The story of Jesus presented in our canonical Gospels has transformative power. Minister and author John Ortburg tells about a friend of the family who became really upset when her daughter told her that someone at school had been talking to her about God. She wanted nothing to do with God, or so she thought. Nor did she want her daughter to have anything to do with God. That night, however, she couldn’t sleep. For some reason around midnight she got up, went downstairs, and picked up a Bible. She couldn’t remember the last time she had even held a Bible, let alone read one. But like many folks who are not religious she did have a Bible in the house. When she opened it she noticed it was divided between an “old” part and a “new” part. She decided to start with the new part. So, in the still of the night she began to read the Gospel of Matthew. Several hours later when she was half-way through the Gospel of John she realized that “she had fallen in love with the character of Jesus.” She said a prayer: “God, I don’t know what I am doing, but I know you are what I want.”
Such is the spiritual power of the story of Jesus as told in our Gospels. The interesting thing to me about that story is that this woman approached the story without many preconceived beliefs or biases about Jesus. She was biased against religion in general, but not against Jesus in particular and when she read the story of Jesus it moved her.
Many of us would like to think that we leave our prejudices and biases behind when we read scripture, but unfortunately we do not. We bring them with us and they profoundly impact and shape how we read scripture and apply it. I believe the passage today from Luke offers us some insights in how we can appropriate scripture for our spiritual growth and transformation. So what are these insights?
First, we learn from Jesus that there are scriptures we need to let go of? Jesus applies two texts from Isaiah to his mission and ministry – Isa. 61:1-2 and Isa. 58:6. In the Isa. 61 passage Jesus stops in mid-sentence. Jesus ends his reading from Isaiah in mid-sentence. He ends with, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” but the text doesn’t actually end there. Isaiah goes on to say, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus simply drops this off. He eliminates it when he claims to be fulfilling that passage. So why did he do that? Or why did Luke say he did that? Very simply because he or Luke did not believe that his mission was to execute the vengeance of God. This was not on his agenda. This was not part of his program.
Sisters and brothers, there are scriptures that we can and should let go of – they do not apply to our mission and ministry. You have heard me say many times that in the Bible we have some wonderfully enlightened, highly transformative texts and we have some rather petty and clearly punitive texts. That is not say that these regressive texts cannot teach us some things, they can, but they cannot teach us what God is like or how we should live.
What they can show us is how our culture and context greatly impact our understanding of God’s will. They teach us that when we read scripture we need to read both spiritually and critically, employing reason, common sense, and our best scholarly tools and methods. These regressive texts teach us to hold what we claim as truth honestly, humbly, and tentatively always prefacing our faith claims with: “I could be wrong.” But what they do not teach us is what God is like or what God’s will is for our lives. When the Bible says that God told Joshua to kill all the inhabitants of Jericho, including women, children, infants, all animals, everything, that cannot be true. Sisters and brothers, the God of Jesus never would give such a command.
So the first thing we can learn from the way Jesus appropriated scripture is that there are scriptures that do not apply to us which we can let go of. The second thing we can learn from Jesus is that there are scriptures that do apply to us which we need to lay hold of. What does Jesus claim as God’s will for his life and for our planet? Liberation for the oppressed, good news to the poor, enlightenment for the blind, freedom for the downtrodden, inclusion of the outcasts and marginalized, and compassion for all people.
I hope you noticed the scriptures that Jesus emphasizes in his talk and how he challenges his own people’s religious and national exceptionalism. Jesus points out the time Elijah was sent to bless a Gentile woman in Sidon outside the bounds of Israel. Jesus also points out the time Elisha healed the Syrian Naaman even though there were lepers a plenty in Israel in need of healing.
The people of Jesus’ hometown who heard him, at first thought his words gracious and pleasing, until they realized that Jesus was not limiting his work of healing and liberation to the so-called chosen people – to their kind of people. When Jesus broke down those walls and extended God’s grace beyond those boundaries their initial praise gave way to outrage.
So, if we take our que from Jesus on how to appropriate scripture the scriptures that focus on retribution and vengeance and exclusion we can let go of and scriptures that focus on healing, liberation, justice, and redemption we can lay hold of. Our attention needs to be on what Jesus was attentive to, namely, the liberation of the oppressed, good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom for the captives, welcome of outsiders, and love for all people. If more Christians simply focused on what Jesus focused on our world would be different.
I love to tell the story which I first heard from Richard Rohr about the Jewish fugitive in Nazi Germany fleeing for his life. He came to a small town and sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”
I like to tell that story not to diminish in any way the importance of scripture to our spiritual lives, nor to disparage the process of reading scripture for spiritual growth. Rather, I tell the story to illustrate the limitations of scripture in determining God’s will for us today. Any unenlightened person will read and appropriate scripture in unenlightened ways and vice versa.
There is no eliminating our preferences and biases when we appropriate scriptures. And those who think they can are simply fooling themselves. If you or I believe that we can read and apply Scripture without bringing our biases and already determined beliefs and assumptions into the process we are simply deceiving ourselves.
The question is not, “Do I have a bias or biases?” Of course I do (of course you do). The only questions are, “What are they? Am I aware of them? Am I intentional in determining the bias or biases that will guide my appropriation of scripture? That’s the issue. Many Christians are unaware of their biases. I am sure I have biases I am unaware of too. We all have blind spots. It’s inevitable. The writers of scripture had blinds spots. We are all fallible human beings. The writers of scripture were no different.
One if not the largest religious best sellers in religious book history is Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life. That book has sold millions of copies. Warren is a pastor of a mega church in Orange County, California. Citations of scripture fill his book. There is proof text after proof text supporting his theology and practical Christian instruction. Did you know that this passage in Luke is never cited? Here in Luke we have perhaps the single most succinct and powerful statement of Jesus’ agenda and mission in all the Gospels and in a book that purports to tell us God’s purpose for our lives there is not a single reference to it.
So you see, sisters and brothers, there is no eliminating our biases when we employ scripture to determine God’s will for our lives. Hopefully we are all becoming more aware of what our biases are and becoming more intentional in how we choose them.
Here is a pattern for appropriating scripture that makes sense. Now, we can go a step beyond and ask, “What led Jesus to read scripture this way. What inspired Jesus to let go of the vengeful, retributive scriptures and emphasize the inclusive, gracious texts? I have to believe it was because of the way he experienced God. I am confident that Jesus experienced God as an inclusive, compassionate, generous, loving God, whom he liked to call “Abba” – a warm term of endearment that a child would call a loving father or mother.
According to all the Synoptic Gospels Jesus didn’t begin his work until after his baptism by John. It was at his baptism by John you will recall that Jesus had a deeply moving spiritual experience in which he heard God say to him, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He experienced the unconditional love and acceptance of God.
Can anyone doubt that Jesus’ practices of welcoming all to an open table, his indiscriminate healing of all kinds of people, his readiness to confront the status quo and to challenge the tit-for-tat worthiness system of the religious establishment – can anyone doubt that all this stems from his experience of God as Abba? Surely it was own personal experience and encounter with divine love and compassion that compelled him to be a boundary breaker and liberator of the downtrodden.
By the way, this was true of the Apostle Paul as well. Many of us learned in Sunday School of the story of Paul’s conversion, which scholars today refer to as Paul’s calling. The reason they like to call it his calling is because they all recognize that even before Paul had his life-changing experience he was a deeply religious person.
Paul refers to this experience in at least three of his authentic letters (Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Philippians) and Luke imaginatively offers his take on the encounter in three separate places in Acts (9, 22, 26). Paul was a deeply religious man before he met Christ. But here’s the point: It was not through reading scripture that Paul’s life was changed. It was his first-hand encounter with God’s grace and forgiveness in the living Christ that changed Paul. His experience of God’s love served to reshape and reform what he believed about God and how he appropriated scripture. It wasn’t scripture that changed Paul; it was his experience of God’s love that changed Paul and that sisters and brothers changed the way he read scripture. Does that make sense?
So for both Paul and Jesus, their appropriation of scripture – what they ignored and what they emphasized, what they let go of and what they laid hold of – was guided by their experience of God’s love. They were moved by God’s love in terms of what they let go of and what they held on to.
I am glad that our Gospel reading today is paired in the Lectionary with the reading from 1 Corinthians 13. There is no more spiritually powerful, high level, potentially enlightening and transforming text in all of scripture than1 Corinthians 13, which proclaims love as the single greatest most important and enduring force in the universe.
If our experience of divine love is not at the heart of who we are and what we are about, we can read scripture for hours upon hours and it will not make a bit a difference. Some of the most hateful, prejudiced, mean-spirited, vengeful Christians (which is really an oxymoron) you will find anywhere are some who are very well-versed in the Bible. We are all lost until we experience divine love. Only love heals and transforms.
For anyone looking for a place to begin I would say begin with Jesus and follow his example of how he appropriated scripture. Like the woman who stayed up all night reading the Gospels, if we begin with the story of Jesus we might just find ourselves falling in love with Jesus and in turn falling in love with God. We might just have an experience that changes everything.
Our good God, open our eyes that we might see how expansive and large your love is. May we know your love, not simply in our heads, but may we experience it in our hearts so that we can be more, so that our lives can count for something, so that we can be disciples of love and know what to let go of and what to lay hold of. Let us grow in your love and may our life together in community, our relationships, our priorities and values reflect the more excellent way of your love.