THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
“Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Nehemiah 8:6-8.
“And [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” Luke 4:20-21.
Last summer I read an article published in the Christian Century by Matthew Schlimm, a professor of Old Testament at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary entitled “Violent Texts.” Schlimm begins his thoughtful reflection by recounting a discussion he had with his young daughter who, upon receiving her first Bible, happened upon Deuteronomy 20 and, more specifically, the following admonition:
“But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.” Deuteronomy 20:16-18.
Why, asked this elementary school age girl, who had been taught from infancy that God is loving and merciful, does the Bible, which is supposed to be God’s word, have God commanding God’s people to kill whole populations of cities, including small children? As I read about Professor Schimm’s struggle to respond to his daughter’s question, it occurred to me for the first time that putting the Bible into the hands of impressionable young children might not be a good idea. Can you imagine the outcry in any community where it became known that the local elementary school was distributing a book to its students promoting genocide, describing gang rape in lurid detail and normalizing polygamy and sexual slavery? Yet our churches routinely hand out Bibles to Sunday School children, give them as gifts to confirmands and include them in the children’s section of their libraries. Nobody bats an eye at that because, after all, it is the Bible. Yet, clearly, there is material in the Bible that is not fit for the eyes of children.
The Bible is a nuanced book as layered and complex as the human condition out of which it arose and to which it addresses itself. It requires interpretation as both the gospel and our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures illustrate. I believe that Martin Luther was greatly mistaken in thinking that placing the Bible in the hands of the public would dispel the abuses of the medieval church and make the truth of the gospel obvious and clear. The Reformation Luther sparked proved to be a mixed blessing. While it gave rise to many faith traditions that have reformed and enriched the church catholic, it also spawned a host of bizarre and dangerous cults appealing to the worst human traits. In our twenty-first century American culture, the Bible has become a source of ammunition in a political culture war for power and dominance having little to do with Jesus and the gentle reign of God he proclaims. The Bible is routinely used as a club to bludgeon, shame and exclude in the name of God. In the hands of the wrong people, the Bible is a dangerous book.
None of this is to say that children should not be taught the biblical narrative or that troublesome texts should be expunged from the Bible. Nevertheless, as with everything else in life, what we share with children should be determined by their levels of development and maturity. When the nation was attacked on September 11, 2001, I told my children what had occurred. I did not, however, show them footage of the people who jumped out of the windows of the Twin Towers to escape the flames or the charred bodies of those who went down with the plane that crashed over Pennsylvania. Nor did I give them lurid details about threats made against Americans by Al Qaeda. I emphasized that while some evil people had done a terrible thing, there are good people all over the world, that we are all looking out for one another and that they should feel safe and secure. That was far from the whole truth, but it wasn’t a lie. It was as much of the truth as my children were able to absorb at the time and as much as they needed to hear.
Just as we should not be placing Bibles in the hands of children without a thought to how they will be read and understood, we should not leave the Bible’s interpretation up to any individuals who decide to take it upon themselves. God knows we have seen no shortage of individuals who, wrenching passages of scripture out of context and arranging them to their own liking, have constructed religious justifications for systemic racism, persecution of sexual minorities and all manner of state violence. Evangelical Trumpism proclaimed by the likes of Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee, James Dobson and Scott Lively come to mind. As Saint Peter reminds us, “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” II Peter 1:20. Just as scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit, so it must be interpreted by the Spirit. Our lesson from I Corinthians reminds us that the church of Christ is not a voluntary organization of independent individuals. It is a body of interdependent members, all of which are responsible to one another and subject to Jesus Christ as their head. Thus, I can no more read and interpret the scriptures on my own terms and independent of the church’s input and guidance than a hand severed from the body can shuffle a deck of cards. The Bible is rightly interpreted only within and through communities of faith. Accordingly, even when I read the Bible privately, I never read it alone. I always read the scriptures in dialogue with Athanasius, Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, Hildegard von Bingen, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., Phyllis Trible, James H. Cone, the pastors, teachers and colleagues whose influence has shaped me.
We need to be clear about what the Bible is and how its message is mediated. While some believers maintain that we as Christians are a “people of the book,” I think it is more accurate-or at least as accurate-to say that the Bible is the book of a particular people. Without the Jewish people and the Church, the Bible would be nothing more than an historical curiosity, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be of interest to archeologists and historians of ancient religion, but of no relevance to anyone else. The Bible is given meaning by the life, witness and ministry of the communities in which it evolved and which it has formed. These communities, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, bear the responsibility of interpreting God’s word in and through the Bible. I would add that we are also responsible for speaking out against the abuse of our scriptures by political leaders and nationalistic pseudo Christian organizations and demagogues advancing hateful ideologies and agendas.
In the final analysis, we read the Bible because we find ourselves in it-cowards denying our Lord; martyrs putting our lives on the line for him; clueless disciples who follow Jesus without quite understanding why; mystics who grasp, however briefly and incompletely, the truth, beauty and goodness that is God; doubters longing to touch mysteries forever beyond their grasp; believers who walk by faith rather than by sight; people driven by violence, lust and greed; people inspired by love, hope and the vision of God’s gentle reign. The biblical narratives, prayers and teachings show us who we are and what we might yet become. They remind us that our stories, twisted, unfinished and painful as they may be, are the material out of which God is fashioning something beautiful, something we name as the reign of God, the new creation, heaven, the new Jerusalem and eternal life-though these terms can only scratch the surface of what it means for God to be “all in all.” I Corinthians 15:28.
Here is a poem by Jeffry Skinner about finding oneself in literature that reflects in some respects the experience of finding oneself in the Biblical narrative.
The Bookshelf of the God of Infinite Space
You would expect an uncountable number,
Acres and acres of books in rows
Like wheat or gold bullion. Or that the words just
Appear in the mind, like banner headlines.
In fact there is one shelf
Holding a modest number, ten or twelve volumes.
No dust jackets, because — no dust.
Covers made of gold or skin
Or golden skin, or creosote or rain-
Soaked macadam, or some
Mix of salt & glass. You turn a page
& mountains rise, clouds drawn by children
Bubble in the sky, you are twenty
Again, trying to read a map
Dissolving in your hands. I say You & mean
Me, say God & mean Librarian — who after long research
Offers you a glass of water and an apple —
You, grateful to discover your name,
A footnote in that book.
Source: Poetry, December 2015. Jeffry Skinner is an American poet, writer, playwright and emeritus professor in the Department of English at the University of Louisville. He is editor of two anthologies of poems, Last Call: Poems of Alcoholism, Addiction, and Deliverance; and Passing the Word: Poets and Their Mentors. Skinner’s poems have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, The Georgia Review and The Paris Review. These poems, along with his plays and stories, have earned him grants, fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Howard Foundation and the state arts agencies of Connecticut, Delaware and Kentucky. You can sample more of Jeffry Skinner’s poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.