Your Lens for Reading the Bible
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
So a quick primer on our lectionary. For those of you who don’t know, the lectionary is our three-year schedule of scripture readings. Year A, Year B, and Year C. Though The Episcopal Church has its own little differences here and there in the schedule, mostly we follow what is called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by most major Protestant denominations. The Roman Catholics have their own schedule, and non-denominational preachers tend to choose their own scriptures for every Sunday.
So all the churches who use the Revised Common Lectionary, from American Baptists to Canadian Lutherans, are hearing the same scriptures each Sunday.
For the season after the Pentecost, or Ordinary Time, which stretches from Pentecost in the spring all the way to Advent in late fall, there are two different lectionary tracks we can use. Both tracks use the same gospel and epistle but different Hebrew Bible readings and psalms. Track 1 follows a storyline through the Hebrew Bible. Year A, which we’re in now, follows the storyline from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses—the Patriarchs, as they’re known. Year B, Track 1 follows the story of the kings of Israel, and Year C, track 1 follows the story of the prophets.
But we’re using Track 2 right now. Track 2 for each of these years does something a little different. Track 2 selects Hebrew Bible readings and Psalms through the lens of the gospel reading. So today we hear the parable of the sower in the gospel and so we get a lot of plant and nature imagery in our Hebrew Bible and psalm.
As a lot of you know by now, I’m not always the biggest fan of this. We have to be very careful reading the Hebrew Bible through a Christian lens, because it’s really easy to diminish or even erase the beliefs and faith of our Jewish siblings when we do. Our Jewish siblings do not see Jesus when they read about the suffering servant in Isaiah, when they hear “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Christians do, and that’s fine. Jesus himself cited Isaiah when speaking about his ministry.
But whenever Christians claim that Jesus fulfilled the Law and so now the Law is obsolete, we’re diminishing our Jewish siblings’ beliefs. Whenever we claim the Christian Testament as “New” and something that now trumps the “Old” Testament, we’re diminishing the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible, the central scriptures of our Jewish siblings.
So we have to be aware of our hermeneutic when we read the Bible.
Yes, hermeneutic is a fancy seminary word. I think I’ve mentioned it in a sermon before. This word essentially means—in our context—“the lens through which we read the Bible.”
If someone wants to use the Bible to justify committing genocide, guess what, they can. They need look no further than the book of Judges or all the destruction wrought in Revelation. If a husband wants to use the Bible to tell his wife that she needs to obey him no matter what, he can. Ephesians 5. If someone wanted to argue the existence of weird humanlike creatures that have four faces and four wings with the appearance of burning coals of fire, they can. Ezekiel 1.
I’m not saying these are responsible readings of the Bible. A responsible reading of the Bible takes into account the historical, literary, and social context of the scripture. Who wrote it and why? What was going on historically when it was written? What audience was that author speaking to? What purpose did it serve at the time? And what, at its heart, was the theme?
And a responsible reading of the Bible also takes into account the reader. Do you think The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. read the Bible the same way Pat Robertson did? Do you think the pope reads the Bible the same way as Desmond Tutu? Do you think you read the Bible the same way as the person next to you? I can tell you that no two people in our Tuesday Bible Study read the scriptures in the same way.
A reader who opens a Bible isn’t a blank slate. We bring our past, our fears, our hopes, our own biases, our own agendas.
Just like Track 2 of our lectionary. Track 2 is openly saying that we are reading the Hebrew Bible through a Christian lens. Which is good! It’s good to know our lens, our hermeneutic! It’s good to be fully aware of how we’re reading the Bible, why we’re reading the Bible, what we hope to get out of reading the Bible.
Hermeneutics is a term that tells us that we all read the Bible differently, because we are all different people. If we look for Jesus, we’ll find Jesus. If we look for judgment, we’ll find judgment. If we look for hope, we’ll find hope.
Which gets us—finally!—to our scriptures. And I’m here to say that I think this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans has been done dirty by what in seminary we might call a hermeneutic of certainty. This is a lens of either/or, of binaries, of sharp dualism. This lens needs something to be wrong in order for something to be right. This lens does not allow for nuance, ambiguity, complexity, mystery. This lens needs answers, and black/white answers only.
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law-- indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
I’m guessing that not a few of us cringe when we hear this scripture. Through the hermeneutic of certainty, it tells us that only the Spirit is good so the flesh must be bad. This scripture through this lens taught many of us that our bodies are inherently sinful, that our life’s work is to subdue the flesh in this life until we can finally be free of it and live in the Spirit. Through this lens, anything that makes our body feel pleasure is sinful.
Through this lens, different Christians have condemned sex, dancing, sugar, a nice glass of wine—anything that we might do or consume simply for the sake of bodily pleasure.
But I would like to invite us into a new hermeneutic—a Reverse Track 2 hermeneutic, if you will. One in which we read Paul’s letter to the Romans through the lens of our Hebrew Bible.
“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;” today’s reading from Isaiah says, “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Today’s Psalm says, “You, God, visit the earth and water it abundantly; you make it very plenteous; the river of God is full of water. You prepare the grain, for so you provide for the earth.”
It sounds to me that God is, well, pretty fond of the Earth, of Creation. God, we’re told, provides for the earth. After all, God made it. God made the mountains and hills and trees and rivers. And God made our bodies, our flesh. Do you think God shooshed the mountains and hills when their song became too pleasurable? Do you think God told the trees to quiet down when they clapped their hands from the joy of it all?
No, I don’t think Paul is telling us that our bodies are inherently sinful. How can they be? God made them. What Paul may be telling us is that seeking bodily pleasure over loving God, over being the Body of Christ, is not a faithful way of using our amazing bodies that God created.
If we turn to alcohol or sex or marijuana or whatever worldly pleasure more than we turn to God and the Body of Christ, if our bodies become more dependent on those worldly pleasures than on God and the Body of Christ, well, that’s what I think Paul means when he says “to set the mind on the flesh is death.”
That’s how I read this scripture through a creation hermeneutic, through the lens of the Hebrew Bible that tells me that God loves what God created, including this body, this flesh.
So I invite you to start becoming very aware of the lens you use to read the Bible. Are you hanging onto a hermeneutic of certainty, of “correct” answers? Maybe so much so that it makes parts of the Bible almost unbearable to you? I’ve been there.
Or are you remembering that one part of the Bible can serve as a lens for another part? That God’s joy in God’s creation can be the lens through which you read a difficult epistle.
You’ve heard me say it a million times before, but Jesus himself gave us a lens for all the scripture. On this, he says, hangs all the law and the prophets: to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Whenever I’m feeling confused about something I’m reading in the Bible, that’s my go-to lens.
Whatever lens you go to, let it be one that moves you closer to God, who is love, to Jesus, who is hope. Amen.