I want to ask you to think along with me today on meaning and scripture. I want to say that explicitly at the beginning because the opening example will seem to be about something else entirely, especially, coming as it does in the middle of the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland.
Here is a text I would like for you to consider.
All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Therefore, Workers of the World, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. 
Now I would like for you to deny all your instincts and a good deal of your education and read this as a single sentiment from a single source. It can be done that way if you try. Here is my try at it.
- The fundamental inequality of peoples is at the heart of this sentiment and it continues by urging workers to unite, presumably to achieve that equality.
- Since these rights are inalienable, there is no question of any legitimate taking of them, so, again, the uniting of the workers would be for the purpose of reacquiring rights that should not have been taken away.
- Since “workers” are being asked to unite, it is presumably the people who hire the workers who are the culprits.
In that paragraph of hypothetical construction, I have tried to illustrate that the ideas suggested in the first part can be logically extended to the second part. All that passage is nonsense, of course, but I would like for you to stop and consider just why it is nonsense. It is not the words. They work fine. It is not the ideas. They can be made to work. It is the sources. What I am going to call the genres.
What if, instead of cobbling together that quotation, I had said, “I would like you to consider as allied texts this piece from the Declaration of Independence and this rhetorical climax from the Communist Manifesto.”
So with that as an introduction, I would like to introduce the announced topic: meaning and scripture. Let’s start with part of a speech by the apostle Paul, as Luke has recreated it.
We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.  As it is written in the second Psalm: You are my Son; today I have become your Father (Acts 13:32-33).
Here is the argument Paul makes, according to Luke. God has kept the promise He made to the Israelite forebears. This was done in the resurrection of Jesus. It is at that point—“today, I have become your Father”—that Jesus becomes the messiah.
There is a single source (Psalm 2) with a single meaning: Jesus becomes the messiah at and by means of his resurrection from the dead. The notion of just what “messiah” means is not a difficulty here because it comes at the end of Jesus’s ministry and no one knows what the Messiah, now in heaven, is going to do next.
The synoptic argument
But Matthew, Mark, and Luke treat this question differently. They introduce a distinctive voice of God, they put it at the beginning of the ministry, and they add a second source to the proclamation and the second source is not royal at all. It is the mixed sources I want to call to your attention and that is the reason I gave you that little political detour at the beginning.
So here are the synoptic texts as they appear in the New Revised Standard Version.
- Mark says, (1:11) “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
- Matthew has (3:17) “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
- Luke has (3:22) “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
When I asked you to deny all your natural instincts and read that composite political passage, I knew I was asking a lot because I knew you would recognize the sources—and as I see it, the sources ARE the message. It is the genres, not the meaning of each clause that shapes the meaning.
The first part of this text comes from Psalm 2, just as Paul’s did. The second part (highlighted) comes from one of the songs of the suffering servant in Isaiah 42:1, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights.” That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
So first, note that the gospel writers put this event at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. Paul puts his at the end. That means that the writers of these gospels want to make the claim at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry that Jesus is king AND suffering servant. That was novel, of course, and offensive.
Messiah and king and son of God all had triumphant overtones. Jesus just can’t be, according to the Jewish understanding at the time (and today) the triumphant messiah and the suffering servant. One or the other; not both.
But this is a genre question, not a text question. There are three other servant songs in Isaiah (Chapter 49, verse 1 and following, Chapter 50, verse 4 and following and Chapter 52, verse 13—53, verse 12. There is quite a bit in these songs that is not kingly.
- For instance, “he was so inhumanly disfigured that he no longer looked like a man.”
- Or “He had no form or charm to attract us, no beauty to win our hearts.”
- Or, “Ill-treated and afflicted, he never opened his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter house.”
Those are all from the songs of the suffering servant and none of them fit with the kingly emphasis of Psalm 2.
How to understand this passage and why it is so hard to do
So here it is. Mark and the other writers have a point they want to make. It is that Jesus was claimed by God at his baptism and identified as the Son of God (the messiah) and as the Suffering Servant. Both. When they joined the genres, the point that is made by joining them is that at this point, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus has redefined what “messiah” means.
What does it mean? It now means “the promised One of Israel who will suffer and die.”
How is that meaning established? By joining a psalm that means “coronation” with a song that belongs in the genre of “suffering servant songs.”
Does that seem like a stretch? I confess that it does seem like a stretch to me, but I am confident that it did not seem like a stretch to Mark. And remember that it did not seem like a stretch to you to look at the little clip (famous, but small) from the Declaration of Independence and see that it was attached to another little clip from the Communist Manifesto and to say, immediately, “That’s ridiculous! Those two texts don’t belong together!
I think that is the reaction Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, had in mind. And I think they wanted to say, “No, it is not ridiculous. But it is new. God is doing a new thing.” And I think they counted on the sources to carry the meaning with their readers just as I counted on you to do the same thing.
Really, my only concern is this. How can a modern Christian pick up a Bible and read that text—just the words—and get the meaning the author intends if it is true that the meaning comes from combining the genres? It seems like a hard job, but I don’t see another way to get there.
 I admit that I cheated a little to add the “therefore.”Actually, I just borrowed it from the last paragraph. Some sense of the relationship of the two expressions was needed and I thought this did the least damage to the idea.
 Note, however, the difference between “raising up Jesus” and “raising up Gideon.” Gideon was one of the judges of Israel who was living a quiet life in spite of the occupation of his land by the Midianites. God “raised him up” to lead a military insurgency and to drive the Midianites out. That is not what “raised up Jesus” means, but it is what it was expected to mean. The messiah was to do for the nation what Gideon did for his little area..