Today’s Gospel reading (from Matthew chapter 22, verse 34 to the end) is a welcome gift in how to read Scripture like Jesus. This is not surprising, for Matthew’s Gospel is particularly concerned to portray Jesus as the new Moses, who teaches, fulfils, and embodies the law of God afresh – think, for example, of the Sermon on the Mount as a central feature. This liberating message is about a deeper, more expansive, righteousness, which is centred on love for all, and particularly God’s inexhaustible love for the marginalised, the ‘little ones’ who are those who are described by Matthew as the most blessed to God. Matthew shows us how, in Jesus, the promises of the prophets are fulfilled, and their life, and world, transforming visions of peace, healing and justice for all. What wonderful, life-giving, good news this is – not least those of us who have struggled with certain kinds of bible studies! This is Scripture well worth studying. For who wouldn’t want to read, learn, and discuss more about this kind of love?
Well, more than a few folk, in Jesus’ day, and today, have had problems with this. For them Scripture is sadly not a highly complex and varied set of ancient writings full of extraordinary stories, visions, and in sights, mixed up with some far less palatable human images and struggles. It is more a code of law and an instruction manual, to be adhered to at pain of death – mainly, today, at the fear of eternal death. Scripture is more a set of given answers rather than a rich spiritual resource for exploring life’s questions afresh. As such, sadly, rather than being a source of wisdom., it thus so easily becomes a weapon to guard against the living God, or to attack, others.
Scripture was certainly used against Jesus, wasn’t it? My goodness it was! If you’ve ever been attacked by others on alleged scriptural grounds, you’ll recognise what Jesus went through. Again and again, Jesus is attacked by different groups, variously described as Pharisees, Sadducees, sscribes, lawyers and so forth. Again and again, their weapon of choice is Scripture. The Gospel passage we hear today is just one part of this, and, in Matthew chapter 22, the culmination of a series of different attacks on Jesus, using different scriptures. To be honest, gay people have it somewhat easy today compared to Jesus in this respect. For gay people usually face seven particular ‘clobber texts’, of various degrees of credibility. The number of ‘clobber texts’ fired at Jesus were many more. For Jesus was challenging the very basis of Scripture itself. Jesus was asking people then, and since, to approach Scripture not as a fixed statement of law but as a living witness to grace – not as a weapon but as a source of wisdom.
In today’s Gospel reading we again see this weaponising of Scripture against Jesus. In response, Jesus’ use of Scripture is instructive to us. Jesus has more than offered a defence to the Sadducees’ attacks. Now it is the turn of the Pharisees. Like those before them, they seek to catch Jesus out. They seek to identify holes in Jesus’ knowledge of Scripture and clobber texts by which they can condemn Jesus, his teaching and works. In the first part of today’s Gospel reading, they thus ask about Jesus’ knowledge of the commandments and ask about priorities. As Jesus does with earlier enemies bearing parts of Scripture as weapons, Jesus does not so much enter into direct conflict as parry the attempted blows and offer fresh direction. Isn’t that part of how we too may deal fruitfully with attacks upon us and others where Scripture is used as a weapon? Instead of fighting on the terms set by our assailants, we are called to reframe the situation. Scripture must not be used as a weapon, by others, or by us. Our first task is to disarm the situation. For fruitful use of the Bible is not about conflict and contestation, but about compassion and creativity. Bible studies similarly are not about arming ourselves and our convictions, but about learning new ways to grow in love and peace-making.
In Jesus’ case, the response to the Pharisees’ challenge is to remind them of the very heart of Scripture: namely the great commandment. This is to transcend petty squabbles about precious points of liturgy and lifestyle. Love – wholehearted, whole-minded, whole-soulful love – is the real thing. Love of neighbour and of oneself – full, all, everything, line and sinker, kitchen sink, any one and any thing, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. That is the law and the prophets says Jesus, for on this everything hangs. That is the meaning of Scripture: nothing more, nothing less. And that, my friends, is our faithful response to Jesus. Of course we must study the ‘hard words’ of Scripture, but – always, always, says Jesus – return to this centre. Scriptural interpretations of individual texts will vary, with changing seasons, fashions, and types of people and personality. But this description and call to Love is the lasting, eternal, truth, the heartbeat, the mindfulness, the soul of Scripture.
Secondly, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus then turns the attackers use of texts as weapons back towards them. Ok, Jesus says, if you want to ask questions about Scripture, let me throw one to you. Rhetorically using texts in the same, essentially literal, manner as the Pharisees, Jesus asks about the inconsistencies which quickly emerge. Following Pharisaical approaches to Scripture, how can David be the ‘son of David’, as Scripture attest, when it also says that David calls the son of David’ Lord? We, like Jesus, could identify many more similar textual issues. That is, actually, another part of the fascination of biblical studies (blatant plug - do sign up for a course at St Francis College!). The point of course, of Jesus’ own use of Scripture here, is not to use such things as weapons but to lead us to greater wisdom. It is part of the disarming of Scripture so that it can be approached with openness to surprise rather than in search of power, with excitement rather than foreboding, with joy rather than fear. With Scripture, as with other things. do as Jesus did, not as others would do to you.
One final thought today on Jesus and Scripture, which the Gospel writers themselves were trying to convey. It is not Scripture which brings salvation but the Word and Spirit of God through it. It is easy to be confused about this when some Christians talk glibly about Scripture as the Word of God. For Scripture is ultimately only a collection of words which variously point to the actual Word of God. The true Word of God is the Love of God which was embodied in Jesus as the Christ: God’s Wisdom, not the weapons sent against it.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, for Pentecost 21 Year A - Sunday 25 October 2020, Milton