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First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text

This passage, along with its parallel in Matthew, is what prompted Shakespeare to point out that “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene iii), and seeing scripture used as a means of temptation here speaks strongly against some ways we are sometimes tempted to use scripture as we engage in discernment.

One of those ways is what I call the “Magic 8-Ball” method, in which we pick up a Bible, choose some fairly random portion of it as we might shake the Magic 8-Ball, and then try to read whatever comes up as being somehow related to the question about which we're in discernment. Another is what I call the “Beautiful Mind” method, in which we selectively cull words, phrases, and sentences from what we know of scripture -- often from entirely different documents -- to read the combination of things that stand out as a kind of secret message to us.

Neither of these methods of using scripture in discernment is particularly helpful; they tell us more about our own psychology and interpretive prejudices in a given moment than they do about God's will.  I believe 2 Timothy's statement that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 -- although it's also worth noting for us 21st-century readers that when this passage says “scripture,” that doesn't include the New Testament, which didn't exist as a compilation at that point).  But scripture's inspiration and usefulness does not make it a magic book, an infallible oracle that has the answer to any question we might want to ask and will yield wisdom without work to interpret it.  It's not even a matter of saying that anything a passage of scripture says on a topic will be helpful in a given situation if the passage is interpreted “correctly.”  Even true statements that would be very helpful in one context could be destructive to the health of the Body of Christ if applied elsewhere without sustained and prayerful attention to the new context and how well a particular insight gleaned from scripture applies in it.  Just think for a moment what the consequences might have been if, hypothetically, St. Paul's messengers had gotten confused and taken his letter to the Galatians to Corinth, and the Corinthian Christians had received Paul's instruction as something written to and for them -- or, for that matter, if the Galatians had received Paul's letters to the Corinthians and received it as if it had been written to and for them.

That's one reason the Alpha Course, for all the positive experiences people and congregations have had with it, grates on me; Alpha counsels us to read scripture, no matter which scriptural document we're looking at, as a “love letter” written by God to us today.  It's just not that easy.  The devil can quote scripture for his purpose, and I have a hunch that each one of us has seen examples of scriptural interpretation in our communities that were about as helpful to the community as the devil's scripture-quoting is in Luke 4.

In a single blog entry, I can't deal anywhere fully with the subject of how scripture can be used helpfully in discernment; for much of what I'd want to say on the topic, I'll have to substitute a recommendation of Luke Timothy Johnson's excellent and readable book, Scripture and Discernment.

What I can and would like to do here is to offer a few observations about the nature of devilish uses of scripture and how Jesus' vocation draws him in a different direction; I hope these will spark some fruitful further thought about how we might avoid being misled as we seek insights from scripture to help us discern God's call.

On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with what the devil is telling Jesus in the desert:  The power of God to which Jesus has access can provide food for the hungry, and it will.  Jesus does indeed bear the name before which “every knee should bend, and every tongue confess” his lordship (Philippians 2:11) -- and they will.  God's care for each one of God's children is trustworthy.  Every point that the devil makes is, in a sense, “biblical.”  Every point the devil makes is, in a sense, “true.”

Thank God that Jesus is not the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” type!  Thank God that Jesus does not believe that every word of scripture is equally applicable to his circumstances!  Because while all of the devil's points are, in a sense, “true,” they are not helpful here.  Although God will, through Jesus, bring vast crowds (over 5,000, in one famous story) together for an abundant feast, and we believe that the end of history is in a vast and abundant messianic banquet, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for Jesus to use God's power to provide.  Similarly, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for the full extent of Jesus' authority and status before God to be revealed.

Jesus is Lord, beloved of God, but the kind of authority Jesus exercises, the character of the God who calls Jesus God's Son, and the means through which the world will be gathered for the messianic feast is revealed most fully through Jesus' self-giving love and forgiveness.  Having resisted the temptation to use God's power and God's gifts to further his own privilege, Jesus is prepared to proclaim with his whole life the kind of self-giving love, radical openness, and unconditional forgiveness that is the character of the God of Israel. 

Pick up a newspaper any day this week, and it will probably be clear that there are still opportunities to make a killing from Jesus' death, to quote scripture to consolidate power, to read the Bible for indications that we deserve the privilege we have and are justified in keeping others down to further it.  But Jesus showed us a different way.  Come in from the desert, and be nourished by the Body of Christ.  Join with sisters and brothers to wrestle together with what we find in scripture, and to help one another listen for the voice of the Spirit, who leads us into the truth of God's call to us here and now.  Be suspicious of any voice that suggests that God's power should be used to further our own privilege, but trust Jesus' self-giving love, which is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).  Trust the call to extend that love to others.

Thanks be to God!

February 24, 2004 in Discernment, Lent, Luke, Scripture, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink

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Dylan's lectionary blog: First Sunday in Lent, Year C

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First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text

This passage, along with its parallel in Matthew, is what prompted Shakespeare to point out that “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene iii), and seeing scripture used as a means of temptation here speaks strongly against some ways we are sometimes tempted to use scripture as we engage in discernment.

One of those ways is what I call the “Magic 8-Ball” method, in which we pick up a Bible, choose some fairly random portion of it as we might shake the Magic 8-Ball, and then try to read whatever comes up as being somehow related to the question about which we're in discernment. Another is what I call the “Beautiful Mind” method, in which we selectively cull words, phrases, and sentences from what we know of scripture -- often from entirely different documents -- to read the combination of things that stand out as a kind of secret message to us.

Neither of these methods of using scripture in discernment is particularly helpful; they tell us more about our own psychology and interpretive prejudices in a given moment than they do about God's will.  I believe 2 Timothy's statement that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 -- although it's also worth noting for us 21st-century readers that when this passage says “scripture,” that doesn't include the New Testament, which didn't exist as a compilation at that point).  But scripture's inspiration and usefulness does not make it a magic book, an infallible oracle that has the answer to any question we might want to ask and will yield wisdom without work to interpret it.  It's not even a matter of saying that anything a passage of scripture says on a topic will be helpful in a given situation if the passage is interpreted “correctly.”  Even true statements that would be very helpful in one context could be destructive to the health of the Body of Christ if applied elsewhere without sustained and prayerful attention to the new context and how well a particular insight gleaned from scripture applies in it.  Just think for a moment what the consequences might have been if, hypothetically, St. Paul's messengers had gotten confused and taken his letter to the Galatians to Corinth, and the Corinthian Christians had received Paul's instruction as something written to and for them -- or, for that matter, if the Galatians had received Paul's letters to the Corinthians and received it as if it had been written to and for them.

That's one reason the Alpha Course, for all the positive experiences people and congregations have had with it, grates on me; Alpha counsels us to read scripture, no matter which scriptural document we're looking at, as a “love letter” written by God to us today.  It's just not that easy.  The devil can quote scripture for his purpose, and I have a hunch that each one of us has seen examples of scriptural interpretation in our communities that were about as helpful to the community as the devil's scripture-quoting is in Luke 4.

In a single blog entry, I can't deal anywhere fully with the subject of how scripture can be used helpfully in discernment; for much of what I'd want to say on the topic, I'll have to substitute a recommendation of Luke Timothy Johnson's excellent and readable book, Scripture and Discernment.

What I can and would like to do here is to offer a few observations about the nature of devilish uses of scripture and how Jesus' vocation draws him in a different direction; I hope these will spark some fruitful further thought about how we might avoid being misled as we seek insights from scripture to help us discern God's call.

On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with what the devil is telling Jesus in the desert:  The power of God to which Jesus has access can provide food for the hungry, and it will.  Jesus does indeed bear the name before which “every knee should bend, and every tongue confess” his lordship (Philippians 2:11) -- and they will.  God's care for each one of God's children is trustworthy.  Every point that the devil makes is, in a sense, “biblical.”  Every point the devil makes is, in a sense, “true.”

Thank God that Jesus is not the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” type!  Thank God that Jesus does not believe that every word of scripture is equally applicable to his circumstances!  Because while all of the devil's points are, in a sense, “true,” they are not helpful here.  Although God will, through Jesus, bring vast crowds (over 5,000, in one famous story) together for an abundant feast, and we believe that the end of history is in a vast and abundant messianic banquet, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for Jesus to use God's power to provide.  Similarly, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for the full extent of Jesus' authority and status before God to be revealed.

Jesus is Lord, beloved of God, but the kind of authority Jesus exercises, the character of the God who calls Jesus God's Son, and the means through which the world will be gathered for the messianic feast is revealed most fully through Jesus' self-giving love and forgiveness.  Having resisted the temptation to use God's power and God's gifts to further his own privilege, Jesus is prepared to proclaim with his whole life the kind of self-giving love, radical openness, and unconditional forgiveness that is the character of the God of Israel. 

Pick up a newspaper any day this week, and it will probably be clear that there are still opportunities to make a killing from Jesus' death, to quote scripture to consolidate power, to read the Bible for indications that we deserve the privilege we have and are justified in keeping others down to further it.  But Jesus showed us a different way.  Come in from the desert, and be nourished by the Body of Christ.  Join with sisters and brothers to wrestle together with what we find in scripture, and to help one another listen for the voice of the Spirit, who leads us into the truth of God's call to us here and now.  Be suspicious of any voice that suggests that God's power should be used to further our own privilege, but trust Jesus' self-giving love, which is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).  Trust the call to extend that love to others.

Thanks be to God!

February 24, 2004 in Discernment, Lent, Luke, Scripture, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink

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The comments to this entry are closed.