Year C Lent 1: reading and meditating on God’s holy Word

So it is Lent; but because we are not Puritans but Episcopalians, we can still have a little fun. Today, I have brought a new game to get us in the mood to consider this morning’s gospel. It is called, “Bible or Bard,” and it’s very easy: for each of the following quotations you have simply to decide whether they are written in the Bible (King James Version) or in the works of William Shakespeare, aka the Bard.

(Answers are at the bottom of this post!)

  1. To be, or not to be – that is the question.
  2. In the beginning was the Word.
  3. Why should the private pleasure of some one become the public plague of many more?
  4. Every man shall kiss his lips that giveth a right answer.
  5. Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
  6. They were children of fools, yea, children of base men; they were viler than the earth.
  7. What is your substance, whereof are you made…?
  8. If I be wicked, why then labour I in vain? If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean…
  9. Though it be honest, it is never good to bring bad news.
  10. Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
  11. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.
  12. The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

 

In the exhortation to a holy Lent, which we read and heard on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to

self-examination and repentance; [by] prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and [by] reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Given the biblical battle enacted between Jesus and the devil in this morning’s gospel, I thought we’d take a look at that instruction, to read and meditate on God’s holy Word. How do we read the Bible? How do we use what we read, in our lives of prayer, in our lives as a whole? The second letter of Timothy tells us that all scripture is inspired, and is profitable, but Shakespeare is not wrong when he says that “Even the devil can cite scripture for his own purposes.” We see that pretty clearly in this morning’s story. And many people think it comes from the Bible, precisely because it so clearly recalls this scene with Jesus and the tempter, throwing Bible verses back and forth in a battle of steadfast faith against feckless self-interest. So how do we discern what we hear from others, when they use the Bible to bolster a political argument, or shore up their own authority, or suggest an action with consequences for those beyond themselves?

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that we cast anyone, let alone everyone; and certainly not only those with whom we disagree in the role of the devil when they quote scripture. I think that the danger is a lot more subtle than that. The temptation to abuse scripture is what comes between us, not from within any one of us. It is in that tug of war that characterizes the exchange between Jesus and the tempter that the devil comes and lends weight to anything that will divide us, that will keep us from loving God and our neighbour as ourselves.

We all proof-text. We all pick the words that fit our purposes, and that’s reasonable; even Jesus did it right back at the devil. “Make bread out of stones,” said the devil. “It is written,” replied Jesus. “Have the angels hold you up,” said the devil. “It is said,” replied Jesus. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

But we can test our own understanding of scripture, and whether we are being tempted to twist it into a divisive device. We can use the authority of scripture itself, we can use our tradition, we can use our own reasoning, our own common sense, to know what we are reading, what we are hearing, and whether it comes from God.

Since the time of the English Reformation, the people who would become Anglicans (and Episcopalians) were “exhort[ed] … to read [the Bible] as the very lively word of God.”* It is inspired; the Holy Spirit moves within it. That, in fact, is the only reason that we can read a sermon from centuries before Christ, and a letter written to Roman Christians of our own first century, and find any relevance whatsoever for ourselves. We are not the same people as those to whom these words were addressed; and yet we read it in the sure and certain knowledge that God is speaking clearly, intimately, to each one of us in our daily prayer. The Bible is a lively, a living word, when we read it as part of our relationship with a lively and living God.

John A. T. Robinson said of scripture that “The Christian message is offered as a faith and a way of life which you can trust … [But] ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ for the writers of the New Testament is not a timeless prescription for good living, but a person born at a moment of history.”**

The Word of God, says Bishop Robinson, is Jesus Christ. Not a set of rules or instructions, but a person with whom we can have a real and lively relationship: Jesus is the lively, the living Word of God.

So we can test our understanding of the Bible by its own authority in our tradition, and in light of our understanding of Jesus as the lively and living Word of God.

One day, Jesus was interviewed by a lawyer in Jerusalem who asked him, “Which is the greatest commandment?” And Jesus told him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments,” said Jesus, “hang all the Law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:35-40)

In other words, Jesus, the incarnate, the lively and living Word of God, declared that the commandments to love God with all of our being, and our neighbours as ourselves, are the foundation of all of that God-inspired scripture; are the source from which all talk of God may come.

As our own Presiding Bishop might say, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”

That is the test for ourselves, when we are tempted to use scripture as a tool for argument, or worse, a weapon. It is the test of how we hear others’ use of scripture, when they make declarations to further their own ends. Only if that use of scripture is made in the service of loving God, and loving our neighbours as ourselves, is it legitimate. Anything else might as well have been made up by William Shakespeare, rather than inspired by the Holy Spirit. “The devil cites scripture” indeed.

“If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”

And so, dear people of God,

I invite you, … in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Amen

_______________

*”The second Injunction of 1538, Walter Howard Frere and William McClure Kennedy, Visitation Articles and Injunctions of the Period of the Reformation, 3 vols (AC, London, 1910), Vol ii, 35-66, 118,” in Stephen Sykes, John Booty, Jonathan Knight, eds, The Study of Anglicanism (SPCK/Fortress Press, 1968/1988), 11 & note 7

**John A. T. Robinson, Can We Trust the New Testament? (William B. Eerdmans, 1977), 7

__________________

Bible or Bard Answers:

  1. The Bard. Hamlet, Act III, scene i, line 56
  2. The Bible. John 1:1
  3. The Bard. The Rape of Lucretia, lines 1478-9
  4. The Bible. Proverbs 24:26
  5. The Bible. Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) 2:5
  6. The Bible. Job 30:8
  7. The Bard. Sonnet 53, line 1
  8. The Bible. Job 9:29-30
  9. The Bard. Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, scene v, line 85
  10. The Bard. Hamlet, Act I, scene iv, line 75
  11. The Bible. II Timothy 3:16
  12. The Bard. The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene iii, line 93
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