Like the wider Christian church, our congregation includes people who hold very different ideas about how to live. Some of us acknowledge the possibility of a just war; others believe that peacemaking is the only way. Some of us proclaim salvation through Christ alone; others, that there are many paths to God. Some of us freely affirm faithful homosexual relationships; others reject the idea that any such relationship could be godly. We are all reading the same Bible, yet our conclusions can clash. So what’s happening here? And what’s the way forward?
Well, the Bible itself presents many different views, which jostle against each other and often come to no neat conclusion. It is possible to justify just about anything using (and abusing) selected Biblical texts. In order to make sense of this chaos, all of us interpret as we read, and our interpretations are shaped by our lenses: who we are colours our readings. Usually, a woman will read differently to a man; a straight person, to a gay person; a member of our First Nations to a migrant; a rich person to a poor person; and so on. Reading the Bible responsibly means becoming aware of our lenses, noticing how they influence our readings, and listening to other people, with other lenses and other readings. When we do that, they shed light on our biases and broaden our understanding and experience of God.
We can’t get rid of our lenses, but we can learn to become more aware of them. And, as followers of Jesus, we can let Jesus be our guide; for he, too, read the Bible selectively.
At the beginning of his public ministry, he unrolled the Isaiah scroll, interpreted it to apply to himself—and edited out a bit about a coming day of vengeance. Another time, he was asked which of the commandments was most important. The ‘right’ answer was to say, ‘all of them!’—but he selected only two. Throughout his ministry, Jesus quoted Scripture in ways which emphasised God’s desire to draw all peoples into the kingdom; and he overlooked bits which describe God as destructive and vengeful. He spent much of his time with people who were marginalised by Jewish purity laws, and built his new and inclusive community with them at its centre.
In tonight’s reading, Jesus is at it again: reading selectively. Despite what some would have you believe, he does not say that he is the fulfillment of the entire law. Instead, he says that ‘everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ ‘About me’: those are key words, for it means that not everything in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled. In fact, anything which contradicts what Jesus revealed through his life, ministry, death and resurrection is not authoritative. If something in the Bible argues against Jesus’ radical hospitality, or Jesus’ practice of enemy-love, or Jesus’ triumph over the forces of death, then it tells us a lot about what people thought about God; but it is not the final word on God or God’s desire for the world.
So, as followers of Jesus, the Law has no authority over us, except the authority which Jesus grants it. The prophets have no authority over us, except the authority Jesus which grants them. And Jesus’ authoritative word is that two commandments are most important: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself. There are no exceptions. Love God, love neighbour—whoever they are—and love yourself. And, says Jesus, all the law and the prophets rely on these two commandments.
This means that these commandments about love are our ultimate interpretive lens. Every other lens, every piece of Biblical interpretation, every theological conclusion, must be critiqued through the lens of love. Of course, we can read the Bible with any lens: and people read with judgemental, patriarchal and genocidal lenses all the time. But only one lens is faithful to Jesus Christ, Son of God; only one lens gives life: and that is to read prayerfully, with Jesus at your side, looking through the eyes of love. So if someone preaches a message which is suffocating and rule-bound, or argues for hatred or violence or exclusion, or tells you that being Christian is not all about love, then the lens of love suggests that they’re just not following Jesus, nor are they pointing you to the way of life. Jesus is explicit: love of God, neighbour, and self is more important than anything else; and everything hangs on these. With love, love, and more love: that is how we are to read the Bible, and that is how we are to live our lives.
As followers of Jesus, then, the next time you’re struggling between different interpretations of the Bible, pray. For you are journeying with the Risen Christ, who has overcome the grip of death and is leading you into life. Receive his Spirit, and let love be your interpretive lens. Then he will open your mind to the Scriptures, shine light into darkness, speak truth to delusion, and breathe peace into hatred and fear; and you will be transformed. You, too, will become a witness to a life being renovated from the inside out: the change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins which Jesus tells his disciples to proclaim.
Hear now one promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the promise of life made through the prophet Ezekiel: “I will renovate your lives from the inside out, and give you a new heart and new spirit. I will remove your stone cold hearts, and replace them with hearts of healthy flesh. I will put my spirit inside you, to give you a passion for following my ways and a commitment to doing what I say. Then … you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:25-38, selections). To the One revealed through the Living Word read with the eyes of love, be all glory, praise, and honour. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Luke 24:36-48 given to Sanctuary, 15 April 2018 (B34) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image courtesy Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54154 [retrieved April 14, 2018]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zanthia/2994131163/.fa
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