Is the Bible Trustworthy?
Text: Matthew 5: 1-9
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
These first 9 verses in the 5th chapter of Matthew are called the Beatitudes and the context of this particular group of verses is called the Sermon on the Mount. It is considered by many Christians to be the best synopsis of how we are to be in the world. For some, the Sermon on the Mount is considered to be the finest sermon ever preached and these words of Jesus are absolute hallmarks of our Christian tradition. There are 9 beatitudes in Matthew and they are often considered foundational to our understanding of who Jesus was.
Because all of these sayings are considered “soft” sayings of Jesus, they tend to not be very controversial and the general population has little to argue about when it comes to the Beatitudes. This is all very warm and fuzzy and even if life in the present moment isn’t all that great, the Beatitudes promise a different future. Each one of the sayings has a shift in tense that is it pronounces a blessing on groups of people based on what they are experiencing in the present moment. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, etc that is who they are now, but each of the sayings then proclaims a future blessing as well. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. This shift from present tense to future tense is also foundational to our Christian heritage and our understanding of death and resurrection and themes of eternity and so on.
I’m offering all of this background and generally positive information about the Beatitudes simply to make a point; and that point is that as good as they are, in Biblical scholarship, only about 4 of the 9 sayings are actually attributed to Jesus. The balance of the Matthew text appears to have another source other than the actual sayings of Jesus.
Now I could spend the rest of my time explaining why this is the case, but I’m not going to do that. What I want you to realize is that the Beatitudes have been accepted almost universally as truth and actual sayings of Jesus, when in fact, the evidence of that is really very weak. Jesus probably said something similar to what we find in about 4 of the 9 beatitudes listed in Matthew 5.
For me, this isn’t a big problem. If we as a society want to coop the beatitudes and attribute all 9 of the sayings to Jesus, so what? It is all very positive and no one gets hurt. For the most part, I believe our culture and our society will function at a higher level if the attitudes and premises on display in Matthew 5 are adopted as universal truth. For me, it is a non-issue; but only in this particular case.
The problem is that most Christians don’t really understand Biblical scholarship and they lack the skills and education to go and find out for themselves what Jesus did or did not say. They are left to the influence of whatever teacher or pastor or interpretation they happen to hear from a position of power or authority. Here in lies the real danger because you can make the Bible say almost anything you want. If there is a person in power or that has a position of authority and he or she tells you that the Bible says thus and so, most people will accept that as truth. This pattern of scriptural abuse is devastating enough with regard to the New Testament, but it holds the potential to get completely out of hand when we introduce the Old Testament into the mix.
For example, we have strong New Testament evidence that Jesus condemned divorce. But our society and culture has managed to work past this particular problem. I generally support our current understanding of the need for some couples to divorce, the need for women in particular to be able to free themselves from abusive situations. I fully understand that in some cases both parties in a divorce are better people as individuals than they are as a couple. I fully understand that there are times that a divorce actually creates a more positive environment for the children than if a couple stays married. I view divorce as not an ideal solution by any means, but also as a necessary part of our civilized culture. In spite of New Testament condemnations about divorce, we have been able to move past this.
We have also moved past a number of other more brutal condemnations that can be found in the Old Testament. The Levitical code of law is full of some truly barbaric and sometimes puzzling ideas. It is an abomination for us to produce mules, for example, because it involves mixing the breeds of a horse and donkey. It is also considered sinful to wear a garment created from two different kinds of cloth or to sow two kinds of seed in the same field. This is all found in Leviticus 19, right next to some of the laws about human sexuality. I think almost everyone ignores all of these prohibitions, except the ones they are told not to ignore by someone in authority. We also have Levitical laws about trimming a beard, or about how long you have to wait before you can harvest the fruit from a fruit tree. A fruit tree, really? Yep. Leviticus 19:23 spells it all out for you; you’re free to look it up.
If we move out of Leviticus and into Deuteronomy for example, we can find texts that tell us to take our rebellious teenagers to the edge of the city and stone them to death if they will not listen to reason. Heidi and I have raised 3 boys that were all once teenagers. If I followed the advice of the Bible, none of them would have made it out of their teens.
We have moved past for the most part the New Testament commands for women to keep silent in the church; this is found in First Corinthians, and of course the many references to slaves. In three different places in the New Testament, Romans, Ephesians and Colossians we find a reference to slaves being obedient to their masters. We no longer accept slavery as a norm in our culture or society, and yet it is very present in the Bible.
The Old Testament is full of polygamy, misogyny, and all kinds of abuse to women, daughters and children in general. Although not entirely successful, I do believe we have made some progress in these areas in our current culture. However, if we wanted to, we could build a case justifying some of these behaviors based on what we read in the Bible. This has certainly been the case in the past. Even within semi-mainstream denominations like Methodism, the acceptance of women as clergy is only about 65 years old. In the 2,000 plus year history of Christianity, this means women have been recognized as equal for about 3% of our history-not exactly a stellar track record.
My point is that we need to be careful with scripture. In my sermon title I asked a question; “Is the Bible Trustworthy?” While this question demands a contextual answer, the short answer is no, the Bible is not trustworthy. Without proper scholarship, without an adequate understanding of culture or context, without a willingness to change ideas and attitudes-the Bible is very, very dangerous and damaging to many individuals; thus it is not trustworthy.
Unfortunately, the scholarship and the interpretation of this book is left to a few individuals in power who hold sway over millions of others. I hate to admit this, but many of those in power, at least in my opinion, are not qualified to interpret scripture. As a matter of fact, they don’t even try. Evidence of this is the often popular quoted mantra among strong conservative Christians that says “God said, I believe it, that settles it.” I don’t know if you have seen this in print, or on a bumper sticker or perhaps heard it on TV, but this makes absolutely no sense. None. Zero. Zip. If you hear this from a person in power, don’t walk away, run.
So that brings me to the question of what the Bible has to say about our current issue facing the United Methodist Church regarding full inclusion of the LGBTQA community. You might find this surprising, but I don’t think it matters what the Bible says about this issue. Do I care that the Bible tells me to stone my rebellious children to death? Not really. Do I care that the Levitical laws say something about this topic right along with wearing two different kinds of fabric or sowing two kinds of seeds in a field? Not really.
The question that I think we need to be asking is after some good scholarship, after a logical interpretation of context and culture, after a serious inquiry into the actual words of Jesus, what are we left with?
What we are left with is absolute silence on the part of Jesus with regard to this particular issue. And what we are left with is an overwhelming mandate to love one another, to fight oppression of any kind and to show preferential treatment to the poor and marginalized. This is good scholarship and accurate Biblical interpretation.
If you want to debate this issue using scripture, there is only one obvious conclusion. Nothing else makes any sense whatsoever. We cannot allow one more human atrocity to take place under the banner of scripture. It has already happened enough. It is time to stop abusing people by hiding behind what the Bible says. It is time to stop dealing with our fear through oppression and marginalization based on weak Biblical interpretation. It’s past time for the human carnage to stop because we can’t interpret the Bible.
But it begins with you. It is your responsibility to read and interpret and try to understand. It is your responsibility to not let the oppression and discrimination stand. It is up to you to make the oppression stop.
Food for thought. Amen.