In which we think about scriptural interpretation

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11A – July 19, 2020 – Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again. “Want to make God laugh? Make a plan!” John Lennon put it this way: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Trained first as a journalist, and much later as a homilist, I cringe in the face of clichés such as these. However, they do contain their truths.

One such truth is this: we cannot control the future. We might crave—and even indulge—the illusion that we can. But it is undeniably just that—an illusion. The best we can do is faithfully adapt to what comes our way. (Although even that is easier said than done.)

The first portion of this morning’s gospel parable captures this truth well.

Jesus begins, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.”

Listen closely to get a sense of the whole arc of this brief story. When the plants begin to grow, the householder recognizes the weeds as the work of the enemy and then decides how best to respond.

“Shall we go and gather the weeds?”

“No. Gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat, too. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

The landowner’s decision is prudent. He cannot afford to sacrifice the wheat. Trying to get the weeds up now would do more harm than good.

Although he is responsible for managing the property, this man couldn’t control the wicked nature of the enemy, but what he could do was adapt to this new set of circumstances.

Perhaps his response gives us a little glimpse of the Kingdom. Think about it. Jesus does not compare the Kingdom to someone with absolute control of the future, or the ability to magically erase the events of the past. He compares it to a person with control only over how calmly and faithfully he responds to present circumstances.

At least, that’s one way to look at it. Matthew gives us another interpretation in the second portion of today’s reading.

“Explain it to us,” the disciples say to Jesus. “We need some help here. What does it mean? Lay it out for us.”

“Oh, yeah, well sure, that’s easy . . . the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one; the enemy is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are burned up, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels; they will collect the sinful ones and throw them into the fire, but the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Makes sense, right? It’s all very straight forward.  

But what if I told you that this second portion of today’s text does not stem directly from the words of Jesus, as does the parable, but is rather the author’s attempt to make sense of Jesus’s words for a particular audience facing a particular set of circumstances?

The interpretation is attributed to Jesus for legitimacy’s sake. But if, as scholars tells us, this attribution is merely a rhetorical technique, then what are we to make of it? Is the interpretation legitimate? Of course! I’m not here to argue with Holy Scripture.

I will, however, suggest that it is not the only legitimate interpretation of the parable. Matthew’s interpretation casts a particular view of the future. Because this particular interpretation is linked to Jesus, it is tempting to hear it as the only sure and certain way to understand this parable, but to do so would be an attempt to control something that we cannot control: the word of God.

Remember, one who embodies Kingdom principles is not one who can control what comes next, but rather one who calmly and faithfully responds to what does come.

As humans, we desire sureness and certainty. We want to have a say in future events. We want to understand exactly what things mean. Certainty brings a sense of security and completeness. Once we have it, we can move on to the next thing. You can’t blame Matthew for writing a neat and tidy explanation of this parable so the reader can learn the lesson and move on.

But to identify a specific interpretation of any passage of scripture as the correct one is to miss the point. We can’t even do that with human knowledge. A poet friend of mine recently wrote of the med school professor who tells his students on the first day of class, “Half of what we teach you here will be wrong. The only trouble is, we don’t know which half.”

Think of human forays into understanding DNA, the effects of DDT, or the mysteries of the human brain. Think of our attempts at space flight, witch trials, or religious inquisition. Eventually we learn that some theories are wrong, or at the very least, that there are others. An expectation of certainty is futile.

Just as sure as we cannot control the future, we cannot control the meaning of God’s word or God’s will, and it’s okay to admit that to ourselves. The point of scriptural interpretation is not to be “certain” of what God wants from us or expects of us. We can’t be.Why else would we pray, as we will this morning, “mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask”?

It is not the duty of the faithful Christian to define the word of God. It is the privilege of the faithful Christian to experience it, respond to it, and return to it time and time again. We read and interpret scripture in order to nurture our relationship with Jesus and to strengthen our ongoing commitment to the faith so that we can expand the Kingdom.

It is not my intent to question the legitimacy of Scripture, or of Jesus. I am merely proposing that there is no single, rock-solid-set-in-stone interpretation for any biblical parable, story, or teaching.

Surely there is an arrogance in the mind of any reader who believes themselves to have a monopoly on the truth. Our perspectives are colored by experiences we’ve had, and none of us has had every experience under heaven.

Nevertheless, we can take comfort in the fact that, while we may not have the capacity for absolute certainty, the steadfast love of God persists. God is always with us, even if we cannot always anticipate, and certainly never predict, how we will experience God.

If we read the Bible over and over and over again, it should not be because we take comfort in knowing precisely what it all means, or exactly how each story ends. It should be because we are continually humbled to participate in the covenant of God’s loyalty.

God’s word is not ours to define for all people in all places. It is not ours to specify or to stipulate. Its meaning is not stagnant or idle. To define it once and for all would be to kill it, to render it impotent in an ever-evolving world. And that’s impossible, because the word of God is alive, sustaining us always with the grace we need to get by.  

*Some* good

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 9, 2020 – Matthew 5:13-20 – Trinity, Winchester

The Church is, in the ever so descriptive words of the famous preacher Tom Long, “a colony of the kingdom of heaven placed in the midst of an alien culture.” [1]

The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is not only a far-off eternal vision, but a salient, earthly reality of which you and I are blessed to be a part.

As members of the Church, Christ’s body on earth, we are called to be agents of God’s reign. Christians are, in a sense, heavenly emissaries, kingdom citizens instilled with God’s divine essence so that we may be bearers of that essence right here, right now.

Nowhere is our calling more apparent than in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God became flesh, revealing that flesh is not simply material made for simple pleasures and sinful desires, but for the real, honest-to-goodness purposes of the kingdom.

In a world that ignores the needs of many, we Church folk are the few who turn our attention to the lost, the lonely, the suffering, the weak. 

Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we—the Church, members of the body of Christ—are salt. Like salt, Christians add a divine flavor to the world by witnessing to God’s unconditional love and mirroring that love in our own lives.

The fact of the matter is, the Church is not as large as it once was. In fact, sometimes it seems that the only thing that the Church increases in from year to year is cultural irrelevance.

What good is the body of Christ in a world where leaders still lie to distract us from their ineptitude? What good is the body of Christ in a world where children still die because prescriptions cost too much money? What good is the body of Christ in a world where practices like predatory payday lending still persist in lining the pockets of the already-wealthy and further impoverishing the poor?

What good, really, is the Church to a society that so consistently rejects its offer of grace and love and reconciliation in favor of those old standbys, fear and doubt and divisiveness? 

Well, the answer is: some. The church is some good.

That might sound worrying, but take heart. Some good accounts for a whole lot of lives altered, perspectives changed, and fences mended. Just like some salt flavors the entire stew, some good done in Jesus’ name flavors the entire world with the grace of God. It has always been this way—a wicked world flavored by flecks of God’s grace.

A couple of cans of shredded chicken in the food pantry for a single mother whose kids need protein. A few dollars to pay down her electric bill so she doesn’t have to give the baby a bath by candle light again tonight. A winter coat to protect the oldest from the spine-stiffening wind that awaits her at the bus stop each morning.

Some good really is worth it. I’m not saying that the most good wouldn’t be better. For a time, the Salvation Army used the slogan “Doing the most good.” I wasn’t aware that it was a competition, but I take the point.

The “most good” does seem like the best kind of good, and it is a great goal. But some good is important, too. It’s real. It’s here. It’s now.

Jesus calls—and empowers—each of us to bring the kingdom of heaven ever closer to earth, and to do so with all that we have, with all that we are, in all the ways that we can. I believe that.

However, from time to time, the good news of God’s kingdom may get lost in the bad news you read on Facebook just like the sugar overshadows the salt in the birthday cake. But the truth is that the salt, like the good, is still there doing the work it needs to do just as steadfastly as ever.

Just because you don’t taste the salt, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Any recipe worth its salt has a small amount of salt proportional to the rest of the ingredients. That small amount is all it takes to make a huge difference. For the result to be good, there must be salt.

We’ve got to remember that if God’s people on earth ever are discouraged or distracted from living the kingdom life, then, as Jesus says, the Church will no longer be good for anything. It might as well be trampled underfoot.

For instance, if our mission becomes reinforcing the cultural status quo, then the Church is doomed. Like salt that does not, that cannot enhance the taste even of itself—throw it out! Like a flashlight without batteries. It doesn’t matter whether you hide it under the bed or put it on the nightstand—it’s useless! (Like a Eucharist without a sermon—what’s the point, right?) Jesus is clear about this, not to trouble us, but to keep us mindful of why we are here. 

The point is simply this: do not be discouraged when what you have to offer doesn’t seem like enough. Holy Mother Church, the Body of Christ—you included—is doing good. 

The temptation will always be to second guess, to doubt, to trouble our minds needlessly with daunting questions about our worth. Is this enough? Is that enough? Am I enough?

When that time comes, remember, the answer is: yes. You are the salt. You are enough because God made you enough and the presence of God in you gives the world the flavor of grace.

[1] See Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 51-52.

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – August 4, 2019 – Luke 12:13-21 – Christ Church, Alto

I’ve always thought this was one of Jesus’ more straightforward parables. 

Thinking only of himself and his future, a rich man stores up treasures on earth. Then, when he dies suddenly, God calls him a fool and asks, “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

The parable does not provide an answer to the question. Perhaps the question is rhetorical, or perhaps the author means for us to answer it. 

Let’s do! Who’s will those things be? No one’s, right? At the very least, it’s not clear—and that’s a problem! No one wants to die, leaving all their possessions in limbo. 

Perhaps his servants will go through his things, taking what they want. Maybe folks will come from all around to forage through his belongings before his next of kin have a chance to take an inventory. It reminds me of the scene in A Christmas Carol when the looters comb through Scrooge’s house before his body is even in the ground.

While whose this man’s possessions will be is not clear, one thing is: he can’t take them with him! What’s more, he’s made no provision to pass them on—to anyone! 

You and I are encouraged to make provisions for our material possessions. On page 445 of the Book of Common Prayer we are reminded to plan for the disposal of our temporal goods. It’s part of providing for our families, the church, and those on the margins of society. That’s precisely what this guy didn’t do! 

It’s not that he was inherently evil. It’s not that he was inherently hard-hearted or mean-spirited. It’s just that he was, well, exactly what God called him: foolish! He was foolish because he thought only of himself. He provided only for his own future. He planned on living a long time, being content and well-provided for. 

To a certain degree, that’s what we all want—health and happiness, especially in retirement. We want to enjoy our lives free from anxiety about money. There are financial advisors—yes, even ethical ones!—whose business it is to help us do just that. 

It’s not a bad thing to plan for your future, but it can be a foolish thing if you think only of yourself, making no provision for others.

The rich man was, as some might say, “#blessed.” He was privileged, made rich by the land, the seed, the rain, and likely the work of many servants. Yet he saw no need to “pay it forward,” to pass his blessings on to others less fortunate. 

The primary lesson of the parable is simple: think of others—particularly those in need. Think of those who are experiencing homelessness, poverty, sickness, hunger, mental illness, and addiction. Then, serve them!

At first blush we might think that this parable applies only to the richest among us. We are tempted to think that, because we don’t have large store houses of food, massive bank accounts, or well-diversified stock portfolios, we don’t have as big of a role to play in helping others. That’s simply not so. 

It’s true, Jesus told this parable in a certain context, to a man chiefly concerned with his inheritance. While most of God’s children don’t get an inheritance at all—at least not a monetary one—we can all still do our part to help those less fortunate than us. 

Far too many people on this earth, in this country, and even in this county, go to bed hungry. (And some don’t even have a bed.) Jesus calls all of us to help them, no matter how much money we make. 

It’s no secret that in the United States a relatively small number of God’s children control most of the country’s wealth. Their access to wealth gives them extraordinary power, and yes, they should set an example by helping the less fortunate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not our job, too. 

Sometimes our instinct is to ridicule and revile people of wealth, but I don’t think that’s what God has in mind. Notice in the parable that God’s judgement is not damnation. God doesn’t cast the rich man into the fires of hell. There is no mention of a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

God calls the rich man a fool, but that’s not the same as condemnation. God’s just being honest, and in so doing God gives the man an education. That’s surely a sign that even the most foolish among us are capable of learning this lesson. Let’s go teach it!

We’ve all got to do our part. You may not be able to stroke a six-figure check to endow a food bank or eliminate medical debt or cover tuition expenses, but you can do something to support people in need.

You can volunteer our time. You can donate money, food, clothes, and household items. And you can always follow God’s example of being loving and compassionate, even to those who you don’t think deserve it. 

Has a person ever asked you for money while you’re walking down the street, or while you’re pumping gas, or as you’re hurrying across the parking lot? It’s very possible that you did not have any to give them. That’s okay. In the future the important thing is to ask yourself what you can do to help them.

Treat them like a human being. Look them in the eye. Pray with them. Point them in the direction of someone or someplace that has the resources they need. Wish them well (and mean it when you do). 

But be forewarned: these things may become a habit!