Reading the Scriptures three dimensionally: “Should I not be concerned about Syria?” (Year B, 1 November 2015)

Ruth 1.1–18 (Psalm 146)
Mark 12.28–34

The Lord keeps faith for ever,
giving food to the hungry,
justice to the poor,
freedom to captives…
comforting widows and orphans,
protecting the stranger… from Psalm 146

As I come towards the end of my time here at Centenary, I wonder about what to say to you. So I have a particular question in mind as we approach the wonderful readings before us today. It is this:

Do you read the scriptures as two-dimensional words, or do you read them as a three-dimensional Word?

And what on earth does that even mean?

We can read the scriptures in two dimensions, as flat words on a flat page. When we read in two dimensions, every part of the scriptures is as important as every other part. So in the Old Testament, God tells the Israelites to kill whole populations; and Jesus says ‘Love your neighbour’.

How does that fit together? In my younger years, I heard preachers saying that the Israelites killing every man, woman and child was loving their Israelite neighbour, delivering them from temptation to a life of idolatry. I was never convinced.

That’s a two-dimensional way of looking at the scriptures. It seeks to harmonise things in the Bible. But you know, it’s really not possible to harmonise everything.

Perhaps it could be that the people of Israel grew out of the idea that genocide serves God’s purposes? If so, later they may have looked back at what their ancestors did and think they were just plain wrong. Perhaps they learned to read these stories as a kind of illustration of how to deal with sin in the human heart? An illustration of how sin needs to be removed, root and branch, but not a model of foreign policy?

The truth is, the Bible is a three-dimensional library of books. There are peaks and valleys, light and shadow. There are discussions going on all the time. We need to read some parts as more central. That’s what Jesus did, after all. A scribe asks him,

Which commandment is the first of all?

A two-dimensional answer would say, Each part of the Law is just as important as all the others. How can you possibly ask which is the most important commandment?

But that wasn’t Jesus’ answer. He owned a three-dimensional view of the Law, with its light and shade, where some parts are more prominent than others. So he replies,

The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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 neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

In Jesus’ three-dimensional understanding of scripture, the most important thing is to love God with everything you’ve got; and to love your neighbour, but not with everything you’ve got—that would be a kind of idolatry—but to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

Even more, Jesus says: ‘There is no other commandment greater than these.’ No commandment greater.

Including commandments to wipe out whole tribes as the Israelites take Canaan. The commandment to love is greater than these.

So reading the scriptures in three dimensions at least means holding up these two commandments as a light so that we can see how other parts of scripture compare.

In this three-dimensional way of receiving the message of the scriptures, different writers disagree about what is right and what is wrong. The Book of Ruth can show us something about this; the story concerns the lengths that people will go to in order to keep their family alive.

(We know something about that, don’t we? People flee from war, persecution and starvation today. Our Government keeps them in detention centres offshore. And if it were the Government, the Opposition would do the same.)

Back to Ruth. When famine strikes in Bethlehem, the ‘House of Bread’, Elimelech takes his wife Naomi and sons Mahlon and Chilion to the land of their enemies. To Moab. They seem to have been allowed to settle; perhaps they had money, being economic migrants as they were. But disaster befalls them; first Elimelech dies, then Mahlon and Chilion. Naomi is left with two barren Moabite daughters-in-law. What could be worse?

One good thing: the famine at home had gone, and Bethlehem was once again the House of Bread. So Naomi returns.

She begs her two daughters to do the sensible thing and stay. Reluctantly, Orpah returns home. She’s going back to Moab, where the horrific god Chemosh requires child sacrifice—but the story accepts her decision. It treats Orpah very gently indeed; it doesn’t judge her at all.

Perhaps the author of Ruth was showing how to love a Moabite neighbour as the author loved herself?

Naomi and Ruth trudge on, not knowing what the future will bring. Will Ruth be accepted by the people of Bethlehem? Can a Moabite find a home among them?

Ruth wouldn’t have found a home in Jerusalem in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, around 530-odd BC. Ezra was a priest and a kind of public administrator who led the people back from Babylon into Jerusalem. Nehemiah was a court official, maybe a eunuch, who became governor of Judaea.

Ezra forbade mixed marriages. Men in Judaea had married women from the nations around them, including Moabites. Ezra saw that as a temptation to idolatry and decreed that all such men must divorce their wives and that they and their children would be expelled from Judaea. He said to the people gathered in Jerusalem,

You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives. (Ezra 9.10–11)

And the last verse of Ezra is, after a long list of names:

All these had married foreign women, and they sent them away with their children.

Nehemiah reinforced the security of Jerusalem by building a wall around it. That was a prudent thing to do, but it also had the effect of symbolically reinforcing the decrees of Ezra.

Ezra and Nehemiah have books named after them so what they did is right, yes?

Well, whoever wrote Ruth didn’t agree. It may well be that the Book of Ruth was written around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah in order to present a different perspective. Remember the Book of Ruth starts:

In the days when the judges ruled…

It sounds like it was set a long time ago. (A bit like Job, and do you know—Naomi is a female Job.)

The story of Ruth says that not only can a barren Moabite woman be accepted in Israel; she can also marry well, and have a son named Obed. A son who becomes the grandfather of King David himself.

In a three-dimensional reading of the Bible, some of the writers disagree with each other. We are required to interpret which way is right for our own day.

Well, you might say, we’re a democracy; majority rules! Ezra and Nehemiah against Ruth, that’s two against one. Not so fast—not only would that be a terrible, horrible, no-good way to interpret the bible, my favourite book of the whole bible is on Ruth’s side. Yes, the Book of Jonah describes a prophet who tries to run away from God because God is

a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jonah 4.2)

And Jonah would rather that God destroy Israel’s enemies in Nineveh rather than forgive them. The Book of Jonah describes a God whose love is universal. God’s last words in Jonah are:

And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (Jonah 4.11)

‘…Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?’ Wow!!

God loves this warlike people who had made Israel suffer terribly.

So what do we do in our time? For example: do we bring asylum seekers in, or do we build a wall around Australia? Should we welcome them or not?

Can we hear God say to us, ‘Should I not be concerned about Syria?’

We see that different parts of scripture are pulling us in differing directions. What do we do?

Firstly, we don’t interpret the scriptures according to the policies of the political party that gets our vote. It’s tempting to do that, but the bible knows nothing of parliamentary democracy and voting, only the kingdom of God.

What do we do? We interpret the scriptures in three dimensions. We look for where the landmarks are that can give us a clearer direction. Jesus’ words give us the direction to follow.

In fact, the best way to interpret the scriptures is to remember that Jesus is the Word, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us. We are to listen to him.

So how do we read the scriptures in a way that we obey the central command of Jesus to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbour as ourselves?

  • We do it prayerfully—remembering that prayer is more about listening than it is talking.
  • We do it putting ourselves under the authority of Jesus Christ, through the Spirit.
  • We do it together—we listen to one another, we listen to the councils of the Church and we listen to what wise people have to say.

Ezra, Nehemiah, Jonah and Ruth may or may not like what we come up with. But we can’t please all of them at the same time. If we read the scriptures two dimensionally, we may believe that we can please them all. A three-dimensional reading accepts that we can’t. And what’s more—we’re not meant to.

The scriptures are three dimensional. they’re not flat, there are peaks and valleys. We have to search out what they have to say for us in our time.

The Assembly of the Uniting Church is clear that this means processing asylum seekers rather than letting them languish indefinitely in detention centres. The Assembly believes that this can be done more justly in Australia rather than offshore. And it would be done more efficiently and much more cheaply.

Australia has been enriched by the contributions of people who came here in the past, people from Italy and Greece, from Lebanon, from Vietnam, from South Sudan.

I include my own family in this, who came to this country in 1965 on the £10 assisted passage scheme. We came as economic migrants seeking a better life here.

Ruth certainly enriched the life of Israel. Jonah showed us that God loves our enemies. Ezra and Nehemiah judged that their situation was best served by an exclusive policy. What about us? How do we respond to the stranger at our gates?

Or let’s just ask the question this way: How do we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength today? How do we love our neighbour as ourselves today?

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