We declare our confidence, each week, that through the Bible “The Spirit is [speaking] to the Church”, and we sang as children that we can believe Jesus loves us because “the Bible tells me so.” So what do we do when what the Bible says seems to run counter to the loving, compassionate and just God in whom we place our faith?
We’ve talked about this before, but I think it may be time, again, to remind ourselves that there is more than one way to understand the nature of scripture, and then let’s take a look at what we have heard this morning.
Among many ways in which one can approach the Bible, at least two are relevant to our consideration today.
One approach maintains that the Bible is “Divinely Inspired”, assuming that God has directed what is written. This position maintains that what Bible tells us what God wants us to hear and know, and that, even though it may be hard, we need to accept the words of scripture as literal truth.
The other approach holds a more open-ended understanding of what we mean by “truth”. For this position, being “Divinely Inspired” assumes that the testimonies in scripture arise out of real human encounters with God that have changed human lives. From this perspective,
The Bible’s authors used words to help people – both themselves and others - make sense of their experiences of God:
They wrote to preserve truths they had discovered;
and they wrote to inspire faith in others coming after.
The Bible’s writings were shaped by the imagination of writers seeking to convey something essential and profound, but limited by of limitations of language.
God, in this way of thinking, was moving in lives of the writers, but not guiding their pens.
Jewish writer Judith Plaskow provides a metaphor I especially love. She cites the ancient Jewish understanding that God’s Word existed before creation – we might note that the Gospel of John opens with this same idea - and that this essential wisdom and essence is communicated in written sacred scripture. BUT, she says, written scripture is only “outer garment”, something visible, cloaking true Word of God that lies hidden within.*
I’m sure it is obvious that my interest lies in finding the Bible’s truths that lie deep within and behind the human words on the page.
The first troubling passage this morning comes from the Book of Job. While I don’t think it’s actually the most important for our faith, I’ll confess that Job is the book of the Bible I love the most. But we have to dig a bit to get beyond the story we heard this morning.
The passage we heard today is the beginning and end of the book’s Prologue, and it is a terrible story. In the heavenly court, God boasts of the faithfulness and righteousness of Job. Satan, (which litrally means “the Accuser”) suggests that Job is faithful and righteous because God takes good care of him, and suggests that Job would not be so faithful otherwise. God rises to the challenge and enters into a wager. Satan can test Job’s faith by inflicting whatever misfortunes he chooses – and so the Accuser kills Job’s children, destroys his wealth, and finally assaults Jobs own health – but Job retains faith in God.
This story is the basis for the familiar reference to the “patience of Job”.
Job’s “patience” does not last beyond chapter 2, however.
The Book of Job takes on the very complex question of suffering, asking, “If God is just, why do the innocent suffer?”
The prologue we heard today is not substance of Job. The prologue is followed by more than thirty chapters of poetry – a dialogue between Job and his friends, and then between Job and God. Job does not remain patient and submissive, but rather, cries out in anger and anguish to understand how God could allow injustice.
And here’s the thing: the Prologue (and the Epilogue at the end of the book) are taken from an ancient folktale that the poet/author of the book adopted to provide framework for the theological work that takes place in the poetry. The God-and-Satan wager is a borrowed story that provides literary context for theological reflection.
In the next three weeks, we will hear more key excerpts from Job. I look forward to it.
The second passage that makes me cringe today involves Jesus’ teachings on divorce. It is painful because even the best divorce is a painful thing, and virtually all of our lives have been touched by the dissolution of marriages – in our families if not our own. The passage, on the surface, involves Jesus prohibiting divorce and judging – quite negatively - those whose marriages fail. Not easy to listen to.
And further, Jesus, speaking within a particular historical context, speaks of marriage as solely involving relationships of one man and one woman. Today we understand that deeply committed, lasting, sacramental relationships exist between two women, two men, or, indeed, persons whose identity is gender nonbinary.
But again – let’s dig a bit.
The passage conveys an episode in the ongoing conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities – this time, about legality of divorce. Jesus asks for a review of Mosaic law that allowed men to divorce. Then Jesus imposes a more stringent understanding of nature of divorce, and continues teaching to the disciples: marriage is permanent, and so whoever divorces and marries another commits adultery.
How are we to understand this? The context is key.
In his ongoing conflict with the Pharisees, Jesus frequently reframed the way the Law is interpreted, to provide a more nuanced and compassionate understanding, and this is yet another example: Jesus’ teaching reframes question of divorce from legal concern to a relational concern, reminding his listeners of God’s intent in creation, that humans practice faithfulness to one another.
Jesus’ remarks are directed to those – specifically those men – who divorce in order to marry another. Jesus does not want divorce to be treated as a legal loophole to justify adultery.
As in many other teachings, Jesus’ concern is for the vulnerable in society – divorced women and their children were among the most socially and economically powerless in first century Palestine. In his arguing against divorce he takes a position in support of their needs.
Having concluded that these passages don’t necessarily mean what they say on the surface – what DO they offer us, especially in a season where we are thinking about our identity as stewards of God’s blessings?
We are blessed by and entrusted with complex, fragile lives, in “this fragile earth, our island home”. We are blessed by and entrusted with one another. May the God who is the ground and source of all relationships help us to live into our call. Amen.
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