Wednesday, July 12, 2017

4 Tools to See the Biblical Big Picture

They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream - Jeremiah 17.8

Scripture is like a tree. Some parts are the roots, some are the branches and others form the trunk. You will run into problems if you correctly read a line that serves as a leaf but try to present it as if it were the trunk. This is partly what it means when experts advise us to read Scripture within its proper context(s). You could even read your favorite lines word-for-word but end up misunderstanding them if you fail to see where they fit within the whole body. This is, of course, the same mistake the Pharisees made. They were so right--and yet at the same time so very wrong.

I present the following four tools to help us keep the Biblical big picture in view. Whenever we fall into the habit of hyper-analyzing individual passages, it is good to keep the following in mind:

1.  Proportionality: Compare the Numbers

Let's dive right in and talk about a current hot button issue:  Homosexuality. There are, at most, seven Scripture verses that directly address the topic of homosexuality. In contrast, there are thousands of verses addressing poverty, the suffering and the marginalized--hundreds by Jesus himself. There are so many references to poverty in direct, indirect, metaphorical and literal ways that I wasn't even able to find an exhaustive list--perhaps no one thought it was important enough to compile. Maybe there is a list in a dusty book in the back corner of some library, but nothing that is readily available online. But much has been written about those seven verses about homosexuality and you can easily find commentaries on a quick internet search.

Any Christian who takes the Bible seriously has to face the sheer numbers. At some point, the Bible has to start asking you questions:  Why are you obsessed with seven lines about one topic while ignoring hundreds of lines about another topic? What does it mean that Jesus himself references poverty over four hundred times but never once homosexuality? How can homosexuality possibly be THE issue for Christians if they are using the Bible as a guide? The level of emphasis our culture gives it is out of proportion to the level of emphasis Scripture gives it, and we need to wrestle with that.

This article is not intended to argue for or against homosexuality, although I can all but guarantee that if this article gets any comments it will be precisely along those lines. The point here is: Why are we not talking about poverty? Is the focus on other issues a way to distract ourselves from the poor and marginalized?

2. The Bible as Mirror: Who is Really the Subject?

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
- John 8:7

We all know the story in the Gospel of John Chapter 8.  A mob had formed to try, convict and punish a woman caught in adultery. What they didn't expect was that they would be the ones on trial once Jesus turned the questioning back on them. This is, I believe, what happens to all of when we dare to read Scripture with an open heart and mind.  We may consult Scripture trying to find an answer about how to deal with those people or that group. But we may be surprised to find that Scripture has just as many--if not more--uncomfortable questions to ask of us.

If you incline your ear and listen deeply enough, you may be hearing Scripture whisper back at you:  Why are you looking for rocks to throw against the homosexual community while ignoring the poor? What is going on inside of you that is making it hard for you to hear Jesus' very clear and direct words about the poor? Maybe the Bible isn't teaching you about homosexuality. Maybe it is teaching you about yourself.

[This section is influenced heavily by the short but sweet book Opening the Bible, by Thomas Merton.]

3.  Trajectory: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

"The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward Jesus."

     - Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Moore is taking a quote by Theodore Parker which has been used by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. [The original quote ends with "justice" rather than "Jesus," but to a Christian it's not a huge leap to substitute one for the other.]

It has famously been said that you can use Scripture to justify almost anything.This is especially true if you take individual lines out of context. Sometimes the Bible really seems to contradict itself. What is a believer to do?

It is important to look at where the overall direction and momentum of Scripture seem to be pointing us. A relationship with Christ takes us from someplace and moves us toward another place. We are in motion. The Ancient Israelites were a people in motion. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom we are going toward is both here and not here, now and not yet.  But we pray that one day it will be "on earth as it is in heaven."

When reading Scripture, it is important to ask whether a passage refers to the Kingdom "now" or "not yet." just because something is mentioned in the Bible does not mean that it is God's intention for humankind for all times and places.  After all, the Bible has plenty of positive, supportive references to slavery, rape, incest, sexual abuse and the subjugation of women, but we are quite confident that is not where God is calling us today.  Let's not make the same mistake about other verses about other issues.

4. Hiding in Plain Sight

The most devious way to downplay difficult biblical teachings is not to completely ignore them, because that would be too obvious. The most devious way is to give occasional lip service to them--mentioning them but always minimizing them, always qualifying. And NEVER mentioning them with the same frequency or focus as Jesus or the Bible as a whole. This is a variation on #1 above.

A church may hold a canned food drive for the hungry once a year, give an award to someone who cares for the poor, or mention the poor in sermons but always with some qualifiers. We can pat ourselves on the back and reassure ourselves that we've done our duty.  But that level of interest in the poor is nowhere near close to the level of interest that Jesus seemed to have.

It's hard to read the Bible and not come away with the idea that the poor, the sick and the marginalized are the focus over and over and over again. They're on just about every page.  We're not talking about an occasional line here or there.  It's just everywhere.  It's not just what Jesus talks about--he actually says where you find the poor you will also find me (Matthew 25). If we are going to address the issue of homosexuality, back to our first example above, we should do it through the context of reaching out to a marginalized community if we are going to be "biblical" in how we do things.


But we are all afraid of the Bible.  Opening it and reading it are scary. It might challenge us too much.  It might transform us.  So we make sure to put all sorts of brackets around it.  We make sure to tell ourselves what the Bible means before we actually open it., trying to intercept the divine message and make it more palatable before it does any damage and changes us. These four tools are not a guarantee that we won't make mistakes, but they are a good help to step back and see what's really going on when we read a passage.

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