Exodus 20:1-17                       Psalm 19                 1 Corinthians 1:18-25                             John 2:13-22

Not too long ago, I was listening to someone from another denomination preach.  He did a great job, and I was really enjoying the message – until he changed gears.  You see, he was preaching about a great Biblical truth….and then he sequed into his regard for the Bible.   The inerrant Word of God. 

It sounded something like this: “Thank God we are a Bible-believing church, knowing that the Bible is the very Word of God.  It is supernaturally inspired in every word and free from every error, at least in the original documents.  God’s word is the final authority in all that it says. Therefore, it must be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.”   Sola scriptura.

That sounds suitably churchy, and maybe I was the only person listening who reacted negatively to that statement.   But it didn’t work for me.

There is a lot in the Bible that is wonderful and holy and absolutely inspired.  The problem we must face is the number of human fingerprints all over it.   Besides inspiration there are unexplained oddities, trivial commands, and downright meanness that is attributed to God.   The fancy jargon term for believing that scripture is the sole, infallible rule of Christian faith and practice is sola scriptura, a belief held by many in the evangelical traditions.  It’s one of five ways to explain Christianity  - the others are sola fides, ‘by faith alone’, sola gratia, ‘by grace alone’,  Solo Christo, ‘by Christ alone’, and soli Deo Gloria – ‘To God alone the glory’.    These are all ways of explaining the theology of Christianity, and it’s a little like the story of five blind men describing an elephant.  You know, one feels the tail and announces that an elephant is like a snake, another feels the animal’s side and says that an elephant is like a wall, one feels the trunk and says the elephant is like a tree, and so on, but all the same elephant.   Sola scriptura is the most well-known, and was a hallmark of the Protestant Reformation, and is still fundamental to many denominations.  

Like many other good things, it doesn’t seem to work as well if you make it the absolute value though.   If your only benchmark is that everything written in Scripture is important and must be followed, you probably have misunderstood the message of the Bible.   Besides, it sounded like there was a bit of smug self-congratulation going on – WE have the Bible, and WE know the truth, and all those other unwashed heathens do not. 

Now what do I mean by odd, trivial, or mean entries in the Bible?

For one thing, there are lots of curses flung around in the Bible and they would do Shakespeare, or Monty Python, proud.  We usually overlook them, but at least one wag created a Biblical Curse Generator that he posted on the Ship of Fools website.  Like this: ‘Woe unto thee, O babbling Assyrian, for you shall be plagued with gnats, flies, and boils!’     You find that stuff all over the Old Testament.   God didn’t say that.  He created Assyrians.  It is at least worth considering that maybe He kind of liked them.

Trivial commandments include such gems as the instruction to refrain from wearing mixed fibers of cotton and linen, in Leviticus 19:19.   A friend calls that ‘Thou shalt not wear polyester doubleknit.’  Is breaking that one a big concern for you? For I submit that if you go home and check all the tags on your clothes you’ll find that most everything you wear is mixed fiber.  Or how about the emphatic rules against eating pork?  The Old Testament isn’t the least bit wishywashy on that, but we still eat bacon.   Have you confessed that lately, or made a sacrifice to atone for it?

My use of the term ‘meanness’ made a few of you cringe.   There are MEAN things in the Bible and they are attributed to God, but I maintain they are not OF God.  For example there are multiple commands that no one who is physically scarred or maimed is permitted to serve God in any capacity because they are damaged goods.  That one is in both in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.   Or the instructions, when conducting a war, to execute all the boy children and adult females but keep the virgin girls as sex slaves.  Or the 35 different offenses in the Old Testament that warrant the death penalty, for crimes including picking up firewood on the Sabbath and creative swearing that invokes God.  Did God really order us to execute people for that?

Do you believe that God was pleased when all the baby boys and girls were exterminated after particularly nasty battles between tribes?  Or that God is impressed with racial purity, justifying all those longwinded genealogy passages?  Or that a child with a deformed foot or a blind eye is so ugly and imperfect that God doesn’t want anything to do with him and won’t allow him in the temple?  

There’s a lot of that sort of thing in the Bible, and the best I can tell, it’s there to serve as a bad example or maybe a warning, NOT as instructions.   We humans are diabolically clever at creating ways to make some people insiders and others outsiders.   If I hadn’t been taught better, I’d suspect that xenophobia was the original sin.   But “We’re the best because we’re just like God” IS closely related to “God only likes us, He doesn’t like them so they don’t matter.”

In today’s lectionary, we start with scripture that actually does come from divine inspiration.  The Ten Commandments are widely recognized as a foundational belief of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Besides reading them in church every Lent, they tend to be displayed everywhere from coffee mugs to courthouses, where they are invoked as a sort of magic charm for communal good behavior; apparently there are folks who believe that having them posted makes people better and taking them down will make us worse.  It would be terrific if they actually influenced how people behave, but society is largely tone-deaf to the Ten Commandments, even when we claim to keep them.

Pop quiz:  If I take out the commandments against killing, stealing, and adultery, how many other commandments can you name?  Don’t cheat and look!  There are 7 more.

  • No other gods
  • No idols
  • No slandering the Lord’s name
  • Rest on the Sabbath
  • Honor your parents
  • No lying
  • No coveting, also known as greed or envy

How did you do?   If you are like most people you could name seven characters from the Peanuts cartoon strip easier than you could name those 7 commandments. Yet we claim to believe firmly in those Ten Commandments.   Some people specifically say that they aren’t religious but try to follow the Ten Commandments – generally, when questioned, they can’t list them either.  It’s unclear who they are trying to fool, themselves or God or the interviewer.

By the time of Jesus, the 10 commandments had become hundreds of laws that had a stranglehold on the necks of the people.  If you think remembering 7 was hard, consider keeping up with 613 laws!  There was a payment to be rendered to somebody in the community every time you made a mistake or missed the mark – ostensibly to appease God, but the priests and Levites were making their living off of sin offerings and thank offerings, as were the moneychangers in the temple that got Jesus so riled.  The mixed layers of self-righteousness and opportunism were knee deep.

I think this is what made Jesus so mad He started throwing the furniture and chasing people around with a whip.  The flock He loved and came to save were being bullied and exploited by the very people God had appointed to lead and protect them, and the means of that exploitation was the law that should have been a comfort and grace. No wonder it made him furious.  

Legalism is the term we use for our fondness for monitoring other people’s transgressions against the law.  It’s not that human behavior doesn’t matter – it’s that using the law to oppress or manipulate others may be worse than the behavior the Good Cops are trying to control.  Counting somebody else’s sins is poor exercise for making a saint.  Anne Lamott says that the surest sign that we have made God in OUR image is when we notice that God hates all the same people we hate.  

That’s the kind of thing that made Jesus lose his temper.   God pronounced everything He had made, including all the people of the world, to be Very Good.  Bullying other people by using God is the cruelest kind of bullying there is.

The Bible is inspired of God; that is absolutely true.  But the Word of God, the Logos, is Jesus Christ.  Jesus did not spend a great deal of teaching or preaching time rehearsing the rules and demanding compensation for mistakes.  Instead, He reminded us, over and over and over, that we are beloved by God.  The sacrifice Jesus made for us was a full and perfect atonement for our sins.   In the life and death of Jesus we see that God loves all humankind with the same grace and compassion that He shows to us, and we are required to extend that grace, in His name, to all others.   It’s hard to keep this  firmly in mind when you are looking down your nose at those who are less enlightened, or less worthy.  

We the church cannot allow others to be exploited or bullied. Not for the Bible, not for who they are, where they come from or which mistakes they make, not for ANYTHING.   If we won’t stop it, who will? 

This is not meant to discourage you from reading your Bible.  Instead, my hope is that you think about the stories and commands you read, and ask yourself how they demonstrate God’s love for His world and His people.  If there’s no love and mercy, then the passage isn’t the Word of God even if it’s printed on onionskin with gold leaf edges.

If there is no love for others in the reading, it is not of God.   Regardless of what the passage tells you to do or not do.    

IF THERE IS NO LOVE FOR OTHERS IN THE READING, IT IS NOT OF GOD.   

Period.

Amen+++

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