Sometimes, when I read the news or listen to some of the rhetoric which goes on in our church, or other churches, or other faiths, I have the distinct sense that the Scriptures are some of the most dangerous works ever set to paper, parchment, vellum, clay or stone. Wars have been fought, people are being killed, incredibly cruel and brutal things are being screamed, over the ways that holy writings are interpreted and read and passed on generation to generation.
And there are times when it seems that biblical literalism is stalking our age: people who are willing to justify many horrendous ideas and actions, in the name of their so-called literal reading of the Scriptures.
I don’t know if any of you ever watched the television series, The West Wing, when it was on television, but there is one scene from it which I remember vividly because it dealt with the whole issue of biblical literalism. At an event at the White House, the presidential character comes across a “Christian” talk radio personality. The subject of human sexuality comes up and she quotes to him from the Scriptures, chapter and verse. To which he responds with this set of questions:
I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, and always clears the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff insists on working on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:2, clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here's one that's really important, 'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes us unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?
It is a funny scene, and the point is to highlight the inconsistency in taking certain portions of Scripture literally when it comes to sexuality, or the role of women, but not a vast number of other portions of the Scriptures.
It is part of the strangeness of American religion that we have been deeply affected by the rhetoric of fundamentalism which says that the Bible is literally true and its meaning is obvious; that the Scriptures say what they mean, and there is no contradiction, no complexity of interpretation to them; that what matters is how I understand the Scriptures. I like to think of this as the approach which I have heard spoken which says “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
And even when we know intellectually that that is not the case, when we understand there to be issues of interpretation and a host of other issues which make reading the Scriptures difficult, still we react slightly when we hear the Scriptures being proof-texted, or blanch slightly when someone mentions St. Paul.
One can see in the two modern responses to the Scriptures, either to accept the Scriptures whole-heartedly and supposedly literally, or to explain them away in profoundly deep and (I think) dangerous ways, the cumulative effects of the rhetoric of Biblical literalism.
But Biblical literalism is a relatively modern way of reading the Scriptures and a dangerous one.The early church was much clearer than we are that the Scriptures were dangerous, and were not primarily to be read and interpreted individually, but to be read and interpreted within the gathered community, the body of the Church.
In contradistinction to the simple literalism around the Scriptures or the simple dismissal of the Scriptures which we see today, the collect appointed for today gives us a method of interacting with Scripture in a far more complex and nuanced way.
Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them; that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
And I love this collect not only because my father used to quote it to me all the time (one of the dangers of growing up in a clerical family), but also because I find it tremendously helpful when I open up the Scriptures, ready to write a sermon, and come across the inevitable difficult passage.
I am most enamored with the phrase “inwardly digest” the Scriptures. It is a gustatory metaphor for coming to grips with the Scriptures. We are to ingest, to ruminate, to chew the cud of the Scriptures in a bovine manner for hours, days, years, even our lifetimes. And notice that the collect is couched in the language of the people of God reading and wrestling with the Scriptures together, as a body. This is not something that I do on my own.
Which is good news as far as I am concerned when I read the Gospel passage for today. The parable of the talents is a relatively straightforward passage about stewardship and the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom is like a rich man who goes away and leaves his property in the charge of his servants or slaves. They are given his property to care for, for a time, which is precisely what stewardship is: caring for that which is not yours, which you will have to give back or return eventually. The two worthy servants increase the master’s property by their thoughtful care for it. The “wicked” servant merely buries his talent and gets punished for his terrible stewardship.
But then we come to that disturbing phrase: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” It is a phrase that I will freely admit I am fundamentally uncomfortable with. My temptation is to attempt to explain it away or, using rhetorical slight-of-hand gloss over it or interpret it. But I’m not sure that I can do that convincingly, and even if I could, I’m not sure that would be very helpful, and so what I am left with is a difficult, difficult piece of the Scriptures. Scripture not as simple or clear or evident, but “an illegible stone,” with complex directions and dimensions, a confusing text which I cannot easily solve or explain.
If the way to read the Scriptures is, as the collect says, to “inwardly digest them,” that wonderful metaphor of feasting on the Word, what do we do with the pieces of Scripture which catch in our throats, which stick in our gullets, as we attempt to swallow them, to chew on them?
“...those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away...” That doesn’t sound like the Jesus who was deeply concerned with the poor, the exile and the outcast. And I find it difficult to reconcile all this discussion of binding and casting into the outer darkness, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, with my understanding of the God of mercy.
The literal reader of the Scriptures would say of this passage that it points to the judgment of God, God’s purity, God’s holiness, God’s otherness from the human race. The other brand of interpretation might try and explain the phrase away, or make out that it was a later interpolation by the community reading and preserving the Gospel of Matthew, in response to X, Y or Z going on in their communal lives or in their identity struggles with the Judaism of their day.
Both of these methods of interpreting the Scriptures are ways of foreclosing on the process of the inward digestion of Scripture, and the ongoing reading and ingesting of Scripture in the midst of the community of the faithful. Both are attempts to make simple what is not simple, to make clear what is not clear, to make black and white that which is grey. To set boundaries, to set limits, to define the ways in which we interact with the Scriptures, the questions and emotions and experiences that we bring to them.
It is, I think, much safer to know that Scripture is simple, clear and literal, or that Scripture can be explained away as the cultural literature, poetry and myths of some ancient tribes. There is less at stake, when I don’t have to be open to the Scriptures reading me back, questioning me back, about my relationship with money, about God’s judgment, about my own personal holiness, and about our holiness as a community of faith. And therein lies the problem with the modern ways of reading the Scriptures.They are not really reading the Scriptures at all, they are not really open to the Scriptures; they aren’t reading the Scriptures in anyway which allows of the Scriptures reading back into us.
And so, lest I attempt to use rhetorical flourish not to attempt to come to grips with “...those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away...” I will now attempt to share with you the place where I am, when it comes to wrestling with that particular phrase of the Scriptures. It is very difficult for me to accept, for me to integrate into the conception that I have of Jesus and of God. I find that this phrase sits in my mind alongside those phrases which assume slavery and the subjugation of women, which justify homophobia and xenophobia. I cannot accept them, but I also cannot simply dismiss them.They point to the complexity of the God of the Scriptures, of the person of Jesus, revealed to us in documents which are troubling and difficult. Nothing would make me happier than to know that Jesus is the liberal intellectual that my conception has made him, or that God is who I think he is. But it is the hard passages of Scripture which point to the limitations of my own images of God and of Christ.
Grant us therefore, Gracious Lord, so to hear the complexity and hardness of the Scriptures, so to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, so to ruminate on their difficult words and stories, their cultural insensitivities and their unquestioned assumptions, that we may find in them that “patience and comfort” which has been the Church’s hope for long ages.
For one thing is certain. Whether we like the Scriptures or not, or are comfortable with them or not (generally I think we are not), out of the Scriptures come our common life, our practice, and our hope. Out of the Scriptures, however distant or complex, however hard or convoluted, comes to us the voice of the Living God, speaking into our world, our hearts and minds, our very beings. It has been so for untold years, that those who gather together to worship and praise the living God have in their reflection and rumination on the Scriptures, heard the rumor of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Preached by the Rev'd Andrew Ashcroft
16 November 2008
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia