One of the most important tasks in reading a story is deciding where to focus. As a reader, my focus is often scattered. Things catch my attention for all kinds of reasons, some personal and some because of my own place in culture and history. If we’re interested, though, in how the text was intended to affect us, we need to ask where the author wanted my focus to land. John may mention in passing, for example, that Jesus was in Galilee. That detail might jump out at me if I have just returned from a tour of Israel, triggering a riot of remembered sights and smells. But that’s not likely the reaction the Evangelist hoped I would have. I need to find the aspect of the story that was designed to draw my attention, designed to be the primary focus. It is my reaction to that focal aspect of the episode that the writer cared about the most.
So how can I identify the focus of a passage? There are several ways in which a writer draws the mind’s eye to particular moments and particular details:
beginnings and endings
Beginnings and endings are the places where an audience’s attention is naturally highest. So it is at the beginning of a story that we often receive some signal as to what the story is “about.” Likewise, it is at the story’s end that we often find the author emphasizing what s/he wants us to focus on. This is not necessarily the very first or last thing said in the story. Sometimes the episode opens and closes with background information about the time, Jesus’ movements, etc. But we will usually find the story’s focus emphasized near the beginning and/or end.
repeated words, ideas, or images
The focal aspects of a story are also the ones that hold the episode together, give it unity. So we would expect language and imagery about that focus to crop up at several points. Sometimes this is an obvious matter of specific words being repeated. Other times, we need to look for the same ideas expressed in different terms. To turn this around, if you see that a word or idea is only mentioned in one part of the story it is less likely to be the intended focus.
narrative tension and Resolution?
Most stories revolve around some sort of problem or crisis. What is the problem that drives this story forward? In general terms it is always that problem that we are meant to keep in the foreground. More specifically, our attention is drawn inevitably to the moment when the crisis comes to a head (climax) and is resolved (denouement). Although the problem may be set up at the beginning of the story, the climax and denouement will likely be placed near the end.
One word of caution: The real problem of a story isn’t necessarily the most obvious conflict. Sometimes, for example, Jesus is in sharp debate with scribes or Pharisaic leaders. We may find, though, that what drives the story is not actually this open conflict but rather the more subtle question of what those around Jesus think of the exchange. So keep in mind anyone the author mentions observing the scene, and ask which conflict reaches its climax/denouement near the episode’s end.
irony or reversal of expectations?
Some aspect of a story may be highly ironic. For example, in John 9 most readers find deep irony in the way a blind man comes to “see” (both literally and spiritually) where the leaders who should have good spiritual “vision” seem less and less able recognize the truth. That kind of irony draws our attention and so is often another tool used by the author to direct our focus.
Similarly, our attention is drawn to what is unexpected or shocking. In Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ conversation with Mary and Martha, an ancient audience would have been shocked by Mary’s behaviour–taking the posture of a disciple with a master when that role was reserved for men. Jesus’ response to Martha’s objection would have taken them even more by surprise. Instead of scolding Mary, he tells Martha that she too should consider that same “masculine” behaviour! Anything that would have been shocking or surprising like this may well be what the writer wanted to stand as the focus.
Connections with background details
Although they aren’t central, the background (or secondary) elements of the story will still point us toward what is meant to be focal. Gospel stories are very terse and economic. Nothing is said without a purpose. So if we think we’ve identified the story’s focus, then we should be able to see how each detail helps us to understand that focal element. In Mark, when Jesus meets the Syro-phoenecian woman, we are told that Jesus is in Gentile territory. That is not in itself the focus. It’s a background detail. But it confirms that the story’s focus will have to do with Jewish-Gentile relations in God’s Kingdom. Again, we can turn this around as a negative test: If there are details in the story that seem totally unrelated to our proposed focus, we should probably re-consider where the focus lies.
themes in this section of the book
No Gospel episode is an island. They were placed in a particular sequence by the Evangelists so that their juxtaposition could help us to recognize the point in each one. So when Jesus answers questions about marriage in Mark 10 we should notice that the episode stands in a section whose focus is the “way of the cross” (both for Jesus and for his followers). If we think that the focus here is simply Jesus’ stringent rules for marriage, we need to ask “How does that relate to a disciple’s taking up his or her cross?”
An aspect of the story, not a “principle”
Finally, remember that when we’re looking for the focus of the story we’re not looking outside the story. We’re not trying to find an abstract principle, lesson, or “point.” Rather, we’re asking what aspect of the story itself is meant to stand in the foreground. We then can ask, at a second stage, what kind of response that focal aspect is meant to provoke in the audience (then or now).
None of this is an exact science. But it moves us beyond “well, to me this says . . .” These questions point us toward specific evidence in the text, observable traces of the story’s design. So while we may not agree what the focus was meant to be, we will be able to discuss the question on the basis of that evidence. We will likely find, along the way, that some interpretations at least can be recognized as poor ones.