words written, words living (do we bless or distress)

I’m about to make a confession that I consider to be dangerous.  The confession is this:  I love the Bible.  I love reading and studying the Bible.  This August will mark the thirtieth anniversary of my baptism.  Back then, each day I read three chapters from the Old Testament, two from the New Testament, and a psalm.  I didn’t understand why some people would voluntarily deprive themselves of this rich treasure.

I gradually slowed down my pace.  For a long time now, each day I’ve usually read a psalm and a chapter from the rest of the Bible.  I no longer feel the “need for speed.”

Scripture studyWhy do I say that this is a dangerous confession?  Among other things, it can be dangerous if the written word becomes an idol.  There’s even a name for worshiping the Bible in and of itself:  bibliolatry.  And bibliolatry is alive and well.  I think it’s really demonstrated when people assert, even defiantly assert, that their reading of the scriptures is the only legitimate one.  Some might even use violence!

Picking up on that theme of violence, I must say even though I love the Bible, to be honest, there are some scriptures that I find detestable.  For example, I’m thinking of places in which genocide is advocated.  There are places that promote (or at least wink at) the abuse of human beings.  It can be based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical disability, and social status, just to name a few.

However, we need not turn the Bible into a weapon.  We can keep the life-giving word of God from becoming an instrument of death.

“Yes, but how can we do that?”  Thanks for bringing it up!  That’s a good question!  We’ll look at that in a few moments, but for right now, I’ll say this much:  it involves Jesus.

Actually, even before we get to Jesus, we can see an evolution of faith in the Bible.  We can see it in stuff like forced labor and the death penalty.  But let’s deal with something that might be a little less controversial, a little less threatening.

“What are we going to eat for lunch?”

In our society, we are aware of those who have certain rules about what to eat.  There are Jews who keep kosher, Muslims who observe halal.  And on the point about Muslims, a few years ago, we hosted a forum on Islam in America since 9-11.  We had representatives from various kinds of Islam.  I made sure to remind the folks putting out the goodies in the fellowship hall to avoid anything with ham or bacon in it!

And of course, there are those with allergies and those who insist on only eating healthy food!

The business of kosher and halal involves food that is ritually clean and unclean.  In the Bible when we have regulations on what to eat and what to offer as sacrifice, ritual cleanness and uncleanness are the main focuses.

So how does Genesis 7 start out?

When we think about Noah and the ark and the great flood, we have a certain image in mind.  We learn it when we’re little kids.  Here come the animals, two by two!  What a heartwarming picture; it works very well in songs.

But then we have this.  The Lord says to Noah, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate” (v. 2).  I don’t know about you, but for me, this kind of kills the vibe.  It puts a damper on the spirit.  By the way, it’s the only place where Noah is specifically told to bring seven pairs of clean animals.

Why only this one time?  Maybe somebody didn’t want to hear the alternative version.  Here come the unclean animals, two by two!

Still it’s true, in chapter 6, later in 7, and in chapter 8, we’re always told that the animals arrive in pairs, whether they’re clean or not.  Some say the reason for the extra clean animals was so Noah would have enough to offer as sacrifice when the flood was all over.

Whatever the case, we have a memorable early example of clean and unclean food.

In Leviticus 11, it becomes codified, almost engraved in stone.  This is where we come to the law of Moses.  Some say certain animals are considered unclean because of concerns about hygiene, or maybe certain animal behaviors, or who knows what.  One thing we can say for sure is that this is where the priestly system, the religious institution, flexes its muscles.

As we saw earlier, pork is off the menu.  So is rabbit, which Banu and I have enjoyed from time to time.  And regarding seafood, how about shrimp and lobsters?  Unclean!  And insects (if that’s your thing)?  Some are okay, like locusts and crickets.  Butterflies and bees?  Not so much.  I wonder, does anyone know about chocolate-covered ants?

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One of the problems with purity codes, in this case instructions on what to eat, is that they can become an end in themselves.  Like the Bible, they can degenerate into becoming an idol.  If we’re following this particular guideline, we can deceive ourselves into thinking that’s what pleases God.  We fool ourselves into believing we can earn God’s favor and mercy.  If we consume and offer as sacrifice only clean food (or whatever the equivalent behavior is for ourselves), we might feel that we are placating a God who, at the end of the day, really doesn’t like us!

That brings up one of the common themes among the Hebrew prophets.  It is to offer, as it frequently is, correctives in worshiping and relating to God.  For example, the prophet Hosea delivers this word from the Lord: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6).  So often, the people lapse; their hearts become divided.  They substitute outer observances instead of living in the grace and love of the Lord.  And it’s reflected in their actions.

Then Jesus arrives on the scene.  He stands in the tradition of the prophets.  As with them, there continues an evolution of faith.  Jesus holds on to what is good and true and holy in the tradition, and he also re-interprets the scriptures to fit the changing realities.  He does a lot of that in the Sermon on the Mount.

We see that enlightenment about the deeper meaning of the scriptures in Mark 7.

One day, some disciples of Jesus sit down for a little snack.  That’s fine, but some Pharisees realize that they haven’t washed their hands in a ritually-approved way.  How dare they eat with defiled hands!  So they tear into Jesus and chew him out.

Jesus points out the way they’ve idolized their traditions—things that really have nothing to do with God’s love.  In fact, they put up barriers to that love.

Then he gets to the matter at hand.  He says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (vv. 14-15).  He turns the argument that was hurled at him upside down.

With their usual clarity of understanding, his disciples later ask what the heck he was talking about.  Jesus wonders why they still haven’t got it.  Here’s where he again re-interprets and deepens the understanding of the scriptures.  Being defiled isn’t a matter of what food to eat, since it only goes into the stomach.  Being defiled is a matter of the heart, who we are in our innermost being.  That’s what clean and unclean are all about.

What comes from the outside doesn’t defile, because it travels through the body and “goes out into the sewer” (v. 19).  Most English translations are a bit squeamish in dealing with the Greek word ἀφεδρῶνα (aphedrōna), which actually means “latrine” or “toilet.”  So in case you haven’t noticed, Jesus is rather blunt in his opinion on questions of clean and unclean food.  That might be why Mark adds as an editorial note, “Thus he declared all foods clean.”

That’s a nice save Mark, considering we’re talking about what goes into a toilet!

Speaking of the toilet, Jesus lists a bunch of nasty qualities.  In verses 20 to 23, he unloads some unclean stuff.  These come out and defile us.

If Jesus hasn’t done this already, St. Paul brings in a specifically social and neighbor oriented dimension to eating clean and unclean food.  In Romans 14, he says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (v. 14).  He follows Jesus in saying all food is ritually clean, but then admits there might be things people avoid for the sake of conscience.

He continues, “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.  Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (v. 15).  Examples might be sitting at the table with one who finds alcohol offensive and then getting in their face with a bottle of wine or whiskey.  (Come on, have a snort of this!)  Or perhaps offering your observant Jewish neighbor a big helping of barbecued pork!

More specifically in Paul’s time, there was food that had been offered in the temples of pagan gods.  After such a ceremony, the food would be distributed to the poor.  If you’re eating with someone who makes a point of saying, “This was offered to such-and-such a deity,” then Paul says to politely refuse.  Someone might think you’re agreeing with the worship of other gods.

Again, we see the re-interpretation and deepening of the meaning of scripture.  He fits the teaching of Jesus into his own time, into his own situation.  “Do not,” Paul warns, “for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.  Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat” (v. 20).

People are more important than food.

I began with the “dangerous” confession that I love the Bible.  But as I hope we’ve seen, the written word can also serve the powers of death, not life.  It can become a weapon.  To prevent that, we need the living Word.

I said that we would look at the “less threatening” subject of food.  As I also hope we’ve seen, it can wreak its own kind of havoc.

On revisiting the question of preventing the Bible from becoming a weapon (which I said we would do), I want to offer a few comments by Richard Rohr.

“We can only safely read Scripture—it is a dangerous book [there’s that word again]—if we are somehow sharing in the divine gaze of love.  A life of prayer helps you develop a third eye that can read between the lines and find the golden thread which is moving toward inclusivity, mercy, and justice.”  He’s referring to the evolution of faith I’ve been talking about, the one that leads to greater enlightenment and deeper understanding.

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What happens when we’re not moving in that direction?  “Any ‘pre-existing condition’ of a hardened heart, a predisposition to judgment…any need to win or prove yourself right will corrupt and distort the most inspired and inspiring of Scriptures—just as they pollute every human conversation and relationship.”  Quoting verses to win a fight, often quoting them out of context, turns the Bible into a weapon.  Weapons kill.

“Hateful people will find hateful verses to confirm their love of death.  Loving people will find loving verses to call them into an even greater love of life.”  That goes for all of us.  Hate leads us to search the written word and find death.  Love leads us to search the written word and find life.

As I draw near my conclusion, I want to add something that got me thinking about my subtitle: “Do we bless or distress?”

In last week’s e-letter that our presbytery’s stated clerk publishes, he mentions an incident that left him angry and hurt, but mostly sad.  He is among those who will be at the PCUSA General Assembly which begins next Saturday in Portland, Oregon.

He says he heard from a friend and colleague who he has known for decades.  This person made comments about the committee on which our stated clerk is serving and about its written statements which will be coming to this year’s Assembly.  He said the comments “were dismissive at best, derisive at worst, of the careful, deliberative work of the committee.”  He has reached out to his friend in hopes of reaching some understanding.

Still, he laments, “Disagreeing with someone’s opinion about an issue rarely can seem to take place without viewing that other person as ‘stupid,’ ‘uninformed,’ ‘ignorant.’  One can scarcely express a different viewpoint from someone without being attacked, shamed, or ridiculed.  We see it in national political discourse.  We see it in our communities.  Sadly—and shamefully, I believe—we sometimes see it within the Body of Christ, the Church.”

Unfortunately, that verifies what we’ve been looking at.

Our stated clerk commends to us a document adopted by the Presbyterian Church in 1992, “Seeking to be Faithful Together: Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement.”  (It is included in the Zebra links on this blog!)  He especially focuses on numbers 1 and 5: “Treat each other respectfully so as to build trust, believing that we all desire to be faithful to Jesus the Christ,” and “Focus on ideas and suggestions instead of questioning people’s motives, intelligence or integrity.”

In closing, remember that the written word without the living word, Jesus Christ, becomes rigid and stale.  It leads to death and distress, rather than to what it is meant to be, life and blessing.