Last night I had one of those classic Bible professor moments.
Ok, so perhaps the form of the interaction wasn’t so classic. I’m teaching Gospels and Acts on two campuses at once using videoconferencing. This means that students will make up for not being able to come up and ask questions during break by texting me or DMing me on Twitter.
So after a particularly wonderful and lucid explication of the Synoptic Problem and its proposed solutions, I took a break and discovered this text message form someone on the other campus:
Can u pls summarize why this matters when there are people starving…?
There it is, the classic moment where the professor who loves all this stuff just because it’s wonderfully interesting has to deal with the student who wants to know how this is going to change the world.
But after grumbling to myself about this, and pondering all sorts of grade deductions in my heart, I began to realize that there was a very good answer to the question.
The Synoptic Problem wrestles with why Matthew, Mark, and Luke look the way they do: what accounts for their similarities, and what accounts for their differences?
In answering this question, we come face-to-face with the reality that these books were intentionally written to be different from each other. The writers of two of them changed what they found in one or two of the books that we have in front of us. This means that the impulse to “harmonize” the various versions of the stories we find is not merely beside the point, it undermines the entire purpose of the documents’ writing.
The Synoptic Problem, with its focus on the human hands at work crafting distinct, particular messages, has the power to shatter our preconception that the story of Jesus is one simple story that must always be told the same way. It has the power to shatter our desire to have difficult passages explained by simpler passages that seem to address the issue more clearly.
And if we can accept it, such study will drive us to more deeply believe that the Bible we actually have, with four different voices depicting four different understandings of Jesus’ ministry, is the Bible God wants us to have–not a harmonized Bible with some fifth “Gospel” that we have thrown together on its own.
Once upon a time, I thought that listening to multiple voices was a way of telling us what the “one meaning” really was.
You know what happens when you do this?
Luke’s “blessed are you who are poor” becomes silenced by Matthew’s “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Obviously, “poor” can refer to penury in any number of realms–friendship, finances, spirituality. Matthew tells us what “blessed are the poor” really means.
Luke’s “blessed are you who are hungry” is muted by Matthew’s “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
You see what happens if we don’t allow the multiplicity of Biblical voices to speak? The concern for worldly poverty and starving kids in my city gets “spiritualized”–and the next thing you know, the church begins to think that having a quiet time is more important than feeding our starving neighbors.
Of course, we must not allow Luke to mute Matthew, either. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness are states of the blessed citizens of the Kingdom.
But we can only allow both voices to speak if we are willing to allow the Bible to be what it actually is. We can only listen to both Matthew and Luke if we are open to see that they shaped their messages in accordance with robust theological agendas that situate Jesus within the world and the story of Israel in unique ways.
So why does the Synoptic Problem matter for the starving people of the world?
It demands of us that we hear the voice of Luke, who would tell the church that any purported pursuit of righteousness that does not manifest itself in giving to the poor and feeding the hungry is insufficient to masquerade as true Christian righteousness.
(Ed. note: Yes, Matthew cares about feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, and the like as well (cf. Mt 25). I get that. But Luke brings the issue front and center in a number of places where Matthew or Mark might provide other ways of getting out of it.)