‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.’
Matthew 7:1-2 – NRSV
I wrote last week that I think that the Bible can be the Word of God, in the sense that we can and do hear God speak to us, if we open ourselves up to hearing Him. However, I’m often uncomfortable when I hear the phrase: ‘God says in the Bible’. These words generally preface a statement that roundly criticises people for their lack of morality. A number of scholars write that those who claim to be biblical often appeal only to Jesus’ words in the New Testament, and not to his deeds. We need to remember that Jesus keeps company with the very people who aren’t keeping his demanding ethic. To imitate Jesus, which surely is what all of us Christians should be trying to do, we need to imitate His loving acceptance of the marginalised, and even those who disagreed with Him.
If we accept that God can speak to us using the Bible, then we must ask ourselves how we can become more open to this process. One problem is that it’s far too easy to close our minds to alternative meanings, which can disturb and unsettle us from our comfortable prejudices. If we allow this to happen, we subvert the Bible to our own purposes and cut ourselves off from anything that God might be wanting to say to us. Part of this is accepting that there’s no single true interpretation, valid for all times, for all people and all circumstances. Most of us have experienced looking at a passage that we almost know off by heart, and suddenly see a completely new interpretation, that speaks to us differently at that particular moment in our lives.
So, I believe that we’re meant to struggle with the Bible – far from it being a strength to read the Bible literally, I think it’s a monstrous weakness. Wrestling with our doubts and our fears and with issues that instinctively sound wrong to us, cultivates our faith and leaves us not just better Bible-readers, but better Christians, too. God can still speak to us through the Bible in our time. The big question is, are we patient, persevering, thoughtful, open-minded, humble and honest enough to hear Him?
The Bible’s teachings are a mirror before they are morals. I’m not trying to take the morality out of Christian teaching, but to stress that we’re all seeking to learn from God, and if that’s so, maybe others have heard something from Him, that we ourselves haven’t?
Last week, I referred to the passage in 2 Timothy, that describes the Bible as useful for ‘teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’. We need to beware that in our zeal for teaching, correction and righteousness, we don’t part company with the essential Christian value of humility. To modify a modern political slogan, we’re all in this sinning business together, and we’d be wise to approach any attempt to reprove or correct our fellow humans with healthy doses of introspection, compassion, modesty and charity. We misuse the Bible if we try to use it as a moral textbook, with which to chastise others.
Thomas Long tells the story of a minister who used to ask those being assessed for the priesthood to look out of the window onto the street and describe the passers-by in theological terms. There were generally only two replies. Firstly:
‘Whether he or she knows it or not, that person is a child of God, loved and upheld by the grace of God in Jesus Christ’
or alternatively, they would answer:
‘That person is a sinner in need of the redemption of Jesus Christ’.
The minister told Long that in his long experience, those who gave the first answer made much better ministers. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, we need to be wary of thinking that those who disagree with us are somehow not as ‘good’ as we are.
St Augustine of Hippo had a rule of faith; that those seeking an interpretation of the Bible have a duty always to seek the most charitable interpretation of any biblical text. ‘The Bible is the manger in which we find Christ’ said Martin Luther. We can find Christ in that manger; we just need to approach it quietly, with patience, humility and generosity of heart, listening out very carefully for ‘The Word of God’.