Last week we explored the importance of language and names, and the power inherent in both to embed ideas, common practices and standardised responses to situations and experiences.
Todays Gospel reading continues this idea, not so much in the reading itself, but in how we read it. Moreover, it challenges how we read the Bible itself and the impact we think it has on society and our lives. A close reading of the Bible may lead us to conclude what we thought we read, what we think it says, what we believe it gives us is in error.
As Christians we tend to read the Bible as Christians, moreover as post-enlightenment western rational Christians. This means we run the risk of reading back into the passages we open, the ideas and societal practices of a modern world into what is a localised, time specific ancient text replete with the ideas and practices of that age and place.
If we read the Bible as the literal word of God may interpret these difficult passages in such a way as they become normative, requiring obedience and acceptance as to such issues, placing us at odds with the modern sensibilities in areas as the place of women in the world and church, interfaith dialogue, gender equality and more.
If we read the Bible as a moral text designed to give rules for ethical and moral practice we will look for universal standards hidden within these difficult texts written for a particular time and place. They are not there.
If we read the Bible as a resource to empower our experience we may be challenge to compare our experience with what is written and come to an accommodation based on reason and practice, aware that this collection of texts speaks into our lives, not literally or morally, but as a flickering light in the dimness of our experience. As Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Today’s reading raises questions for modern Christians. The temptation with the lectionary reading is to talk about the question of faith in verses 5-6. This is a comfortable and relatively safe place to go. Rarely do you hear a sermon on the problematic passage that follows.
“The story assumes not only the acceptance of slavery, but an honour/shame social system in which honour is presumed to lie with the powerful while the subservient have no inherent dignity. This mindset now stands in stark contrast to the values expressed in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], which asserts the dignity and worth of each and every human person.
These are the liberal values of contemporary secular Western societies, although they are often attacked by both Western Neo-Conservatives as well as by Two-Thirds World leaders who resent Western cultural and political domination. They are not biblical values, even if many people see them as vaguely Christian in character. They have more to do with the spirit of the Enlightenment than with traditional religious views of humanity and society.”
We are challenged by Luke to understand Jesus as a Jewish man of his time, drawing on the accepted moral and ethical practices that normalised society and, in this case, accepting these for what they were. Jesus does not challenge slavery and neither does Paul, but appeals to the relationship between master and slave as demonstrated in this story as being commendable and appropriate.
There is no reward for doing your duty, for doing what is expected of you within a master slave relationship. Now we could spend time reading back into this passage the idea of God as master and human beings as slaves who are simple required to obey God their master without any sense of reward or an option to do otherwise. If we did what does this say about the character of God and the value of human beings? Are we worthless slaves under oath to a master, if so what’s the point? None of this sits well with our modern understanding of the inherent dignity of each person deserving respect and right relations?
As we have seen on many occasions, passages from the Old and New Testament seem to sit contrary to what we perceive to be the message of love we are told sits beneath each. The truth is that the Bible is a flawed text insofar as it assumes and promotes such things as slavery, demon possession, ethnic cleansing, racial superiority, a three-tiered universe, and the subordination of women. The Bible does not fit neatly with our cultural assumptions, as this week’s Gospel reminds us. The immense spiritual value of the Bible may lie more in its capacity to empower our human quest than its ability to (re)solve our immediate challenges.
Here is the importance of the Bible. It is to be read as a light into the dimness of our experience, not as the definitive word of God, a moral or ethical text or a historical text. It is a text written in a particular time and place which if read mystically, that is read in conjunction with our spiritual and life experience, speaks truth into our lives. To reduce the Bible by reading any other way reduces both its worth and its impact. Just as when it was written and spoke clearly to the experience of those who read it, when it is read today without the pre-condition that it fits our ideas it enlightens our way in mysterious and often counterintuitive ways.
The Bible is a spiritual or mystical text, to be explored with open hearts and minds so that it speaks its truth to each of us in ways we can hear, see and feel.
The fact that the Bible is flawed and seems to advocate values at odds with modern sensibilities, for me, speaks to its authenticity as a mystical text. It reflects its time and place, the people who wrote it were modern people of their time and Jesus was indeed an ordinary Palestinian Jew caught up in the ethos of his time. The fact that this text is at odds with the enlightened understanding of human dignity we live with today speaks of the movement of the resurrected Christ, the Spirit who has continued the project Jesus began. We are not to be people of a static reading of the Bible, but engaged human beings we progress that project through the broadening of the thought and teachings of Jesus.
The challenge maybe, for us today, to revisit how we listen and hear the Bible as it is read in church or at home, and to look for the mystical leading of the spirit, uncovering the truth to lighten our way in the dimness of our faith. Amen