Readings: Matthew 4:1-11 & Matthew 15:1-9
This is another in our sermon series on the bible and Veronica’s headline for today is “the bible can be misused as well as used well”.
We certainly saw that in our first reading. Jesus is hungry having fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. And it’s not just hunger Jesus is dealing with. Before he went into the wilderness, Jesus went to be baptised by John the Baptist who gave a clear message that although John had a powerful public ministry which had people flocking to see him, Jesus was in a completely different league. And then there was the voice from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." So in the 40 days just past Jesus must also have been turning all that over in his mind, pondering and praying about what this special calling looked like in practice. If he has already been beginning to think in terms of being Messiah, he has a number of models to draw on in contemporary expectations, including expectations that focused round the Messiah as a king who would protect the Temple and fight Israel’s battles.
And perhaps it’s those models that the tempter draws on in the temptations, ways of being Messiah, different Messianic styles, that, variously, hold out the promise of mass appeal, invincibility and power over an immense empire. Jesus spends time in the wilderness figuring out his calling, finding his own Messianic style. Maybe as we think about our future, against the backdrop of so many different ways out there of being church, we need to spend time finding our own calling and our own distinctive “style”.
Anyway, the tempter misuses scripture. Psalm 91, from which the tempter quotes, certainly does offer a picture of God’s great care for Israel.
Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them.
It would be possible to read this as a charter for risk-takers – don’t worry about what you do because God will always be there to take care of you. But I think Jesus’ response shows two things: firstly that this isn’t the message of Psalm 91, which is more about finding even in the midst of trouble that God is still there and still taking care of us, and secondly that Jesus knows the whole of scripture and has grasped its spirit so that he can’t be tricked by one verse taken out of context.
That reminds me of an image in the book the Monday homegroup is working through at the moment, “Reading the Bible After Christendom” by Lloyd Pietersen. Lloyd draws on NT Wright’s image of the Bible as a five act play whose last act has been lost, except for the first scene. The fourth act is Jesus, the first scene of the fifth act is the early church. And because there is so much material in the first four acts and that last scene, the decision is made to perform the play with five acts. The actors are asked to improvise the rest of the fifth act based on having immersed themselves in everything that has gone before, so they know the characters, the themes, the central questions.
And Jesus has certainly immersed himself in scripture. He answers all of the temptations with quotations from Deuteronomy. And he has such a strong sense of the core of all that reading that when he’s tempted with a verse from scripture he doesn’t have to thrash around with questions of appropriate interpretation, he simply has a gut reaction that it would be wrong to indulge that line of thinking, it would be wrong to put God to the test. The bible has become part of his bone marrow and he can improvise in a way that entirely fits with all that he has read.
And if we return to our improvising actors, I think we’ll find them a helpful image as we think about the second reading. As the actors improvise they will need both to be consistent with what has gone before AND to innovate, to be creative. As Lloyd puts it, the bible in this view is not “ a rule book or a repository of timeless truths” but instead provides “an authoritative foundational script for an unfinished drama that requires sensitive performance in the present to move the drama to its ultimate conclusion”.
And in some ways our second passage could be read as wrestling with the question of how to improvise from an authoritative script.
In that passage, the Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus over his disciples’ failure to uphold the tradition of washing their hands before eating. Now washing your hands before eating sounds like a thoroughly sensible practice and entirely in keeping with biblical attention to purity. It’s a good improvisation from the authoritative script, you would think. But Jesus apparently feels free to leave that tradition to one side, to improvise all over again.
As I was preparing this, I couldn’t help thinking not only about our theme for this sermon series, the bible, but also about our situation as a church, seeking new ways forward that will help us to be visible, open and welcoming and meet people where they are. No doubt we have some sensible traditions that are in keeping with what we understand the bible to teach – but however good they are it may nevertheless to be time to improvise afresh, to start some new traditions.
But of course it’s not as simple as just innovating away like mad for the sake of it. Like stock markets and single currencies, improvisations can go wrong as well as right. The Pharisees too have done their own improvising and innovating over the years. Their tradition has reinterpreted the command to honour father and mother to allow someone to devote whatever they would have given to their parents to the Temple instead. Jesus roundly condemns this. He sees this re-interpretation as just a self-serving attempt to wriggle out of what God commands. It also seems suspiciously convenient for the Pharisees that their fresh interpretation brings in lots of extra money for the religious establishment. So it turns out to be quite easy not only to misuse the bible but also to ignore it – just substitute a plausible tradition and you have the perfect excuse to ignore the call of God.
I think we too could easily enough fall – or may already have fallen - into the Pharisees’ trap of interpreting a core commandment into a tradition that just happens to suit us very well by allowing us to ignore scripture. If some of our old traditions or our new ideas are suspiciously convenient we may need to examine our hearts and the tradition and be open to correction.
I think these passages bring us several challenges.
They challenge us to follow Jesus’ example and immerse ourselves in the bible so we are equipped like Jesus to pick out and apply the spirit of scripture to a whole range of new challenges and temptations. One of those temptations maybe to follow seductive popular trends which don’t fit with our calling.
But that’s not to say that we should dig our heels in and refuse to change. We may need to be willing to let old traditions go, however good they are, and creatively improvise new ones.
So it’s not a straightforward question of sticking conservatively with the wisdom of the past, nor a simplistic “out with the old and in the new”. The old traditions may not continue to be necessary or helpful, but equally the new will not, just by being new, automatically be faithful to the bible. We’ll have to work together, with extreme alertness to the danger of being too self-serving in our interpretation and improvisation, to give the appropriate value to old and new. (I think this is what Alan Kreider was talking about in April this year when he quoted Matthew 13:52: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.")
So my conclusion seems to be that, as usual, there are no easy answers. We’ll need a good knowledge not only of scripture but also of the overall character of scripture and the character of God so that we can find our way through all this and avoid misusing the bible. We’ll need each other as we work together on interpreting the bible and improvising our part of the drama. And although our practice of seeking to interpret the bible together gives us some safeguards, the community of the Pharisees interpreted together and went astray. So we’ll need to be keenly alert to the danger of self-serving interpretation, interpreting the bible in ways that are all too convenient for us. We’ll need to work hard as we seek to discern carefully, keeping all this in mind, as we evaluate traditions new and old, ready to repent of any that are really there for our sake not that of God or others – and we’ll need the Holy Spirit. I pray that we may have the determination, the honesty with ourselves and the openness to the Spirit that we will need over the coming months.