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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Show Your Work

One gripe among parents which I hear from time to time is that their child made a low grad on a Math test even though they had the answers right. The problem was the instructions wanted them "to show your work" and the child had not done it. Sometimes "the work" reveals as much as the final answer. Thinking about what we are doing, be it math or anything else in life, requires focus and concentration. I think this is part of the spiritual discipline of "living in the moment" and "being present." It is very hard for us, who live lives of constant distraction and endless activity with a need for 'quicker' and 'faster' and 'immediate' results to ponder much of anything. Maybe I am projecting here, but I have to think I am not the only one who feels like life is an endless series of hundred yard dashes...

If we want to understand Scripture, is it not true that we also need to pause and ponder how we should actually read Scripture? The three readings for the Daily Office today include a story from Mark 8. Jesus is in the boat with His disciples after a particularly frustrating day (People demanding some sign from heaven to prove him). Jesus asks (with a deep sigh) "Why do you people need a sign, there will be no sign." Once in the boat with His disciples He warns them, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod," and they thought He was talking about bread...

Read the prophets of Israel. Read the words of Jesus. Read them and ask this question, "Is it straightforward communication?" When Jesus got in the boat, why the cryptic statement? 

God speaks in visions and images. I daresay we (who read the Bible) believe it. But not really, not totally. We believe it as a datum of faith--a factoid--but do not embrace it as the fundamental "lense" through which we "see" God. In the end, we are too Modern to allow ourselves to think in ancient ways. Too concerned with facts to seek Truth.

It is said that Protestants believe "only grace, only faith, only Scripture." "Only Scripture"... Yet if we read Scripture as though it were a text book, is not our "only Scripture" compounded by "only a modern world view, only a modern set of assumptions about things"? As I have said before, we "know" the original languages of the Bible are Hebrew and Greek, but we forget the language systems are more than just words and that Greek and Hebrew are also ancient cultures. We forget the rules of reading and writing of their time matter. We also forget that God does not speak in bullet points, He communicates in paraboles (Greek) or maschal (Hebrew). The word 'parable' as popularly understood by us does not convey all the richness of meaning that the Hebrew contains.

Today I teach on Galatians. The two sons born of two wives (4:21-5:1), one slave one free. Hagar is Mount Sinai the present Jerusalem. The child of promise, born of Sara, is free. We are children of the promise, like Isaac. What is more important to me than Paul's point is Paul's use of the Bible. The logic of the argument, or better, the illustration, is not what interests me here. What I find fascinating is the illustration itself. Paul is showing his work here for us. He is turning the plain meaning of Scripture on its head. He is saying that the Jews are offspring of Hagar and that the Gentiles are Isaac (the father of Jacob, the father of Israel--the Jews!). Such a reading and approach are what matter most here, even more than the final message. So often I hear believers become incensed at the idea that something in the Bible is symbolic, as if symbolism were akin to heresy or apostasy. Yet here Paul says clearly that the saving truth of the Genesis account is deeper and metaphorical. 

I want to share some insights from ancient Jews about the Bible in the days ahead. I do this because Jesus and Paul were ancient Jews. (it is also the same one that the Church Fathers used.) We have to understand that the Bible is not in English and it is not in Modern. We must encounter God's Word on His terms, not our own.

It invites us to read Scripture as an ancient. And that takes time and reflection. Fortunately, Paul has given us a model how to do it. and the model includes, even embraces, symbolism. And symbols are notoriously difficult to unravel. And we are an impatient people...

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