Twisting Jesus’ Words

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 11/10/2015

I can overlook bad biblical interpretation every once and while. You’re probably the same. You see interpretive mistakes here and there, but you don’t always make a ruckus about it.

When my daughter came home with a badly-interpreted Bible lesson one day, though, I didn’t tolerate it. I spoke up.

She came to me with a handout she got from Sunday school. That morning’s topic was called, “The Night Neighbor,” a lesson from Luke 11:5–8 (NIRV).

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend. You go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread. A friend of mine on a journey has come to stay with me. I have no food to give him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked. My children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, that person will not get up. And he won’t give you bread just because he is your friend. But because you keep bothering him, he will surely get up. He will give you as much as you need.”

After citing the above text, the handout had a list of “Application Points.”

  • Even though you are small, you can do big things with God’s help.
  • Sharing big means sharing before you’re even asked.
  • What can you share today before you’re even asked?

In other words, whoever wrote this curriculum (and it’s a big-budget, highly produced lesson series used by many churches) believed that Jesus’ point in this passage was to teach about sharing. The Sunday school student is supposed to take note of the neighbor who was awoken at midnight, notice that he initially was reluctant to share his food, but that he eventually realized the error of his ways and gave his friend some bread.

Why was I so frustrated? Because Jesus was not trying to teach about sharing. How do I know? I follow a principle we teach at Stand to Reason: Never read a Bible verse. Always read the context. It’s the words before and after a passage that clarifies the meaning of the smaller unit of text. Indeed, as we’ll see in this passage, Jesus even explains the point of his “night neighbor” parable.

To be fair, I could see how a person might interpret this passage as a point about sharing. If the only thing you read was Luke 11:5–8 and didn’t read any context, then it makes sense that sharing might be a possible interpretation. It would be even more tempting to come to that conclusion if your goal was to teach children to share. But the context is available so there’s no excuse.

Notice the context of Luke 11:5–8. Jesus begins by telling his disciples the “Lord’s Prayer,” answering their request to teach them how to pray. After He tells them the prayer, He tells them the parable of the “night neighbor.” Then, Jesus concludes with these famous words: “So here is what I say to you. Ask, and it will be given to you. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks will receive. The one who searches will find. And the door will be opened to the one who knocks.”

In other words, the context (the words before and after the “night neighbor” parable) is about how to pray and make your requests known to God. Jesus wants us to be persistent in our prayer. That’s His point.

The Sunday school lesson not only missed that point, but it also focused on the wrong person in the parable. Notice the handout points you to the neighbor. It asks you to consider being the person who’s awoken at midnight and asked to share. That’s not the person Jesus is asking us to look at in the parable, though, when taken in context. Jesus’ point is that you act like the friend who comes over and asks for bread. The friend was persistent in asking for help. Jesus also wants you to be persistent in your request to God. The Sunday school lesson identifies the wrong person in the parable because they ignored the context.

Some might think I’m overreacting. After all, it’s just a Sunday school lesson for kids. Sharing is still a great value. It’s no big deal.

I disagree. It is a big deal. First of all, if sharing (or giving) is a biblical mandate, then use passages that teach that. There’s plenty of them. Second, making a lesson from a passage that teaches a different point is bad hermeneutics (the art and science of interpreting the Bible). That means you’re not only misinterpreting the Bible, but you’re modeling bad interpretive principles to impressionable young children. Third, you’re ignoring an important message that Jesus is trying to teach: persistence in prayer. This is a great lesson for all people to learn, including children. Fourth, you’re twisting Jesus’ words to say something He didn’t mean. That’s a huge deal. We reasonably get angry when someone twists our words. How much more grievous of a mistake is it to do that to the words of God!

The solution is to never read a Bible verse. Always read the context, the parts before and after the passage you’re looking at. The only skill required to discover that context is—wait for it—reading. That’s it! You don’t need a fancy seminary education. If you can read a verse or passage out of context, you already have the tool you need to read it in context.