The Freaking Awesomeness of Understanding Cultural Context
Black Jesus by Creed Art @ https://www.creedart.gallery/
(This is what I planned to say and some things that I edited out of the podcast….)\
(Not) Relating to the Proverbs 31 Woman
I’m going to confess something to y’all that may be shocking to you.
Despite going to over a dozen conferences on the Proverbs 31 woman,
I still have a hard time being inspired by this passage from the 10th Century BC, about the ancient Jewish idea of the ideal woman.
I mean, “she doesn’t eat the bread of idleness”? That’s pretty much my life goal. Only, I’m thinking I’d prefer to eat the brownies of idleness, but hey bread’s good too. I mean every time I heard someone talk about this, I went all Homer Simpson thinking “mmmmmmm bread of idleness”.
Cause I’m a Gen X American and I grew up being consumed with busyness.
Then there’s the verse that says,“She gets up while it is still night”? Yeah that ain’t happening. Maybe if I slept all day….
And...“She provides food for her family and portions for her female servants…”
Wait a minute, this chick’s got servants? Y’all totally got to quit comparing me to her! When I get plural...servants, then we can talk.
Maybe you didn’t grow up in the South and you weren’t exposed to monthly women’s retreats where we could all get together and be inspired by the Proverbs 31 woman, I’m sorry...is my bitterness showing?
The Problem With Romanticizing Bible Stories
Maybe you can’t relate to that story, but I bet you have do have trouble relating to a lot of the stories in the Bible.
For a lot of us, the stories just seem so otherworldly that we have romanticized them and made them cute little stories we tell, but they don’t have much to do with our modern lives of technology and busyness.
Maybe you try to read the stories, but you just don’t see how they relate to your life.
Maybe like me, you grew up hearing the stories, but the way they were told to you, the characters were a bunch of super holy people always doing super holy things and nothing they did seems to relate to your really messy not so holy life.
I mean, I don’t know you. I’m not judging. But I’m quite confident in saying that since you are listening to my podcast, there’s at least something a little messed up about you.
So how do you relate your messy life full of mistakes, guilt, struggles, and idle bread eating, with the stories of the Bible?
How do any of us relate to these ancient stories from the Bible that happened over 2000 years ago?
How Understanding the Cultural Context Frees Us
Well, I’m super excited to share with you one of the coolest things I have learned about reading the Bible and that is taking time to understand the culture behind the stories.
Did you just groan? Maybe it is just flashbacks from teaching middle school English, but I swear, I think I just felt some of you groaning? I’m kidding... that would be way freaky though.
But, I’m really serious about how cool understanding the cultural context is. I’m going to even let you guys off of the hook a little bit. You don’t have to be obsessed with it the way I am. You can just go buy a study Bible and read the introduction to each chapter. Or, you can go to Biblegateway.com and use their resources.
Anyway, you guys have the internet so all of this information is on there. I will even give you some links on my FB page and website.
But here’s the deal y’all. When you study the culture, you start to understand that all of these stories happened to real people who also had real messy lives just like you and me. Their culture is far removed from ours in every way possible. So, wondering how any of us can relate to these sparsely detailed, ancient Bible stories from a foreign culture. Is a perfectly natural question.
However, when you understand the culture, you can see that the human experience they struggled with was the same one we all share. They loved, they grieved, they celebrated, they felt rejection, fear, and uncertainty. They wrestled with the same core issues we still wrestle with today. They longed for belonging and acceptance the same way we do.
Understanding the culture answers the question of how we can relate to these 2000 year old stories.
A Super Cool Story I Bet You Never Thought Much About
To demonstrate how, understanding the culture helps us relate these stories to our modern lives, I want to share a story of some badass guys who really loved their friend who was paralyzed. This story, is found in Luke 5:17-21. It is only 5 verses, and without the cultural understanding, we all read them and think “Oh… cool Jesus healed another person” and just keep on reading but Jesus did a lot more than that, he confronted a cruel judgmental belief that was wrapped up in the ancient Jewish religion, and that is still wrapped up in American religious culture.
This story starts out with “One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem”.
The name Pharisee means “set apart” which refers to how they aimed to keep themselves religiously clean and set apart from all the “unclean” people. This group of religious teachers was primarily concerned with very strictly keeping the laws of the Old Testament. They were so concerned with keeping all of these rules, that they added an oral tradition to the law. Which basically means, they made rules about the rules. And rules about the rules about the rules. And they were obsessed with letting people know when they broke one. They believed that all suffering was the result of breaking one of the rules. Teachers of the law, were the scribes that wrote down rules and official documents.
So these religious rule keepers who believe suffering is caused by rule breaking (or sin) all come out to hear what Jesus spin is on all the rules. What new insight does Jesus have on keeping all the rules.
The Bible story continues.
And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. 18 Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. 19 When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
So, let’s just take a second to soak in the bad assery of these friends. There is Jesus, surrounded by the religious rule keepers and these guys climb up on the roof, pull up some tiles and lower their friend through the roof. That is awesome.
20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
Just notice this. Jesus told the man his sins were forgiven, but he didn’t heal him.
21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” The Pharisees and teachers of the law were obviously highly offended. Jesus was saying he was better than them. They understood that he was saying he was equal to God.
22 Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?
And this is the part where without the cultural context, you’d be thinking, “uhmm OK Yoda” but in context, you realize Jesus was drawing attention to the big thing they were getting wrong. He was making them all focus on the issue of “is suffering caused by sin?” Then Jesus continued.
24 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Which we need to note that he already did. And the man was still lying there paralyzed while they had this debate…)
So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. 26 Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”
And guys! This is so cool! This isn’t just a story of an ancient dude getting healed. This is the story of a question that transcends culture and time. Where is God when we are hurting? It is our nature to think that when things in our lives are going great that God is shining his love down us. When we feel #blessed, it feels like a super nice place to be.
But Jesus in that moment where Jesus sat with a paralyzed and forgiven man in front of a group of extreme religious legalists, Jesus separated God’s approval from our circumstances.
Applying This to Your Life Today
That might steal a little of your pride when you are in those #blessed moments, but when you are lying on a bathroom floor crying your eyes out and searching for the strength to go on, it means everything to know that your problems aren’t because of a cosmic judgement of your value to God. While some of your problems might be caused by your mistakes, they aren’t proof of divine judgment against you. You are living the human experience. You are human and living your life in a messy world. Jesus showed us that God cares enough for us to walk around with us, to show us how much he cares about our struggles.
That’s what you see when you understand a bit of the culture Jesus walked around in. You see real people with real struggles. The heroes of these stories weren’t walking around with a holy glow only doing holy things. They were real people with real problems, they messed up, they had struggles, doubts, and fears but continued to grow in their faith. The more we allow ourselves to walk away from the overly romanticized version of the Bible, the more we will see how much their problems apply to us.
You will no longer be driven by guilt to read some otherworldly stories that teach you about religion, like it’s some kind of penitent chore to earn points with God. You will start to see answers to your biggest problems and hope in your biggest struggles. You will grow in grace and freedom. Most importantly, you will see amazing glimpses of God’s desire to walk through this messy world with his children.
I hope this excites you and that you want to understand the culture just a little more. It’s actually an obsession of mine because I want people to know how much the acceptance Jesus showed applies to them. I wrote a book for one of my friends who really struggles with feeling accepted by God because she has been shamed a lot. I studied the book of Luke and wrote stories about survivors I have dealt with over the last 20 years and compared them to the struggles of characters in the book of Luke. I was hoping to encourage her but it ended up really changing me. You can find a link to a chapter of the book on my website. It’s called Rum and Cola for the Survivor’s Soul and it’s available on Amazon.com.
How cool would it be if we all learned to get past the different culture of the Bible and focus on the shared human experience? How would it impact the way you read the Bible? How would it impact your understanding of God’s love for all of us? How would it impact the way you apply the Bible to your life?
When we understand the real humanness of the stories of Jesus in the Bible, we see the most amazing picture of God’s desire to walk through this messy world with us. We will be constantly amazed and humbled by his love and we will love sharing that love with the world. They aren’t these weird sets of bizarre beliefs we have to accept. They are stories of the shared human experience and God’s plan for us in our own version of this human experience.
My challenge for you this week is to find a story from the New Testament and examine the culture of it. Read the story and picture it as happening to real people within that culture. Ask yourself what shared human struggle the main character was dealing with. How does this relate to a struggle that you or someone you know has faced or is facing?
And please share your answers with me. I’d love to hear from you! My contact info is on my website: rumandcolaforthesoul.com.