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These Verses Versus Those Verses
The First Sunday in Lent
Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘God will command the angels to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered the devil, “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Every three years, the Common Lectionary asks the church throughout the world to read those words on the First Sunday in Lent. And, every time they roll back around, we get to watch while Jesus and the devil face off in a contest of these verses versus those verses; the devil, quoting Psalm 91:11-12; “God will command the angels to protect you, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone,” and Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”; the devil, actually using a verse of scripture to tempt Jesus to do God’s work the world’s way; quoting the Bible accurately, but using the Bible wrongly.
Which, needless to say, wasn’t the last time a Bible verse was quoted accurately, but used wrongly.
In the world of my origins, for example, we quoted I Corinthians 14:35 accurately, but used it wrongly, to exclude women from ministry. We quoted Mark 10:11-12 accurately, but used it wrongly, to penalize those who had suffered through the sorrow of divorce. We quoted Leviticus 18:22 accurately, but used it wrongly, to marginalize those whose sexuality was different from ours; like the devil in today’s gospel lesson, sending the Bible on errands the Bible wasn’t written to run; quoting the Bible accurately, but using the Bible wrongly.
Because that way of using the Bible was what I had known as a child, it was all I could know as an adult. Which means that, for a time, I participated in that way of using the Bible; a way of handling scripture which created second-class citizens in the family of faith; a sin for which I can be forgiven, but from which it is too late to undo the harm done to dear and good people who were turned away from some of the sacraments of the church because of folk like myself, who used the Bible on others in ways we would never apply the Bible to ourselves.
All of which reminds me of William Sloane Coffin’s unforgettable sentence, “Hell is the truth, seen too late,” to which I would add, “Heaven will be, too.” Whenever I read, in the book of Isaiah, and in the Revelation, that, over on the Other Side, God is going to wipe all the tears away, I sometimes wonder if some of those tears may rise from the eyes of folk like myself, when we learn how much pain we caused when we were using the Bible on others in ways we would never apply the Bible to ourselves.
The remedy for which is for us to decide to be content to use our Bible only the way Jesus used his. If I belonged to another faith, I’m sure I would have a different measure for how to interpret scripture. But, because I’m a Christian, my measure for the interpretation of scripture is Jesus. That is why I keep saying that the most important passage in the Bible is Matthew 22:34-40, because that’s the passage where Jesus says that all the law and the prophets are to be interpreted in the light of two commandments; “Love God with all that is in you” and “Love others the way you want others to love you.”
“All the law and prophets” is all the Bible Jesus had. So, when Jesus said, “All the law and the prophets are to be read in the light of love for God and love for others,” that tells us how Jesus handled his Bible.
In John chapter eight, for example, Jesus reached past the place where Deuteronomy 22:22 told him to stop, and sent the woman caught in adultery home, to begin her life again. And, in Mark chapter three, Jesus reached past the place where Exodus 20:10 would have dropped him off, and healed the man with the withered hand, without requiring him to wait until the Sabbath had passed; Jesus, clearly not living his life by a scripture here and a scripture there, but, rather, as Mary Oliver once wonderfully said, “In accordance with a single certainty.” And, for Jesus, that single certainty by which he read all scripture and saw all people appears to have been the single certainty that nothing matters more than loving God with all that is in us and loving others the way we want others to love us.
There are many things Jesus did which we cannot do, but we can handle our Bible exactly as Jesus handled his; reading the whole Bible in the light of love for God and love for others, even when that means going past the place where a Bible verse might have dropped us off.
I think of it as lowering an anchor and raising a sail. We lower our anchor into the Bible by reading and studying the Bible, getting its words down deep into the muscle-memory of our soul; dropping our anchor deep into the well of scripture, while, simultaneously, keeping our sail always up for the wind of the Spirit.
We keep our sail ever up for the wind of the Spirit because we know that, when the Bible was canonized in the fourth-century, the Holy Spirit did not go into retirement. When the Bible was finally finished and settled on by the church at the end of that long process called “canonization,” the Holy Spirit did not buy a condo in Destin and retire. Rather, the Holy Spirit continues to nudge, tug, reveal and speak, which means that the wind of the Spirit can still send us sailing; never farther than Jesus would go, but, sometimes, past the place where a verse of scripture might have dropped us off.