grey ladder

I vividly remember sitting in a class taught by my mentor, Ralph Basui Watkins. He kept talking about biblical interpretation and one’s social location. He kept using the term “lens” to describe a person’s lived experience and way of engaging with the world—their worldview. As a new student in theological education, so many terms and concepts seemed foreign to me. This concept of lenses, however, made perfect sense. I remember owning various pairs of sunglasses with different colored lenses—novelty sunglasses. While I thought the glasses made me look cool, I remember how they colored everything I saw. A pair of blue sunglasses changed everything to some abstract shade of blue. Green glasses gave everything a very distinct shade and haze. Even regular sunglasses—without the colored tint—added shading and discoloration. Sitting in this classroom in the midst of my own epiphany, I began to ask deep questions of myself. I needed to know what lenses I used and how biblical narratives were being shaded by my own worldview, and those of others.

Years later, I recognize that there are a multitude of lenses—hermeneutical approaches—that individuals and groups use to read and live out Scripture. I would like to be so bold as to attempt a very large generalization for the sake of brevity. In many groups where justice and shalom are not core tenants of reading and living out God’s Word, there seems to be a particular lens at play. This lens tends to push past the words on the page, with the hopes of attaining the hidden—and “more important”—meaning of the text. It is the assertion of this brief essay that, in reading Scripture this way, we are discoloring, shading, and shifting the text. The focusing done by this particular type of lens often denies the social location and lived experiences of the human beings in the text, for the sake of reaching the perceived spiritual and universal truths of the text. This allegorical approach to Scripture often shifts the focus away from very obvious elements in a passage, and this shifting can deny the humanity and the divine interaction on the page. Bernard Ramm outlines several allegorical schools and the basics of their function; at the core of these schools and methods, however, is the idea that the letter of the text is obvious and mostly insignificant, because the real meaning is hidden underneath.1 The brief argument of this essay is that a lens which rushes beyond the words of the text will often deny justice and shalom. Hence, my argument is for a justice lens that allows us to more fully read and live God’s Word.

Novelty Lenses

In Luke’s narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, he details a funeral procession that is interrupted by our Lord (Luke 7:11–15). The deceased young man is the only son of a widow. Jesus raises this young man, the gathered crowds praise God, and word of this spreads throughout the region.

So often, the miraculous raising of the dead young man takes center stage, and for good reason. This wondrous act of the supreme savior needs to be celebrated. However, the lens with which we view Scripture—at least in the church in the West—is often dominated by an allegorical approach. We are often so busy looking for the hidden meaning of a text that we miss the text itself. What I’d like to urge in this essay is that we do the hard work of removing (or at least naming) our preconstructed lenses that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us because it has been shaded and altered. Is this passage about a miraculous raising from the dead that could be symbolic of Christ’s authority over our own circumstances? Certainly. There is also, however, another narrative in the text that must be seen. 

In the passage, several key individuals and groups are identified: Jesus, Jesus’ disciples, the large crowd following Jesus, a large crowd from the city, the deceased son, and the widowed mother. The woman is described in detail, especially compared to the others present. She is a grieving mother, a widow, in the midst of the funeral procession for her only son. The typical lens that we use to view this woman highlights her pain and her agony, stemming from a sense of deep loss. However, because that same lens has been constructed by allegorical preference and a Christian tradition that tends to ignore the social and lived realities of persons in the Bible and in our worlds, we miss the other things present in the text.

Notice, again, the way the lens works. If all the reader sees is her emotional agony, then Jesus’ compassion toward her is relegated to her emotional state; her trauma is truncated to her role as a grieving mother. Jesus’ miracle, then, is solely concentrated on the grief of a mother, and the raising of her son is an act of taking her pain away. In this interpretation Jesus becomes the God who comforts us emotionally and spiritually, but says nothing about our lived experiences and social realities. This particular hermeneutic—the novelty lens—shades, dims, and colors the view of the text in the same way those novelty sunglasses of mine did. This novelty lens focuses on a kind of Greco-Roman traditional hermeneutic steeped in allegorical method. This hermeneutic prioritizes a perceived deeper and truer meaning of the text, usually at the expense of other things deemed to be “surface” and insignificant. Just as one who is wearing blue sunglasses will never be able to appreciate vibrant yellows and deep browns, this novelty lens robs the reader of the vibrant tapestry God is revealing to us.

Justice Lenses

We must be able to read God’s Word in totality. Yes, there are often wonderful and revelatory truths to be mined from deep study of Scripture. However, if all Scripture is inspired by God, then there are also wonderful and revelatory truths in the actual words and descriptions themselves.

Looking at this passage of Luke, Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder points out that this woman has lost her “primary means of support, she has lost all economic security.”2 Without her son, this woman, in her social and historical context, is now in the most vulnerable position in her society. She will be primarily at the mercy of others for her daily provision, protection, legal needs, and communal engagement. As Jesus sees this woman in compounded agony and compounded disenfranchisement, he has compassion on her. A more justice-centered lens allows us, the readers, to engage the totality of compassion that Jesus has on this woman. Jesus’ compassion is not restricted to her emotional state of loss. Rather, Jesus’ compassion is inclusive of her entire condition. Jesus knows well what awaits this dear sister both in her days of mourning in a familial sense, and in her days of struggling in a socioeconomic sense. The compassion of the Messiah encompasses all this woman feels, knows, is experiencing, and will experience. This compassion does not skip over her lived reality, neither does it land solely on her current tears.

The good news in this passage is that Jesus sees it all and sees us all. Christ is concerned with all of us, not just part of us. This view is not an isolated incident with this particular widow either. The fourth chapter of Luke gives us Jesus’ declaration and understanding of the gospel. As Justo González notes, this passage “sets the tone for the entire book.”3 It is here that Jesus cites the prophet Isaiah and puts forth the familiar edict that he is to declare good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord. As Drew Hart reminds us, “Jesus’ message was revolutionary good news for the poor.”4  Again, employing a justice lens, these are actual humans in actual conditions, not themes and abstract concepts. On the other hand, an allegorical reading of the text can deny actual justice and inspire pontification about a perceived eschatological justice. Too often we read “poor,” “captive,” and “blind” as simple adjectives—as metaphors. And our response is to pray for these conditions, which are interpreted as disembodied concepts to be cast out. This is not what Jesus said, nor is it what Jesus saw. “He saw them as bodies and souls.” 5 

Here, justice is not about seeking political upheaval for the sake of revolution. Justice, rather, is about reading and doing God’s Word. It is about an “ethic of compassion” and a sense of justice and liberation that is “the very foundation of biblical faith.”6 In fact, Jesus’ very essence is freedom.7 Jesus understands that his calling includes liberation and freedom and impacting the actual social conditions of human beings. He declares this in Luke 4 and demonstrates it so vividly in Luke 7. The compassion of Jesus toward this woman’s complete existence fueled him to intervene. Listen closely to the language of the text. Jesus sees her entire grief, her entire trauma, everything she is facing. He says to her, “Do not weep” (Luke 7:13). After speaking to the young man and raising him from the dead, Jesus “gave him back to his mother” (Luke 7:18). By giving this woman back her son, in the context of her time, Jesus has essentially changed her entire social and economic future—in addition to healing her grief and loss. In the midst of the crowds following and expecting things from Jesus, he is able to focus in on the pain and suffering of this woman and center her narrative. He centers her experience in such a way that both crowds—the one following him to see miracles and signs of life and the one following her because there is no sign of life—are impacted by her current situation and the newness of life that Jesus’ interruption brings to her.

A justice-oriented lens allows the reader to see the varied colors and nuances in the passage. The woman’s grief is present, but so is her trauma, anxiety, uncertainty, social location, economic condition, familial future, vulnerability, fear, and even anger. She is allowed to be the full human God created her to be as she interacts with the divine. Any lens, then, that is not at least shaped, formed, or touched by God’s compassion and desire for shalom and justice refuses to acknowledge necessary details in Scripture and concludes with a summation of the text that is devoid of the depth and diversity of real-life application.

Conclusion

So often, conversations around justice within Christianity are dominated by social action, or political agendas, or division around denominationally bound definitions of the gospel. This essay seeks to challenge the way we view Scripture rather than directly engage in the prevailing arguments. If we are to see the totality of human-divine interaction with the revelation of God’s Word, then we must divest ourselves of novelty lenses that look beyond what God has explicitly spoken. Christ has set an example for us. Christ is moved with compassion when he sees and considers this woman’s reality. That compassion moves him to intervene.

In her recent book, In My Grandmother’s House, Yolanda Pierce shares a story of a Black woman who is driving in the rain. She sees a White woman on the side of the road and has an internal struggle with herself regarding whether or not to help. The struggle, you see, is not about whether or not help is needed. Rather, the struggle is over whether or not the help would be received. Pierce ends this chapter by challenging a more eschatological understanding of salvation to include this work of intervening. “When I am spiritually and physically well, and when I am spiritually and physically safe, I have a responsibility to work so that other communities, peoples, and cultures can also be made safe and whole.”8 

Can we open ourselves to see Scripture and to see our neighbors? Justice is more than the sermons we preach, the books we write, and the classes we teach. Not that these things are outside of the purview of justice, for many preachers and scholars find justice at the core of their work. Yet the goal of justice, rather than the sermon, the book, or the course, is the interruption of an actual lived reality that grieves the heart of God in our broken world. I strongly believe that if we were to see the beautiful spectrum of human experience engaging God in Scripture that we, too, would be moved with compassion to speak, to heal, to give back.

Written By

Dwight A. Radcliff Jr. is academic dean for the William E. Pannell Center for Black Church Studies and assistant professor of mission, theology, and culture. His teaching and preaching have taken him across the US and abroad, and he has lectured in seminaries, universities, and conferences on topics ranging from urban church planting, culture, theology, preaching, social justice, millennials, and evangelism. He has over 20 years of experience in pastoral ministry and is pastor of The Message Center, a multicultural, multigenerational, urban congregation in Gardena, California, where he leads with his wife, DeShun Jones-Radcliff. He and his wife have two daughters.

I vividly remember sitting in a class taught by my mentor, Ralph Basui Watkins. He kept talking about biblical interpretation and one’s social location. He kept using the term “lens” to describe a person’s lived experience and way of engaging with the world—their worldview. As a new student in theological education, so many terms and concepts seemed foreign to me. This concept of lenses, however, made perfect sense. I remember owning various pairs of sunglasses with different colored lenses—novelty sunglasses. While I thought the glasses made me look cool, I remember how they colored everything I saw. A pair of blue sunglasses changed everything to some abstract shade of blue. Green glasses gave everything a very distinct shade and haze. Even regular sunglasses—without the colored tint—added shading and discoloration. Sitting in this classroom in the midst of my own epiphany, I began to ask deep questions of myself. I needed to know what lenses I used and how biblical narratives were being shaded by my own worldview, and those of others.

Years later, I recognize that there are a multitude of lenses—hermeneutical approaches—that individuals and groups use to read and live out Scripture. I would like to be so bold as to attempt a very large generalization for the sake of brevity. In many groups where justice and shalom are not core tenants of reading and living out God’s Word, there seems to be a particular lens at play. This lens tends to push past the words on the page, with the hopes of attaining the hidden—and “more important”—meaning of the text. It is the assertion of this brief essay that, in reading Scripture this way, we are discoloring, shading, and shifting the text. The focusing done by this particular type of lens often denies the social location and lived experiences of the human beings in the text, for the sake of reaching the perceived spiritual and universal truths of the text. This allegorical approach to Scripture often shifts the focus away from very obvious elements in a passage, and this shifting can deny the humanity and the divine interaction on the page. Bernard Ramm outlines several allegorical schools and the basics of their function; at the core of these schools and methods, however, is the idea that the letter of the text is obvious and mostly insignificant, because the real meaning is hidden underneath.1 The brief argument of this essay is that a lens which rushes beyond the words of the text will often deny justice and shalom. Hence, my argument is for a justice lens that allows us to more fully read and live God’s Word.

Novelty Lenses

In Luke’s narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, he details a funeral procession that is interrupted by our Lord (Luke 7:11–15). The deceased young man is the only son of a widow. Jesus raises this young man, the gathered crowds praise God, and word of this spreads throughout the region.

So often, the miraculous raising of the dead young man takes center stage, and for good reason. This wondrous act of the supreme savior needs to be celebrated. However, the lens with which we view Scripture—at least in the church in the West—is often dominated by an allegorical approach. We are often so busy looking for the hidden meaning of a text that we miss the text itself. What I’d like to urge in this essay is that we do the hard work of removing (or at least naming) our preconstructed lenses that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us because it has been shaded and altered. Is this passage about a miraculous raising from the dead that could be symbolic of Christ’s authority over our own circumstances? Certainly. There is also, however, another narrative in the text that must be seen. 

In the passage, several key individuals and groups are identified: Jesus, Jesus’ disciples, the large crowd following Jesus, a large crowd from the city, the deceased son, and the widowed mother. The woman is described in detail, especially compared to the others present. She is a grieving mother, a widow, in the midst of the funeral procession for her only son. The typical lens that we use to view this woman highlights her pain and her agony, stemming from a sense of deep loss. However, because that same lens has been constructed by allegorical preference and a Christian tradition that tends to ignore the social and lived realities of persons in the Bible and in our worlds, we miss the other things present in the text.

Notice, again, the way the lens works. If all the reader sees is her emotional agony, then Jesus’ compassion toward her is relegated to her emotional state; her trauma is truncated to her role as a grieving mother. Jesus’ miracle, then, is solely concentrated on the grief of a mother, and the raising of her son is an act of taking her pain away. In this interpretation Jesus becomes the God who comforts us emotionally and spiritually, but says nothing about our lived experiences and social realities. This particular hermeneutic—the novelty lens—shades, dims, and colors the view of the text in the same way those novelty sunglasses of mine did. This novelty lens focuses on a kind of Greco-Roman traditional hermeneutic steeped in allegorical method. This hermeneutic prioritizes a perceived deeper and truer meaning of the text, usually at the expense of other things deemed to be “surface” and insignificant. Just as one who is wearing blue sunglasses will never be able to appreciate vibrant yellows and deep browns, this novelty lens robs the reader of the vibrant tapestry God is revealing to us.

Justice Lenses

We must be able to read God’s Word in totality. Yes, there are often wonderful and revelatory truths to be mined from deep study of Scripture. However, if all Scripture is inspired by God, then there are also wonderful and revelatory truths in the actual words and descriptions themselves.

Looking at this passage of Luke, Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder points out that this woman has lost her “primary means of support, she has lost all economic security.”2 Without her son, this woman, in her social and historical context, is now in the most vulnerable position in her society. She will be primarily at the mercy of others for her daily provision, protection, legal needs, and communal engagement. As Jesus sees this woman in compounded agony and compounded disenfranchisement, he has compassion on her. A more justice-centered lens allows us, the readers, to engage the totality of compassion that Jesus has on this woman. Jesus’ compassion is not restricted to her emotional state of loss. Rather, Jesus’ compassion is inclusive of her entire condition. Jesus knows well what awaits this dear sister both in her days of mourning in a familial sense, and in her days of struggling in a socioeconomic sense. The compassion of the Messiah encompasses all this woman feels, knows, is experiencing, and will experience. This compassion does not skip over her lived reality, neither does it land solely on her current tears.

The good news in this passage is that Jesus sees it all and sees us all. Christ is concerned with all of us, not just part of us. This view is not an isolated incident with this particular widow either. The fourth chapter of Luke gives us Jesus’ declaration and understanding of the gospel. As Justo González notes, this passage “sets the tone for the entire book.”3 It is here that Jesus cites the prophet Isaiah and puts forth the familiar edict that he is to declare good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord. As Drew Hart reminds us, “Jesus’ message was revolutionary good news for the poor.”4  Again, employing a justice lens, these are actual humans in actual conditions, not themes and abstract concepts. On the other hand, an allegorical reading of the text can deny actual justice and inspire pontification about a perceived eschatological justice. Too often we read “poor,” “captive,” and “blind” as simple adjectives—as metaphors. And our response is to pray for these conditions, which are interpreted as disembodied concepts to be cast out. This is not what Jesus said, nor is it what Jesus saw. “He saw them as bodies and souls.” 5 

Here, justice is not about seeking political upheaval for the sake of revolution. Justice, rather, is about reading and doing God’s Word. It is about an “ethic of compassion” and a sense of justice and liberation that is “the very foundation of biblical faith.”6 In fact, Jesus’ very essence is freedom.7 Jesus understands that his calling includes liberation and freedom and impacting the actual social conditions of human beings. He declares this in Luke 4 and demonstrates it so vividly in Luke 7. The compassion of Jesus toward this woman’s complete existence fueled him to intervene. Listen closely to the language of the text. Jesus sees her entire grief, her entire trauma, everything she is facing. He says to her, “Do not weep” (Luke 7:13). After speaking to the young man and raising him from the dead, Jesus “gave him back to his mother” (Luke 7:18). By giving this woman back her son, in the context of her time, Jesus has essentially changed her entire social and economic future—in addition to healing her grief and loss. In the midst of the crowds following and expecting things from Jesus, he is able to focus in on the pain and suffering of this woman and center her narrative. He centers her experience in such a way that both crowds—the one following him to see miracles and signs of life and the one following her because there is no sign of life—are impacted by her current situation and the newness of life that Jesus’ interruption brings to her.

A justice-oriented lens allows the reader to see the varied colors and nuances in the passage. The woman’s grief is present, but so is her trauma, anxiety, uncertainty, social location, economic condition, familial future, vulnerability, fear, and even anger. She is allowed to be the full human God created her to be as she interacts with the divine. Any lens, then, that is not at least shaped, formed, or touched by God’s compassion and desire for shalom and justice refuses to acknowledge necessary details in Scripture and concludes with a summation of the text that is devoid of the depth and diversity of real-life application.

Conclusion

So often, conversations around justice within Christianity are dominated by social action, or political agendas, or division around denominationally bound definitions of the gospel. This essay seeks to challenge the way we view Scripture rather than directly engage in the prevailing arguments. If we are to see the totality of human-divine interaction with the revelation of God’s Word, then we must divest ourselves of novelty lenses that look beyond what God has explicitly spoken. Christ has set an example for us. Christ is moved with compassion when he sees and considers this woman’s reality. That compassion moves him to intervene.

In her recent book, In My Grandmother’s House, Yolanda Pierce shares a story of a Black woman who is driving in the rain. She sees a White woman on the side of the road and has an internal struggle with herself regarding whether or not to help. The struggle, you see, is not about whether or not help is needed. Rather, the struggle is over whether or not the help would be received. Pierce ends this chapter by challenging a more eschatological understanding of salvation to include this work of intervening. “When I am spiritually and physically well, and when I am spiritually and physically safe, I have a responsibility to work so that other communities, peoples, and cultures can also be made safe and whole.”8 

Can we open ourselves to see Scripture and to see our neighbors? Justice is more than the sermons we preach, the books we write, and the classes we teach. Not that these things are outside of the purview of justice, for many preachers and scholars find justice at the core of their work. Yet the goal of justice, rather than the sermon, the book, or the course, is the interruption of an actual lived reality that grieves the heart of God in our broken world. I strongly believe that if we were to see the beautiful spectrum of human experience engaging God in Scripture that we, too, would be moved with compassion to speak, to heal, to give back.

Dwight Radcliff

Dwight A. Radcliff Jr. is academic dean for the William E. Pannell Center for Black Church Studies and assistant professor of mission, theology, and culture. His teaching and preaching have taken him across the US and abroad, and he has lectured in seminaries, universities, and conferences on topics ranging from urban church planting, culture, theology, preaching, social justice, millennials, and evangelism. He has over 20 years of experience in pastoral ministry and is pastor of The Message Center, a multicultural, multigenerational, urban congregation in Gardena, California, where he leads with his wife, DeShun Jones-Radcliff. He and his wife have two daughters.

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