I was listening to a podcast and the host was telling about a time he went to hear John Kiper speak. Mr. Kiper is a leading speaker in Christianity today. The person introducing Mr. Kiper said that one of the things he admired most about him was that he didn’t let culture or current events cloud his understanding of the scripture. A friend of the host who was attending the meeting with him leaned over and made the comment, “So is John Kiper going to speak to us in Greek?” To truly be free of the effect of culture he would have to use the same language as the writers, and in the case of the New Testament that would be Greek. Well of course Mr. Kiper spoke English and read from an English Bible, after all that is his language, his culture. Even in the words we use and the way we speak is a product of our culture and shapes how we think and understand what we are reading.
We are all products of when and where we live. For us more mature (I won’t use the word old) folks this causes us concern when attending a contemporary service. Our culture favors hymns and reading from the King James Bible, anything else just seems wrong. For younger folks they just laugh at us for being afraid to use debit cards or thinking that a suit and tie is the only way to dress for church (we have successfully gotten past that). The issues that we think are most important from the Bible usually have as much or more to do with what is going on around us in our culture than with how much the Bible talks about it. In the early 1900’s prohibition was a central theme of many preachers and movements within the church. Today not too many advocate for total removal of alcohol but we still have our favorite themes and this is often reflected in what the church is focused on. And it’s not that we are wrong, but often it leads to an overemphasis on one area to the exclusion of something that is as important or even more important.
Jesus pointed this out to the Pharisees in Matthew 23: 23- “You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
In the culture of the Pharisees strict adherence to the letter of the law was very important. The problem was they were often blind to greater matters.
We can’t help but be products of our culture, how we are raised. I still put an “R” in wash, evidently that is a common pronunciation mistake for the area I was raised in, so warsh just comes out of my mouth. Part of understanding Jesus and scripture isn’t to eliminate culture, but to see how the culture of his day influenced both him and his followers. We need to understand scripture in light of its environment. Next, we need to understand how we can take the principles of Jesus and live them in our culture today. Most of us are happy not to run around in togas and live as they did in Jesus’ culture.
However, the way Jesus looked at people, the way he treated people is still valid today, just as it was in his time. The truths that he taught us about justice, mercy and faithfulness have never gone out of style. Our culture needs Jesus just as much as the first century and so we need to be Jesus today. We may not look like he did, speak the language he did or eat the foods he did, but we need to love the way he did. We need to preach the good news that he brought. We need to heal the sick, feed the hungry and minister to our culture the way he did to his.