There are many ways to describe and define the Bible. From assertions that are mostly faith-based, such as “Scripture” or “Word of God”; to claims rooted in its perceived genre, such as “storybook,” the “narrative” of God’s people; to the more practical, like “rulebook” or “guide for life.”
It is worth asking once in awhile just what we think of the Bible, anyway. What name would we give it other than the Bible? How we would describe its meaning and purpose in our lives? And, to ask the same questions of the people in our pews. What is the Bible? Why read it? What difference does it make in your life?
I suspect given the opportunity, the answers would be quite diverse. While we would like to imagine that there is a uniform and agreed perspective on and of Scripture, daily life proves that understanding about how to characterize the Bible is hard to find.
This particular passage in Luke forces our hand, I think, when it comes to adjudicating the role of the Bible in our lives. While we would like to have the Bible aspire to lofty purposes about the “-ologies” we can never really talk about in real life — Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, pneumatology, etc. — sometimes it is more basic, more simple, than that which inspires theological imagination. Sometimes it is just words to live by. Words to guide a decent and kind life. Words to remind us of how easy it is to live our lives curved in on ourselves.
What if we took Jesus’ words to heart and actually lived them? What if we did not relegate Jesus’ sayings in this passage to just aspirations of what’s possible but believed them to be activities that might indeed make God’s Kingdom palpable?
Last week, this tweet popped up in my Twitter feed:
Jesus didn’t call it “social justice.” He simply called it Love. If we would only Love our neighbors beyond comfort, borders, race, religion and other differences that we’ve allowed to be barriers, “social justice” would be a given. Love makes justice happen.
— Be A King (@BerniceKing)
There will be a lot of resistance to such preaching, I suspect. Once we start down this road, the road that actually prescribes ways to live because of faith, all kinds of warning signals start to flash and blink and we will have to decide how to navigate them. Is this works-righteousness? Is this sanctification? Or is this something else?
Remember, this is a continuation of the Sermon on the Plain. We are all on equal footing here. This is not a competition or the means by which to compare your discipleship to others. Nor, do I think, this is a mandate for living your best life now. Rather, I believe that these words of Jesus are but a vision for what is possible, for what should be were we to have Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth in mind; were we to have Mary’s Magnificat in mind.
And so, maybe we do not cast this part of Jesus’ teachings on the level plain as rules but as that which results from the song of his mother and his first sermon. In other words, we cannot NOT love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us. We cannot NOT do to others as we would have them do to us. We cannot NOT be merciful, just as God is merciful. We are not asked to or called to judge. We are asked to forgive. We are charged to imagine the measure we give as that which we will get back. Damn, this is hard work, friends.
And yet, sometimes, maybe simple rules actually matter. Maybe basics maintain the level playing field that Jesus has in mind in this address recorded in Luke. As soon as we try to magnify our own accomplishments, as soon as we insist that the Gospel allows for a kind of adjudication so as to determine that some are better than others, or that we are better than others, Jesus reminds us that we are all on the same level, the same plain. And that truth, dear friends, is both liberating and yet troubling, if we are honest.
Our impulse is to use Jesus’ words as justification for our own value and worth when it comes to adequate belief and acceptable discipleship. And yet, our perceived ability to follow Jesus’ principles is likely grandiose, most of the time. We’d like to think we can do all of these things. The truth is, we can’t. It is a leveling list. It puts us all on the same plain.
Sometimes faith can be principles by which to live. Sometimes, even, that is all we can do.