People of the Way

Following Jesus

People of the Way
Monday, January 21, 2019

Church historian Diana Butler Bass has brought new light to forgotten or misconstrued elements of Christianity. Today I share some of her research on what early Christians thought it meant to follow Jesus:

Throughout the first five centuries people understood Christianity primarily as a way of life in the present, not as a doctrinal system, esoteric belief, or promise of eternal salvation. By followers enacting Jesus’s teachings, Christianity changed and improved the lives of its adherents and served as a practical spiritual pathway. This way—and earliest Christians were called “the people of the Way”—bettered existence for countless ancient believers. . . .

Christian defenders, such as Justin Martyr (ca. 100–ca. 165), used the example of Christian practice to make the case that Jesus’s way “mended lives”:

We who formerly . . . valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies . . . . [1]

To Justin, the old ways had passed; a new way opened in Jesus. Far from being divisive, Christianity was an inclusive faith that might bring diverse peoples together. However one interpreted the effects of the new faith, both enemies and defenders of Christianity understood that the new religion transformed people, giving even women, peasants, and slaves a meaningful ability to reorder their lives.

The way was based on Jesus’s teaching recorded in Mark 12:28-34. An unnamed questioner asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” and Jesus responded with what is now called the Great Command: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Loving God and neighbor was, according to Jesus, the way of the Kingdom of God and the path of salvation. In the account of this teaching in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus adds, “do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). . . .

Jesus’s followers took these words seriously. In many cases, and unlike contemporary practice, the process of becoming a Christian took several years, an extended time of teaching spiritual inquirers the way on which they were embarking. Christianity was considered a deliberate choice with serious consequences, a process of spiritual formation and discipline that took time, a way of life that had to be learned in community. . . .

In many quarters Christian communities are once again embracing the ancient insight that the faith is a spiritual pathway, a life built on transformative practices of love rather than doctrinal belief.

References:
[1] Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 14, as quoted in Rowan Greer, Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church (Pennsylvania State University Press: 1986), 13.

Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (HarperCollins: 2009), 27-30.

Image credit: Crucifixion (detail), Georges Rouault, 1937.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: What does it mean to follow Jesus? I believe that we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified Jesus to soften our hearts toward all suffering, to help us see how we ourselves have been “bitten” by hatred and violence, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us. —Richard Rohr

New Wineskins

Following Jesus

New Wineskins
Sunday, January 20, 2019

Jesus said, “People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” —Matthew 9:17

Christians have often preached a Gospel largely comprised of words, attitudes, and inner salvation experiences. People say they are saved, they are “born again,” yet how do we really know if someone is saved? Are they actually following Jesus? Do they love the poor? Are they free from their ego? Are they patient in the face of persecution?

It’s not enough to talk about some kind of new inebriating wine, some new ideas. Without new wineskins—changed institutions, systems, and structures—I would argue that transformation cannot be deep or lasting. As Dorothy Day (1897–1980) often said in her inimitable Kingdom style, “Nothing is going to change until we stop accepting this dirty, rotten system!” Personal “salvation” cannot be divorced from social and systemic implications.

It’s easier to talk about the wine without the wineskins, to talk about salvation theories without any new world order. Unfortunately, Christianity has not always had a positive impact on Western civilization and the peoples it has colonized or evangelized. So-called Christian nations are often the most militaristic, greedy, and untrue to the teacher we claim to follow. Our societies are more often based not upon the servant leadership that Jesus modeled, but on the common domination and control model that produces racism, classism, sexism, power seeking, and income inequality.

That’s not to say our ancestors didn’t have faith, that Grandma and Grandpa were not good people. But by and large we Christians did not produce positive change in culture or institutions that operated differently than the rest. Christianity has shaped some wonderfully liberated saints, prophets, and mystics. They tried to create some new wineskins, but often the church itself resisted their calls to structural reform. Take for example the father of my own religious community, Saint Francis of Assisi. He was marginalized as a bit of a fanatic or eccentric by mainline Catholicism, as illustrated by no Pope ever taking his name until our present Pope Francis.

Even today many Christians keep Jesus on a seeming pedestal, worshiping a caricature on a cross or a bumper-sticker slogan while avoiding what Jesus said and did. We keep saying, “We love Jesus,” but it is more as a God-figure than someone to imitate.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Bookser Feister, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (Franciscan Media: 1996), 30-31.

Image credit: Crucifixion (detail), Georges Rouault, 1937.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: What does it mean to follow Jesus? I believe that we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified Jesus to soften our hearts toward all suffering, to help us see how we ourselves have been “bitten” by hatred and violence, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us. —Richard Rohr

Jesus and the Bible: Weekly Summary

Jesus and the Bible

Summary: Sunday, January 6-Friday, January 11, 2019

Just as the Bible takes us through many stages of consciousness and history, it takes us individually a long time to move beyond our need to be dualistic, judgmental, accusatory, fearful, blaming, egocentric, and earning—and to see as Jesus sees. (Sunday)

Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalist texts in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. (Monday)

The narrow, rational/literal/historical approach to Scripture idealizes individual conformity and group belonging over love, service, or actual change of heart. (Tuesday)

Jesus is a biblically formed non-Bible quoter, who gets the deeper stream, the spirit, the trajectory of his Jewish history and never settles for mere surface readings. (Wednesday)

Jesus omits troublesome verses with which he does not agree, as when he drops the final half verse from the Isaiah scroll when he first reads in the Nazareth synagogue. The audience would be familiar with the final line of Isaiah 61:2: “to proclaim a day of vengeance from our God.” Yet Jesus ends earlier with “proclaims the Lord’s day of favor.” (Thursday)

Offer a prayer for guidance from the Holy Spirit before you make your interpretation of an important text. With an open heart and mind, seek the attitude of a beginner and learner. (Friday)

 

Practice: Sacred Reading

Throughout the Gospels, in Jesus’ reading of the Hebrew Scriptures we see him masterfully connect the dots and discern where the sacred text is truly heading, beyond the low-level consciousness of a particular moment, individual, or circumstance. Jesus knows there is a bigger arc to the story—one that reveals a God who is compassionate and inclusive.

The Spirit teaches any faithful person to read Scripture (and the very experiences of life) with a gaze of love. Contemplative practice helps us develop a third eye that reads between the lines and finds the thread always moving toward inclusivity, mercy, and justice.

The practice of lectio divina is a contemplative way to read short passages of sacred text and discover meanings running deeper than the literal layer.

  • With the first reading of the sacred text, listen with your heart’s ear for a phrase or word that stands out for you.
  • During the second reading, reflect on what touches you, perhaps speaking that response aloud or writing in a journal.
  • After reading the passage a third time, respond with a prayer or expression of what you have experienced and ask yourself what this passage calls you to.
  • Finally, after a fourth reading, rest in silence.

I invite you to practice lectio divina with Jesus’ own reading of Scripture in the synagogue:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” —Luke 4:16-21

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus’ Use of Scripture (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), CD, MP3 download.

For Further Study:
Richard Rohr, Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus’ Use of Scripture (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), CD, MP3 download

Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008)

Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with the Bible? (CAC Publishing: 2018)

Image credit: Raising of Lazarus (detail), Duccio di Buoninsegnia, 1308–1311, Kimbell Art Museum.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do,” or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than “sola Scriptura.” —Richard Rohr

Beginner’s Mind

Jesus and the Bible

Beginner’s Mind
Friday, January 11, 2019

I’d like to offer some spiritual advice so that you can read Scripture the way that Jesus did and use it for good purposes.

Offer a prayer for guidance from the Holy Spirit before you make your interpretation of an important text. With an open heart and mind, seek the attitude of a beginner and learner. Pray as long as it takes to feel any certitudes loosen.

Once you have attained some degree of openness, try to move to a position of detachment from your own egoic will and its goals and desires—to be correct, to be secure, to stay with the familiar. This might take some time, but without such freedom from your own need for control, you will invariably make a text say what you need and want it to say.

Then you must listen for a deeper voice than your own, which you will know because it will never shame or frighten you, but rather strengthen you, even when it is challenging you. If it is God’s voice, it will take away your illusions and your violence so completely and so naturally that you can barely identify with such previous feelings! I call this God’s replacement therapy. God does not ask and expect you to do anything new until God has first made it desirable and possible for you to do it. Grace cannot easily operate under coercion, duress, shame, or guilt.

If your understanding of Scripture leads you to experience any or several of the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)—I think you can trust that this interpretation is from the Spirit, from the deeper stream of wisdom.

As you read, if you sense any negative or punitive emotions like morose delight, feelings of superiority, self-satisfaction, arrogant dualistic certitude, desire for revenge, need for victory, or a spirit of dismissal or exclusion, you must trust that this is not Jesus’ hermeneutic at work, but your own ego still steering the ship.

Remember the temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:3-10). Three temptations to the misuse of power are listed: economic, religious, and political. Even Jesus must face these subtle disguises before he begins his public ministry. Only when he has found freedom from his own egoic need for power can Jesus teach with true inner authority and speak truth to the oppressive powers of his time.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with the Bible? (CAC Publishing: 2018), 52-54.

Image credit: Raising of Lazarus (detail), Duccio di Buoninsegnia, 1308–1311, Kimbell Art Museum.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do,” or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than “sola Scriptura.” —Richard Rohr

The Law Says . . . But I Say

Jesus and the Bible

The Law Says . . . But I Say
Thursday, January 10, 2019

Today we will continue looking at the way Jesus used the Scriptures with some specific examples:

  • He openly disagrees with Scriptures that emphasize non-essentials and “mere human commandments” that made their way into what are presented as divine commandments (see Mark 7:1-23 and almost all of Matthew 23).
  • He consistently and openly flouts seemingly sacred taboos like not working on the Sabbath, not meeting with women, not eating with sinners and non-Jews, not touching lepers, and purity codes in general. He is shamed and criticized for ignoring: sacred hand washing (see Luke 11:38, for example); taboos against touching the dead, unclean people, and unclean foods; and the practice of stoning women adulterers. Jesus has Jewish common sense and can never be called a legalist or a “conservative.” In fact, he is accused of being a libertarian and a non-ascetic, instead of following the strict fasting of John the Baptist and his disciples (see Matthew 9:14).
  • Jesus reduces the 613 clear biblical commandments down to two: love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40).
  • He minimizes or even replaces commandments, as when he tells the rich young man that it is all fine and good that he has obeyed the Ten Commandments, but what he really needs to do is sell everything and give the money to the poor (see Mark 10:21).
  • He omits troublesome verses with which he does not agree, as when he drops the final half verse from the Isaiah scroll when he first reads in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:18-19). The audience would be familiar with the final line of Isaiah 61:2: “to proclaim a day of vengeance from our God.” Yet Jesus ends earlier with “proclaims the Lord’s day of favor.” There he goes again, light and easy with the sacred text! Good Protestants would call that “selectively quoting” and pious Catholics would call it “cafeteria Catholicism.”
  • Jesus uses Scripture in rather edgy ways to defend people, like when he says that David went into the temple and took the loaves of offering to feed his troops (Mark 2:26) or tells the story of the poor man who works on the Sabbath to get his donkey out of a ditch (Luke 14:5). His general principle seems to be summarized in his famous line that “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This sounds a lot like what many Christians would today call “mere humanism” or “situation ethics.”
  • Jesus feels free to reinterpret the Law—for example, when he says, six times in a row, “The Law says . . . but I say” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48).

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with the Bible? (CAC Publishing: 2018), 46-49.

Image credit: Raising of Lazarus (detail), Duccio di Buoninsegnia, 1308–1311, Kimbell Art Museum.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do,” or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than “sola Scriptura.” —Richard Rohr

Jesus’ Hermeneutic

Jesus and the Bible

Jesus’ Hermeneutic
Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Jesus’ approach to interpreting sacred text was radical for his time, yet honored his own Hebrew Bible (or what Christians call the Old Testament). Even though Jesus’ use of Scripture is plain enough for us to see in the Gospels, many Christians are accustomed to reading the Bible in a very different way. We simply haven’t paid attention and connected the dots! Over the next couple days, I’ll share some examples that reveal Jesus’ hermeneutic so that we might follow his methodology:

  • Jesus actually does not quote Scripture that much! In fact, he is criticized for not doing this: “you teach with [inner] authority and not like our own scribes” (Mark 1:22).
  • Jesus talks much more out of his own experience of God and humanity instead of teaching like the scribes and Pharisees, who operated out of their own form of case law by quoting previous sources.
  • Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do” (see Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:12, and Luke 5:31), or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31). His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than sola Scriptura. He even quotes some sources seemingly incorrectly (for example, John 10:34)!
  • Jesus never once quotes from nineteen of the books in his own Scriptures. In fact, he appears to use a very few favorites: Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Hosea, and Psalms—and those are overwhelmingly in Matthew’s Gospel, which was directed to a Jewish audience.
  • Jesus appears to ignore most of his own Bible, yet it clearly formed his whole consciousness. That is the paradox. If we look at what he ignores, it includes any passages—of which there are many—that appear to legitimate violence, imperialism, exclusion, purity, and dietary laws. Jesus is a biblically formed non-Bible quoter who gets the deeper stream, the spirit, the trajectory of his Jewish history and never settles for mere surface readings.
  • When Jesus does once quote Leviticus, he quotes the one positive mandate among long lists of negative ones: “You must love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with the Bible? (CAC Publishing: 2018), 44-46.

Image credit: Raising of Lazarus (detail), Duccio di Buoninsegnia, 1308–1311, Kimbell Art Museum.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do,” or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than “sola Scriptura.” —Richard Rohr

Many Ways of Knowing

Jesus and the Bible

Many Ways of Knowing
Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Unknown to many post-Reformation Christians, early centuries of Christianity—through authoritative teachers like Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, and Gregory the Great—encouraged as many as seven “senses” of Scripture. The literal, historical, allegorical, moral, symbolic, eschatological (the trajectory of history and growth), and “primordial” or archetypal (commonly agreed-upon symbolism) levels of a text were often given serious weight among scholars. These levels were gradually picked up by the ordinary Christian through Sunday preaching (as is still true today) and presumed to be normative by those who heard them.

These different senses of Scripture were sometimes compared to our human senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching, which are five distinct ways of knowing the same thing, but in very different “languages.” After both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Western Europeans reduced our ways of knowing to one for all practical purposes—the supposedly rational/literal/historical. We have largely compacted and limited the Bible to this single sense for several centuries now, in both its Catholic and Protestant forms. Our bandwidth of spiritual access to the Bible was consequently severely narrowed, it seems to me—and as many would say—to the least spiritually helpful level. That something supposedly literally happened in one exact way, in one moment of time, does not, of itself, transfer the experience to now, me, or us. I believe that such transference is the transformative function of any spiritual text.

The narrow, rational/literal/historical approach largely creates an antiquarian society that prefers to look backward instead of forward. In my experience, it creates transactional religion much more than transformational spirituality. It idealizes individual conformity and group belonging over love, service, or actual change of heart.

Literalism was discredited from the beginning of the New Testament through the inclusion of four Gospel accounts of the same Jesus event, which differ in many ways. Which is the “inerrant” one?

The earlier centuries of Christianity were much closer to the trans-rational world of Jesus and his storytelling style of teaching (which does not lend itself to dogmatic or systematic theology). The Gospel says, “He would never speak to them except in parables” (Matthew 13:34). The indirect, metaphorical, symbolic language of a story or parable seems to be Jesus’ preferred way of teaching spiritual realities.

Almost all of Jesus’ parables begin with the same phrase: “The Reign of God is like. . . .” Jesus fully knows he is speaking in metaphor, simile, story, and symbol. But in recent centuries, many Christians have not granted him that freedom, and thus we miss or avoid many of his major messages. We are much the poorer for it.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with the Bible? (CAC Publishing: 2018), 9-12, 14-15.

Image credit: Raising of Lazarus (detail), Duccio di Buoninsegnia, 1308–1311, Kimbell Art Museum.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do,” or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than “sola Scriptura.” —Richard Rohr

Midrash

Jesus and the Bible

Midrash
Monday, January 7, 2019

More than telling us exactly what to see in the Scriptures, Jesus taught us how to see, what to emphasize, and also what could be de-emphasized or ignored. Beyond fundamentalism or literalism, Jesus practiced a form that the Jewish people called midrash, consistently using questions to keep spiritual meanings open, often reflecting on a text or returning people’s questions with more questions. It is a real shame that we did not imitate Jesus in this approach. It could have saved us from so many centuries of righteousness, religious violence, and even single-issue voting.

Rather than seeking always certain and unchanging answers, the Jewish practice of midrash allows many possibilities, many levels of faith-filled meaning—meaning that is relevant and applicable to you, the reader, and puts you in the subject’s shoes to build empathy, understanding, and relationship. It lets the passage first challenge you before it challenges anyone else. To use the text in a spiritual way—as Jesus did—is to allow it to convert you, to change you, to grow you up as you respond: What does this ask of me? How might this apply to my life, to my family, to my church, to my neighborhood, to my country?

While biblical messages often proceed from historical incidents, the actual message does not depend upon communicating those events with perfect factual accuracy. Spiritual writers are not primarily journalists. Hebrew rabbis and scholars sometimes use the approach of midrash to reflect on a story and communicate all of its underlying message. Scripture can be understood on at least four levels: literal meaning, deep meaning, comparative meaning, and hidden meaning.

The literal level of meaning doesn’t get to the root and, in fact, is the least helpful to the soul and the most dangerous for history. Deep meaning offers symbolic or allegorical applications. Comparative study combines different texts to explore an entirely new meaning. Finally, in traditional Jewish exegesis, hidden meaning gets at the Mystery itself. Midrash allows and encourages each listener to grow with a text and not to settle for mere literalism, which, of itself, bears little spiritual fruit. It is just a starting point.

Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver. [1] This statement from Aquinas was drilled into me during seminary. People at different levels of maturity will interpret the same text in different ways. There is no one right way to interpret sacred texts. How you see is what you see; the who that you bring to your reading of the Scriptures matters. Who are you when you read the Bible? Defensive, offensive, power-hungry, righteous? Or humble, receptive, and honest? Surely, this is why we need to pray before reading a sacred text!

Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalist texts in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. For example, referencing two passages from Exodus (21:24) and Leviticus (24:20), Jesus suggested the opposite: “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you . . . turn the other cheek” (see Matthew 5:38-39). He read the Scriptures in a spiritual, selective, and questioning way. Jesus had a deeper and wider eye that knew which passages were creating a path for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, and legalistic additions.

References:
[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 75, 5. Original sentence: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . .: Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013), x-xi; and

Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus’ Use of Scripture (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: Raising of Lazarus (detail), Duccio di Buoninsegnia, 1308–1311, Kimbell Art Museum.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do,” or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than “sola Scriptura.” —Richard Rohr

You must leave “home” to be wise

You must leave “home” to be wise
Epiphany
Matthew 2:1-12
Length: 10:42
File Size: 15 MB

Download “You must leave ‘home’ to be wise” MP3.

What Do We Do with the Bible?

Jesus and the Bible

What Do We Do with the Bible?
Sunday, January 6, 2019
Epiphany

For all its inspiration, for all the lives it has changed, the Bible is undeniably problematic. Put in the hands of egocentric, unloving, or power-hungry people or those who have never learned how to read spiritually inspired literature, it is almost always a disaster. History has demonstrated this, century after century, so this is not an unwarranted, disrespectful, or biased conclusion. The burning of heretics, the Crusades, slavery, apartheid, homophobia, and the genocide and oppression of native peoples were all justified through the selective use of Scripture quotes.

So, what are we supposed to do with the Bible? Today’s meditation will be a bit longer than usual to begin addressing this question. And we’ll spend the rest of the week unpacking what Jesus did with the Hebrew Scriptures—the only Bible he knew.

My general approach is to change the seer and not to change the text. Only transformed people can be entrusted with inspired writings. They can operate in a symbiotic (“shared life”) relationship with words and are unlikely to use the Bible to exclude and shame others or as a rationale for their bad behavior.

The Christian’s goal is to be transformed by the renewing of our mind into the mind of Christ (see Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:16; and Philippians 2:5). That is why I try to read the Bible the way Jesus did, following Jesus’ hermeneutic (a method of interpreting sacred texts). Just as we are trying to do with this year’s Daily Meditations, Jesus was a master of winnowing the chaff from the grain (see Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17) and “bringing out of the storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).

The Bible is an anthology of many books. It is a record of people’s experience of God’s self-revelation. It is an account of our very human experience of the divine intrusion into history. The book did not fall from heaven in a pretty package. It was written by people trying to listen to God. I believe that the Spirit was guiding the listening and writing process. We must also know that humans always see “through a glass darkly . . .  and all knowledge is imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Prayer and patience surrounding such human words will keep us humble and searching for the true Living Word, the person of Jesus, which is how the Spirit best teaches (1 Corinthians 2:10,13)—through living exemplars. This is surely what it means to know “contemplatively.”

When history finally gets to the Risen Jesus, there is nothing to be afraid of in God. Jesus’ very breath is identified with forgiveness and the divine Shalom (see John 20:20-23). If the Risen Jesus is the full and trustworthy unveiling of the nature of God, then we live in a safe and love-filled universe. It is not that God has changed, or that the Hebrew God is a different God than the God of Jesus; it is that we are growing up as we move through the text and deepen our experience. Stay with the Bible and with your inner life with God and your capacity for God will increase.

Just as the Bible takes us through many stages of consciousness and history, it takes us individually a long time to move beyond our need to be dualistic, judgmental, accusatory, fearful, blaming, egocentric, and earning—and to see as Jesus sees. The Bible itself is a “text in travail,” according to René Girard’s fine insight. [1] It mirrors and charts our own human travail. It offers both mature and immature responses to almost everything. In time, you will almost naturally recognize the difference between the text moving forward toward the mercy, humility, and inclusivity of Jesus and when the text is regressing into arrogance, exclusion, and legalism.

References:
[1] René Girard, “Generative Scapegoating: Discussion,” Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation, ed. Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly (Stanford University Press: 1987), 141.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with the Bible? (CAC Publishing: 2018), 7-8; and

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 12-13.

Image credit: Raising of Lazarus (detail), Duccio di Buoninsegnia, 1308–1311, Kimbell Art Museum.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do,” or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than “sola Scriptura.” —Richard Rohr

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