Reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus

<Easter 5 2014
1 Peter 2:11-25
Marian Free

In the name of God, whose love and inclusiveness provide a lens through which to read our scripture. Amen.

One of the problems with the Bible and with religious literature of other traditions is that it can be used in a variety of ways to support a number of different points of view. For nearly nineteen centuries the bible was used to justify and to continue the practice of enslaving people. Some texts were used to support the argument that those with dark skins were a different and more base form of humanity than those with white skin and therefore were created to serve others. Other texts, including 1 Peter seemed to imply the biblical expectation that slavery was a normal aspect of human society. Up until the mid twentieth century and beyond 1 Peter and other texts have been used by some to justify violence against women and the domination and abuse of children.

Religious texts can be used by those who are mentally unstable, cruel or hungry for power to dominate and manipulate the vulnerable, the easily led and those on the margins of our society. The bible can also be used to support and maintain the status quo even when it isolates, limits or marginalises sub-sections of society and reinforces the power of a few.

It for this reason that it is imperative that as many of us as possible should be biblically and theologically literate. It is why it is important to try to understand the social, cultural and political climate in which the bible was written as well as the different styles of writing that were employed to write it.

While we might like to think otherwise, faith and culture are often very closely intertwined. One example is the practice of slavery. In the first century a staggering 30% of the population of the Empire were slaves. Not only was slavery an integral part of the social fabric, it was in some instances a means of social advancement. Many slaves held positions of authority – as managers of estates, as agents (representatives) of their owners and so on. It was possible for a slave to amass wealth, own property and receive an education. They could buy their freedom, but many chose to remain slaves and to hold onto their social position. While slavery was often cruel, demanding and debasing, Paul and his contemporaries probably could not have conceived of a world without slavery and so did not try to build a society without it. That said, the gospel impacted on this practice in a number of ways, not least of which was the demand that slave owners who were believers would treat their slaves with respect. Paul further makes the radical claim: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Seventeen hundred years later this statement gave some biblical force to the argument for emancipation for slaves (and two centuries later still for the full inclusion of women in the workforce and in the life of the church.)

The culture in which the bible was written affects what was recorded, conversely it is important to note that the culture in which we find ourselves also impacts our understanding and interpretation of scripture. Those of us who were born prior to 1960 have clear memories of being given a new hat every Christmas so that we could wear it to church according to Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:5. Few of us remember exactly when and why the practice of wearing hats to church stopped, but we know that by the mid-sixties it was no longer expected Sunday dress. Intriguingly, a practice that for centuries was defended by reference to scripture quietly disappeared with no discussion or fanfare.

There are countless examples of the ways in which culture affected the writing of scripture and at least as many examples of the ways in which our interpretation and understanding has been refined over the centuries that have followed.

It is for this reason that we need to use caution when trying to make sense of passages such as that in 1 Peter today. Among other things, the author urges us to: “accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13,14). Paul likewise exhorts those in Rome to: “be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1-7). In their original context such exhortations made perfect sense. Judaism was well understood and respected in the Roman Empire whereas emerging Christianity made little sense. As long as those who believed in Jesus sheltered under the umbrella of Judaism, they benefitted from the privileges afforded Jews which included freedom of association.

In the year 49 CE Nero expelled the Jews from Rome. Christians who were not Jews remained but they no longer enjoyed the protection afforded by the synagogue. In Romans 13, Paul is advising the community not to draw attention to themselves, but to stay under the radar so that they would be allowed to continue the practice of their faith. I don’t imagine for one moment that Paul, who writing in the first century, thought that two thousand years later his words, which related to a very specific context, would be applied literally by a very different nation in a very different time. (That is that German scholars would have developed an understanding of Romans 13 which would allow German citizens to believe that they owed allegiance to a government which exterminated six million of Paul’s fellow Jews). Nor do I imagine that the author of 1 Peter thought that God would empower leaders to engage in such wholesale destruction.

Some knowledge of context makes it easier to interpret difficult passages of scripture, but even without that knowledge it seems to me that there are some basic principles that we can apply when we read the bible. The God revealed by Jesus is one who cares for the vulnerable and the marginalised. This God does not seek authority and power but, in Jesus, gives himself completely for others. The God revealed by Jesus does not impose laws that hurt, but gives us commands which set us free. The same God places love at the centre of all that we do and turns upside down cultural values and expectations replacing authority with service for example.

If we read scripture through the lens of the God revealed by Jesus, we will look for evidence of God’s inclusive, forgiving and all embracing love and we will know and expect that the bible will show us how to extend that love to those around us, and that it will teach us to to build up and not to break down those who do not have the advantages that birth, nationality or education have bestowed upon us. We will not use the bible to dominate, exclude, abuse or judge, but rather to serve, to include, to offer love and to show compassion.


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