January 25, 2015
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
There is a question that I both love and dislike: “What does the Bible say about _____?” I love this question because it is often the beginning of important conversations, in which we can talk about what is most meaningful in our lives and our faith. I dislike this question because it is often a desire to know “what is the final, authoritative word on ________ (whatever the subject might be)?” What is the bottom line, what is the final word, what is the God-given single truth about this subject, immutable through time or setting? And the Bible does not work that way.
My favorite example is the Ten Commandments. The list is given twice: once on the mountain in Exodus, when Moses receives the tablets; and once in Deuteronomy when it is restated before the people are allowed to enter the Promised Land. Same list; but there are differences. Under that which we shall not covet, in Exodus it says,
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house;
you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,
or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey,
or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Pretty much covers everything, doesn’t it? Remember at this point it is a nomadic people who pasture all their animals in common pastures. But in Deuteronomy, when we are about to see the people settled in the land, with boundary stones marking where one person’s land ends and another’s begins, we get a slightly different reading.
Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.
Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house,
or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey,
or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
The neighbor’s wife gets a separate listing than the rest. Whether this represents a change in the view of women, so that they are not listed alongside the property, or whether there has been some hanky-panky going on during the journey so it needs a little more emphasis, it does not tell us.
The other difference is that it lists the neighbor’s field as something not to be coveted. When they are pasturing their animals together, and hunting and gathering their food, they all shared the same land. But once they are settled, fields are now added to that which one shall not covet, precisely because fields are now a critical part of the life of the people.
We might say it is not a substantive change. Fields are covered under, “or anything that belongs to your neighbor,” but the difference is there for a reason. A settled people need a law that would not matter to a nomadic people. There is a new truth emerging that we still see today in the fights over water rights in Georgia and in California.
This is both a subtle and an important feature of scripture. As Walter Brueggemann says, “Scripture is endlessly surprising.” The problem we have is not with the Bible. The problem is when the question “What does the Bible say about _____?” is an attempt at certainty. And certainty is not good for human beings.
Certainty breeds fundamentalism. If we claim to know the truth once and for all, we then often try and use it as a weapon against all comers. Look at the false fights between American fundamentalism and science. Since certainty about the Bible has been claimed, any other attempts at discovering the truth must surely be wrongheaded at best, and heretical or satanic at worst.
Certainty breeds false divisions. When we yell back and forth that Jesus is a Republican or a Democrat or this or that, is he not sitting above the city, lamenting over us.
Certainty breeds violence. It insists on only a limited amount of truth and only a limited number of truth-tellers. Other claims must be shut up or shut out or shot down, or in Jesus’ day, crucified.
Certainty starves creativity. This is as true in Bible study as it is in the arts. When we ask about the nature of God, the Bible responds most frequently with poetry, songs, psalms, stories. Certainty wants formulas. The Bible uses images and imagination.
I am not here to say “anything goes.” What are the other options, if certainty is not viable? I believe the better options are prayer, clarity, and faithfulness.
Prayer is about asking God to help those in need, giving thanks for the blessings received, and offering praise for that which is overwhelming. As Ann LaMott says, the three forms of prayer are “Help, Thanks, and Wow.” But prayer is also about listening for God’s still speaking voice. Prayer is about being open to what God is yet doing in our midst.
Seeking clarity, like prayer, is about seeking what is really going on, and seeking to be as clear as possible about how life really is. This is not the certainty of the 24 hour news channels (right, left, and center), or the anxiety of the Facebook feed, but looking past all the confusion and anxiety-mongering to see what is really unfolding.
But the best option is faithfulness. I am using this word in two ways. First, being faithful: being faith-filled. It is about trust. Trust in the God whose love lifts us up and holds us close and never, ever lets us go, whatever we face, in this life or the next. We know this love and God’s faithfulness to us in Jesus.
The second way I mean being faithful is to follow. Jesus did not demand dogmatic correctness of the Apostles. He did not give a pop quiz on theology before he healed people. He offered his teachings, his actions, and his very life as the lessons. And he simple said, “Follow me.”
The Christian task in our day is not to be the bastion of truth set against all others, or to try to find the one right true way so that nothing need ever change again. Our job is to follow where Jesus leads us.
And to trust that the one who leads us is faithful.
Thanks be to God.