Egypt, something unthinkable of a black man in Georgia circa 1820.) We should pray and meditate on the passages. And discussing what we are reading with others is also extremely helpful too.
The Bible is a rich, wonderful, beautiful, deeply meaningful book. There are sections that couldn't be more clear. But there are also passages that are confusing to us and require some work. It does take a little work, but the payoff is more valuable than your life. If you are absolutely unfamiliar with the kind of work I am talking about, or if this sounds intimidating, don't be intimidated! This takes a lifetime, and even then, with God's Word there will always be more to learn and grow into. The important first step is to read and keep reading. Enjoy it.
If you have no idea where to start, I suggest the book of Luke and then Acts. These two books were written by a guy who set out to record and verify the life of Jesus and the early Church. He was writing to report all of this to a guy named Theophilus. He helps answer the big questions, such as, "Is Jesus who he claimed he was?" Another suggestion is the book of John. This is also a record of Jesus' life. It was written so you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:30-31). Or I suggest the Psalms. These are recorded prayers prior to the coming of Jesus, sung as songs. Keep in mind they were not originally written in English, so don't expect them to rhyme. This beautiful poetry is some of the most heartfelt pleading and praise to God found anywhere in the Bible. And please don't feel like you have to pick up a copy of the King James. (I almost never read from the KJV.) The English Standard Version (ESV) and New International Version (NIV) are both a little easier to read (and the ESV is an outstanding work of modern scholarly translation). Or, for a little smoother reading, try the New Living Translation (NLT). Don't get hung up on translation, just start reading. If you have questions, you are always welcome to contact me.
*Photo of eggs by Billie Hara is registered under a Creative Commons License. Photo of the yoke is also registered under a Creative Commons License.