When I was a kid, my Sunday School teachers were always asking us, “What’s the moral of the story?” I love Larry Norman’s critique of the tendency to find a moral in all of the Bible stories. His song, “Moses in the Wilderness” after tracing the exploits of Moses, ends with the ridiculous injunction, “Never borrow money needlessly.”
I’m wondering if this reductive reading of the Bible is embedded in the idea of the “Application”: the part at the end of the sermon where the pastor explains how the Biblical text applies to our lives. The way some preachers talk about the application, one might get the impression that this is the most important part of the message, but as a congregant, we usually feel that to live out the application will be hard. The difficulty may lie in the incongruity between our desire to respond to the text, and the word “application,” for the word suggests a very modern approach, and thus, a limited one.
If I do some free association I come up with Band-Aids and other things that adhere, like those decals I used to stick onto my models of racecars. To apply means to stick something onto the surface of something else.
It follows then that to apply the lessons of a sermon means to stick its teachings onto me. The limitations of this word are becoming obvious. For one thing, the pastor does all the work and the listeners are passive, like a child receiving the Band-Aid. And, like a Band-Aid, it makes us feel better, but it doesn’t usually stick longer than a day. We walk away happiest if the bandage is one of those fancy kinds with cartoon characters on them. We might even show our friends, who will be only temporarily enamored.
This is not a very good way to interact with any story, let alone scripture, for it makes it an object to be dissected and a resource to use.
The idea of application presupposes a gap between subject and object–between me and the text. It suggests that there are things in biblical texts that I can extract and use. These things are almost always ideas, that is, intellectual propositions. It’s not that stories don’t communicate ideas, but that’s not all they communicate–stories are not primarily intellectual. We use the derogatory word didactic to describe stories that are.
Good stories don’t stick to our surface, but they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative. The story of the Bible, and the stories in the Bible are good. They are more than good.
Let me illustrate this with the story of “The Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37.
A lawyer, in an attempt to test Jesus, asks him what one must do to have eternal life. Rather than answer directly, Jesus asks him what he thinks the Law says. The lawyer correctly answers that he must love God and neighbour.
The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbour?”
If there was a clear intellectual answer to this question, Jesus could have simply told it to him–He could have delivered the application right then and there, but because the answer cannot be reduced to an idea, a story is necessary.
A certain man was set upon by robbers and left seriously injured in a ditch. A priest and a Levite saw him but walked past. A Samaritan, hated by the Jews, helped the injured man and arranged for his care and promised to return.
If you were to apply the lessons of this story to your life, you’d likely be convicted to help others in need like the good Samaritan, and not ignore them like the priest and the Levite. The problem is, I already know I am supposed to do this, and I also know that I will not do it to the extent that the God’s Law requires—and the lawyer knew this too. So, this application adheres to the surface and will, consequently, fall off during the first bath.
Rather than application, I would like to suggest the word implication. It suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, but that’s a good thing since the clarity of application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral. Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story. Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story.
I can enter this story at a lot of points. I can enter it as the Samaritan and see that I am inadequate because I’m not enough like him. But I can also be honest and see myself in the action of the robbers or the priest and Levite who are not so different than the robbers who harm the man through inaction (Where does your coffee come from?). Let’s be honest, this is most of us. I can also enter the story as the victim of the evil of others. In reality, I occupy all these roles in various ways—I am in the story. Implication is experiential.
A further problem with the term application is that it favours a self-centered understanding of the story. It’s about me and what I am supposed to do; I’ve got to be on the lookout for the people who have been tossed in the metaphorical ditch and do something about it. But this story is not primarily about what I am supposed to do; it’s more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.
Jesus is like the Samaritan. He was willing to get into the ditch with the beaten man, and pay his bills and promised to return. If the story is about me, it ends with my guilt as a crappy Good Samaritan, or as a priest or Levite. Neither the Lawyer who questioned Jesus, nor I, am capable of meeting the injunction to “love your neighbour” as the Law requires. The implicit meaning of the story is that I am not able to love my neighbour properly, but because Jesus did, I receive eternal life, as if I did—it’s about him. When I understand that this story is not just about me and my inadequacy, but Jesus and his adequacy, I am free to love my neighbour out of gratitude because I have been given the eternal life the Lawyer was asking about, even though I don’t deserve it.
Jesus refuses to give a straight answer to the Lawyer, as to who a neighbour is. By refusing to simplify the Truth to an application he points to something far greater–an implicit and transforming truth about God’s grace.
I am not suggesting that every pastor who uses the word “application” at the end of his sermon is leaving his listeners with a simplistic, individualistic idea. I am just arguing that the word implies a limited understanding of story. By using the word implication, we have a better tool to experience the transformative power of stories.