As I understand and try to practice it, preaching the Bible involves trying to hear from God through scripture for others, and to communicate to those others what I believe I am hearing. It is part of my responsibility to try to know and understand as far as is possible the people to whom I am going to preach, so that my listening for them is informed by my listening to them and my communication of what I have heard does not miss the mark by failing to connect with their lives and situations.
But what do they hear when they listen to scripture for themselves? I had the opportunity recently to ask that question and listen in on some answers. A few students agreed to help me with a simple experiment. Each had to find a group of people willing to read part of the Bible together and talk about what they had heard. The facilitators were not to teach, simply set up the group, arrange for the Bible passage to be read aloud, invite the participants to share what they had noticed in the passage and let the conversation take its course. The sessions were recorded and transcribed, and forwarded to me with some description of the sort of people who had comprised the group.
All the groups read the same text, the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. But they did not all hear the same things! There was a group of young male university students, heading (they hoped!) into reasonably well paid careers. What really got them going was the topic of money. How much of his wealth did Zachaeus give away? Did he have to? Do we have to? We keep hearing about “Good News to the Poor” but what if we’re not poor – is the gospel for us as well?
There were two groups of older women, in different parts of the country. Interestingly, both highlighted the theme of acceptance: Jesus accepted someone that others hadn’t, and the crowd didn’t make room for. The comment was made that you only really accept someone when you go to their home, and see them as they are (hints there of changes in pastoral practice and a denigrating of “drinking cups of tea with old ladies”? But that’s another topic!)
And there was a striking result from a group of young people from refugee families. As each in turn mentioned what they had noticed in the story the list of observations grew, but there was one point that almost everyone in that group cited as important: Jesus knew his name. And, a close second, Jesus actually went into his house.
I had been curious to know what the various groups in their different life stages and social and cultural contexts would make of the Bible. What I saw was what the Bible was making of them! Stirring discomfort in the materially privileged and causing them to wrestle with questions about how their anticipated salaries and careers related to discipleship and salvation; offering to people who feel unvalued and sidelined in a world and even a church that seems to be passing them by the reassurance of Jesus’ acceptance; and in young migrants struggling for identity and belonging in a country that treats them as aliens where no-one knows (and few would bother to pronounce!) their names, igniting surprise and delight in a Jesus who knew the name of the strange man who didn’t fit in with the crowd, and who by stepping through Zacchaeus’s door broke down the divide that separated the little world of that home from the large world of the community around it to which until then he had not been able to belong.
This exercise has impacted my preaching. It has heightened my awareness of the breadth and depth of human experience and the range of realities and needs among those for whom I am attempting to open up the Bibles message. It has made me more attentive to what might seem to me to be ancillary details rather than what I take to be central points of a passage, recognizing that for some those details might be living words that connect powerfully with their situation. And it has reinforced in me the conviction that the Bible is to be read aloud – even if I’m told it would take time out of the “preaching slot”! – because the transforming message for at least some might be in what they hear before the preacher says anything.
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George Wieland is the newly appointed Director of Mission Research and Training at Carey Baptist College. A former missionary and pastor, he preaches regularly in a range of contexts.