How to Read the Bible, Part 1: Not One Letter



a reflection on Matthew 5:13-19

One of the great privileges of my work is that I get to talk every week with folks who are honestly grappling with their doubts and concerns about coming to church — any church! People who are longing for a spiritual community, and for a relationship with God, but who are very concerned, and rightly so, about the messages the church offers about who God is, about what a person has to believe in order to belong, and especially about the Bible. Every week, I talk with people who are worried about the ways in which the Bible is used to harm and exclude; people who are troubled by the messages they find in this book. Every week, I hear from folks who wonder whether this ancient and complicated collection of writings is something we should even be reading anymore. Folks who are wondering whether it is even possible for progressive, inclusive Christians to read the Bible in a way that brings life, and healing, to the world. I love these conversations!

What I tell people is also what I want to tell you this morning. That in order to read this complicated book in responsible, healing ways, it is essential that we take an honest look at the the ways the Bible has historically been used, and continues to be used, to inflict great harm, particularly to the most vulnerable among us: indigenous peoples, women, LGBT folk, religious minorities, other species, and the earth itself. Now, I realize that this is not an easy, feel-good topic to approach on a Sunday morning. But if we believe that there is still something of value in this book, and if we long to share that value with the world, and if we want to share our sacred texts with those who have been harmed by the church and by the Bible, then we have a responsibility to name and to renounce — to publicly renounce — the harm that the church has done with this book. And to do this, friends, we must be willing to look honestly at that harm, and begin to heal it. 

So that’s where I’d like to begin today. And to do that, I brought a friend with me. Anybody know what this is? A puffer fish! Anyone know what the puffer fish is called in Japan? Fugu! Fugu is a delicacy in Japanese cuisine, but you have to be a little brave to eat it. This is because the organs of the puffer fish contain a powerful neurotoxin that paralyzes and kills anyone who eats it. Remember this if you’re going out for sushi tonight! If you want to eat fugu, it must be prepared very, very carefully. A skilled sushi chef knows how to remove the toxic parts of the fish without letting the toxin contaminate the edible flesh. Fugu, prepared carefully, is a delicious, nourishing morsel. Consumed carelessly, it will kill you.

When I was in seminary, I had a professor, Mary Ann Tolbert, who is a well known New Testament scholar. On the first day of class each semester, Professor Tolbert liked to stand up at the front of the lecture hall and make this stunning announcement. She said, “The Bible is fugu.”

The Bible is Fugu. In the Bible, there are beautiful, delicious morsels of truth that can nourish body and soul. Also in this book, there is deadly poison. The Bible can kill.

So here’s my answer to everyone who asks me how in the world we should read the Bible today. Very carefully, I tell them. In other words, we must take a lesson from the sushi chefs and learn how to deal with the poison before we feed the Bible to ourselves, to our children, and to the world. And one of the very best ways to deal with the poisonous and deadly parts of the Bible is to understand the historical context in which they were written. 

For instance, when we read any gospel story, it’s very important to remember that the gospels were written a generation and more after Jesus’ death, and that they were written for early Jesus followers who had grown confused and angry. They were confused because Jesus, whom they believed to be the Messiah, had failed to return after his death to save them from Roman oppression as promised. They were angry because their fellow Jews were not flocking to join their new religious movement, but were instead choosing to stay in the synagogue and wait there for the Messiah they believed had yet to arrive.

In fact, by the time the gospel  texts were written, the followers of Jesus, who made up what we might call the early church, were in the midst of a very painful divorce from the synagogue community. I’m pretty sure that every one of us has witnessed this kind of divorce. Some of us surely have even experienced this kind of divorce firsthand.  We know that in the midst of divorce, as a couple slogs through thickets of grief and disappointment, one partner or another is likely to say things about the other that are gravely distorted, that are obviously untrue, and that should never be repeated to anyone, much less captured in writing. Imagine what would happen if, during a painful divorce, our most bitter, hateful words were not only written down as gospel truth (so to speak), but also passed on to our children, and to their children, on down through the generations. Can you imagine the hateful words that would forever poison the hearts of those generations toward their ancestors?  

This, sadly, is what happened during those first difficult centuries of the church’s life. By the time the gospels were written down, a generation and more after Jesus’ death, the community of Jesus followers was baffled by the fact that the risen Christ had not yet returned, and bitterly disappointed that their fellow Jews were remaining in the synagogue. 

And so ensued a terrible, bitter divorce. If ever there was a poison pen, it was the pen that wrote the gospel accounts of the Jewish people. And deeply embedded in these accounts is the idea known in Christian circles as supercession: the idea that when Jesus arrived, God made a new covenant with Jesus’ followers, which supercedes, or renders obsolete, the original covenant God made with the Jewish people. By way of supercession (also called replacement theology) Christians come to believe they are the only legitimate heirs to God’s original blessing and promise. Christians are now the people of God, and Jews are cast out of God’s favor. This idea appears not only in the Christian gospels themselves but also in the second-century writings of Tertullian, who is one of the earliest and most influential Christian theologians. Tertullian promotes this idea of replacement or supercession in a volume he wrote, the Latin title of whichis Adversus Iudaeos. This translates into English as Against the Jews. Against the Jews is a foundational second-century work by one of the church’s founding fathers.

Now, we don’t read Turtullian very often in church, but his ideas have deeply influenced traditional Christian theology. And if we look carefully at our gospel stories, we will see that this idea of supercession and the poison of anti-Jewish rhetoric are also deeply embedded in the texts we continue to read today.

I trust that you don’t need me to spell out in detail the harm that this rhetoric has inflicted over the centuries. I think it will suffice to say that in the wake of the European Holocaust, the church itself  finally began to grapple seriously with the concept of supercession and the damage it has done over many centuries. Even today, this deadly idea of supercession is so deeply woven into Christian theology and scripture that we don’t even notice it anymore. When we refer to the Hebrew Bible as the “Old Testament,” we perpetuate this idea that the sacred text of our Jewish neighbors has been replaced by the New Testament and is therefore no longer relevant. Amazingly, it is this very idea of replacement that Jesus himself, who was a Jew all his life, renounces in our gospel reading this morning. 

“Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law…” Jesus announces.

Don’t do it, Jesus says. Do not be tempted to think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.

I think it’s remarkable, really, that Jesus is portrayed here as taking such a firm stand against anti-Jewish rhetoric, given that the Gospel of Matthew was written in the midst of such a bitter divorce. Even so, says the gospel writer, Jesus himself did not believe that the Hebrew Bible, or its people, were inferior or meant to be replaced. Which is a sentiment we can only wish the church had remembered throughout its history.

The good news is that we, ourselves, can remember today. With the help of modern Bible scholarship, we have the opportunity to reclaim the beauty to be found in this book, to separate that beauty from the hate-mongering, and to offer that beauty to the world with humility, and courage, and in the name of reconciliation. This is the way progressive, inclusive Christians all over the world are reading the Bible today, and we are invited to join them.

Friends, the Bible is fugu. There are beautiful, nourishing teachings to be found here. And there is poison, too. Our work is to learn to recognize the difference. Our holy work is to name and renounce the ways of death and destruction. 

This day and always, may we find the courage to study, and to walk, the paths of healing and of peace.