January 24, 2010
Kathleen Norris writes about a conversation she had with a wealthy rancher named Arlo. He told her about his grandfather, who had been a deeply religious man. As a wedding gift, Arlo’s grandfather gave him a Bible, which Arlo admired because he knew it was expensive. It was bound in white leather and had the names of Arlo and his bride along with the date of the wedding set in gold on the cover.
Arlo said, “I left it in its box and it ended up in our bedroom closet, but for months afterward, every time we saw grandpa he would ask me how I liked that Bible. The wife had written a thank-you note, and we’d thanked him in person, but somehow he couldn’t let it lie; he’d always ask about it.”
So finally Arlo got curious about this Bible and pulled it out of the closet. “Well,” he said, “the joke was on me. I found that granddad had placed a twenty-dollar bill at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, and at the beginning of every book–over thirteen hundred dollars in all. And he knew I’d never find it.”
Then Arlo started talking about how much money he could have made on interest if he had found the cash sooner. “Thirteen hundred bucks was a lot of money in them days,” he said, shaking his head.
I would venture to guess that Arlo’s grandfather had hoped Arlo would find more in that Bible than the thirteen hundred and twenty dollars.
The poet who wrote Psalm 19 tells us that law of the Lord, the precepts, commandments, ordinances of the Lord—which we find in the scriptures—are more to be desired than gold. In other words, if it were a choice between reading Genesis or pulling out the 20-dollar bill that marked its place, Arlo would have been better off reading. Ditto for Exodus, Leviticus, and even Numbers—all the way through Revelation.
The law of the Lord is more to be desired than gold. Arlo did not believe it. But it seems like the Israelites in today’s scripture reading did believe it.
I think this story that Nehemiah tells is absolutely amazing. You have a group of people, hundreds of people, all the people, gathering together not to listen to a concert or watch a show, but to hear the scriptures read. Ezra must have been utterly delighted. It is usually the preacher who tells the people that they will now listen to the Bible reading. But here it is the people who tell the preacher to bring out the scrolls and start reading.
Ezra begins reading: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” And on through Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.”
The five books of the law of Moses. The Torah. And “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law” from early morning until midday. Amazing.
Of course, this is not just a straight read-through of the scriptures. A good reader could probably keep a crowd engaged through the narrative-rich books of Genesis and Exodus, maybe even Leviticus. Those books contain plenty of Hollywood-worthy bloodshed, sexual intrigue, and amazing phenomena–the flood, the burning bush, the plague of frogs. But once the reader hits Numbers . . . even the most dynamic speaker is likely to loose the audience.
But this scene we have in Nehemiah is not just Ezra standing in front of the people reading.
As a side note, let me say that the lectionary reading for today actually leaves out the two verses that contain lists of names. On the one hand I understand that people may not like to listen to—or have to pronounce—all of those names. On the other hand, these people whose names are listed are an integral part of what is happening here in the square before the Water Gate.
We need to know that it is not just Ezra reading the scrolls, but that Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah are milling around, helping people understand what is being read. This is one huge marathon of a Bible study. I’ve never seen anything like it!
As I consider this story in light of how we tend to relate to scripture today, I think it has a lot to teach us.
For one thing, we should read the scriptures in big chunks; long passages. The proof-texters have it wrong. You do not faithfully engage the scriptures by pulling out a verse or two and wielding them like swords in battle. Holding up a John 3:16 sign at a ball game just doesn’t cut it.
If you look at the history of our cultural use of the Bible, you can see that when people use the Bible to oppress others, they almost always pull out proof texts—in favor of slavery, against inter-racial marriage, against women in ministry, against homosexuality.
Friday’s on-line Journal World had a poll asking if it is OK to put scripture references on weapons. Apparently some people are understandably upset about rifle scopes supplied by Trijicon Inc. for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that have Bible verse references engraved along side the model numbers. One person posted some suggestions of scriptures they could use: Love your enemies; Thou shalt not kill . . .
So to say proof-texters have it wrong is not to say that a brief passage in the Bible cannot contain a deep truth; it is to say that we have to hear and understand the entire context of what we are reading before we decide what that truth is.
Our story from Nehemiah also gives us a clue as to how we can strive to understand the scriptures more faithfully. We understand the scriptures in community. We have a pastor—I hope. And we have those who stand on her right and on her left. We have those who mill around, helping people understand. And surely the people in turn ask questions and provide insights that help the pastor and the teachers better understand as well.
Anabaptists believe that scripture is always and only faithfully interpreted in community. The historical community, the scholarly community, the gathered community. Yes, the Holy Spirit may reveal truths during times of private scripture reading, but those revelations should be further discerned in the community before they are fully accepted.
I would assume you are all with me so far. Proof-texting is bad. Community is good. Isn’t it nice to come to church on Sunday and have the pastor say a bunch of stuff you agree with and assure you that we have it right and those “other people”–we know who they are—have it wrong?
Let me tell you one more thing this passage teaches us about scripture. It is indeed God’s gift to God’s people. And because the scriptures are a gift to us from God, we should seek them out. We should read them ourselves—since we now have nice bound books and do not have to mess around with heavy, awkward, expensive, scrolls. We should ask others to read them to us and with us. And when we read or hear words from the Bible, we should be attentive. We should pay attention.
The words of scripture should move us to lift up our hands and shout “Amen! Amen!”. They should humble us into kneeling and putting our faces to the ground. They should cause us to weep with grief over our sins and then to rejoice and have parties because of God’s amazing grace and love for us.
The Bible that you have, maybe on your bedside table, maybe in your closet, is more than just a binding and some really thin pages with ink. Arlo’s Bible was more than the thirteen hundred and twenty dollars he pulled out of it. This book that you have—that I hope you have—is different from the other hundreds of books that line your bookshelves.
When Augustine heard the words “take and read,” he did pick up the Bible and read. His life was never the same again.
This is the book that made Dirk Willems, a 16th Century Anabaptist, turn back to rescue the prison guard who was chasing him.
This is the book that forced Deitrich Bonheoffer’s opposition to the Nazi’s, an opposition that eventually led to his execution.
This is the book that led Dorothy Day to open the first Catholic Worker House in New York City, taking in homeless people off of the streets.
This is the book Oscar Romero read every day as he spoke out for the rights of the poor in El Salvador.
And we know, from Joe’s sermon last week, that Martin Luther King Jr.’s actions were driven by the Bible.
Your Bible is different form the other books that line your bookshelves. It is the word of God. It is a gift from God.
This is the book that so many cling to when a loved one dies: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
This is the book that comforts us in times of disaster and fear. An NPR reporter was getting ready to interview a vendor in Haiti when a van ran into a pole. You could hear the people screaming all around because they thougth it was another earth quake. The reporter said that the Haitian people fear the very ground they walk on. And I imagine many are clinging to the words of the psalmist:
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging. (Psalm 46:1-3)
The scriptures are God’s gift to us. They are, indeed, more to be desired than gold. May we listen to them attentively. May we interpret them faithfully. May we receive their blessings with joy.