So often we mis-read biblical stories because we don’t know or remember the context.

We don’t hear with ears formed by the culture of those who recorded it. Or we read one little story without seeing the context in the bible where the story is told.

One example is the story of the widow’s mite. A widow put into the temple treasury two tiny copper coins, all she had to pay for food. Jesus pointed out that where others put in great sums, she put in all she had to live on. Usually, people use this story to say that the smallest gift counts.

I agree with the thought: small gifts do count because of the spirit of giving. But this incident must be read in the context of what is around it.

Just before Jesus sees this widow, he declares that some of the religious leaders are complete hypocrites, making big shows of their faith while “stealing widow’s houses.”

Right after this incident, Jesus said that the whole religious structure represented by the temple was coming down because of the way it hurt those who were vulnerable.

So, when he pointed to the woman and said that with this gift she risked her life, he was criticizing the structures that bled the poor dry. His words were a judgement on those who should protect the poor and didn’t.

An example where we need cultural context is the question Jesus was asked about paying taxes to the emperor.

At the end of his answer, he said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

This quote is used to say that civil authority has its place and must be obeyed. “So pay your taxes,” some conclude. Sure, in our system paying taxes does good – supporting health care for example – but was not what Jesus was talking about.

The context of this story is that it happened in the last week of Jesus’ life as conflict with the religious leadership and civil authorities ramped up.

A group of religious leaders tried to trap him. They sent people to ask Jesus if taxes should be paid to Rome. If he said no, they could accuse him of sedition. If he said yes, he would lose credibility among those who hoped he was the Messiah.

It seemed to be a win-win question for them.

But the cultural context of this question is the two commandments that formed, and still form, Jewish identity: there is only one God, and no one should make a graven image to be worshipped.

When asked if people should pay Rome’s taxes or not, Jesus asked them to show him the coin that would be used to pay those taxes. One of them showed him a denarius.

Whose head is this and whose inscription,” Jesus asked.

At this point, we are curious, but in the crowd around Jesus there would be some gasps. The emperor’s, his challenges admit.

The problem was that they held in their hand the image of someone who claimed to be a god. They were in that moment breaking the two most important commandments. They were acknowledging someone who claimed to be a god alongside the one Lord. And they were holding a graven image of one who claimed to be god.

They had judged themselves.

When Jesus said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” he meant that Caesar deserved judgement for the claim to be divine as well as for the brutal oppression he put in place across the empire.

Jesus argued that governments should be judged by God’s ways.

In recent years, for example, God’s justice declared that the laws that built apartheid in South Africa were wrong.

In our country, God’s love says that the policy that put in place the residential school system was wrong.

What Jesus said was that people need to challenge governments according to God’s laws.

CathyHird body 25Oct23

As I pondered how important context is for reading the Bible, I also thought about how important context is for reading current events.

I have heard people say that if someone came into your town, randomly killing and taking hostages, you would justify retaliation. But in the case of what happened October 7 context is everything.

The context is the Holocaust.

The context is the removal of Palestinians from lands they had lived on and farmed for generations.

The context is rising antisemitism in Europe.

The context is the decades-long limitations on the people who live in the Gaza strip, and the illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Were the October 7 attacks right? No.

Is the disaster being inflicted on more than two million Palestinians just? No. It breaks the international laws against targeting civilians and preventing the flow of humanitarian aid.

As we seek to understand and to advocate for peace it is important to remember the antisemitism that is alive today and has gone on for centuries along with the Islamophobia that is rampant in our time.

In this situation, context is everything.

Cathy Hird lives on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation.






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