Ambiguity in Scripture, Part II

In the last post in this series, we looked quite generally at ambiguity in scripture and how it draws us in to wrestle with difficult concepts of theology, metaphysics and existence in general. Today, I want to look at one passage in particular.

It’s the passage often referred to as “The Rich Young Ruler.” It appears in both all three synoptic gospels, but I’m taking the text here from Matthew 19:16-22 in the English Standard Version:

16And behold, a man came up to him [Jesus], saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17And he [Jesus] said to him [the rich young ruler], “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

What happens at the end of this passage? Does the young man surrender his possessions and follow Jesus? The traditional answer is, “No,” and the following statement of Jesus about rich people and camels and heaven seems to support this interpretation.

But look closer. We don’t actually know what the rich young ruler does, we only know that he goes away with sorrow. We assume that he goes away sorrowful because he is not willing to give away his wealth, but he could just as easily be going away sorrowful because he has decided to give away his wealth and is suffering the angst and upset that inevitably follows the loss of material things.

Jesus’s statement about getting into heaven being more difficult for a rich man than a camel passing through the eye of the needle doesn’t really tell us anything that gives us logical support for either interpretation. Jesus could be implying that this young man has triumphed where others may not, or that this man, like many others, will be unable to let go of worldly things, or even that we don’t yet know what the young man will do and Jesus is simply describing the difficulty of the choice he has to make.

Which is the correct answer? We don’t know, and—purposefully, I think—we cannot know. Without a definite answer, we have to consider each possibility; we cannot cast any aside.

When we acknowledge the ambiguity in this story instead of glossing it over with the traditional answer, we are given to contemplate: (1) the difficulty of surrendering worldly things to follow Jesus, (2) the inevitable sorrow that would result from choosing to give up worldly things to follow Jesus, and (3) the difficulty of being within that choice, the struggle to decide one way or the other and to be willing to live with the consequences.

One story, three points. If we were definitively told that the rich young ruler goes away because he will not do what Jesus has asked, we lose meaning in this passage rather than gaining meaning.

Ambiguity allows several points to be put forth at the same time, simultaneously multiplying the meaning to be found in a passage while providing syntactic and stylistic efficiency the communication of those multiple meanings. In other words, the Bible says more with less when ambiguity is (under the right circumstances, of course) employed, as it is throughout.

Think about why Jesus speaks in parables. Parables are analogies; analogies have slippage between the two things compared, creating ambiguity. Thus, in parables, Jesus can convey more complex meaning than by making direct and unequivocal statements. This is, in part, why we often hear people say, “Every time I reread the Bible (or a particular passage), I get something new out of it.”

Your state of mind at the time you read a passage will influence how you resolve ambiguities. Therefore, at different times in your life and under different circumstances, the scriptures will speak to you in different ways, with the most applicable ideas from a particular passage always seeming to float to the top.

This is not to say that there is relativism in what Jesus says; on the topics of greatest importance, Jesus speaks clearly—“Love your neighbor as yourself,” for instance. Even in this passage, the meaning that following Jesus is the goal is not equivocated or made ambivalent. The Bible uses ambiguity selectively to force us to consider those things that are not ambiguous. It is clear that we are to love our neighbors, but what does it mean to love them? This is a serious theological question and, in current church issues, at the heart of the debates in various denominations about the approach to the LGBTQ community within the Christian faith.

I’ll talk a little about how I think we should approach resolving difficult ambiguities like the one above in a later post in this series. For now, I want to point something out about the ambiguity of how we love our neighbors. If Jesus meant for us to move away from the legalism of the Old Testament, such an ambiguous command is a perfect way to do it. Without detailed and clear guidance, we cannot easily say to ourselves, “I have done enough; I need do no more for my neighbors.” Instead, we must always ask ourselves, “Am I loving my neighbors? What more can I do, or what can I do differently, to love them better?” The ambiguity of how to carry out the command demands more of us than a black-and-white commandment, elevating, empowering and extending the exhortation itself.

Point 2: Ambiguity allows greater meaning in fewer words through the incorporation of alternative possible resolutions of the ambiguity.

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