by Ellen Sims
texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5: 21-37
Did anything about today’s Hebrew Bible reading make you squirm?
I want to push back against this passage because it classifies the world in either/or categories: life or death, prosperity versus adversity. It would seem the writer of these words believed we either obey God unfailingly or we turn away from God entirely. We will be either blessed by God, or we will perish. And I want to protest that a particular people who considered themselves so blessed by God then perceived that blessing as license to invade and “possess” a land already occupied by another people.
We can appreciate the lure of the conquerors’ worldview—and the necessity of critiquing it—when we recall that the first Christian settlers in what is now the United States also attributed to God a privileging that justified their possession of another people’s land. Later readers of the passage from Deuteronomy sometimes cited the children of Israel’s story of conquest to condone the slaughter of other people. When we reread this familiar story, let’s seek a spirit of discernment and loving kindness and feel authorized to condemn such actions from the forebearers of our faith (and nation). After all, there are many other biblical stories and texts that teach us not to steal and not to covet (explicitly stated in the very same book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere). So the Bible itself can be self-critiquing. When we attribute evil to God, we are, in my opinion, breaking the third commandment against taking God’s name in vain.
At times it’s rhetorically effective to paint life’s choices in stark contrasts, classifying some actions as absolutely right and some as absolutely wrong. And some scriptures do emphasize a God who sets out very clear laws.
But today’s text could tempt us to use sacred scripture to worship a cruelly authoritarian God and understand the world in simplistic dichotomies of personalities and ideologies. One psychological study contrasts authoritarian parenting with authoritative parenting, concluding that children whose parents are authoritarian (rather than authoritative) are more likely to experience depression.
One recent commentary has labeled as authoritarian those Christians who emphasize an authoritarian God and depend on the authority of the Bible (read literally) along with the authority of church leaders and the often the authority of men over women.
“In contrast, Christians who emphasize God’s mercy and freedom believe they are primarily called to love all colors and nationalities and faiths and political views and theological quirks. They’re about forgiving their enemies and making peace and welcoming strangers and helping the poor, no questions asked. . . .These Christians drive the authoritarians mad. And vice versa. Probably neither side has a lock on the whole truth.”
I am glad the Bible offers us varied images of God: God the authoritarian and God the merciful. I’m also grateful the lectionary today pairs a very authoritarian text with our next reading in which Jesus one again pushes back against rule-bound religious folks.
Maybe we can think of the Bible in authoritative, not authoritarian ways. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus honors the scriptures. But he seems to say, “Y’all know, don’t you, the laws within our sacred texts are really just a starting point, sort of the minimum? You don’t get to feel super proud of your precious spiritual self just because you didn’t kill someone today.”
Indeed, the rabbinic tradition developing at this time was already (as was Jesus himself) creating commentary on the Torah and seeing it as a living and breathing text that one could argue about and argue WITH and which could yield more than one viable interpretation. I try to say this from the pulpit regularly: “We love the Bible. We don’t venerate it. We honor the Bible. But we can question it and let parts of it interrogate other parts. We take the Bible too seriously to read it literally.”
Pay attention, for instance, to the exaggerations in our Gospel reading, which many scholars believe reveal Jesus’s sense of humor: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out, and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” No one, even the most literalist of biblical literalists, thinks Jesus meant that literally.
Some folks believe they love God best by following all the rules—and trying to make sure other folks do, too. These are folks who obsess over other people’s sex lives. And then ignore other rules like Leviticus 19:19 that prohibits the wearing of clothing made from mixed fabrics.
Others think that following the many specific laws in the Bible is a low bar, ethically. What’s at the heart of all these laws is the real challenge and the essence of following Jesus. Later in Matthew (Mt.22) Jesus will say love is the greatest commandment. Not sentimental Valentine’s Day love but love for God and neighbor and love of self. LOVE. The most challenging law of all. Let the other biblical laws and the laws of the state of Alabama and laws of our nation measure up to that one.
Jesus models for us a way to honor and sometimes interrogate scriptures. Jesus shows us how ancient scriptures remain relevant and revelatory today. As the United Church of Christ says, “God is still speaking.”