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How Do We Approach Scripture, Anyway?

Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, October 17, 2004

Jeremiah 31:27–34
Psalm 119:97–104
2 Timothy 3:14–4:5
Luke 18:1–8a


Imagine, if you will, that you're dedicated to the promulgation of what you believe God's true message to be. That shouldn't be too hard to picture. What do we think God is all about? Love. Mercy. Justice, justice, justice. You've studied the Bible, you've read the words of Jesus, you know the historical background, you've thought a lot, and you have a pretty clear sense of what the truth is. And when you see an injustice, when you see, for instance, some legislation or lack thereof that's depriving someone of justice, well, you want to do something about it. You protest it. You take it to court, before a judge who, perhaps, doesn't have regard for other people or respect for God. And you persist, just like Jesus says in today's gospel. You know that if you bang on that gate long and hard enough, justice will be served.

And meanwhile, on the other side of the picket lines, on the other side of the courtroom, on the other side of everything, are people who have very much the same feeling: that they understand God's truth, know what real justice and fairness are, and won't give up until justice is served. And they disagree with you on absolutely everything. You say that some cultural norm or practice – we can think of a few – is an offense to the true spirit of God's love, and you can point to your understanding of the spirit of the Bible and of God's truth in action; your opponents think your position is an abomination unto the Lord and a grave offense against God's plan and have scripture quotations to back it up and the spirit moved them to be there to oppose this.


And that is the fundamental problem of Christianity, as of many other things. And the fundamental problem presented by today's readings. There are so many different ways to understand everything. As Shakespeare wrote, "the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." Some churches will call themselves "Bible-believing churches," which means they think that what the Bible says and means is perfectly clear and can be taken as though spoken with literal intent by God to apply to our age and that everyone else has discarded it in favour of perversions that suit their own Satanic visions. Other churches will pride themselves on their truly deep, intelligent, loving efforts to understand the Bible in context and to understand the spirit it manifested in the age it was written and to apply that spirit to our age, and will see the more right-wing churches as fearful, perhaps hateful, wanting to protect their closed little world, not to extend themselves in true, honest love. So, in short, both sides think the other side is listening to teachers who say, as Paul puts it in today's second reading, "what their itching ears want to hear"; both sides think that the other side has turned away from the truth. And both sides want to proclaim the true good news.

I'll tell you one thing: that world that Jeremiah describes, where an understanding of God's will is inscribed on everyone's hearts, and no one needs to instruct anyone else or exhort anyone else to know the Most High... it doesn't look like it's here yet. I'm sure there are a lot of people who do feel that they know in their hearts what God's true word is, who think, like the psalmist, "I have deeper insight than all my teachers." But we – I mean they – also feel that quite a lot of other people are in desperate need of some good exhortation.

But how do we approach scripture, anyway? Paul writes, "All scripture is God-breathed" – but did he also have his scripture in mind when he wrote that? Does the very fact that it made it through the vagaries of the selection of the canon centuries later mean that God wanted it to be treated like God's word? Oh, and, for that matter, how exactly do we take God's word, anyway? Why should we assume that God always intended everything literally? I mean, Jesus spoke in parables – why shouldn't we expect God to give us scripture – or let us choose scripture – that, far from laying everything out plainly in an elementary-school fashion, requires us to apply some thought and soul-searching to it?

And why, on the other hand, can't we just ignore it, or anyway the bits we don't think are any good? Does it all have equal weight, or is some of it just background, and perhaps sometimes nasty background at that? Well, what does Jesus say about this? Hmm... in Matthew 19:8, he says that part of the old law was written as it was because the people's hearts were hard – so a different time calls for different law. But, then, he's saying that to explain why divorce is not OK, something some people here might think is itself a hard-hearted attitude. And back in the Sermon on the Mount, he says that not the smallest letter or least stroke of a pen will disappear from the law until heaven and earth disappear and everything is accomplished. And so we have that binding us to the scripture. Just as long as we accept the authority of that bit of the Gospel of Matthew, that is. Remember, there are scholars out there who are holding votes to decide which bits Jesus actually did and didn't say. So this comes down to: if you accept the authority of the scripture, you have accept the authority of the scripture. Of course, you still have to figure out what it's actually saying.


If you find this all confusing and contradictory, and it gets worse the more you look at it, that's actually a good sign.

Y'know, it would be a lot easier to belong to a religion whose founder said something like, "Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it." You might know who did say that. A guy who was born as Siddhartha Gautama, now better known as the Buddha. (It's from the Kalama Sutta.) Well, at least around here, we do tend to take that approach anyway. But there's another thing I'd like to borrow right now from Buddhism, in particular from Zen Buddhism.

You've probably all heard the line, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" This is the most famous koan – a sort of paradox that forces the person to get away from the usual ways of seeing and thinking about things rationally and to discover the underlying nature of things, not expressible in mere words or mere rational thought. It forces each person to find their own way to the truth, to awakening – satori. A Rinzai Zen Buddhist will meditate regularly, with discipline, on a koan he or she has been given. This self-application is the person's practice.

Well, the Bible is our koan. It defies and defeats our simple little logical enquiries and consensus statements. God meant for each person to have a one-to-one relationship with God – it's right there, in the reading from Jeremiah, individual responsibility. And God let the scripture be such that each person must do the work of discovery individually – to "meditate on it all day long," as the paslmist says. It's a challenge, and you have to do some soul-searching and examine your premises, the foundations of your reasoning which are themselves founded on something other than reason. Your ethics.

I like ethics, don't you? So much better than morals. Morals are dogma handed down, a set of do-this-don't-do-that that may not have a coherent basis. Ethics proceeds from principles. You decide what your premises are, and you build the rest on them. So what are our ethics that guide us in our lives and our understanding of the Bible? Well, how's this for an exposition of a principle fundamental to our beliefs: "That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole of the law; the rest is commentary. Now go and study." Sound familiar? That was Rabbi Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin around the time Jesus was born. Jesus said something like it, too: "Love your neighbour as yourself."

Now, of course, this doesn't clear it up perfectly. Say there's somebody asking you for money. Say you think that the person might use the money for something self-destructive, but you're not sure, and you're not sure whether it would be more helpful to them to give the money or not to give the money. What do you do? Which is more loving? There are some Christians who love to say "Love the sinner, hate the sin," and proclaim that they're showing their true love for you by trying to prevent you from doing something that they think will lead you to perdition and corruption – but that you think is an expression of God's love or the fullness of God's creation.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were a "gold standard" for understanding God's truth? Like in Zen, a satori that can be verified by someone else who's experienced it? Something where, if you got it, you know you got it?

Alas, satori is not on the menu for us. But neither is a purely intellectual, rationalistic approach. That's where we really fall down. We have a bad habit of trying to handle everything by logic, reason, science. I say that if you accept unquestioningly the fundamentally materialistic principles that are today's mainstream assumptions, you've already given up the game. The greatest accomplishment of rationality has been to prove its own limits, as with Gödel's undecideability theorem; the greatest accomplishment of logical positivism, the principle that holds that you should only accept as true what can be verified by empirical means, was to show that it doesn't meet its own criteria. And if we try to approach the Bible just on the basis of reason, as if it were a philosophy course, we will fall down. Our holy koan challenges us to go beyond. We are here in this church because we do not accept the merely material, the merely rational. Because we know there's more.

Jesus himself said so. That golden rule that I quoted above – I only gave you part of what he said. Here's the whole thing: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on those two commandments." Love is fundamental, and the relationship with God comes first.

And in the parable of the unjust judge that we started with, the end point Jesus is making is not that you should persevere in your earthly quests; that's the given he's using as analogy. The point he's making in the end is that we should pray and never give up. And the justice we should seek first and above all is our own spiritual justice for ourselves, our own best outcome in our quest for the development of our hearts and souls and minds. Always continue to turn to God. That is our refuge; that is our responsibility; that is our practice. Our personal relationships with God will form the solid basis for all that we do. Because God, after all, is everywhere.



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