I must confess a prejudice. As a biblical scholar, I prefer sermons that reflect deep engagement with the biblical text.
I want to sense that the preacher has “been there,” head and heart, thoroughly immersing herself in the passage and its significance. I do not need the message to present a new or flashy interpretation, but authentic struggle with the text at hand makes all the difference.
Please don’t misunderstand. I know that texts do not convey just a single meaning; happily, they present us with a range of possible interpretations. I know personal experience, cultural context, power dynamics, and historical traditions shape biblical interpretation — and I celebrate all of that. For precisely these reasons I avoid using the word “exegesis” in the classroom, as if texts conveyed a single message just waiting to be discovered. Just the same, none of those factors excuse turning a text into a pretext.
My prejudice has its limits. Sometimes “the point” of a passage may not provide the primary energy for the preaching moment On occasion, a text opens up a set of questions and insights beyond the imagination, even counter to the intention, of its author. Yet those questions and insights, emerging precisely from sensitive engagement with the text, open the path for profound theological and pastoral reflection.
Let’s consider a couple of examples from beyond the Revised Common Lectionary, Galatians 2:1-10 and Romans 15:30-33. We lack space here to sketch a full interpretation of these passages, though a close look reveals that they “say” more than they may once have “said.”
Galatians 2:1-10 provides Paul’s take on the famous Jerusalem Council, also related in Acts 15. What is its “point?” Within the larger flow of Galatians, the passage maintains that Paul’s circumcision-free gospel carries the endorsement of the church leaders in Jerusalem. When Paul set forth his gospel, “those supposed to be something” (author’s translation) added nothing to it. With the sole provision that Paul remember the poor in his ministry, the meeting produced an acknowledgment of two ministries: Peter’s law-observant mission to Jews and Paul’s law-free work among Gentiles. In this sense, the passage lays a plank on Paul’s platform to the effect that the Gentile Galatians need not take on circumcision.
Along similar lines, we might observe how Galatians 2:1-10 arrives late in Galatians’ autobiographical section. The section runs from 1:10 through 2:14. Facing opposing preachers who must have been persuasive, Paul defends his own authority. Having argued that his authority derives directly from God (1:10-17), in 1:18-2:14 Paul reinforces that authority with the endorsement of Cephas and James. Even if we stress Paul’s mode of argumentation, the major “point” resides in Paul’s argument for a law-free gospel.
What if we looked at another aspect of the passage, and in a way that Paul certainly did not anticipate? Paul is proud of the solution — two missions, one to Jews and one to Gentiles — but we know that decision was doomed from the beginning. Whenever believers decide to solve a problem by dividing turf, the decision simply pushes conflict further down the road. The two-mission framework was intended to preserve Jewish distinctiveness as an essential voice within the emerging church. Instead, it had the opposite effect. With far more Gentiles to attract than Jews, the church naturally grew into an overwhelmingly Gentile movement. Distanced from the burgeoning Gentile churches, law observant Jews receded into a minority, and to such a degree that law-observant Jewish Christianity became a fringe element within a matter of generations.
Eventually the split between “Judaism” and “Christianity” grew rigid, so that now we think of Judaism and Christianity as different “world religions.” This development’s devastating consequences continue to haunt us today. Paul did not offer Galatians 2:1-10 as a case study in “How Not to Do Conflict,” but contemporary reading communities might employ it precisely in that way.
Romans 15:30-33 closes a unit of Paul’s most famous epistle. Indeed, some commentators have regarded this unit as the letter’s original ending, though that now represents a minority opinion. In any case, most commentators could agree regarding “the point” of these verses. Paul writes to the Romans in part because he hopes to build a working relationship with their congregations. In particular, he hopes to use Rome as a base for expanding his ministry into Spain (15:28). However, he must deliver his collection to Jerusalem before he can visit Rome. Paul invites the Romans to pray that (a) God will protect him from “unbelievers” in Judea, (b) his collection will be well received, and ultimately (c) he will then be able to visit Rome.
Paul asks the Romans to pray for him, but a reflection on prayer lies beside “the point.” Nevertheless, we do well to reflect on this passage as a case study in prayer. Countless believers struggle with the mysteries of prayer, including the question, “Why does it seem that some prayers work out just as we hope, while others don’t?”
The Book of Acts, particularly chapter 21, informs us of how things did work out for Paul. Paul did eventually visit Rome and do ministry there. However, Paul traveled to Rome as a prisoner; his visit to Jerusalem led to his arrest — church tradition tells us it ultimately led to his martyrdom in Rome. Acts is somewhat unclear concerning how well Paul’s offering was received — his welcome in Jerusalem was less than enthusiastic — and he certainly was not protected from harm. In short, Paul did manage a visit to Rome, but hardly on the terms for which he had hoped.
Contemporary believers may relate to Paul’s case study. Most of us avoid interpreting tragedy in terms of God’s agency, yet our prayers often find complicated outcomes. Sometimes our disappointments lead to felicitous surprises. Sometimes prayers are “answered” in ways we could not anticipate, in ways we would not desire. Prayer is messy business.
Most of the time, I prefer that sermons stay close to “the point” of a biblical passage. Yet sometimes, in our contemporary struggle to live faithfully, “the point” may lie beside the point. That is, God’s Word for our moment may travel in a tangential path. Galatians 2:1-10 and Romans 15:30-33 may inspire us to keep our eyes and ears alert for those moments. Both passages offer important lessons that lie, well, beside the point.