A Chef and A Rabbi Help Explain Preaching

Not long ago I was eating with a chef and it reminded me of a Jewish Rabbi. Here is what happened. 

The chef and I were eating and she began to talk about how she would have prepared the dish differently. She had comments on the quality of ingredients and the role of salt at different stages of cooking. Due to her training and love of food, she could see and taste things that I could not. While she was talking about the brilliant use of the kalamata olives to balance the dish, I was thinking about why some olives are sold in cans while others are in jars. 

She and I were on different levels. And then I recalled Rabbi Joel Nickerson's interview by Rob Bell

In the interview Rabbi Joel said that in his tradition there is a way to do exegesis of the scripture and it has four layers: 

  • simple
  • hints
  • commentary
  • mystery

Here is a quick breakdown of these layers as I understand them (which is limited as I am not Jewish): 

The simple layer is just that. When you read a text there is a simple (literal) understanding. It is when you read the story of the good Samaritan and hear God saying it is good to take care of those in need. 

The "hints" layer is what many preachers do in their sermons. The preacher will then go though the scripture then point out all the other scripture that is "hinted" at in the particular preaching text. So when you hear about John the Baptist, the text hints at the story of Elijah. For many, this is the essence of what passes for "biblical preaching."

The commentary layer is that layer where one finds their own voice in the text and contributes to the story. It is the layer that some fear as "diverging" from the Word and is sometimes met with resistance with phrases like, "where in scripture do you read that?" or "The Bible says ..." Commentary is something that we all do, but not every tradition values as commentary.

Let me tell you a mystery...

The mystery layer is that layer that needs the Spirit of God to breathe upon us in order to expose. It is that layer that we get glimpses of at and it is this layer that makes Scripture the inspired word of God. It is a layer that is hidden in plain sight but we are often looking for other things or just plain blind to being able to see it. It is this layer that Jesus exposes the world to when he says, "you have heard it said... But I say..." or "Blessed are the poor..."

When I listen to a preacher, much like the chef I ate with, I too am busy analyzing the sermon, commenting on the delivery, making note on the way the "salt" was used. I am constantly in search of the preachers who expose the mystery. And too often I find myself frustrated at my own inability to expose the mystery as I only stay at the other levels. 

And so, for those who are feasting on the word of God in Christ it is my prayer that we may all find ourselves exposed the the deep mystery and not just fill up on the simple, hints and commentary.