The reading of Scripture is just the beginning of a process of questioning and debate
Liz Stuart, 27 October 2019
Isaiah 45: 22–25; Luke 4: 16–24
When I was about 11 or 12 I decided I might like to be Jewish. My parents treated this news with the same bemusement they displayed when, a number of years earlier, I had taken up station under the dining room table and announced that I wanted to be a golden retriever. My wonderful aunt, Isobel, however, saw the possibility for adventure, and whenever I saw her she would fire up her Ford Anglia and take me around some of the synagogues in Liverpool, where we were met with nothing but warmth.
There was something about the attitude to Scripture that I liked. Whether it is because it is usually read in the Hebrew or whether it is because it is read from a scroll, there is something dynamic about the Jewish approach to Scripture. Whereas we Christians tend to use Scripture to avoid, to settle or close down arguments, for Jewish people the reading of Scripture is just the beginning of a process of questioning and debate – some of it quite fierce – and God is as much in that debate and interpretation as in the words on the scroll.
I love our gospel reading. I always think it is the perfect sermon. Just nine words (you should be so lucky!): ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. You can imagine the reaction of the congregation: ‘What on earth … ?’ It was a sermon that provoked a thousand questions. Jesus enjoyed prompting and asking questions much more than giving answers.
Jesus did not rise from the dead only to be re-entombed in a book.
The printing press and the translation of the Bible into the vernacular were two momentous developments for Christianity which took the Bible from the control of an elite. But the downside of the making of the Bible into a book is that, first, it can leave the impression that the Bible is one thing, whereas in fact it is many different types of literature from different cultures and centuries. It also gives the impression of being closed and complete. But Jesus did not rise from the dead only to be re-entombed in a book, and it is he before all else who is God’s Word who does not return to God empty, but with all creation redeemed in him. Because he is God’s Word we have to read the Bible through him.
We make two mistakes with the Bible. The first is to idolise it and treat it as a god who spits out answers to our questions like a fairground automaton. The second is to treat is as a historical artefact, like an elderly aunt who gives us an insight into a bygone age, but who frequently embarrasses us with her wildly politically incorrect opinions.
What we have in the Bible are myriad examples of our faith-family, stretching back through the centuries, wrestling with a living God who they knew was somehow in the midst of the complexity and muddle of their lives. They did so using thoughts and concepts drawn from their culture and literary genres some of which we still do not quite understand.
What we have in the Bible are myriad examples of our faith-family, stretching back through the centuries, wrestling with a living God who they knew was somehow in the midst of the complexity and muddle of their lives.
We read all of these through the lens of the Word, Christ. When he read the passage from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue, Jesus left out half of the last sentence: ‘and the day of vengeance for our God’. People would have noticed. Reading the Bible through the lens of the living Christ we learn as much about how our ancestors in faith made mistakes about where God was as about how they got it right. We must not be afraid to say sometimes in the face of passages of scripture which valorise genocide, violence or hatred; this is not the word of the Lord. That is okay. The theologies of the Bible argue with each other – read the book of Job to see that in action.
But we also need to be conscious that we too bring to it a whole bus full of baggage that informs our thinking and reading, and can make it so easy for us to get it wrong. This is why it is so important that we read the Bible not just as individuals but as Church, hearing different translations and interpretations, discussing and arguing with love over what these words mean for us. Diverse interpretations remind us that God can never be completely captured, but constantly bursts out of our thought forms– the fact that we have four gospels, not one, is a powerful reminder of that.
As Christians, we are people of the book. We have been formed by the Bible; through it we encounter the Word, Jesus. The Holy Spirit scampers through it using its ancient words and theology to inspire, challenge, comfort, warn and delight us still. But we are also its latest chapter. The most ancient manuscripts of the gospel of Mark end on the Greek word γαρ, ‘for’, a conjunction. Over the centuries scholars have suggested that the original ending of the gospel was lost, but my New Testament tutor at university, Canon John Fenton, suggested that the ending was deliberate to make the point that we, the readers, are the next clause in this great story. We can make no sense of our story without the Bible, for it is our story, but it does not absolve us from the need to search for God in our midst now. The Eucharist symbolises this beautifully in that we move from the reading of the Scriptures to the celebration of Jesus’ presence with us in bread and wine.
Jesus, the Word of God, is as present to us in Bible, sacrament and in each other as he was in that synagogue in Nazareth. If we really believed that, we would have a thousand questions to ask of Jesus, the Bible and each other, and God would be in those questions, so let’s start asking them.