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Spiritualizing

Did you notice how arbitrary the various interpretations were in the story above? The members of the Bible study felt free to develop whatever meaning struck their fancy. None of them seemed overly concerned to determine the meaning Jesus intended when he spoke the words or what Luke intended when he wrote down the episode under the guidance of the Spirit.

In addition, none of these Bible-study participants seemed to notice the context of the story. The preceding story, for example, deals with the parable of the shepherd who loses one of his sheep, leaves his other ninety-nine, and searches until he finds the lost one, at which time he rejoices. The following story is the parable of the lost son, in which the father rejoices when his lost son returns. We will discuss parables in more detail later, but for now it is fairly clear that these three parables go together and that they all speak of the joy God feels when someone who was lost comes to faith and is saved. They also stress God’s concern over the lost and show the effort he exerts to find and restore that which is lost. Indeed, the last verse of the parable of the woman and the coin explicitly states as much: “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

So Jesus is not using the house to represent anything specific in our lives. He is simply making a comparison. The woman is concerned over losing the coin because the coin is important to her. God feels the same way toward us. The woman goes to great lengths to find the coin. God likewise goes to great lengths to bring you and me into the kingdom. Finally, she rejoices after finding the coin. God also rejoices after we are “found” and restored. This seems to be the meaning intended by the author. Keep in mind the lessons from the last unit. We do not seek to create meaning; rather, we seek to discover the meaning that is already there.

The students, however, have missed the obvious meaning of this text because they want to find a deep, hidden, “spiritual” meaning. Their desire to find this deeper meaning drives them right past the actual meaning that Luke (and the Spirit) intended. Thus, in their search for the spiritual, they miss what the Spirit is saying through the text! Christ searches for the lost and rejoices when they are found. This is the spiritual meaning. However, it is communicated through literary conventions (grammar, context, and so on); it is not created by the whims of our imagination. The Bible is a spiritual book dealing with spiritual issues. We do not have to spiritualize it with our fertile imaginations.

Furthermore, when we attempt to find a deeper, hidden, “superspiritual” meaning, we usually find ourselves moving into an area of reader response, where we are the ones determining the meaning rather than the text. In our zeal for “superspiritual” meaning we often miss completely the message God has intended for us—in essence substituting our word for his.

Occasionally in discussions on biblical interpretation a dichotomy is presented between literal meaning and spiritual meaning. Sometimes the reader is exhorted to search for the literal meaning and not the spiritual. We are uncomfortable with this dichotomy; indeed, we think that the term literal does more to confuse than to clarify. Many people use the term literal interpretation to stress that they believe the actual historical details of the Bible, especially the miracles. We certainly affirm the historicity of the Bible, including the miracles. But we think that the term literal is a bit too fuzzy. The Bible, as we have mentioned earlier, is full of figures of speech and symbolic language. The determination of meaning has to take this into account. Such figures and symbols reflect a very nonliteral usage of language.

For this reason we prefer the term literary meaningLiterary meaning refers to the meaning the authors have placed in the text. It reflects the type of literature used, the context, the historical background, the grammar, word meanings—basically everything we have been studying. This literary meaning does not preempt or replace spiritual meaning. Because the Bible is basically about God and his relationship with us, this literary meaning will be a spiritual meaning as well.

In other words, the dichotomy is not between literary meaning and spiritual meaning. The dichotomy is between the meaning the authors intended and the meaning a reader dreams up and projects into the text. This reader-based “spiritualizing” is the danger. Such “spiritualizing” occurs when we “discover” deep, secret meanings that the authors never intended. This kind of “spiritualizing” is not based on this specific text or the Spirit of God; it is a product of our imagination or a retrojection of other biblical truth back into this passage. That is, inaccurate, “spiritualized” meanings can be true, but they are true because of other biblical texts.

Not too long ago, an acquaintance shared with me a “deep insight” into Joshua 3–4 that he was very proud of. Joshua 3–4 is the story of how God stopped the waters of the Jordan River so that the Israelites could cross over easily into the Promised Land and attack Jericho. The Israelites were to memorialize this event by taking twelve stones from the dry river bed and forming a monument out these stones on the river bank.

This acquaintance of mine, however, noticed that when God stopped up the water, the Israelites crossed over on “dry” ground (Josh. 3:17). Ignoring the context, he then proceeded to come up with a spiritualized meaning by running with the word “dry.” The “dry riverbed,” he proclaimed, shows us that God cares for us in the “dry times of life.” From this connection (dry riverbed to dry times in life), he developed an entire sermon about how God cares for us even in the dry times of life when we don’t feel his presence.

This sermon thesis is true. God does care for us in the “dry” times of our lives. But this truth does not come from Joshua 3–4! In fact, Joshua 3–4 is teaching something very different. This is not a “dry” time for Israel! Quite to the contrary, it is one of the most dramatic and powerful interventions by God into Israel’s history that ever occurs. The stone memorial is not to celebrate God’s care in “dry times” but to celebrate how God brought his people into the Promised Land with power! It is a memorial of a “mountain-top” experience with God, not a “dry time.” This friend had followed the “dry” trajectory right out of the literary context into whatever loose theological connection he could come up with for the word “dry.” His meaning is not the one the author intended. Therefore it is not a valid meaning for this text. In his attempt to be “spiritually insightful,” this friend actually missed the important meaning that does emerge from this passage: we should take time and effort to remember and to celebrate the times when God works in our lives in dramatic ways.


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