A 16th century mosaic at basilica Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy
When reading scripture, sometimes I find it difficult to really determine the message's meaning — what's the take-away? Many times at my men's Friday breakfast, after reading the selected gospel passage for the week, we'll look at each other and say, "What?!" We'll discuss further and realize that we can come up with two or three possible meanings for what Jesus was saying. With our group, it's often at least as many meanings as there are guys around the table — usually more.
I don't think it's that we're dense. (Well, maybe sometimes.) Even Jesus' disciples often didn't get what their master was talking about. "But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it." (Mark 9:32) Sometimes Jesus seemed plain frustrated when the disciples didn't understand him: "Do you still not understand?" (After feeding the four thousand: Mark 8:21), and "Are you still so dull?!" (When they didn't understand a parable: Matthew 15:16.) I guess we can be forgiven when we don't readily understand.
I can get that same feeling of being dense when I read bible commentaries and writings of theologians. Those familiar with these Reflections know that I read and quote a lot from German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He seems to give me insights I've missed and perspectives that simply make sense. Frequently, I have to read his words a number of times to understand what he's getting at. Sometimes I even give up, "You're really way over my head, Dietrich."
But, recently I read a selection from my daily Bonhoeffer readings, and the meaning just jumped out to me — clear as day. There was no, "what's he saying?" or reason to even wrestle with the writing. I usually don't include such long passages, but I thought this one worth it. It's from A Testament to Freedom.
The Loving Church: A church of faith — even if it the most orthodox faith that faithfully adheres to the creeds — is of no use if it is not even more a church of pure and all-embracing love.
What does it mean to believe in Christ who was love and still be full of hatred yourself? What does it mean to call Christ one's Lord in faith and not do his will? Such faith is not faith at all, but hypocrisy. It is of no use to us for us to confess our faith in Christ if we have not gone first and reconciled ourselves to our brothers and sisters — even to the godless, racially different, ostracized, and outcast.
And a church that calls its nation to faith in Christ must itself be the burning fire of love in this nation, the driving force for reconciliation, the place in which all the fires of hatred are extinguished and prideful, hate-filled people are turned into people who love.
Our Reformation churches have accomplished great things, and yet it seems to me that they have not yet succeeded in doing this greatest of all things. Today it is more necessary than ever.
Doesn't seem to take much thought to understand what Bonhoeffer is saying. I doubt whether even a dozen people reading this would disagree about the meaning. And it is blunt! Our church may be the most true to the creeds; but, if it is not a loving church (inwardly and outwardly) and doesn't show all-embracing love, It Is Of No Use! Wow! Do we dare ask whether our own church is love-embracing? There's not much room here for discussion. The answer isn't of an essay-type. It's Yes or No. True or False.
Blunt talk! Am I a follower of Christ? I have to respond by answering another question: "Am I full of hatred?" Do I have faith in Christ? Again, the answer is the same as the answer to another question, "Do I do His will?" And, again, the answer is a binary one: "Yes or No." I don't like this binary either/or stuff. I prefer things more both/and, or, "Yeah, but, ..." Give me some wiggle room. Let's talk about this. Can we discuss this one? Most likely, when I want to take time and discuss, or think about it, what I probably really want to do is avoid dealing honestly with the question. But, Bonhoeffer says (and maybe Christ does too), "Answer now! Yes or No!"
And what about that church and its preacher who screams from the pulpit, "We have to become a Christian nation again! America has lost its way — the church has to get our country back to its Christian roots!" Inspiring words and a call to action. But, is that the same church that has a burning fire of love? Is it a religious body that is the driving force for reconciliation … the place where fires of hatred are extinguished? Oh my. This is almost too-blunt a sermon, Dietrich. Don't hold us to this strong a standard! Let's form a study group.
This blunt talk reminds me of something similar from the Apostle Paul. It's in that chapter of First Corinthians, the one we often call the "Love Chapter" (1 Corinthians 13). We like to think of it as warm and fuzzy, the tender kind of passage for a wedding. But, if we really read it, it's about as blunt as the Bonhoeffer passage.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, RSV)
Oh my! I didn't want this love passage to be so blunt; it should be warm and comforting. I can speak like an angel; but, if I don't have love, I am a noisy gong. Can we talk about this, Paul? What if we just compare ourselves with those other people? But, no, Paul says. You either have love or you're a clanging cymbal. But, Paul, I am a person of great faith; I think I would even lay down my life for others. And, the writer about love seems to reply, "But, if you don't have love ... you are really nothing."
No, it doesn't take a mental giant, a biblical scholar to understand Paul's blunt talk. There doesn't seem to be more than one way to take this. We don't need a six-week bible study to get it. Well, maybe a bible study to examine ourselves and discuss implications and how we might change. But, the meaning of Paul's words? Maybe five minutes, max.
And Jesus, meek and mild. Lover of souls. The gentle one who says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28, NIV) Hear also these words of that same Jesus:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'
Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-46, NIV)
What a wonderful passage! Let's read it again — all together. We will be moved by Jesus' inspiring words! The Master's words might bring a tear to the eye. ... But, wait! Unless we're sure we are the sheep here, this is not an uplifting, comforting passage. Jesus, like Bonhoeffer and St. Paul, is about as blunt as he can be. It's another of those most difficult either/or things. Either I am a sheep, or I am a goat. Either I see Christ in the hungry and needy, or I don't! This isn't one of those explaining myself things. Sheep or Goat! And, then (and this is too blunt), either I will go away to eternal punishment, or I will go to eternal life.
I like bible study. I enjoy discussing passages with others and trying to find meaning … sometimes new meaning. I spent many years studying the bible and teaching classes on the bible. I find it helpful to research the historical setting of the stories to see what the passage might have meant to those hearing it thousands of years ago. I realize, too, that there may be several equally valid interpretations of the meaning of various passages — even of the words and stories of Jesus.
I think it's important in studying scripture to understand what some of words and terms meant in the original Greek or Hebrew. Knowing that can shed light and help focus in on the actual meaning of the text. It can be helpful, too, to read other accounts. Sometimes the way the gospel writer Luke describes a certain story can give some nuance of meaning not noticed in Matthew's gospel. Even a different bible version can use words that shed light on what was just read.
But, I need to realize, too, that some passages of sacred scripture really aren't up for interpretation. The culture of the biblical day doesn't always give a perspective on the meaning that might not be obvious just reading the words. The original Greek may say it exactly as does the English translation. Although healthy discussion may often give meaningful insight, sometimes our discussion simply keeps the topic in some heady, philosophical realm that prevents us from hearing the frank reality of the words. We'd rather avoid the plain, blunt talk.
No, I'm not fond of this either/or, binary thinking. I like to wrestle with scripture, discuss it. But ... I'm not fond either of thinking that I might be a goat. ... Or a dreadful "clanging cymbal!" When pressed though, I hope when I read blunt words, I do get the blunt talk.