by Sara Miles
Here is the problem I have with the Bible. Mostly, I spend my life lurching back and forth between the reasonable hope that I’m basically OK and things are going pretty well; and the sickening conviction that I’m a wicked, terribly mistaken lost cause and the whole world is on its way to hell in a handbasket. I can’t be sure which of my own impulses are genuinely good and which are sneakily greedy and conniving: how can I honestly sort out my tangled desires? Looking around, I notice generous, righteous people feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, but they’re surrounded by all kinds of evildoers—angry women screaming at refugee children in Texas, violent men kidnapping children in Israel and Palestine, ostensibly decent citizens like me who do nothing to stop the bad guys.
So I’d like the Holy Scriptures, which after all our tradition claims “containeth all things necessary for salvation,” to shed just a little light on the subject of good and evil. I’d like the Bible to show me how to reliably judge other people, recognize devil-followers, and teach me how to be a good person, and I’d like the Bible to offer instructive lessons about how things should be, in this miserably hard business of being a human trying to relate to other humans and to God. Is that too much to ask?
Well, apparently it is too much to ask. Because the Bible isn’t about showing how things should be, but about how things really are.
Let’s look at exemplary figures like Jacob. That little snake. Dishonest and tricky, Jacob is one of the least trustworthy characters in the Bible. First, he cheats his not-so-smart big brother Esau out of his birthright and gets away with it. Then he cheats him again, this time out of their father’s blessing, and gets away with that too. Finally Jacob lands in trouble, but his mom covers up for him and sends him off on a journey, and he winds up alone in the desert, on the outs with his people, and terribly afraid.
Jacob lies down on a pillow of stone, and God….does God set him straight? Punish him for his sleaziness? Teach him a lesson? No, God appears in a dream and announces that now Jacob is going to get vast tracts of valuable land, be blessed with family and honor and luck; God promises to stick with Jacob and his descendants forever and give them whatever they need.
Just like that. No retribution or wrath. No “aren’t you sorry for your bad behavior?” No, “Change your attitude and I’ll see about rescuing you from the pit you dug from yourself.” Just unconditional blessing. And Jacob has the sense, for a single second, to be afraid…. but then he acts tougher than he feels and reverts to his snake-like ways, receiving the blessing as if he deserves it. He even sets conditions on God. Gee, thanks, God, says Jacob. Well, I guess if you keep on like this, giving me help and clothes and food and fixing things with my family, I guess I’ll worship you, and hey, if you keep delivering even more goodies, I can give you back, um, ten percent of everything you give me.
What are we supposed to do with a God who insists on sticking with people like Jacob and his descendants, through all their lies and manipulations?
What are we supposed to learn from seeing blessings showered on those who never appreciate the goodness God shows them, never mend their ways, never get over their insecurities? This is the way things are, says the Bible: God doesn’t care if we fail to appreciate what he does for us––he’ll just keep appearing with beautiful visions in the middle of the night, keep faith in the loneliest deserts, keep offering frightened little snakes like you and me another chance to receive his promise, his love, his Word.
And then there are the parables. Even in a parable as apparently righteous as the story of the darnel and the wheat, Jesus, infuriatingly, won’t tell us how things should be. They’re not up to us, is all he says. God has nothing to say about how we’re supposed to judge, to sort out good and evil; God refuses to give directions about how we should reward the righteous and punish the wicked. God just gazes at the whole complicated mess– enemies and friends, devils and angels, good guys and bad guys, weeds and wheat scrambled together–and blesses everything, biding his time, saying, Let it grow. Jesus explains, Shut up. That is: if you have ears, listen.
Do you feel me? Is this fair? No, it is not fair. But it is the word of God.
Last Friday was a rough day at our church food pantry. It had been a rough week. Two of our regular volunteers, Elena and Tatiana, had gone home to the Ukraine to help their families, a few days before pro-Russian separatists shot down a commercial airliner. Their friend, Valentina, a big, bossy Russian lady, marched up to me at the pantry, beside herself, weepy. “Sara,” she cried, grabbing my arm, “I don’t hear nothing from Elena and Tatiana, I am so worry. I feel so bad, I am shamed to be Russian.” Valentina is kind of an over-the-top drama queen, so I just nodded and tried not to get sucked in. Then I asked Leah, an older Jewish woman from New York, about her family in Israel. She told me she hadn’t slept for days. “They’re shooting rockets where my sister lives,” she said, “I’m going crazy watching the news. And then I see those pictures of Palestinian mothers with dead kids. My people, we did this? It makes me sick; I’m so ashamed.” I hugged Leah, but I was afraid to express solidarity with her crazy settler sister. It’s all too hard: Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Palestine, Valentina, Leah—and me, who doesn’t know how to decide which bad guys to be mad at. Me, who’s afraid I might love the wrong people. Me, who thinks God only loves some of us, and I better hedge my bets and be on the right side.
In the middle of the field, the world, Scripture says, all kinds of weeds are jammed up right next to the precious grain. The field, the world, is a total mess. And so often we believe we’re the ones chosen to clean it up. But if we think we can tell the weeds from the wheat, the purely good people from the purely wicked, we are kidding ourselves—about the shameful evil inside our own hearts, and the humanity inside our enemies. And if we try to root out what we think is evil by ourselves, we will also destroy everything that feeds us.
Anyone who has ears should listen to the good news: The life-giving wheat, the bread of life, is already in the field; the Kingdom of Heaven is already in the world, growing and growing: and the enemy cannot root it out. All the enemy can do is try to convince us to pull it up, trickus into being overzealous weeders who, in our eagerness to eradicate the bad guys, will step all over the tender green shoots of love.
In the middle of the heartbreak at the food pantry, Leah and I were in the kitchen, putting candles on a homemade cake that another volunteer had baked to celebrate someone’s birthday. “My friends here are liberals,” Leah said, “so they just want to blame Israel, like the Israelis are all evil and the Palestinians are all good.” I felt incredibly uncomfortable, but Leah went on. “Believe me,” she said, “I see how messed-up Israel is. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. Everyone is so convinced they’re right, it’s all someone else’s fault, and before you know it we’re killing each other’s kids.” She wiped some frosting off the platter. “Thanks for asking about my sister,” Leah said softly. “The worst thing is how my friends don’t even talk with me about it. Couldn’t somebody just say, how are you doing, how’s your family? Like instead of being so convinced we know who’s right and who’s wrong, couldn’t we just have a little kindness?”
The problem with the Bible is that it doesn’t tell us who to blame for the suffering we endure, or the suffering we cause to others. It just tells us that we are living among all the other plants in the field. We must trust God, turn away from darkness, toward the light, and grow. Because God, the only judge, is busy sowing himself into the heart of all mortals, and changing us into himself.
Thanks to ‘Episcopal Cafe’ for this thought-provoking article from Sara Miles.
Diana and I, on a visit to San Francisco, had been urged to visit the Episcopalian Church & Community of St. Gregory of Nyssa, to experience the amazing worship atmosphere of this eclectic congregation in the Mission District of that exciting West Coast city in the U.S.A.
The main Sunday morning Liturgy of the Eucharist was a mixture of Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican-Charismatic features; involving colorfully-clothed processions, with incense, waving palms, singing children and liturgical dance, such as might grace the court of a Middle-Eastern potentate. The lessons from the Scriptures were all sung by singers who obviously knew a thing or two about voice production; while the responsorial psalm and joyful hymns were shared with the large congregation, who obviously knew their way around the liturgy. The sermon was deeply meaningful, followed by a respectful silence. This was Catholic/Charismatic worship at its best.
Afterwards, when sharing in the obligatory ‘refreshments’, we met people from all walks of life who had found in this suburban church a family of dedicated Christians who loved one another. The welcome they gave us was both sincere and humbling. We discovered, too, that this Church hosted a number of outreach programs dedicated to catering for down-and-outs, as well as the practical and pastoral needs of the local community of widely different ethnic origins.
Needless to say, Diana and I were profoundly moved by this experience. This is why I am keen to share with you this reflection of Sara Miles’ understanding of the place of the Bible in the life of thinking Christians, that I found this evening in the web-based material offered by ‘Episcopal Cafe’ – a popular outreach ministry of the U.S. episcopal Church.
In these days of oppositional theories about the essential value of the Scriptures in Judeo/Christian history, it is interesting to find a Church Leader who is prepared to challenge the traditional understanding of the Bible as the living Word of God, that can never be questioned – as the-word-by-word inerrant guide and Rule of Life for all people for all time – irrespective of the infinite complexity of modern life that has revealed the existence of factors unknown to the authors of the original writers of the Scriptures.
That the Bible is the basic guide to the Christian Faith cannot fairly be disputed. However, it has to be interpreted with skillful and prayerful discernment, in order to cull out those things that can distract the modern day reader and student from the central message – which is that of God’s loving action in creating and caring for the world and its inhabitants.
The Incarnation of God’s only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ was the undoubted critical intersection of the created order, bringing about a potentially New Creation, which is still in process of evolution. The ‘founding document’ of our religion – the Bible – is our charter of salvation, for which Christ is the Key. When ‘The Word became flesh’, Jesus Himself became: ‘The Way, The Truth and The Life’ for all who would receive Him. The Word did not, though, remain enclosed in The Book, but was released and spoken into creation, becoming, inextricably, THE WAY, THE TRUTH, and THE LIFE – of God.
It is the continuing task of the Holy Spirit to lead us through the complexities of biblical texts that, like the parables of Jesus, need interpretation for the precise contexts into which they were spoken – as different from the context into which they speak today.
The Spirit did not retreat with the publication of the Bible, but remains alive and active, bringing light and life to those who seek the mind of The Lord for God’s world of today.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand