Sunday, 23 October 2011

Bible Sunday: Words that matter

Bible Sunday              Last after Trinity 11

Today’s readings are all about words; the way we use them, for good or ill, the way they shape us and influence our behaviour. Words matter. Our ability to communicate is one of the things which distinguishes us from other animals. Birds can sing out warnings or territorial claims or mating calls. Chimpanzees can be trained to a basic level in sign language, but only to communicate fairly immediate things. Whales can sing to each other across the deep oceans to keep in touch. But no other animal can communicate like people do. No other animal can tell stories, make laws, negotiate peace treaties, discuss abstract ideas, write poems or newspaper reports – or preach sermons come to that.  Because of that, of course, that no animal can spread gossip, tell lies, trade insults or spin sob-stories to manipulate others either. Words are a great gift, something that makes us human, but they also a great danger.

In today’s Old Testament reading God warned his people, through Moses, to be careful about what they said. They mustn’t give unjust judgements, being partial to the poor or deferring to the great. They mustn’t slander people. On the other hand, if they see something wrong they shouldn’t keep silent about it – if they do that they are just as guilty as the one who did the initial wrong. Moses spoke these words while the people of Israel were in the wilderness, wandering towards the Promised Land. They’d been slaves in Egypt for centuries, told what to do by others, unable to control their own lives. In their new land, though, they would form a new community, running their own affairs, setting their own standards, developing their own culture, making their own laws. It was no good if that new community was just the same-old same-old, a repeat of all that was bad in Egypt. It needed to be strong and holy, reflecting the God who set them free, who rescued them from Egypt, and the way they used words, the way they speak to each other and about each other, would be the key to shaping that new way of life.

In our second reading, Paul writes to the Thessalonians about the words he and his companions have used among them when they came to proclaim the gospel. They didn’t speak to please their human hearers, but to please God. They didn’t feed people empty flattery or try to manipulate them emotionally. They weren’t bothered about getting praise or reward. They shared themselves, genuinely, because the Thessalonians had “become very dear” to them. We don’t know the details, but it’s clear that someone in Thessalonika was rubbishing the ministry of Paul, casting doubt on his integrity, and he wanted to set the message straight. He knew how easy it was for words to be used destructively, and he didn’t want that to happen to this church he loved so much.

And then there is the Gospel – a very baffling passage in parts. But this too is about words. The Pharisees – ultra orthodox enthusiasts for keeping the law of Moses – come to Jesus. One of them asks him a question. “Which is the greatest commandment?”  I don’t know what they thought he would say, but his answer is actually a bog-standard, absolutely mainstream restatement of two passages of Scripture, words which would have been utterly familiar.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” “
There was nothing new, shocking or unexpected about his answer. This was straight from the textbook and gave the Pharisees no ammunition at all to attack him with, but he follows it up with a question of his own, which hits the nerve he knew it would.

It probably all seems a bit obscure to us. In fact I wouldn’t blame you if you’d switched off completely when we got to the second half of the Gospel reading. What is all this stuff about David and the Messiah and who calls whom a son? It all seems irrelevant to us – and that’s because it is. It’s about things which really don’t bother us at all. But it was very relevant to the people of Jesus’ time.

Jesus knew that those around him were expecting a Messiah, a leader of some sort. For hundreds of years they had suffered under one superpower or another. Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome – there was always someone stomping about their land in army boots, issuing orders at the point of a sword. This surely couldn’t be what God wanted. Surely he would send someone to help them. But who? What kind of person? There were all sorts of wildly different ideas – a military hero, a holy teacher, a politician? Everyone constructed their own pet theory, and backed it up with bits of what the scriptures said – odd verses from what we now call the Old Testament. Different groups sprang up, each convinced their interpretation was right. The Pharisees evidently put great store on the Messiah being a descendent of the great king David. But the reality was that you could construct almost anything from the prophets, whose words about the future were vague and enigmatic – they wrote in different times and places, for different reasons. They weren’t even trying to create a coherent picture with their words.

We can’t be sure whether Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah, or what he understood by that word, but what we can see is that he didn’t have any time for the tidy-minded schemes of the Pharisees. It’s all a bit technical, but Jesus presents them with a verse from the Psalms which upsets their idea that the Messiah is David’s son.. How come David calls him Lord if he is his son? He would always be inferior to David as the younger generation. Jesus’ argument probably doesn’t impress us at all. So what? we might say. But it does impress the Pharisees; in fact it silences them completely.

It doesn’t matter that we don’t really get the logic. The point is that Jesus has shown them that their interpretation of scripture is partial and because of that it is dangerous. They have cherry-picked the bits they wanted, and ignored the bits that were inconvenient, that don’t fit. When you look at scripture as a whole, says, your neat theories just don’t add up. For every verse that supports your view of who the Messiah will be, there’s another which challenges it. That’s the reality. They’ve got themselves into trouble because they have taken scripture literally, and tried to make it into a tidy instruction manual, just as people still try to do today. It’s a recipe for disaster – now as then, not just because it can lead to appalling cruelty and oppression, stoning people who disobey the law for example but also because it will end up confusing and disappointing those who try to do it. As Jesus points out to these Pharisees, if you think you’ve got God sorted, that you know his mind for certain, you are almost certainly missing something.

The problem is that the Bible just doesn’t fit together neatly. It contains the thoughts of many people in many ages and circumstances. There are several different creation stories in the Old Testament which don’t agree with each other, for example. There are two different accounts of the birth of Christ, which can’t be jammed together (even if that’s exactly what we do in our nativity plays). There are parts which affirm God’s universal love and salvation – like the story of Jonah which proclaimed that even the hated Assyrians were God’s children – and there are parts which suggest that only Israel is really loved by God. Just as the people of Jesus’ time constructed many different pictures of the Messiah from the words of scripture, so we can make an argument for just about anything we want from the Bible. People have justified slavery and apartheid from the Bible, and they have opposed slavery and apartheid from it too. They have lifted women up, and put them down. They have argued for and against acceptance of homosexuality. They have gone to war on the strength of its words and embraced pacificism because of them too. They have expected the Bible to have “THE answer”, a simple, one-size-fits all solution to whatever quandary they are in, but that’s just not possible, not unless you ignore the bits that don’t fit. Those who treat the Bible as an instruction book like this can seem to have a very high view of scripture, but it is actually a misuse of the Bible, and, I believe, an act of great disrespect to this hugely varied and rich document.

Today is Bible Sunday, a day when we celebrate the Bible, the word of God. I’m a huge fan of the Bible – that’s why I keep trying to think of ways to encourage you to read it, through the “story of the week” on the pew sheet, through providing pew bibles, through Lent courses and sermons. I want us to take it seriously. But that’s not the same thing as taking it literally. In fact it is quite the opposite. To take it seriously means reading it for the rich wealth of experience it contains, thousands of years of people’s attempts to know God, to know one another and themselves. As we do that, we will hear God speaking – maybe saying “do this, just as your ancestors did”, but maybe leading us to be aware of  the mistakes we shouldn’t repeat, the ways in which we’ve grown and moved on, as we learn from their mistakes.

The Bible invites us to step into its world, not because we’ll find magic answers to the problems of our own world, but because in doing so we are able to see our own more clearly, to get a different perspective. God speaks to us through it not as a dead and dusty document, but as a Living Word, a word for now, a word for us, as we let its ancient words echo around our own lives.

Words are powerful. They change us and they shape us, for good and ill. The words of this book can change and shape us most powerfully of all. So let’s read them – with delight and with care – so we make sure it is the Living Word of God’s love we are hearing when we open this precious book.

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