Carlos Wilton, August 26, 2012 B Non-Lectionary Sermon, Mark 12:13-34
AJesus answered, >The first is, >Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God,

the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,

and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.=

The second is this, >You shall love your neighbor as yourself.= There is

no other commandment greater than these.=@

Mark 12:29-31


We continue this Sunday in our sermon series, ABanned Questions about the Bible.@ The second-most popular question on the list, according to the votes cast, is this one: AWho gets to decide what laws in the Bible are irrefutable, which laws are out of date, and which laws should apply only in certain situations?@

Well, that=s a a mouthful B a little too long for a sermon topic! Let me break it down into something more simple: AHow can we trust the Bible?@

Notice I didn=t ask, ACan we trust the Bible?@ The answer I=d give to that question B no surprise! B is AYes.@ We can trust it.

A far more interesting question is how we can trust the Bible. How do we use it, in other words?

The Bible, in reality, is not one book, but many. It=s a whole library in one volume.

Large portions of the Bible are stories B and not just any story. The Bible is the story: the story of God=s ongoing covenant relationship with people of faith. Such a story forms us as a community.

The earliest, most fundamental expression of that story is this one, from the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy. It=s imbedded in the middle of an ancient liturgy B part of the instructions to the Israelites for how they are to bring a special offering, called the Afirst-fruits offering,@ to the Temple. The first-fruits were the very earliest produce harvested from the fields. As the people were carrying their basket of fruit, or wheat, or olives B or whatever B up to the altar, they were meant to say these words:

A wandering Aramean was my father,

he went down to Egypt and sojourned there,

he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon

they became a great nation, mighty and many.

The Egyptians abused and battered us,

in a cruel and savage slavery.

We cried out to God, the God-of-Our-Fathers:

He listened to our voice, he saw

our destitution, our trouble, our cruel plight.

And God took us out of Egypt

with his strong hand and long arm, terrible and great,

with signs and miracle-wonders.

And he brought us to this place,

gave us this land flowing with milk and honey. [Deuteronomy 26:5-9]


One of the remarkable things about this passage is how it is written: in the first person singular. The Awandering Aramean@ in the first line refers to Abraham, the patriarch. But the Israelites, repeating these words centuries later, say AA wandering Aramean was my father.@ There=s an immediacy there, a collapsing of history like an accordion. Abraham is no distant, mysterious ancestor. Abraham is my father.

We know immediately, from the way this is written, that the great story of the Bible is no dusty artifact of history. It=s a living narrative, a family history in which each of us play a part.

The Bible is many other things also. It=s a hymnbook. That=s what the book of Psalms is, you know. It=s the hymnbook of ancient Israel B though all we have left is the words. The music was lost many centuries ago. But still, the words of those ancient hymns continue to resonate in our hearts, and have found their way into countless more recent hymns. As we sing them, they live again!

The Bible is also a practical manual for living. You could see it as the self-help book of end all self-help books. There=s practical advice in the Bible for how to live our lives, especially in books like Proverbs and the Letter of James.

Family narrative of God=s people… hymnbook… self-help book B the Bible is all these things, and more.

Of course, to many people=s minds, there=s another significant function of the Bible: as a lawbook. There are literally hundreds of laws in the Bible, from Moses= original Ten Commandments, to the intricate holiness code of Leviticus, to Jesus= famous Sermon on the Mount.

Some laws, like the Ten Commandments, we still revere today. Others… not so much. Who, today, for example, thinks that, if a man should suddenly die, leaving his wife childless, it is the duty of the man=s brother to marry his former sister-in-law? Deuteronomy, chapter 25, commands him to do this even if he has a wife already. Then, if a son is born from that union, the child is considered the heir of the deceased brother.

And what if the surviving brother doesn=t want to take on a second wife? In that case, the wife has a right to go to the elders of the village, and demand that they pressure him into doing it. If the stubborn man still doesn=t yield to that moral persuasion, the widow has the right to go up to him, pull one of his sandals off his feet, spit in his face, and declare: AThis is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house!@ Henceforth, the book of Deuteronomy concludes, AThroughout Israel his family shall be known as >the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.=@

There it is, a law from the Bible. Would anybody here care to make the case that the New Jersey legislature ought to adopt it, forthwith? Should we add it to our state=s statutes that, henceforth, polygamy be not only permitted in this state, but required in the case of a man and his widowed sister-in-law?

Of course not! That would be crazy.

Yet, it does raise the question: how do we know which biblical laws no longer apply in the present era B and who decides?

For those who are Roman Catholic, the answer is easy: the Vatican decides. The pope, as the descendant of Peter, is the Vicar of Christ B Jesus= official representative. There=s a whole body of Catholic canon law, centuries old, that helps the pope and his expert theologians decide what the Bible must be saying in the present day.

For example, there=s a place in the First Letter to the Corinthians when Paul says women ought to cover their heads in church [11:4-15]. For many centuries, this was a common practice. My wife, Claire, grew up Roman Catholic, in a family of five girls and one boy. Getting everybody to mass on a Sunday morning was a bit of a challenge. Part of that challenge was finding hats or kerchiefs for all those girls to cover their hair. Sometimes they couldn=t find a head-covering for everyone. In order not to be late, one or more of the girls fell back on the emergency measure: a piece of kleenex, secured with a bobby pin. Claire has memories B as do her sisters B of sitting there in the church pew, with that flimsy tissue perched on the top of her head. It may have looked silly, but it fulfilled the minimal provisions of the law.

Then one day, everything changed. The Second Vatican Council, meeting in Rome, repealed the ancient law that said women had to cover their heads in church. Their rationale was that Paul, in First Corinthians, is addressing women of ancient Greek society. In that culture, the only women who displayed their hair in public were those practicing what used to be called Athe oldest profession.@ Some of these women were evidently curious about Christianity, and Paul welcomed them to worship B but, he stipulated, you must cover your head in church like any respectable woman. The members of the Second Vatican Council reasoned that this advice was particular to that culture. It took a few years for the change to make its way across the ocean to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but once it did, Claire and her sisters never had to go through the kleenex-on-the-head routine again.

So, for Catholics, the answer to our question is easy: it=s the pope who decides what laws in the Bible must be followed, and which ones may be set aside.

For us Protestants, though, the answer is a wee bit more complicated. Our tradition shuns the idea of an authoritative teaching office. Ever since Martin Luther translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into German, printed off thousands of copies of using Gutenberg=s newly-invented movable type, and placed them into the hands of ordinary Christians, we=re meant to read the Bible ourselves. It=s up to us to discern from our reading which laws we must follow, and which not.

Now, that works pretty well for you shall not murder, you shall not steal and you shall honor your father and your mother, but it still leaves us to puzzle out for ourselves the women-covering-their-heads-in-church thing. For us, the short answer to the question of who decides which laws are valid, and which not, is Awe all do.@

Not that we=re completely without guidance. In the Presbyterian Church, we have a Book of Confessions B a collection of historic and contemporary creeds. We also have a General Assembly, that periodically debates and votes on how to answer certain ethical questions that have been posed to it, based on the scriptures.

Yet, when you or I do open the Bible, looking for some guidance on how to live, we all have a certain amount of independence B within limits B on how to interpret what we read there. That=s one of the hallmarks of Protestantism: that Christians ought to read the scriptures for themselves.

There=s a bit of a problem, though, in that modern advances in biblical scholarship are making it more and more difficult for ordinary folks to understand what they read. Take a literal reading of 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, for example. You can well understand how a woman might read Paul=s letter and conclude, AI=d better not walk into a worship service unless I=ve got a hat on.@ It is, after all, the plain, literal meaning of what the Bible says.

What makes all the difference is the expert knowledge of biblical scholars who understand the cultural background B who can tell us what judgments were commonly made, in those Greek and Roman cities, about women who walked out onto the streets with their hair uncovered. This one=s a pretty easy one to figure out, actually, once we have the interpretative key. Yet, there are a great many other unresolved debates going on about what, exactly, the Bible is saying about other matters.

What do we decide about abortion, for example? Or the use of contraception? Or in-vitro fertilization? The Bible doesn=t directly address any of these situations. How could it? These are modern scientific advances that were unknown in Bible times. And, speaking of science, what about the origins of the earth? Did God create the universe around 6,000 years ago, as Archbishop Ussher of Ireland figured out, by meticulously adding up the ages of all the people mentioned in biblical genealogies? (According to his calculations, the universe was created on October 22 of the year 4,004 B.C. B though he used the old Julian Calendar, rather than the Gregorian Calendar we presently use, so you=ve got to make a few adjustments.) Or, should we follow the persuasive arguments of Charles Darwin and others, that the universe is millions of years old, and God created human life through evolution of the various animal species?

You can see the sort of dilemma we=re in. Human knowledge is a good deal more complicated than it was in years past. A simple, literal reading of the Bible isn=t always possible. Short of going to seminary and studying ancient Hebrew and Greek, how=s an ordinary Christian to decide what the Bible is really saying about one ethical issue or another?

Well, here in the Presbyterian Church, we have something that helps. We have a strong tradition of biblical preaching, presented by ordained ministers who have studied both ancient languages and modern methods of biblical interpretation. We require those who deliver sermons on a regular basis to have completed four years of college and three years of seminary, and to have passed ordination exams assessing their ability to apply biblical insights to modern situations. Not that we preachers are always 100% in agreement with one another B biblical scholarship is always a work in progress B but there=s impressive consensus out there about the meaning of most biblical texts.

Of course, to take advantage of that asset, you do have to come to church on a regular basis and listen to sermons!

Apart from that approach B relying on a trained interpreter to open up the meaning of the Bible B there are a couple of other general principles of interpretation anybody can apply.

The first of these is an ancient dictum that goes back to Augustine and other leaders of the early church. That principle is: ALet scripture interpret scripture.@

Now, that may sound, on the face of it, like a circular argument: but the principle of studying scripture passages in light of other scripture passages does carry us a long way towards the sort of certainty we=re all seeking. That=s because the scriptures are, by and large, consistent with one another (at least when it comes to the big issues).

It was this let-scripture-interpret-scripture principle that ultimately led to the tremendous change in Christian ethics in the 19th century, resulting in the abolition of slavery. For centuries, people in favor of slavery had pointed to the existence of that Apeculiar institution@ in biblical times. They also pulled out a certain farfetched argument, based on the story of Noah cursing his son, Ham, who was generally thought to be the ancestor of the African peoples. The more Christians became familiar, though, with the overall message of the Bible B the preponderance of passages about loving and caring for one another; the fact that we=re all created in God=s image; not to mention God=s fundamental justice B the more they came to conclude that the biblical evidence was much stronger against slavery than for it.

The second principle is one we see Jesus himself using, in our New Testament passage for today. Some scribes come up to Jesus and, thinking to test his Bible knowledge, ask him which is the greatest commandment. Jesus dispenses the textbook answer: reciting the Old Testament declaration known as the Shema: AHear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.@

That would have been enough to get an AA@ on the exam, by anybody=s standard, but Jesus goes on. There is a second great commandment, he says: ALove your neighbor as yourself.@

Love and obey God: such is the hallmark of classical Judaism. Yet, in elevating love of neighbor to an equally high level, Jesus is breaking new ground (more or less). Such a thought was not completely unknown in ancient Judaism B a few other leading rabbis had taught much the same thing B but Jesus made it so much a part of everything he said and did that his followers came to be noted for it. The church father Tertullian remarked on how many pagans in the Roman empire marveled at the Christians they met, saying: ASee, how they love one another!@

This hallmark of the faith has been adapted into a principle of biblical interpretation known as Athe rule of love.@ It=s very simple. About any biblical passage, one can ask the question: AIs this interpretation consistent with love of God and love of neighbor?@ If we truly reflect on the meaning of this greatest commandment of Jesus, and hold it up as a yardstick to interpretations that seem questionable, it=s remarkable how well it cuts throughthe confusion and helps us decide what the Spirit is truly saying to us.

To sum up: there are three reliable methods for understanding the true meaning of a biblical passage: seek out preaching that is faithful and well-informed; let scripture interpret scripture; and finally, apply the rule of love. While it=s true that biblical interpretation is always a work in progress B and that, of debates about the meaning of the scriptures, there will be no end B following these three methods is not a bad plan.

And that, my friends, is how we can trust the Bible.


Copyright 8 2012, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.