We are, by nature, sloppy readers. The problem is not fixed by practice. I’m not talking about bad readers who need to become better readers, and therefore should practice by reading more. Practice might actually make it worse. In fact, I’m sure it would.
What I mean by “sloppy reading” is that often I come to a text of Scripture thinking I’m reading in order to be informed about how I might believe and live, but actually I’m coming to Scripture for affirmation of what I already believe and how I already live. And so, I’m a sloppy reader who’s likely blind to my sloppiness. And it’s likely you are too.
Disastrous First Step
Here’s an example: I was reading the story of Jesus calling Matthew, the tax collector, as one of his disciples and afterward “reclining” with Matthew’s tax collector friends. The Pharisees thought this out of bounds for Jesus and rebuked his disciples for it. He responds:
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matt. 9:12–13)
Now, if you look at my notes after meditating on this text a while, my conclusion was to be more ready to spend time with those who may cause me to feel uncomfortable or out of place due to different values and lifestyles. I need to be friends with people Jesus was friends with and eat with people Jesus ate with.
Of course, that is a perfectly legitimate implication of the text, but it’s a disastrous first step. The first question in reading the Gospels is not “What did Jesus do and how do I do it?” but “What does Jesus offer and how do I put myself in a position to receive it?” What Jesus is trying to get us to see is not who you need to be befriending, but what you need to be in order for Jesus to befriend you! And, of course, Jesus befriends the sick and needy.
Way to Poverty
My sloppy reading of the text doesn’t come from bad habits (at least, not always!), but from spiritual pride. I want friendship with Jesus; I just don’t want to be needy.
My initial reading of this story in Matthew 9 put me above the sick and needy. It made me a helper of the sick, a friend of sinners—not a sick sinner myself. Without realizing it I read the text to affirm what I, obviously, believed and lived, all the while sounding quite virtuous. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be known as the “helper of the sick” and “friend of sinners”?
It reminds me of Jean Vanier’s encouragement for a community of workers who lived and served the mentally handicapped in Trosly, France: “Jesus did not say, ‘Happy are those who serve the poor,’ but ‘Happy are the poor.’” If you want to sustain a long-term ministry to a people who experience a kind of poverty many will never experience, you must become poor. It’s a vocation that will garner no praise or thanks. You will be overlooked and forgotten.
The mentally handicapped whom the workers were serving rarely had the capacity to express gratitude or praise for the help they received. Reflecting on Vanier’s words, Henri Nouwen wrote: “It is the way to poverty. Not an easy way, but God’s way, the way of the cross.” If I am poor and sick, then serving the poor and sick looks more like friendship and solidarity than condescension and benevolence.
Just as Jesus says “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” so we can say “Blessed are the sick sinners, for theirs is friendship with Jesus.” I want friendship with Jesus. I love the way Matthew highlights that Jesus “reclined” with sinners and tax collectors. It’s a picture of intimacy and friendship, of letting down your guard. He wasn’t in a hurry.
I long for this friendship; I just don’t long for neediness. If I’m needy, then I’m not in control—not in control of my reputation, wholly at the mercy of Jesus.
But his arms are everlasting arms. I can trust them. It’s a good friendship. I am learning that it takes time to see how sick and poor I truly am, and it takes time to learn how trustworthy his friendship truly is.