Here are my thoughts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13, James 1: 17 – 27, and Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, 21 – 23.
There is a set of shows on the History Channel entitled “Banned from the Bible”. Along with another series, “Who Wrote the New Testament?” they provide an interesting insight into the development of the Bible.
In “Banned from the Bible”, scholars discuss books and manuscripts that were written but which were not considered, for a number of theological and historical reasons, not appropriate for the Bible. This discussion includes those books that are included in what is called the Apocrypha. But the discussion is not limited to books that somewhat fall in the period between the Old and New Testament; they also include books written after the beginning of the new Christian Church and include what have become known as the Gnostic Gospels.
What I find interesting and pertinent to today’s message is that the discussion amongst men about what should and should not be in the Bible provides an interesting counterpoint to those who say that the Bible is the divine inspiration of God. I am not saying that God’s hand was not in the writing of the various books of the Old and New Testament. But if mankind is going to argue and discuss what is to be included, what does that say about this idea of biblical inerrancy?
While there are also those who use these discussions to put forth their own hypothesis that the crucifixion was a hoax and Christianity is a two thousand year old hoax, with cover-ups and conspiracies galore, these same discussions tell me of people trying to put into words what their faith means to them and how they are going to explain their faith to others. And in the end, those who developed the Bible some two thousand years ago came up with a document that must be read in its entirety, not in parts. They came up with a document that was coherent in its thought that God cared for us and we are to care for others.
And that makes at least two of the readings for today very interesting. Someone, or a group of people, many years ago developed what we called the common lectionary. It was later revised into what is called the “revised common lectionary” (duh!), which is what I have used for most of the past fifteen years. It provides an Old Testament reading, an Epistle reading, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading for each Sunday of the Christian Year. If you follow the lectionary, over a three year period, you will cover every book in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
In the present part of the lectionary (Year B), the Old Testament reading is from the Song of Solomon. This begins a series of readings from Proverbs, Esther, Ruth, and Job; books that stand out for the lack of the mention of God or, in the case of Job, for the confrontation with God in a time when people followed God.
There are those who argued for the exclusion of Esther because there was no mention of God. But the story of Esther is a description of the redemption of God’s people and God’s hand is seen in the story, even if He is not part of the story. Similarly, the Song of Solomon only contains one reference to God and virtually no prayers, or references to worship or piety.
And some commentaries indicated that, because of the explicit and sexual nature of the writing, many ancient and modern Jewish sages forbade any man under the age of thirty from reading the book. This probably also applied to any woman who could read. But we all know that human nature requires an examination into those things which we are told to stay away from.
If the Bible is story of whom God is and what God does, then the Song of Solomon provides us a description of what God desires for us. The Song of Solomon provides an example of how we are to live in happiness and fulfillment.
But when we hear descriptions of the Old Testament, we often hear of a God of wrath and anger, of war and violence, of retribution and revenge. We hear very little about the love of God for us and how we are to love each other. We have forgotten what was written in this book and if we know anything about love, it is the physical part of love and not the emotional part or communal part.
Similarly, the Book of James has its critics as well. When he was preparing the first German translation of the Bible, Martin Luther wanted to keep James out of the Bible. James speaks of the works of the person and there are those who proposed this meant that you could work your way into heaven. Luther was like Paul in saying that it was God’s grace that provided our salvation and our work did little to earn that salvation.
There are quite a few people in this world today who still hold onto this view, that it is what they individually do that ultimately decides whether or not they get into heaven. But in verse 22, James writes that those who have not heard the word are only deceiving themselves. If the words of Christ are not part of one’s life, then one’s actions are meaningless. If you do not believe in what you are doing, then your actions have no meaning.
James’ words only have meaning when they are taken with the other words of the Bible; if you do not love your fellow man it is very difficult to think that you love God as He loves you. And just as we tend to forget the Song of Solomon, we also tend to forget James when we say that all is necessary for admission into God’s Kingdom is an acceptance of Christ as your Savior.
If you say that you are a Christian and you haven’t accepted Christ, then you are a hypocrite. If you say that you have accepted Christ and your works do more harm than good, if you do not walk the extra mile or give the person without a coat your coat, if you keep your riches instead of giving it all away, then you deceive yourselves. As James wrote, “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act” will be blessed in their doing (verse 25).
We have forgotten too much of the Bible. We remember the war and the violence; we highlight selected verses that justify segregation and repression but we forget that the Bible must be seen as a whole, not in parts. And while there is war and violence in the Bible, there is love. There is the love of two people for each other, there is the love of people in a community for the members of the community, and there is the love of a Father for His Children, a love expressed when He sent His Son to be our Savior
We can acknowledge that love but it requires a clean heart and a clean mind. We cannot, as Jesus proclaimed in the reading from Mark for today, abandon the commandment of God for human traditions. We cannot control the environment outside if our insides are not cleansed of the evil and sin that exist there.
When you look at the sins that Jesus says comes from the heart (fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly) and you look around at the words and actions that fill the air today, you know that he spoke the truth. The words and actions of too many people speak of what is truly in their hearts. The actions of too many people in the debate over health care belie a nation that says that they are Christian. It speaks of a nation that has forgotten not only some of the books of the Bible but the words of the entire Bible, of words that speak of caring for your fellow man, your neighbor.
We can read the Bible from cover to cover and perhaps even memorize all the words. But unless we take those words into our heart and make them part of our lives, the words are simply smears of ink on a piece of paper. Those words will have no meaning unless we also accept Christ as our Savior, opening our hearts and minds to the cleansing power of God’s love, a power that will transform our lives and our presence. We may have forgotten that love is a part of the Bible and that our work must be in response to that love. But God did not forget; that is why He sent His Son. We have the opportunity today to make a change in the world, but only if we make the change in our lives.