Texts: Micah 6:6-8 (justice, kindness, and humility); Matthew 5:1-20 (the Sermon on the Mount)
What does the Lord require of us? In the first of today’s two readings from the Bible, Micah gives an answer: to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
Many of us value his answer for its clarity and brevity. Micah tells us not to worry about sacrificial worship or the many commandments of the Law found in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, he says we should simply act with humility, kindness, and justice.
Today, we also heard the beginning of the ethical teaching of Jesus called the Sermon on the Mount. In this reflection, I contrast these two readings to help us ponder the role that the Bible plays in our lives; and to discuss why Christians come to wildly different conclusions on an issue like refugees.
In many of the stories in the four gospels, Jesus’ words and actions fit with the ideas of the prophet Micah. Over and over, Jesus ignores tenets of Jewish law. He heals sick people on the Sabbath. He spends time with those whom the Law says are ritually unclean. He befriends non-Jewish people. Jesus always emphasizes kindness, justice, and humility over religious law.
Because of this, I am puzzled by the statement of Jesus we heard today that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. This contradicts not only Micah but many of the other things that Jesus says and does.
I like even less the two verses following today’s reading. In them, Jesus says, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment; and anyone who treats a brother or sister with contempt will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
I admire the Beatitudes that we heard today — the poetic list of phrases that start with the words “Blessed are. . .” But since I don’t believe in eternal punishment, what can I make of Jesus’ words in the same text about the fires of hell?
The church gives authority to the books of the Bible. Happily, it doesn’t treat all passages equally. Some call today’s passage from Micah the Golden Text of the Old Testament. Most of us prize it far above passages in the Old Testament that support nationalism or violence.
But as much as the church likes Micah, it gives even more weight to the sayings of Jesus. Given this fact, is it OK for me to embrace some parts of the Sermon on the Mount and reject other parts that are about hell?
This past Wednesday, I attended a Bible study group made up of United Church ministers. It was organized by the Rev. YoonOk Shin, who is the Intercultural Minister for Edmonton Presbytery. Ten of us spent most of our first meeting sharing family histories. Two ministers were born in Korea, one in Scotland, one in the United States, one in Congo, one in Zimbabwe, and the rest of us in Canada. Most of us had Presbyterian or Methodist roots and one minister was a former Pentecostal.
In subsequent sessions, we are going to discuss how we use the Bible. To help with this task we are reading a book called “The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture in The United Church of Canada.” It was published last year by two teachers at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon.
This book grapples with some of the challenges of reading the Bible. In the face of the Bible’s contradictions; the violent history behind its transmission; and how the texts of the Bible have been translated and interpreted, the book puts forward the concept of the “Rule of Faith.” This idea has helped Christians over the ages to use the Bible responsibly, the authors write.
The Rule of Faith is a community’s understanding of God, humanity, and the central message of Scripture. When a passage in the Bible contradicts the Rule of Faith — and there are many of these — churches turn to their Rule to avoid using the Bible in unethical ways. When the United Church debated sexuality in the 1980s, it found that different sides of the debate were using different rules of faith. Similar differences were uncovered in the 1800s in church debates over slavery.
Today all Christians condemn slavery despite passages in the Bible that support it. In the same way, just because Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus saying many people will face eternal punishment in hell does not mean we must preach this idea.
Over the next year as this group of ministers continue to gather to discuss the Bible, I am sure that we will discover a lot about our various rules of faith.
Like any other part of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount raises issues of interpretation. Both Matthew and Luke contain the material found in the Sermon, but there are differences between the two. In Luke, the Beatitudes are more concrete. Instead of “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke writes “Blessed are you poor. Instead of “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness,” Luke writes “Blessed are you hungry.” Nor does Luke have Jesus talking about hell.
Monty Python’s satirical film “The Life of Brian” from 1979 illustrates the problem of knowing what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. In a scene set during it, people in the crowd strain to hear Jesus. After Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers” one man complains that he didn’t hear what was said. His companion tells him he thinks that Jesus said, “Blessed are the cheesemakers!” This makes another person wonder what’s so special about cheesemakers, to which yet another replies that Jesus’ words should not be taken literally. He says that Jesus is probably referring to the manufacturers of any dairy product.
In a humorous way, this scene reminds us that we cannot be sure what Jesus said; nor can we adopt ethical rules simply by reading Scripture. Whenever we read a text, we do so with a Rule of Faith. My Rule of Faith is not perfectly clear to me, but I know it lies in the spiritual power of a gathered community that tries to follow a path of death and resurrection and that values Love and Grace above all.
Because of this Rule of Faith, I do not support slavery just as I do not believe in hell regardless of what Jesus says about it in Matthew. Just as we are not bound by the Law, nor are we bound by Scripture. We live in the light of Grace.
Other church leaders have different rules of faith. Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and the President of the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse told a reporter last week that he supports the U.S. government ban on Syrian refugees. According to my Rule of Faith, Christians are called to welcome refugees. As a follower of Jesus, I strongly condemn the ban. I view it as an outrage against justice, compassion, and security. I view it as a hate crime.
Graham seems to have a different Rule of Faith, one that amplifies the passages in the Bible that support xenophobia and racism.
The concept of the Rule of Faith helps us to understand the huge range of perspectives among world Christianity. Different churches share the same Bible, but they read it in radically different ways.
Sometimes I imagine the books of the Bible as a campfire around which we gather. At times, the fire blows toxic smoke in our eyes. At other times, it illuminates a path of faith, hope and love.
The church gives the Bible authority above other texts. For this reason, I am happy to know the concept of The Rule of Faith. I hope that discussing the Rule of Faith will help us to avoid the Bible’s toxic smoke and to find more of its light.
The status given by the church to the Bible does not mean we need only reflect on readings from it in our gatherings. When I return in two weeks after a week of vacation and another of study leave, I hope to offer a reflection on one of the movies nominated for an Academy Award this year. I trust this could fit with our Rule of Faith since the path of death and resurrection is revealed in many places other than the Bible.
In the Season of Epiphany, we have reflected on a different way of learning each week. On January 8, the first Sunday of Epiphany, it was on the resistance of the Magi to Empire. On January 15, it was on how baptism can reveal our divine status. Last Sunday, it was on what we can learn by responding to God’s call. Today, it is on how the Bible can both reveal and obscure God’s Love.
As we continue to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God, may we refine our Rule of Faith so that both ancient Scripture and current realities throw less smoke and more light on the path of Love.
May it be so. Amen.