Wrestling with the readings this morning...too much, too much, but this is what I preached, more or less...
If there is one pivotal phrase on which the whole experience of Scripture this morning spins, and swings, it must be that phrase in Romans where Paul puts his finger on the perpetual challenge of reading and understanding and proclaiming the word of God to his people: he says of Abraham, that “the words were written…not for his sake alone, but for ours also.” It is this that makes Scripture Scripture, I think…the sense that it is God’s ongoing revelation of himself to his people – not just a record of that interaction in the past, but the very stuff of our relationship in the present, and rich with challenges and blessings for the future.
If this is true, of course, it makes the reading and hearing of the word of God in Scripture a very high-energy, high-intensity affair… something we enter into with great seriousness and alertness. And I suppose it is never possible to maintain a perfect balance for long between our awareness of the “words for the sake of the people in the story” and “words for our sake also.” We always tend to clutch at either the one or the other. But when we do…we run the risk of missing something crucial, of overlooking the half of the story which may be the half we most need to hear.
For example – briefly – look at the story about Abraham this morning. There is a double blessing here, a double promise. Abraham is promised land, the gift of land in perpetuity, “eretz” in Hebrew, and as part of that promise, descendants in abundance—enough descendants to occupy the land, the “eretz”. But he is promised something more than that, he is also promised that he and his descendants won’t just GET a gift but will be a gift to not just that piece of real estate but to the whole earth! “and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” It’s interesting that Paul completely sets aside the idea of the LAND as fulfilling God’s promise – never mentions it at all – and focuses entirely on the promise of blessing to those who inherit not Abraham’s territory but his faith, his ongoing dialogue with the God who is above all faithful… it’s interesting in a different and sadder way that in the political life of the Middle East over the last hundred years the promise to Abraham and his family has been remembered as EXCLUSIVELY about the land, about eretz Israel and nothing else. A tragedy, and a dangerous tragedy, “not for their sake alone, but for us also.”
Now another kind of “partial reading” or “partial receiving” is highlighted for us by the Gospel. Did it strike you at all that in the space of just a few short verses—no more than a dozen—Jesus does three altogether disgraceful, unacceptable things? Even for Jesus at his most outrageous, I think this is a record. And he does them for the benefit of three unacceptable people – but not for their sake alone, but for ours also. First of all he calls a tax-collector to him – and then invites himself to dinner with a whole gang of equally low characters. In the midst of which, he’s sent for to go and do something which is ENTIRELY against the law – that is, come in contact with a dead body (and a female one, at that); and while he’s still on the way to do that – worst of all, he comes into contact with a haemorrhaging woman. Now the Jews in Jesus’ time were extremely uptight about blood of any kind, and most particularly this kind… so this is the worst outrage of all.
THE POINT here for us, though is to remember that although there were laws and regulations against eating with sinners and foreigners – and against touching dead bodies – and coming into contact with women – we can’t avoid perceiving that the real, primary reason for disapproval of all these things was NOT that there were rules against them in the Torah, but because people just felt, instinctively, that they were all really, really, icky and disgusting.
Now as reactions go, that one is perfectly normal and human. We all have instinctive repulsions and fears and phobias of some sosrt…to certain animals or to certain substances or to certain foods or even to certain kinds of people. And often they work, on an instinctive level, to protect us against things that might well do us harm.
And we see the same mechanism at work in the issues that cause such division among Christian people – particularly Anglicans – at this very moment. We’re quick to cite the Word of God in disapproval of things that we find distasteful on instinctive grounds; and when Scripture forbids things that DON’T affect us that way, we’re equally quick to set aside those prohibitions as “an interesting historical record, but not relevant to us.”
The point is that we’re not to rely upon our instincts alone; we’re also supposed to apply our brains to the situations that affect us in this way, especially when our reaction is to PEOPLE.
Like the old friend who confided to me one day that she "had a terrible time with TURBAN PEOPLE" -- but she went on to say "I know it's not right, and I think God is working on me, because every time I actually meet one of the TURBAN PEOPLE, it's always because I'm in trouble or distress, and he has rushed to help me. So, yes, I think God is working on my reaction to TURBAN PEOPLE."
And we're supposed to bring our hearts to bear as well...it's most intriguing that Matthew includes the detail that the father of the dead girl is a "ruler of the synagogue" -- one of the guardians of what is kosher, decent, allowable; an authority on what is and is not repulsive. The People's Warden, for heaven's sake, and he comes and asks Jesus explicitly to come and do something that they both know is against "God's law" -- to touch a dead body...but it's different, when it's your little girl; and he's there in the story to remind us of the law of the heart. You know Jesus would have been well within his rights to refuse him: "Are you crazy? We both know that's not allowed..." but he doesn't, not a whisper, he jumps up to go with him.
..We’re not supposed to cite only the parts of Scripture that confirm our instincts, without looking at the parts that challenge our instincts. We’re not to base all our decisions on the word of God in Scripture without also considering the word of God made flesh among us in Jesus Christ. He is our interpreter for Scripture, our “key” to “what the bible means.” God speaks to us in the things that Jesus does as well as in the words of a text… because the things that Jesus does, no less than those words, are done not for the sake of the people he touches alone, but for ours also…and thus the dead are raised, and the nameless and unclean are adopted and included and healed and embraced, and the outcasts and scoundrels become proclaimers of the good news…thanks be to God...