Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21
January 24, 2016
Loren Mead in his book Transforming Congregations for the Future tells a story about examining candidates for ordination to the ministry.
The first candidate was asked, “Who is the patriarch Abraham?” The candidate scratched his head, hesitated, then said, “Wasn’t he the first president of the United States who won the Revolution and freed the slaves?” The committee turned warily to the second candidate. “What is the religious meaning of Christmas?” She spoke up quickly, “That’s when all the angels make toys for Santa to deliver in the chimneys!” The third candidate was ushered in to a depressed committee. “What happened on Good Friday?” they asked. “Oh yes,” the candidate said thoughtfully, “that’s when Jesus died on the cross.” “Wonderful!” the committee chair said. The candidate warmed to the subject. “And they buried him in a tomb and rolled in a stone for the door.” Committee members glowed. “And on the third day they roll away the stone and he comes out. If he sees his shadow, he goes back in and there are six more weeks of winter.”
I can only hope that the story is not true. But Mead was pointing (years ago) to an alarming lack of knowledge about what the Bible says. That lack of knowledge is all around us. In fact, misinterpretations and false assumptions often carry more weight in popular interpretations than the Biblical witness does.
I looked up sayings falsely attributed to the Bible. A Roman Catholic website had 15 phrases listed. 1) The three wisemen or kings. We don’t know the number. 2) Moderation in all things. 3) The Lord works in mysterious ways. 4) The eye is a window to the soul. 5) The apple in the Garden of Eden. (Even my seminary professors got that one wrong. The Bible never says apple – just fruit. 6) The lion will lie down with the lamb. 7) A fool and his money are soon parted. 8) This too shall pass. 9) The seven deadly sins. 10) Money is the root of all evil. 11) Pride comes before the fall. 12) Charity begins at home. 13) To thine ownself be true. 14) Cleanliness is next to godliness. 15) God helps those who help themselves.
The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from the time when the Israelites had returned to the land after exile in Babylon. They had returned to the Promised Land. They knew that they were God’s people. They knew that this was the land God had promised to them. But, they had been living in the midst of a different culture for an extended period of time. They needed to hear God’s word again. They needed to let God’s word, God’s intent, God’s plan shape and reshape them for a new age, a new context – living back in the Promised Land.
The passage speaks to the power of the word being proclaimed – with interpretation. Loren Mead’s book looked at the passage that is our gospel lesson today – the passage where Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah. This was another occasion where the word was used to offer the opportunity for God’s people to be reshaped, reformed, and renewed by hearing the word afresh and anew. Mead points out that for Jesus the “good news is profoundly contextual.” Yet, it is deeply rooted in the words and traditions of the ages.
To find the good news for today, we have to be people of the Book, people who are steeped in its tradition and wisdom so that we can apply that wisdom to the context in which we live. But we battle ignorance. We battle assumptions. We battle traditions that have distorted the message of the Bible.
Do you remember Jim Bakker and the PTL Club? The PTL Club (Praise the Lord Club) was a televised “church” that had great popularity during the 1970s and 1980s. It raked in the dough. Jim and his wife had a mansion with a climate controlled dog house. They had fancy cars and a rich lifestyle. The PTL Club was extremely successful, so the enterprise planned to build an amusement park that would cater to Bible loving Christians. However, their stewardship of money was a little shady. Jim Bakker finally ended up in jail for fraud or misuse of funds. I saw him years later, in an interview after he had been released from jail. He was working in a poor neighborhood in LA (I think.) He said, “You know, while I was in prison I read the Bible. It didn’t say what I thought it said!” Instead of a promise of prosperity, he found a commandment to work for the well-being of those whom the world had mistreated – those on the edges.
Scholar, the Rev. Kenneth E. Bailey, spoke about the sins of Biblical interpretation. I think he had seven, but I can’t remember all of them. A few stuck with me. “Don’t read the Bible assuming you know what it is going to say,” was one. We tend to read the scriptures through our lenses of culture and tradition. I think another one of his “sins” of Biblical interpretation was taking scriptures out of their context. If Jesus was contextual in his interpretation, he was also respectful of the context of the original words. There are two contexts! The Bible was written in particular times, in particular societies. Understanding the context out of which words and stories came, respecting that context, can help us begin to understand – and then find ways of applying the wisdom to the world in which we live.
About 15 or 20 years ago, many of the Christians in the community where we were living had grabbed hold of the book The Prayer of Jabez. The author encouraged people to follow Jabez’ example, praying as Jabez prayed, so that they might enjoy blessings and riches. If you look up Jabez, he rates one sentence in the scriptures – one sentence! Yet that one sentence became for many the blueprint for faith. It promised that extremely popular “gospel” that is called the “prosperity gospel” by observers of Christian traditions.
It seems to me that we are surrounded these days by many proclamations that tell us that Christianity is under attack – that its ways are threatened. It also seems, when I look deeper, that the Christianity that is being “threatened” isn’t really Biblical – it is more cultural tradition. In fact, some of the loudest voices proclaim a message which they call Christian that has little to do with the Biblical witness and very little to do with what mattered to Jesus.
How do we find, for ourselves first, and also for the world a powerful witness that speaks good news? It is a vital question. We know too well how the Bible can be used as a weapon to destroy, hurt, marginalize and judge people. Sometimes it is tempting to dismiss the Biblical witness instead of wrestling with it to find the ways it can speak to the world in which we live. The Israelites heard ancient words – interpreted! They heard them and in hearing them they found themselves redefined and encouraged in the hard work of re-establishing their community.
We can look at what mattered to Jesus. He had wrestled with the message of the Scriptures. He had seen how they had been misused in ways that harmed, divided, judged, and enslaved. He lifted up the stories and the passages that bore witness to what God was doing in and through him. In this morning’s gospel lesson he quoted from the prophet Isaiah. He was telling his home church that this was his job description:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
One of the tenets of the Reformed Tradition is that Scripture interprets Scripture. It cautions us against lifting out certain passages and making them more important than the rest of the Biblical witness. It cautions us against taking a minor voice, minor opinion and making it central to the faith. If we consider the overarching themes of the Biblical story it can help us interpret particular passages. It has been noted that the Bible stories move toward liberation, toward justice, toward embodying God’s love and mercy. We can begin to think of story after story that reinforces that perception – stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The work before us as God’s people is to find the sense of those stories for our own lives that we might be shaped and reshaped as God’s people. The work before us is to find the sense that takes these powerful stories into the world to further God’s work of liberation, renewal, and recreation.