Sometimes pearls of hermeneutical wisdom can be found in unexpected places. I stumbled upon one the other night in Wendell Berry’s excellent novel Jayber Crow, and it has to do with the proper way to interpret stories. Jayber says it this way:
“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”
Everyone knows from experience how true this line is. Every storyteller who attempts to narrate a series of events has to be selective in what parts of the story to tell. In doing so, the storyteller is making decisions that directly reveal his interpretation of events. In Jayber’s case, the events are fictional. But in the case of historical narratives like we find in scripture, the events are real. The gospel writers, for example, are selectively narrating the story of Jesus to advance a particular theological perspective. In short, the Gospel narratives are no mere narration of the brute facts of Jesus’ earthly sojourn. They are stories that reflect inspired apostolic perspectives on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Sometimes the gospel writers tip their hand as to what that perspective is. In John’s gospel, for instance, he says outright that his selectivity in narrating Jesus’ life reflects his purpose in writing:
John 20:30-31 “Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
Thus even John views Jesus’ life and work is a “granary full of wheat” from which he has drawn out the handful (seven signs and the resurrection) that he thinks best evinces faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. We can assume as well, therefore, that even the way in which he tells the stories represents a similar kind of selectivity. The hermeneutical upshot of this should not be missed. The most important question we must ask when reading the gospel narratives is not “what did Jesus do?” but “what did the gospel writers tell us that Jesus did, and why did they select the material that they did?” The authors are our inspired and authoritative guides into Jesus’ life and work, and we must trace their purpose if we are to be faithful to the Christ who appointed them.
Why am I pressing so hard on this hermeneutical principle? Because we have to learn to read the gospels with an eye to what the authors are trying to communicate. What’s at stake here? Let me illustrate with an example from Jesus’ use of parables. In both Matthew and Mark’s gospels, the text says that Jesus nearly always spoke to the masses in parables.
Matthew 13:34 “All these things Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable.”
Mark 4:34: “He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.”
Both gospels also reveal Jesus’ purpose in teaching in this cryptic form.
Matthew 13:13 “Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”
Mark 4:11-12 “Those who are outside get everything bin parables, in order that while seeing, they may see and not perceive; and while hearing, they may hear and not understand lest they return and be forgiven.”
What is clear from this is that Jesus intended for at least some of his hearers to be in the dark and not to understand what he was talking about. The parables conceal as much as they reveal. Many modern readers have surmised, therefore, that the parables of scripture are meant to conceal the truth about Jesus to modern readers as well. But is that true?
This is one example where Jesus’ purpose in teaching his original audience is not the same as the gospel authors’ writing of the same parables. In the original setting, Jesus spoke in parables to the masses and then later explained the meaning of the parables to his disciples in private. But here is the critical difference between the first century situation and now. The masses who followed Jesus did not have access to the inner sanctum where Jesus explained the parables, but the masses of modern readers do. The authors of the gospels invite every reader not merely to read the parables but to read and understand their explanation as well. So the gospel authors intend the parables to illuminate the truths of the kingdom, not to conceal them. Once again, the question we must ask in trying to understand the parables is not “what did Jesus do?” but “what did the gospel writers tell us that Jesus did, and why did they select the material that they did?” The apostolic handfuls include the interpretation of parables; Jesus’ original teaching to the masses did not.
The life and work of Jesus is indeed a granary full of wheat, but we need to remember that the New Testament only records for us the handfuls. The Holy Spirit has given us enough in the handfuls to feast for the rest of our lives. So give your life to apprehending the handfuls. That’s what Jesus did with the Bible, and that’s what we must do as well.