Knowing What’s Important

Knowing What’s Important

Sermon for East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh
5 November 2000 

Mark 12: 28-34; Lev. 19: 1-7, 13-21, 37 

Pamela Byers
Elder, Old First Presbyterian Church, San Francisco, and
Executive Director, Covenant Network of Presbyterians

Our text this morning, the lectionary text being read in thousands of churches in many denominations today, is right in line with the theme of our conference, Biblical Authority and the Church. It shows Jesus and those around him interpreting the Bible, as we are all called upon to do.

The story takes place during Holy Week. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, all three synoptic gospels show Jesus in an increasingly tense confrontation with the religious authorities. After he kicks the money changers out of the temple in Mark 11, there’s a whole series of vignettes that show high priests and Pharisees and Sadducees, all trying to trap Jesus into giving them a pretense to arrest him. They do this by tricky questions about the Torah, the Law. But he won’t let God’s word be used that way.

Tensions build as he challenges their authority to own the Scriptures, to claim the only right of interpretation. Religious authorities always want to control the holy books, whatever they be! These tensions will lead a few days later to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death on the cross.

But the exchange in this morning’s story is actually a moment of grace, as a scribe asks a question to which he seems genuinely to want to know the answer. And when he hears it, he recognizes and affirms it. Which commandment, he asks, is the first of all? Which, out of the hundreds of specific injunctions in the scriptures that faithful Jews were supposed to know and follow — which is the most important?

The first part of Jesus’s answer is perfectly orthodox. He harkens back to the Shema, the great commandment in Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” It wouldn’t have been hard for Jesus or any other Jew to call that command to mind, since Deuteronomy goes on to ask God’s people to “keep these words. . . in your heart. Recite them to your children. . . bind them on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house” (Deut. 6: 4-9). Even today, this great claim and command are posted as a constant reminder in the mezzuzahs by the front doors of observant Jews.

The second, however, was not so obvious — although it seems so to us now. “Love your neighbor as yourself” and variant ways of expressing that thought are enshrined as the golden rule, and even presidential candidates claim it as their guiding principle — though I can’t resist noting that Gov. Bush misquoted it in the second debate.

But when I looked up this reference a couple of years ago, I was startled to find that the line actually comes from Leviticus, from the section we read just now. It’s smack in the middle of what’s called the Holiness Code in Chapters 17 to 26 of that book. These chapters lay down detailed rules for both priest and people, to help set them apart from others as God’s chosen people. “You shall be holy,” says God, “for I the Lord your God am holy.” There are instructions for purity and right observance in eating, sexual behavior, social ethics, family relations, in worship and festivals and sacrifices.

Now, this Holiness Code has a bad name among many people who, like myself, want to make the church more welcoming to gay and lesbian Christians. Two of the six “clobber passages” — the six places in the whole Bible which refer to homosexual acts — are in this section. They’re used or misused for what Harvard Preacher Peter Gomes calls “textual harassment.” Lev. 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman: it is an abomination.” That same paragraph also advises not to have sex with a menstruating woman. Lev. 20: 13 goes further and declares that men who lie with men “shall be put to death.” So shall adulterers, and people who have sex during a woman’s period.

You can see, perhaps, why I don’t on the whole think of the Holiness Code as one of the Bible’s best sections. But, as I hope you heard in the reading this morning, many of the commandments in chapter 19 are indeed marks by which we might expect to recognize people living in covenant with God. If we’d had more time, I would have had us read the whole chapter. It essentially recaps the Ten Commandments; it enjoins fair dealings with customers and workers, generosity to the poor, kindness to the blind and deaf, and careful concern for resident aliens.

Yet cheek by jowl with these important ethical commands are prohibitions on tattoos and haircutting, detailed rules for when sacrifices are acceptable, and rules on how a man can get righteous again if he rapes somebody else’s slave.

And let me read again verses 18 – 19:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.

Now my question is this: Thinking over the whole Torah, how did Jesus pick that one line — not even a whole sentence — out of the mass of the Law? Why is loving your neighbor more important than not sowing two crops in one field? Especially since the chapter ends, “You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:37).

Now, we may say that Jesus as the son of God could choose whatever part he wanted. But how are we to know what’s most important in the Bible? Is it simply a matter — as some conservative Presbyterians accuse us of doing — of picking the parts we like? — as Thomas Jefferson had a Bible printed that only included the passages that seemed true to him?

Many people think that different understandings of how to read and interpret Scripture lie at the heart of most of the contentious issues in our church today — not only the questions of inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in the church’s life and leadership, but also questions ranging from inclusive language to the place of social witness to our ways of envisioning God to our relations with people of other faiths.

Our Reformed tradition and especially the Confessions which are our special inheritance as Presbyterians actually give us good instructions on how to read and interpret the Bible — how to know what’s important.

Our confessions teach us that the Bible is not only the record of God’s interaction with humankind but is itself one of the preeminent ways in which God has reached out to us. It’s the source to which we look to understand God and God’s action in the world. We speak of it as the word of God, inspired by God, different in kind from other literary works from the ancient world.

But there are guidelines for how to find God’s word to us in these ancient texts, many of which, like the chapter we’ve read this morning from Leviticus, address a set of social circumstances and assumptions we can hardly even imagine.

  • We remember that God in the Bible never speaks in general, but always speaks to particular people in particular circumstances; and so we need to pay attention to the context.
  • We bring our best gifts of scholarship to the task, as we would to any other very important matter.
  • We study and value the insights that faithful people have found in these words during the past two millennia and more, though we are not, necessarily, bound by them.
  • We bring humility and a recognition that all our readings are only provisional.

Always we ask for and expect to receive the help of the Spirit to breathe contemporary life and meaning into these words and make them live for us today. Peter Gomes reminds us:

The Bible in its dynamic way is an inclusive book, and our ancestors understood that. Our earliest Christian ancestors understood that the Jewish book was a book that was capable of accommodating a different revelation; and as they moved through their human experience they discovered the capacity of this book to draw them in. It has been the experience of Christian people throughout the world ever since.

Most of all, we read particular passages as part of the whole message of the Bible — the story of God’s long, patient, persistent invitation to us to be in communion with God. Columbia Seminary Professor Walter Brueggemann, just a couple of days ago in this pulpit, said the first rule of Biblical interpretation is to focus on its central evangelical proclamation: that “God creates the world in love, redeems the world in suffering, and will consummate the world in joy.”

The message God was trying to convey to Israel and all of humankind through the Hebrew Scriptures became a person who incarnated God’s very meaning and being. Biblical scholar Dale Bruner explains Jesus as the living Word of God in this way: “Jesus became to the great invisible God what our words are to our invisible thoughts.”

In trying to discern what’s important, then, we can remember what Paul tells us: In Jesus Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself (II Cor. 5:19). If we want to know what God is up to, what God wants for us and from us, we can look to the life and ministry of Jesus, as it is recorded for us in the Scripture itself. Our Confession of 1967 says,
The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. . . .
The Bible is to be interpreted in light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ. (9.27, 9.29)

Does living “under the authority of Scripture,” as our ordination vows demand, mean
defining our boundaries to keep people out
or knowing our center to draw people in?

Christ is our center. When parts of the Bible contradict themselves — as one might expect from a document with dozens of authors written down over nearly a thousand years — we can try to discover which parts carry the most weight by asking which are most in accord with what God has shown us in the person and work of Jesus.

When we find ourselves lobbing Bible verses back and forth at each other in the culture wars, we have, tragically, plenty of historical precedent. People have tried to take hold of the Bible and make it serve their purposes throughout both testaments and ever since.

But sometimes, by God’s grace, the Bible takes hold of us, and draws us toward the possibility — no, the reality — of God’s reign. That kingdom is expressed most simply but most powerfully in this summary of the Law, loving God with everything that’s in us, and loving our neighbors — all our neighbors — as we do ourselves.

May it be so for us.

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