Matthew 16:6-7 “Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’”
Last weekend I was driving over the George Washington Bridge in New York City. As I was on the bridge, in that mass of bumper-to-bumper traffic and concrete, I noticed something in the concrete median. It was a sign sticking up about three feet with no words, just a picture of a fire hydrant. My immediate reaction was, “Why would someone walk a dog in the middle of the George Washington Bridge?”
Of course the sign was there so that firefighters could find a hydrant, but I had just left my dog for the weekend and dogs were on my mind. There was also a cultural filter at work. Ruckus almost never relieves himself on fire hydrants, much preferring phone poles and trees. But the cultural understanding is that dogs pee on fire hydrants, even if my own dog never does. American dog culture and my own experience that day completely skewed my interpretation of the sign.
I did a similar thing when I first moved to Westford, MA and gave all my friends directions to the house, instructing them to turn at the gazebo on the town green. Well, there is no gazebo on the Westford green, but my experiences told me that all little New England towns had gazebos on their town green. So my brain put one there and gave out directions based on it. Fortunately I have very patient friends.
While some may think that I should simply turn myself in to a psychological research lab, I take some comfort in seeing some of the same phenomena in the Bible. Jesus often speaks in parables, metaphor and allegory. The disciples and others take his words literally, continually missing the point. They are not trying to be dense, it’s just that their own experiences and the culture in which they live are always informing how they see the world.
The conversation about bread in Matthew 16 happens right after Jesus fed 4,000 people with seven loaves and a few fish. Whether they are now trying to process the miracle or trying to plan better for the dietary needs of the crowds I can’t say. But the event was so fresh in their minds that when Jesus talks about the yeast of the Scribes and Pharisees, the disciples think they are being scolded for not bringing any bread. Jesus becomes very frustrated with them.
There is no such thing as a completely objective viewpoint—not by a human being anyway. Everything we see, everything we hear, is filtered through our own lives and experiences and the culture in which we live. That doesn’t mean we have to stop interpreting. But it does mean that we can save ourselves some awkward moments by listening to the interpretations of other people with different lives, experiences, and cultures before we settle on the “correct” interpretation. Be careful when you think you know what a biblical passage means. And if you’re in the middle of traffic on the George Washington Bridge and see a fire hydrant sign, don’t get out and walk your dog.
Patient God, give us the humility to recognize that we only see your Word through a glass, darkly. Amen.
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