When we lived in New York, we would travel from Queens to Manhattan to see the Macy’s Parade. Up close and personal you see that the balloons are maneuvered down the city streets by many helpers. The balloons have not one but many strings. These tie the balloon to the earth. One year Spider man was not the vigorous super hero you see in the photo here, but having been battered by the wind against lamp posts he was limply carried by the helpers on the ground.
I wonder about embedded sayings in the biblical text. One example is “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst.” Matthew 18:20. Is this a saying that is true for potlucks, worship services and prayer meetings? Some say that this is only true for the immediate application to Matthew 18, which has to do with church discipline. In other words, is the saying relatively free (few strings) or quite bound (many strings).
In John 7, there is a discussion about Jesus legitimacy. questions about him abound in this passage. Why is he in a backwater like Galilee when the real action happens in Jerusalem? How can he be a teacher if he does not have formal education? How can he break the law by healing on the Sabbath (referring to John 5). How can he be a great prophet or the messiah if he is from Galilee?
Jesus said this “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” In the immediate context of v. 20-24 he is comparing the practice of circumcision on the Sabbath, which was considered lawful, with his act of healing on a Sabbath. He is saying, quit just looking at the surface of things, but think deep.
In the context of John 7, this saying applies to the questions surrounding Jesus. Who is he? What right to belief does he have?
In the context of the Gospel as a whole we can find a wider application – that is, will you the reader come to faith in Jesus. Belief or faith is tied to eternal life throughout John. So take a deeper look at Jesus.
Can we take this saying and apply it even more generally. “Christian, quit looking at the outward appearance, but look at the reality. Is it right and true?” This could be limited to questions of Jesus identity, but could it not be useful for many ethical questions we face. Is Candidate A truly patriotic because s/he wears a flag on his/her lapel? Is it pro-life to be anti-abortion and pro-gun?
I think that there are limits (some strings on the balloon) based on the meanings of the words and the general associations with the larger biblical texts. We should not limit sayings to only one application.
I think, for example, that John 7:24 compares favorable to Isaiah’s beginning chapters that criticize religious ceremony that is not matched by faithful hearts or just lives. (See Isaiah 1:10ff)
The sayings take on the quality of an “aphorism” which is a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation. There are many of these in the wisdom books and in the teaching passages of Jesus.