Faith, Religion & Scripture, Notes & Essays by David Rodeback

Reading the New Testament: Introduction (Week 0)

David Rodeback

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — like many other Christian churches, no doubt — we’re studying the New Testament in Sunday School this year. Latter-day Saint classes and congregations worldwide will more or less follow the same schedule, and members are invited to follow it in their personal and family scripture study. Interesting and fruitful things can and should happen when we study together this way.

If you hear a Latter-day Saint — we prefer that to Mormon — refer to “Come, Follow Me,” that’s either a beloved hymn or the title the Church has given to its revised multiyear curriculum. After we study the New Testament this year, presumably we’ll turn in subsequent years (not necessarily in this order) to the Old Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, to name the other books we accept as scripture, odd as most may sound to those of other faiths. I’ve read, studied, and loved all these books for years. But I’m glad it’s the New Testament this year.

I’m planning a weekly post here, with some of my thoughts as I study each week’s readings. I’ll try to post early in each week, for the sake of anyone who’s on schedule and finds my musings helpful.

My approach may vary, but this is certain: I will not attempt an exhaustive commentary. I have a day job, and it’s not as a professional scholar of scripture. Besides, there are already a number of valuable commentaries in print and online. I turn to my favorites often.

Please note that I do not speak officially for my Church. (Here I want to say, “Duh!” Would that be rude?) Whatever I dredge up here you may freely dismiss as one guy’s opinion. That may often be the safest course. If you wish, of course, you are welcome to speak for yourself in the comments.

One more introductory note. I call this “Week 0” because I’m a geek. My second career was programming computers, where we routinely begin counting at zero. Welcome to my world.

This Week’s Readings

This introductory week is different from the rest of the schedule. It gathers some passages for discussion mostly on the theme “We Are Responsible for Our Own Learning.” These include:

  • Luke 23:33-34
  • Matthew 25:1-13
  • Matthew 13:1-23
  • John 7:14-17
  • Luke 11:9-13
  • John 5:39
  • James 1:5-6; 2:27
  • Alma 32:27

I’ll comment on a few of these. If you want the whole list, it’s online.

Salvation Is in Christ

(John 5:39)

In approaching the scriptures, it’s always valuable to remember that salvation is in Jesus Christ himself, not the printed word — as if we could read, memorize, or Midrash our way to heaven. In discussing his identity with some Jews who may have felt otherwise, Jesus said:

Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. (John 5:39)

He was reminding them — and us — that the scriptures are precious because they testify of our Redeemer. They themselves cannot save us, even if “ye think” they will.

Maybe we’re less prone to that mistake than the ancient Scribes and Pharisees. But it’s still best to remember our highest reason for studying the scriptures.

The Parable of the Sower

(Matthew 13:1-23)

He Plants Everywhere

As my wife once pointed out from the pulpit, the Savior called this “The Parable of the Sower,” not the seed or the soils. That may mean something. So let’s start with the sower.

When we’re planting seeds and hoping for a harvest, we don’t typically plant in the rocks or the brush. We plant in soil we’ve prepared. But in the parable the sower scatters seed everywhere — which I take to mean that God makes his word (and his Word) available to all people, not just the A students in my Sunday School class. (True, we don’t give letter grades there, but they know who they are.)

Land Can Be Improved

We’re tempted to give this parable a deterministic reading: This person is this kind of soil. That person is that kind of soil. I’ve heard lessons and sermons which pulled up only just short of naming names, as if we could all make lists of the people we know who are each kind of soil. That’s unjustifiably judgmental — and it doesn’t match my farm experience.

I grew up working on farms and also tending a half-acre vegetable garden at home. That perspective informs my view of this parable in several ways, including this: On the farm, if the soil is rocky, we remove the rocks. In fact, we remove them year after year, because the frost pushes a steady supply of them to the surface. If the ground where we want to plant is covered with brush or weeds — the parable’s thorns — we remove them. And in gardening, if there isn’t enough soil, we add more. If it’s too hard, we break it up. If it’s not good enough, we improve it. Then we plant.

A person whose heart and mind — today, on a given topic — are thorny ground may be excellent soil on another topic or on another day. In some cases that day may be far in the future, but God is patient, and we can be patient too.

A Little Help from Joseph Smith

If Joseph Smith, the mortal founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was not a prophet of God, he had an outlandishly inflated opinion of himself. But if he was a prophet — I assert that he was — then God could certainly use him to translate a new book of scripture (The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ) and make inspired corrections and adjustments in an existing book of scripture, the Bible. We Latter-day Saints usually use the King James Version (KJV), but our printing of it has many footnotes referring to what we call the Joseph Smith Translation (JST).

This business of a modern prophet revising the Bible is a large discussion for another day. For now, I note a single revision. In the KJV, as Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower, he says:

For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. (Matthew 13:12)

Giving to those who have much, because they have much, and taking from those who have little, because they have little, is hardly the sort of behavior one expects from a Heavenly Father who loves all his children. This too smacks of determinism, suggesting that we cannot choose to become better (or worse) soil than we are.

We might come to a sounder conclusion with the help of verse 15, in which the Savior clearly says that those who cannot see closed their own eyes, because they did not wish to see. But the JST helps even more:

For whosoever receiveth, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever continueth not to receive, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. (JST Matthew 13:10-11, emphasis added.)

Readers who know the Book of Mormon may recall a similar passage in Nephi’s writings:

Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. (2 Nephi 28:29-30)

Here, as in Joseph’s revision of Matthew 13, God appears disposed not to bless a few arbitrary favorites and curse all the rest, but to shower all his children with as much of his word as they will accept, as quickly as they will accept it. For me such a God is far easier to worship.

Taking It Personally

Given, then, that soil can be improved, and that God did not somehow, from the very beginning, irrevocably designate his haves and his have-nots, three things follow.

First, at any given moment I myself may be stony, thorny, or rich ground. I may be influenced in this by other people or conditions, but ultimately it’s up to me.

Second, though your soil condition is largely up to you, we should help each other. Some things we do and say as disciples tend to push us apart. It’s hard to keep your own ground ready for planting when your neighbors keep trampling on it. We can avoid doing that; we can avoid making it unnecessarily painful or difficult for others to grow their spiritual crops.

Third, given that today’s rocky weed patch can become next year’s fertile field, and vice versa, we should judge (as in condemn or categorize) each other as little as we can. We should help each other as much as we can. And because great teaching can help us each to tend our own soil more fruitfully, those of us who teach ought to teach as well as we possibly can.

That’s it for this week. Comments, questions, insights, and corrections are more than welcome here — as long as their evident motive is to build, not destroy.

Next week it’s Matthew 1 and Luke 1.

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