Finding Our Way in the Word (1)
Finding the Way in the Word
Why is it important how people read the Scriptures? Because the diversity, variety and complexity of the text arises from the life that led to these documents being written in the first place. Life is divers, varied and complex. That is what life is like, and variety is what life creates. If we erase the diversity of the text, we erase its life as well. If we fear its complexity and feel unable to question what is written - challenge it, wrestle with it, argue with it, even dissent from it - then the text cannot speak to us. Its life cannot inspire us, change us, form us, fill us. We are no longer allowing the Spirit to speak to us, because we have decided in advance what the Spirit must say. And we are no longer able to find the Way in the Word, because we are not listening with the whole of ourselves.
Finding the Way in the Word is like going for a swim in a natural pool. As I wade out into the middle of the pool, my feet stir up the mud on the bottom and within a few moments the water is opaque with sediment. I do not want to swim in mud, so I am tempted to wade back to the shore. But if I remain still, waiting, the sediment settles to the bottom again, the water clarifies around me, and I can see its freshness, lightness and beauty. Now I can believe that this water gives life wherever it flows. Now I want to swim.
Finding the Way in the Word requires me to listen with the whole of myself. With my heart as well as my head. With my imagination as well as with my reasoning mind. It requires me to build space and silence into my everyday routines, and to become comfortable with them. It requires me to quieten my mind and let go of my fears so that I can descend within myself to the still centre where my spirit is touched by the Spirit of God. Finding the Way in the Word is careful, discerning listening not just to what the words are saying, but to the dynamics they contain and convey. Find the Way in the Word means learning to listen, not just for the meaning of the text, but for the life that it is investing in me. I am listening for the life in the Word, so that the Word can become the Bread of Life for me.
All too often we prioritise other qualities, such as holiness, righteousness and judgement, on the grounds that these are also expressed in the Scriptures, ignoring how Jesus himself Scripture to reveal the nature of God. Jesus accepted the eternal validity and authority of the Hebrew Scriptures: he did not regard every word of them as being equally authoritative.
On the contrary, his approach was to identify those principles on which the Scriptures were built and then push them to an extreme, but all the while refusing to legislate on the detail. In any situation, this approach enabled him to grasp the essential issues while at the same time, allowing him maximum flexibility in the way that those principles were applied. Or, to put it another way, he retained maximum freedom of action while knowing that he was staying true to the heart of God.
Where Jesus criticised other peoples’ interpretations, he did so on the grounds that they got themselves so tied up in the minutae of observance that they ended up ignoring the founding principles. When he was tested or questioned, his habitual response was to ask, in effect, “Look, what is really important here?”. And if the issues were not immediately clear, he went on to ask, “What is God like? What is his basic nature? And so, if that is what God is like, what do you suppose God wants you to do?”
So for Jesus, the kingship of God was exercised, not through angry judgement, criticism and condemnation, however justified, but through compassion, grace, mercy, understanding, forgiveness, affirmation and healing. God graded the road to allow the lowliest, weakest, most fragile soul to make progress along it. Yes, there is a place for discernment and wisdom; for dealing directly with people when their attitudes are damaging us or others; for confronting the sources of injustice; for protest, resistance and even, on occasion, revolt. Nevertheless, Jesus’ envisaged the kingship of God as unmistakably and recognisably benign. And he saw God’s dealings with humanity as an ongoing, creative negotiation between parties who each fulfilled their essential responsibilities, rather than as despotism or imperialism expressed in sub-christian terms.