That Troublesome Book

OK… where to begin!  Did you actually listen to the Gospel passage that was just read?  Did you really just say, “Thanks be to God?”  And what’s a preacher to do with this passage? Well, I could delve into hell fire, divorce or self-mutilation.  What fun!
I have a very good friend who is Catholic and who likes to poke fun at what he sees as Protestantism’s slavish devotion to the Bible, which he often refers to as “that troublesome book.”  After having heard today’s Gospel lesson, you might just agree with him. Troublesome, indeed. 

Now, I have a rule about the lectionary readings.  If there is a particularly disturbing passage that I am not going to preach about, then we don’t hear it read on Sunday.  It seems to me to be irresponsible to hear a frightening or confusing passage and then just leave it lay there.  So, I could have omitted this one.  But it’s the Gospel.  And it is reported to be the words of Jesus. 

So, what’s going on here?  Was Jesus just having a bad day?  Well, not really because these words are actually a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount.  Just a few moments before, Jesus had said gracious, marvelous things like “Blessed are the peacemakers…” and “You are the light of the world.”  But then Jesus seems to take a dark turn speaking words that threaten and frighten. 

This passage is actually introduced and framed by verse 20, which we did not hear today but reads: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  So today’s lesson is Jesus explaining what it means to be righteous on a deeper level than those professional religious people. 

This passage opens with what scholars call “The Antitheses of Jesus.”  Jesus makes a statement based on a thesis of the Law and then provides the antithesis. He begins with the phrase, “You have heard it said…” and then follows with a quote from the Law of Moses. For example: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder.’  But I say to you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ but I say to you if you even look at someone with lust, the adultery already lives in your heart.” 

So it seems that Jesus is asking even more from us than the Law requires.  And lots of folks over the years have interpreted these antitheses as new teachings from Jesus that somehow supersede the Law. But is that really what Jesus means to imply?  Or is he simply engaging in an old and honored form of rabbinic interpretation?  Why did Jesus feel free to add to what was already written?

When I was a kid there was a popular bumper sticker that proclaimed: “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it!” Fundamentalists, like the kind I grew up around, liked that expression because it summed up our view of the Bible. For us, the Bible was infallible.  God dictated every word of it. We did not engage in historical or literary criticism.  And we certainly never thought to add anything to it. 

But Jesus apparently Jesus did. Jesus did not have a static view of the Bible.  He was not a strict constructionist.  Instead Jesus had a lively view of the Bible, not because he was Jesus but because he was a faithful Jew.  It is in the best of the Jewish tradition to have a conversation with Scripture, to look for the truth found underneath and around and above the actual words on the page. Remember that Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  And part of that task of fulfillment was his engagement with Scripture. 

So Jesus brings up the law that forbids adultery.  But he doesn’t just repeat it and tell the people they should obey it.  Instead Jesus looks for something deeper than just keeping your pants on.  Jesus makes the astute observation that adultery and deceit and all kinds of other things actually begin in the heart and mind. And then to make sure the people remembered this teaching, Jesus employed a common device called the rhetoric of excess, a purposeful use of irony and humor.  Of course he didn’t really want folks to pluck out their eyes or cut off their hands.  But he did want them to remember the teaching. 

Jesus also looks for the broader truth underneath the Mosaic teaching about divorce. The Law taught that all a man had to do was give his wife a certificate of divorce and he could be done with her. So all the power was in the hands of men.  And divorced women were damaged goods, unable to find a job and left to eek out a life as best they could. But Jesus takes this Law and actually reinterprets it, so as to protect the victims, the women. When Jesus said that divorce should be avoided at all costs, he had women in mind. These words may seem restrictive to us, but I dare say that the women in the crowd that day thought they were life giving and life affirming. 

These are just two examples of the way that Jesus demonstrated again and again that the Bible is a living book. But it doesn’t live because it’s magic.  It lives because humans engage it.  The Judaism that formed Jesus taught an active relationship with Scripture – not passive, not just sitting in a pew while someone reads it or preaches it.  The Jesus method of Bible study is to look for the truth that is unleashed by the words on the page. 

That’s hard work.  And we’re not so good at it in the liberal church.  We leave the Bible to the conservatives.  But the result of that is preachers who go on CNN and claim that the Bible is anti-women, anti-gay, anti-Muslim and pro-America.  Where is the vigorous biblical response from folks like us? 

Now maybe digging into Scripture sounds daunting to you.  I hear you. And some of you have asked for Bible study.  I hear that too.  But if you’re brave enough to read it for yourself, let me offer two pieces of helpful advice.  Number one: start small.  Read one of the Gospels.  Read one of Paul’s letters.  Read the Psalms.  Number two: read the Bible like Jesus did.  What do I mean by that?  Well, it’s simple actually.  Read the Bible remembering people. Interpret each passage from the point of view of the well being of the world. Take this Gospel lesson as an example.  Whether Jesus is talking about the anger that leads to death or reconciliation or faithfulness or speaking the truth plainly, he addresses all these things in relation to how they affect other people.  Read every verse through the lens of loving God and loving your neighbor as you love yourself. 

So back to my Catholic friend and his statement that the Bible is a troublesome book.  He’s right, you know.  Engaging with the living word of God means that our selfishness and greed and racism and sexism and privilege might actually be challenged.  We might actually have to consider the needs of others to be just as important as our own.  And that is troublesome, but in the best possible way I know.