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.

the prodigal gospel

The gospel according to St. Luke has one of the most beloved parables of Jesus, the Prodigal Son. The story of this prodigal (that is, “wasteful”) son is like a treasure chest, filled with precious gemstones. So many valuable nuggets can be found within it.

In the year 2000, my wife Banu and I moved to New York. The first church we served in this state was in Jamestown. One year when we were there, the congregation had a Lenten series in which people from various faiths and philosophies were invited to come and share their stories with us. (One of our parishioners invited her Tai Chi instructor.)

We had one session with a teacher who shared his experience as a Muslim. It was a wide-ranging conversation, covering many topics. One that came up was the matter of grace. He asked me what we meant by it. I took a lesson from Jesus, who in the scriptures tends to tell stories rather than give textbook answers. So in brief detail, I talked about the prodigal son. I said the father is the picture of grace.

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In Luke 15, some Pharisees and scribes are upset because Jesus is being friendly with undesirables, those who according to the religious and social standards are considered unclean. Apparently Jesus thinks these Pharisees and scribes need a refresher course on grace, because that’s what they get. Maybe I’m mistaken, but my guess would be we all need a refresher course on grace.

As I just said, Jesus loves to tell stories. He responds with stories of lostness: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and finally, a lost son.

He introduces the third one by saying, “There was a man who had two sons” (v. 11). The younger son presents his father with a blunt request. He wants his portion of the inheritance. And he wants it right now! Many have commented on how outrageous a request this is. As things turn out for the young man, things really do get outrageous.

Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of a ritual in the Talmud called the qetsatsah ceremony. It’s designed “to punish a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles. Here’s how it works. If he ever shows up in his village again, then the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people.” He’s disgracefully driven out, shamefully sent away.

Having said all that, the father still agrees “to [divide] his property between them” (v. 12). And within a few days, the son takes his massive amount of spending money, and as the scripture says, “traveled to a distant country” (v.13). This is the road trip of a lifetime. He wants to get as far away as possible. He’s young, rich, and ready to party!

Unfortunately, our boy is not paying attention to his spending. The Bible says he squanders his property in dissolute, reckless living. And adding insult to injury, the place gets hit with famine.

Desperate, the young man agrees to work for a pig farmer. Feeding swine, not the most sought-after position, is truly an abomination for a Jew. And with the crappy paycheck, he can’t even afford to eat. His gnawing hunger makes the pods he feeds the animals look pretty tasty. He literally wants to “pig out.”

Eventually, he gets tired of this hogwash and realizes something. “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” (v. 17). And he rehearses what he’ll say: he’ll admit his guilt and beg to be taken on as a worker. So off he goes.

At this point, I want to inject a thought. Remember, Jesus isn’t simply telling a fascinating story. He wants his hearers to see themselves in what he’s saying. I invite all of us to do the same. Think of ways in which we’ve been the younger son. (Or imagine yourself as a prodigal daughter.) Think of blessings we’ve squandered, craving the food of swine.

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With verse 20, the tone changes. The focus shifts from the younger son to the father. He’s really the glue that holds this entire story together. In describing the father, Jesus paints a picture totally at odds with what his culture would expect. At the first glimpse of the returning prodigal son, the father immediately sprints toward him and embraces him.

In ancient times, no self-respecting man would run like that, “like a girl, like a mother instead of a father.” Aristotle reportedly said, “Great men never run in public.” The father doesn’t care about social convention.

The younger son launches into his speech, confessing his sin and admitting that he no longer deserves to be considered a son. But before he can beg for a job, his father interrupts and says, “Let’s get you dressed up in style. Slay the fatted calf! It’s time to really party!”

At verse 25, we come to the second major section of the parable. This is where the elder son enters the picture. If the younger son represents irresponsibility and wastefulness, then the elder son symbolizes responsibility and duty. While the younger son was off playing, he was making sure things got done. While the prodigal was nowhere to be found, he was the good son, the model son. And while he’s out in the field—wouldn’t you know it?—singing and dancing are going on!

When a slave tells him the reason for the party, let’s say he is not pleased. He refuses to go back to the house. This prompts the father to go out to him and plead. It’s at this point that the elder son unleashes the flood of anger and resentment and pain that has welled up within him.

For years, I’ve worked like a slave for you, “and I have never disobeyed your command” (v. 29). He feels like a glorified servant. And to what thanks? You’ve never even given me a stupid goat so I can feast with my friends. “But when this son of yours came back, who devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (v. 30).

Notice that the older son refers to his wayward sibling as “this son of yours,” not “my brother.” His heart has become hardened. The older brother needs to undergo conversion as much as the younger one. But with him, it isn’t so obvious. He hasn’t lived a wild life; he’s always done the right thing. But like everyone who makes sure that they do the right thing, his sin is on the inside. It is more subtle.

And the father understands that. He also understands the pain of his son, the son who stayed at home, rather than going off and sowing wild oats. He feels his pain! The father responds in verse 31 begins with the word teknon, translated in the NRSV as “son,” but it has the more intimate meaning of “child.”

He appeals to his embittered offspring: child, my son, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (vv. 31-32).

Celebrating his return is by no means a matter of repayment. You’re right—he doesn’t deserve anything. And I’d be justified in casting him out. No, celebrating your brother’s return isn’t a matter of repayment—it’s not a matter of justice; it’s a matter of grace.

One of the most beloved spiritual figures of the twentieth century was Henri Nouwen. Of his many books, the one he considered to be his favorite was The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Published in 1992, four years before his death, it tells how Rembrandt’s painting of the same name sent him on a journey that shaped the rest of his life. In fact, he was on his way to Russia in 1996 to do a TV documentary on the painting when, during a stop in the Netherlands, he died from a heart attack.

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In the book he makes the painful confession that he sees too much of the elder brother in himself. “It is strange to say this,” he says, “but, deep in my heart, I have known the feeling of envy toward the wayward son. It is the emotion that arises when I see my friends having a good time doing all sorts of things that I condemn. I called their behavior reprehensible or even immoral, but at the same time I often wondered why I didn’t have the nerve to do some of it or all of it myself.” (70)

Nouwen identifies with the elder brother’s sense of loneliness—the bitter and terrible loneliness of resentment that prevents joy. (And instead of the chest tightening up, the ability to take a deep breath!)

He admits, “Often I catch myself complaining about little rejections, little impolitenesses, little negligences… As I let myself be drawn into the vast interior labyrinth of my complaints, I become more and more lost until, in the end, I feel myself to be the most misunderstood, rejected, neglected, and despised person in the world.” (72)

I wonder, haven’t we all felt that way at one time or another? For Nouwen, his deliverance came in the knowledge that he had to move from being either of the sons to being the father, the one who extends grace.

Part of the artistry of this parable is that it’s incomplete. We don’t know the ending. Is the elder son able to overcome his hurt and anger and join the festivities? Are the two brothers ever reconciled? Those questions remain unanswered.

But we have a say in how the story unfolds. When we see in ourselves the wastefulness of the younger and the resentment of the older, we can remember that this is the gospel. This is the good news: that there is one who gives his life to us so that we may be reconciled. The good news is that God is prodigal: wasteful in generosity, wasteful in hospitality. The final paragraph of Henri Nouwen’s book contains the joy of that discovery:

“When, four years ago, I went to Saint Petersburg to see Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” I had little idea how much I would have to live what I then saw. I stand with awe at the place where Rembrandt brought me. He led me from the kneeling, disheveled young son to the standing, bent-over old father, from the place of being blessed to the place of blessing. As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.” (139)

That is the gospel, the good news. We receive prodigal, wasteful grace, and we are called to share that freely.

[from top to bottom, the images are “Prodigal Son” by He Qi, “The Prodigal Son Among Swine” by Max Beckmann, and “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt]