I’ve been trying to finish this five part series on the “Weapons of Our Warfare,” only to be sideswept into a dangerously contentious battle. I wanted to see if I could fit it into the series, but then I realized that this particular battle is more fundamental in nature. Although hopefully I can use the weapons gracefully and skillfully in this essay(s?), the focus is really how we Evangelicals read the Bible. And to be honest, I’ll mostly be talking about how I read the Bible, because, well, I’m not writing a book here and there’s others who may be better equipped to do that than myself (Scot McKnight, for starters).
There is a simple but profound truth that is sometimes buried in our study of our sacred text: The Bible is narrative, it’s story, not just one nor several stories. We could say it’s stories of God interacting with people, and others interacting with others under the direct auspices of God. Or we could say that it’s the meta-story of the Creator interacting with his creation and particularly his prize creation – humans. But the crux of the matter is that it is Story told through story. We evangelicals once knew this, when we were children and heard story after story in Sunday School class.
The Israelite people also knew this. Freshly liberated from Egyptian captivity, they were commanded to retell their stories to their children so that their children would remember them and pass them on to their children. Their stories consisted of history (of God and creation and God and the Abramic patriarchs), recent history (their recent exodus from Egypt under Moses’ care), and God’s covenant with the Hebrew people. All of this would later be known under the title, The Law, referring to the covenant. The Law – or the covenant – in this case was a way of being and remaining pure under God. I think most Christian theologians and pastors would agree with that. However, where many conservative Evangelicals and their Fundamentalist cousins differ is in weighing some of the laws (what I will describe as the Bedroom Laws) more heavily than others, disregarding others completely, dropping and adding others (such as those about tattoos) through the years and shifting social mores, and yet fully and even willingly ignoring others that are more thematic throughout the entire Scriptures. But more on that later.
Of course, the Laws are weird, scary, and to be honest, archaic. There’s the parts that we know fairly well, like the Ten Commandments. But then there’s the stuff that’s fairly upsetting to the modern reader. In order to keep the nation pure, children could not be sacrificed (do we need to explain this one?), men and women with disabilities could not enter the temple. Menstruating women sat outside the town, lepers lived in their own colonies. Of course, there were other parts of the Law that were rarely followed by anyone at any time: welcoming the foreigner, eliminating all debts every fifty years…
Being typical people, however, they forgot, got bored, got caught up in their – as Terry Taylor put it in Daniel Amos’s “Banquet at the World’s End
” – “real estate and sex lives, livestock and ex-wives.” (Jesus’ depiction in Matthew chptr 22 is a bit more violently descriptive) They got caught up with their neighbors and the ways of the world, the lust, the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life
. And they began enslaving themselves. They worshiped other gods. Many other gods. Bad gods, who had them doing bad things, like sacrificing their children, having prostitutes as their spiritual guides, enforcing slavery, etc., etc. Their leaders either led in these idolatrous acts, or looked away. They forgot the God who saved them from slavery and began to enslave not just others themselves, but themselves.
And then they got sold back into slavery, sent off into exile. Once again, they were the victims of their own undoing.
They realized that they had neglected God, the Law and the Temple. And so when they returned from exile, they began to rebuild and reclaim their worship. They treasured the Law and began schools to teach it and memorize it and have it memorized. They expounded on the Law, interpreting it and adding to it, because they realized that many points of the Law needed to be updated for the modern times.
Yet, in his infamous Woes to the Pharisees (interestingly enough, in Matthew 23), Jesus laments that the religious leaders, “crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” Throughout the Gospels (Jesus’ own narrative), there are plenty examples where Jesus shuns these leaders for poo-pooing the wrong things: healing or grabbing food on a Sabbath and eating before purification rituals (I can’t help but think that these were laws that made it harder for the typical poor people of the times – in a time where most people went hungry most days, demanding an extra step in order to eat could be next to impossible for those on the brink of starvation. Let alone the no-healing-on-Sabbath rule – it’s a complete status quo grab). They also allowed the children of the elderly to vow their gifts to the temple rather than to their parents (thereby openly disrespecting the commandment to honor their father and mother).
The lawyers and scribes and rabbis were, in one of Jesus’ most sarcastic rebukes, “Straining gnats, but swallowing camels.”
The old narrative was corrupted. The emphasis was on the wrong thing. To borrow Platonic terms, the elites didn’t know the forms, but kept following the faded shadows. Jesus again and again reproved them for their incorrect, often selfish, emphasis:
“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent (for picking grain on the Sabbath).”
He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
” ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” [Mark 7. NIV]
Moses said, ‘Respect your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone denouncing father or mother should be killed.’ But you weasel out of that by saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to say to father or mother, ‘Gift! What I owed you I’ve given as a gift to God,’ thus relieving yourselves of obligation to father or mother. [Mark 7. Message]
and one more for posterity,
Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath? [John 7, NIV]
Okay, okay, one last one:
The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!
Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law! Jesus completes the Law! (Don’t believe me? Check out Matthew 5:17) So he gives the Law meaning, not the other way around. He redefines it. By using himself as an example. In place of the old, he puts in a new mission statement (which, not un-coincidentally, is based on the old. Because, as corrupted as the old has been made, it is in itself, good and right and showed the way):
When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” [Luke 4, NLT]
Jesus was pointing to himself and declaring that he is the Messiah, the promised Deliverance, the Lord’s favor. What I find compelling her is the demonstration of his office: blind see
, oppressed set free
, the poor will receive good news (and you would have to imagine that if it’s ‘good’ news, than it should be received
news particularly, unless Jesus is as arrogant as the Roman occupiers, thinking that his rise to power should be universally understood as good). It’s a redemption, a curing of ills, and an invitation for all to be made whole in a society that – as all do – excludes those that are not ‘pure’ or ‘without blemish.’
But let’s look at the other bookmark of Jesus’ public career, his infamous Temple squabble:
Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of loan sharks and the stalls of dove merchants. He quoted this text:
My house was designated a house of prayer;
You have made it a hangout for thieves.
Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in. They came to Jesus and he healed them. [Matthew 21, Message]
What I love about this translation of this passage is the poignancy that in other translations you may not spot: Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in. Partly because they were crowded out by the merchants. But also because Israelites with disabilities were not allowed in the temple region. Because they were not considered whole, to include them in such a place would taint the entire nation according to the old Law.
But Jesus demonstrated and stated time and again that he was implementing a New Law. That the old law isn’t just outdated, he’s expanding and fulfilling the purpose of it: To create a priestly people who would bless all the peoples. The Kingdom of God was crashing to earth to fix what sin had broken and was doing so in profound, dramatic but also gentle and mysterious ways.
So what does all this have to do with judgment? Simply put, the paradigm for judgment (not to say the paradigm for justice, but we’ll save that for another time) seems to be in the Evangelical fold, whatever we deem it to be. We parcel out bits of the Old Testament and condemn people for not living up to our ideas for what it may be. The emphases are on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on what Jesus was focusing on (healing, aid, restoration, welcoming) we draw judgment lines in the sand that are NOT the lines that Jesus drew. I can’t possibly make this any more clear than the way that Jesus himself did here in this judgment seat picture:
But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.
We’ve got the wrong emphases. Point. Blank.