Ever since I was a kid I was taught to read the Bible, the simple Bible stories that still stick with me. At night my mother taught me and then told me to pray ‘me bonnie words’, which was a simple prayer from the verse of a hymn. Level of understanding – minimal to start with. Then through the more adult phase of my life had only one approach to Scripture and it all (had to) fit together, perhaps with a few tensions but certainly no internal disagreements. (Confession always found a lot of the ‘Old Testament’ difficult; there was an early church leader, Marcion (85-160AD), who posited that there were two revelations of ‘god’. The God of the Gospel who sent Jesus was the true God, the one of the Old Testament not the true ‘God’ but a ‘demiurge’. I certainly don’t think he got it right, but he has my sympathies!)
Marcion was wrong, but we all have to find some kind of solution, unless the solution is that the revelation of God in Jesus was temporary, and we all await the day of (violent) vengeance when the God that Jesus hid from view is revealed! The post I wrote on Jesus (because) he was God emptying himself sought to show that Jesus was the express image of God; all Christophonies are Theophanies. There is not a non-Jesus like God.
Scripture makes us work. We cannot always just take every word as if they are the ‘words’ of God. The book, and above the book, the story that unfolds I have no trouble giving to it the title ‘word of God’, provided we understand that the ‘word of God’ (Scripture) is bearing witness to the ‘Word of God’ (Jesus).
(After I had written this post an excellent, and creatively written, post was put up by Brad Jersak ‘Reading from the End (with children)’):
Disagreement, discussion, enter the dialogue
I think Scripture does not shrink back from disagreement, and invites us into the disagreement. It does not give the answer, but presents the issues, then as we submit to the wider story, and the revelation in Jesus, we will come out of it with our conclusion. And if it is a theoretical conclusion, particularly if we hold to a perspective but do not truly submit to it, we should rightly expect to remain confused. Scripture is useful. It is so far beyond theory.
Disagreements? Well try to put the three books of wisdom together – Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. One is so principled and is the one we love to quote, for there are no exceptions. With the second one, at least we get a look behind the scenes and can decide Job’s troubles (exceptions) were a manifestation of heavenly conflict. The third one… all is vanity? Better to be dead? Not words pulled out of the first book, Proverbs! But the three open up a window on our complex world and context. (Personal confession: I much prefer Proverbs… much easier to pray from that one!)
Disagreements? Well what about the anointing of a king? So much of the Old Testament, certainly what is written / edited after the rebellious northern kingdoms got their comeuppance through the Assyrians is solidly pro-kingship. Judges – ‘there was no king in the land’ – presents the problem to us, with the solution simply being that all we need is a decent king. Indeed someone even cheekily put a few words into Moses’ mouth, and really into God’s mouth, about the king, long before there was a king:
When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, “I will select a king like all the nations surrounding me,” you must select without fail a king whom the Lord your God chooses. From among your fellow citizens you must appoint a king—you may not designate a foreigner who is not one of your fellow Israelites. Moreover, he must not accumulate horses for himself or allow the people to return to Egypt to do so, for the Lord has said you must never again return that way (Deut. 17:14-16).
But, but, but the choice of a king was a rejection of God (1 Sam. 8).
God, the law and the death penalty
Then there is God, who really messes things up for us. The death penalty was prescribed for 38 crimes in the Old Testament, murder of course being one of them. So when we read of the first recorded murder (Cain) and that the murderer is confronted by God himself, we should expect a clear result! But… the result was that God covered the murderer with a protective sign. In reality God disobeyed his own law… or we presume that the law is not the law of God, not in an absolute sense, and it seems clear that Jesus came at it that way.
prodigal son prodigal father
The parable has been understood to be the prodigal son parable and that supposedly speaks deeply to us. If we make it the parable of the older brother it would probably speak to us even deeper, with our sin not being the issue but ‘our’ righteousness. That would be just a little painful to read it that way… though look at the context and see how it is set in the space between the ‘sinners’ and the ‘Pharisees and scribes’. However, there is a third character in the story…
Think about the father, and I don’t think there is much disagreement when we consider this to be a picture of the ‘heavenly Father’. First let’s establish the biblical requirement of a good law-abiding, righteous parent:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. (Deut. 21:18-21)
The son in asking for the inheritance is (culturally) saying he wishes the father dead. The rebelliousness of the younger son is evident throughout the parable, and so the son qualifies to be given a good old beating by the elders while the father looks on with approval, indeed to be put to death. With this biblical backdrop we meet the father that Jesus presents as the real ‘prodigal’ character in the story. He runs? Never, would that happen. That would be a disgrace, what a loss of dignity, how undermining to the family, how ultimately destructive to the fabric of society. The shocking nature of the parable is hard for us to grasp, but would not have been missed by the hearers in their contextual culture.
And this is God!!!!
A simple textual approach gets us so far, and many times the revelation of God in Jesus will cause us to struggle with certain texts. We have to. I cannot reconcile many of them, but I am thankful that I was not encouraged to understand them but there is something overarching them all with the exhortation that I am to ‘try and find out what pleases the Lord’. That word ‘try’. Those are the kind of words that helps me to love what I read.
I said when I was a kid my level of understanding was minimal. In some ways that has not changed. I probably should pray ‘me bonnie words’ again:
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild
Look upon this little child.
Pity my simplicity,
help me Lord to come to thee.
Not a bad prayer! Don’t know too much, but in it all and through it all help me find you.