One of the first questions that arises when we examine Jesus' teachings is whether we should take his words "literally" at "face value", or whether we should interpret them in some sort of deeper, more significant, insightful and profound way. What should we do? And when should we do it?
In Matthew 5:13 (NIV), Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth." What did he mean by this? Was he trying to explain to us that our physical bodies are made up of nothing more than table salt - sodium chloride? Is there any sort of deep, spiritual significance to this literal meaning? Of course not. So obviously, he did not intend for us to take these particular words of his literally. Instead, the words "salt of the earth" must have had some sort of spiritual or cultural significance within the culture and time of his ministry. We might argue over what exactly the spiritual meaning these words had in his culture, but hardly anyone would argue that Jesus was using these words to explain to us that we are made up of table salt! So clearly there are times when we need to interpret his words in deeper, more significant ways. The question is: "when is it appropriate do interpret his words?"
Jesus publicly and repeatedly warned the Pharisees not to make the mistake of focusing only on the "letter of the law", while ignoring the far more important points that the "spirit of the law" was trying to teach them. In other words, Jesus was trying to get us to focus on the real spiritual significance of whatever spiritual teaching we're studying or trying to emulate. In their case, the Pharisees tended to focus mainly on the "laws" of ritual and dietary purity, while forgetting the greater spiritual truths of being merciful, compassionate and kind, as well as the crucial importance of using some of their time and resources to help the poor, the widows, and the orphans in their community. This is why Jesus reprimanded them:
"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."
- Jesus from the New Testament, Book of Matthew 23:23-24 (NIV)
The Pharisees were dutifully focused on following with great precision the letter of the law regarding tithing. But they were ignoring the feeling within their hearts regarding the spirit of the law trying to get them to help out people who were suffering. It's sort of like not being able to see the great, vast beautiful forest, because they're so focused on just a few obvious trees that are blocking their view.
And at other times, Jesus may be saying something that is deeply instructional, but which was not meant for the masses - either because they would not have understood it, or because it was at variance with the established religious teachings of the day. For example, when he was alluding to the fact that "John the Baptist" was "Elijah returned", he was essentially affirming the reality of reincarnation. So when that story is shared in the scripture, it is immediately followed by the words: "For Those Who Have Eyes to See; and Ears to Hear". Implying that you have to look deeper than normal and take the deeper meaning.
Plus, there's a similar dilemma in terms of how we try to understand spiritual ideas. There's the purely intellectual, studious, "academic" approach to learning religious ideas, principles & themes. And there's the heart-centered "spiritual" approach that combines heart & mind. The spiritual approach is prayerful and meditative and strives to put the teachings into practice in order to learn from direct experience. This is where we strive to actually turn the other cheek, help the helpless, forgive people who have hurt us, be gentle & kind, and so on. It is the heart-centered spiritual approach which combines heart & mind that leads us to GOD, not the "drier" purely intellectual "academic" approach. The studious academic approach is very helpful for increasing our intellectual understanding, but in itself doesn't it lead us to GOD. Of course, academicians can also combine heart & mind for a spiritually successful approach to spiritual understanding. In the long run, spiritual "self-transformation" is even more important than acquiring more spiritual "information".
So it is essential to know when it is appropriate to interpret Jesus' words in a deeper, more insightful way; when to take them more or less literally; or when to do both, because they may have many layers of meaning. Plus, it's important to seek understanding by truly "living and practicing the teachings" as we combine heart and mind, so that we tap into the true activity of Divine Mind and the marvelous insights it brings. This way we won't make the same mistake the Pharisees did by living at a purely intellectual level.
In this website we will try hard to interpret what Jesus and the Great Ones are saying in the clearest, most accurate way - whether it is simply "the literal way", or in a deeper, more significant insightful "interpretive way". And of course we strive to put their teachings into practice everyday of our lives, while letting loving kindness flow from our hearts and minds.
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Copyright 2014 Bill Gaum All Rights Reserved