I don’t believe we can truly understand the Bible until we are able to “hear” the Bible. And we cannot “hear” the Bible until we are willing to find ourselves in the Biblical narrative honestly. When I am willing to see myself as Pharaoh (and not Moses), Saul (and not David), the Philistine (and not the Israelite), Judas (and not Peter or Paul), and the thief who did not confess, then I am able to truly receive a message of grace and mercy.
If I presume, if I only identify with the eventual heroes and good guys, the winners, then I privilege my place in the narrative. I do this to make myself feel good and so I can judge others. In this way, the Bible is always talking about the other fellow (the one I refuse to identify with) and not me. This can be very comforting, but hardly salvific.
When I can see myself as the man who raises his voice to heaven and is thankful he is not like all these “others” and not identify with the humble tax collector, then I might be saved. Then I might understand and hear the Bible.
Otherwise, I am reading deaf as I already know the story and have chosen the side of the “good” guys regardless of what my life actually reflects. It becomes a double blindness and deafness. Our familiarity with the story, our knowing who we are supposed to identify with, can actually be a barrier to hearing. This is one reason the Pharisees were so deaf and blind, even though they thought they “knew” and had “heard” the story.
When we read the story about the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18), the Spirit is speaking to us, the Pharisees, so that we might experience the moment the tax collector does, and not simply for us to pick out the good guys and bad guys. If we read the story unreflectively, identifying with the tax collector, paradoxically we may very well be the Pharisee. Nothing better creates a Pharisee like the delusion he, in his own mind, is more like the tax collector in his humility than the Pharisee because he knows how the story should be read or interpreted.
We assume understanding the story translates into our being like the tax collector and not the Pharisee. No, understanding the story, what it means, translates into nothing more than that—understanding. When we say, “We get it,” do we? Understanding the Pharisee is the “bad” guy is not enough. Only actually having the moment the tax collector does, where we feel our complete poverty of spirit, our brokenness, our desperate need of grace, can we then truly understand the story, which is to say “hear” the story.
When this happens, I’m not focused on the Pharisee in the story not getting it, where I think to myself, “wow, I’m glad I’m not like him,” but I can now focus on me, the Pharisee reading the story. I can’t truly “hear” and understand until I have allowed the truth to sink in, that the story is really about me…the Pharisee reading/observing. Now that I know my poverty and brokenness, I can say: I was the Pharisee all along. Lord forgive me. Lord have mercy.
Only then am I in a place to hear and understand the story.