“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” Matthew 23:23-24
The value of the Bible is in its relationship to its reader. A literary deconstructionist will surely tell you that this is true of any book, but it is only in scripture that the statement has any meaning. The relationship of the message to its hearer is what Kierkegaard was looking to when he frequently cited Nathan’s accusation to King David: “You are the man!” after telling him a parable of one man stealing another man’s sheep. Too often we forget this truth. We read the stories of the Old Testament or the parables of Jesus and we consider how they might fit humanity at its broadest; we (I) often read of the continual rebellion of Israel, the rejection of the prophets, the murder of Jesus, with just a bit of smugness, as if such sins were far beyond us.
But, let it be always remembered, “You are the man!” The parable of the prodigal son? It is not about the person you know who has wandered from the truth—it is about you! The parable of the tenants? You are the one who rejected and killed the landlord’s messengers!
I don’t know how many times I’ve been stricken by this revelation while reading Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. I always begin reading with haughtiness of their failure to accept Him, and with every “Woe” Jesus utters I hear myself crying inwardly a heartfelt, “Amen! Woe to them!” And yet, somewhere in the middle, it dawns on me. “Woe to me. I am a Pharisee.”
When I read the Bible, I want it to cease being just words and to become revelation. That is, I want it to have meaning, which words by themselves do not. My first step in this is to remember this: when the Bible speaks about sin, it speaks first of all of my sin. When I read descriptions of sinful behaviors, it is to my own life that I must first look. That is what Jesus meant when he said “judge not, lest ye be judged.” It is not that we should not look seriously at sin, it is just that we should look first to our own sin.
“You are the man!”
The truth of the Bible is readily accepted by Christians far and wide, but the fact that the Bible is true says nothing about our intentions in using it; if we use the Bible sinfully, it is a stumbling block to us no matter how perfect or inspired its words. Humanists are quick to point to abuses in how Christians use scripture to condemn others, believing that they have found the great weakness of Christianity, when in fact they have only found the great weakness of Christians. We have turned the Bible from an aide to our worship into an object of worship. Karl Barth may have been right when he claimed that the Bible has become a sort of “Paper Pope” to many Christians.
Scripture may be God-breathed, but it can still be (and often is) used sinfully. To use scripture primarily as a tool for condemnation and judgment is precisely what Christ spoke out against time and again when he berated his contemporaries for understanding the words but failing to understand anything else, which led them to abide by the regulations as laid down by the scholars, but still fail to walk with God. Hosea prophesied, and Jesus quoted: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The Pharisees, who had come to worship the law even above the God who gave it, were slavish devotees to regulation, continually interpreting and reinterpreting the law, and as a result Jesus condemned them as white-washed tombs, full of worthless old bones. They worked endlessly to convince others to follow in their ways and Jesus—yes, mild, meek, peaceful Jesus—did not hesitate in calling them and their followers “children of hell.” The Pharisees had exalted the scriptures, and as a result it never amounted to anything more than words. Worthless words formed into worthless verses; verses into chapters, books and testaments. The scriptures, absent revelation—that is, absent the living Spirit of God—was nothing but a book. Dead and inert rather than living and active. A dull club rather than a piercing, double-edged sword. Worthless parchment shriveled and fading in the hot Mediterranean sun.
Yes, the Bible is alive, but still it does not change. The Bible is active, yet it has remained the one consistent idea throughout all of human history. The idea that we have a living word must never be mistaken for any of the post-modern, truth-is-relative, babble that is taught today. Still, the Bible is alive, for the Bible is revelation. While Christ knew that “Thou shall not murder” meant precisely what the words said, He also understood that, as revelation, it meant far more: the commandment is not limited to murderers; its words are meant to cut to the quick anyone with even the slightest hint of bitterness within them, which is a murderous spirit. The law was, in short, practical for all who would read it. When it is accepted as revelation, the Bible no longer simply mean what it says, it means far more than it says—a fact that is always lost on those who pick and choose passages to either love or hate and ignore the rest.
But there is another problem today that we share with the Pharisees: when the words of the Bible are worshiped and the revelation of God is forgotten, the words, ironically, do not come to mean too much; they come to mean almost nothing. Today, perhaps more than ever, we stress the impotence of language as a means for understanding the written word. Words are no longer the firm, concrete that were once put onto paper; they have been subjected to the ignorance of the deconstructionists and linguistic wranglers who have progressively rendered our universities so resoundingly ineffective at understanding human thought. My own university education offered me perhaps one skill above the rest: to take absolutely anything and convincingly make it mean exactly what I would like it to mean. The situation grows even bleaker when translation between two languages is involved; worse yet when the original language is an ancient and little-used one, such as Hebrew or Koine Greek. Whether or not we like to believe it, words—even words in scripture—can be made to say, quite literally, whatever we would like them to say. For that reason we can be exposed to debates between well-credentialed academics, both arguing from the same passage but coming to precisely opposite conclusions. One may be right and the other wrong, or they are both wrong—but the two cannot be right. The words must be allowed to mean something.
But there is hope! The word of God is powerful! It is sharp as a double-edged sword! We are called, not just to read or hear the word, but to do it; to allow the word to shape our lives by the power of revelation. Absent this power, the words of the Bible are fair game. It would not take a brilliant manipulator of language to use the 8th commandment to justify a theft because of some loophole in the ancient Hebrew leads us to believe that “steal” no longer means what we, for thousands of years, have so presumptuously assumed. But rest assured: that same thief will be undoubtedly stand condemned before the words of Christ, who proclaimed in no uncertain terms that scripture amounts to more than just words on paper; it is revelation, and as a result its words do not mean less than they seem to, but far, far more.
Now, the problem with arguing matters of morality using the scripture is precisely this problem with words. The condition of our hearts is not to read and to accept, it is to read and refuse; it is to seek any conceivable way out of condemnation; to heroically search for loopholes or conditions or contradictions that might call a hard truth into question. It is to reinterpret the scriptures in such a way that we might simultaneously seek our own pleasures, following our own idols, while keeping our consciences clear.
In the name of justifying activities we know in our hearts to be sinful we diligently scour the scriptures like a chemist, searching for ingredients to make a clever new concoction that satisfies our need. On the opposite side of things, in the name of judging others we may create endless lists of morality—do this, don't do this, respect this, shun that—and follow these lists to the letter as zealous legalists with nothing truly good in our hearts. But both of these methods utterly fail to capture the meaning of scripture, for neither reflect the truth: that the identity of God's people—then Israel, now the church—is not wrapped up in rewriting scripture or legalistic squabbling over what is and is not sinful. It is based entirely in repentance—an about-faced renewal of the heart.
To offer the most obvious example of our present day: the reason that there tends to be so much virulent debate over a topic like homosexuality (both within the church and without) is that it is generally accepted that we are a culture defined, in large part, by sexuality. In the eyes of secular society, a great portion of our worth is derived directly from what sort of partner we can attract; how many and how often. Sexuality is currency, without which a person is seen as impoverished and in need of governmental assistance, for how is one expected to mean anything in this world without the bliss of human intimacy? How can a person be reasonably expected to refuse (or be refused by others) their most innate desires? Our sexuality has been transformed into our God; we have made it our primary identity.
As Christians, then, devoting ourselves to the scripture is not about memorizing lists of sweeping condemnations, but about a personal evaluation of the heart. To be both a “hearer and a doer” of the Word of God is to sacrifice our identity as seekers and consumers of earthly pleasure and temporary bliss and to seek a healthy relationship with the One who gave us our sexuality in the first place. One could go back and forth in a debate about what, exactly, the Bible has to say about a sin like homosexuality, but in the end, such debates are worthless, for the sin is not homosexuality; it is apostasy and idolatry. It is the act of seeking fulfillment in something other than God. That is the message Christ was trying to proclaim to first century Israel; that was the great failing of the Pharisees (as it is to many of us today).
The debate over what is and is not sin in our world has got to change. In Christ there is true freedom, but in order to experience that freedom we must sacrifice our own idols, do an about-face, and follow Him. To recognize that the Bible is about us, and that we need to first recognize our own failings and seek real repentance. Anything other than this is sin.