A lot of the time when we read the Bible we come away even more confused than we did going into it. For a ‘Christian manual’ it makes all the sense of an instruction diagram in an IKEA flat pack. (Hang on why does screw 163758 look exactly the same as 384912? Why does that weird cartoon alien guy still look happy doing this? I think the cupboard’s done… wait what’s that weird noise and where is the cat?)
Take Jesus instructions to the rich young ruler to sell all his junk? Wait, so we have to sell all our stuff to follow Jesus? Or when Jesus tells us to not hit someone back but to let them have another swing? (Because you know one black eye just looks odd?) Take off all my clothes and give them to some guy….O….K….Jesus.
There is undoubtedly a lot of weird stuff in there but many of our problems with understanding what it means come from the idea that it’s simply an instruction manual rather than what it actually is. A massive collection of books, documents and letters written in different styles by different people over thousands of years.
Of course it doesn’t make sense a lot of the time then. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something important to say to us now. When we read all the scriptures in exactly the same way, when we read them without understanding what Jesus meant when He used certain words or turns of phrases, when we fail to read it understanding what these words meant to ancient Jewish people living in the middle East as they were intended and not to a group of middle class people in the West and when we fail to see the beauty that lies underneath.
No wonder so many people find the Bible cold and boring.
I mean who’s interested in reading a manual anyway? (Actually I know a lot of very smart people who enjoy reading manuals. Jesus loves them too).
The reason I believe we aren’t very good at understanding some of the more complicated parts in the Bible is that we aren’t very good at being creative or using our minds and because when our posture is usually, how do I follow what it says, we miss out on what is often going on, under the surface.
So when Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, is there something deeper here than just non retaliation. As Rob Bell puts it, is this really about that? Are we called to just sit and take it as if this in some magical way is going to change our oppressor? Or is this about subverting power in a peaceful way?
Put some sort of link to Rob or Brian’s explanation on this
Let’s have a look at another example of Jesus saying something confusing.
In Matthew 5 v 27 and 28 Jesus tells his listeners that what they think they know about adultery being bad isn’t the whole picture. He does something strange and goes even further and tells them that they are not even to imagine another woman or man in a sexual way. To do so, is to already commit adultery in your “heart”.
Now many of us have read this passage wrong and have somehow come away with the idea that if we lust after someone, we have committed adultery already. It’s as good (or as bad) as doing it for real. Jesus immediately tells us that if we do lust after someone, it would be better for us to gouge out our own eyes or to cut off our own limb (or get someone to help if you accidentally cut off the arm you use first) if it causes us to sin. It would be much better to lose a couple of body parts than to have our whole bodies thrown into Hell.
Strangely we don’t take these words literally but find it easy to take what Jesus says about lusting being as good as adultery, at face value. Perhaps, because unconsciously we don’t want to address the pain we carry and are more consumed with appearances.
To come away with this idea is to miss the bigger point that Jesus is making though. This is far bigger and goes much deeper than the legalistic manner in which we have interpreted this passage.
To understand a little better what Jesus is saying, let’s look at another time Jesus talks about adultery. In Mark 7 v 22 He gives a list of things that people do that are evil
sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.
Pretty strong words if you happen to be killer who enjoys a bit of follying on the side.
But what all these things have in common is not that they are an exclusive list of horrible sins but that each of them requires us to be selfish in some way. All of these require us to steal life from someone else, in the search for some sort of need we feel we need to fill in ourselves.
If you have taken in part in any of these activities you have lost a little bit of what it means to fully human, to be fully alive and fully appreciative of the beauty in the world.
You are someone not at peace with yourself or others.
So Jesus point isn’t simply that lust is as bad as adultery, but that lust is a sign that we feel an emptiness inside of ourselves that causes us to go searching for things that we think will help.
Sometimes for things that aren’t ours. For people and food and technology or Burritos that will never satisfy us.
Or that if we don’t murder someone, but are still angry we have allowed ourselves to be consumed by hatred and when we live with this outlook on life and people, the only person we are really killing is ourself.
Jesus words about lust and adultery aren’t a threat that we could go to Hell. But a light shining on our lives that might just show that we’re already there.
At one point, Jesus even tells His followers that their righteousness needs to be better than the Pharisees. For the Pharisees everything was about appearances and how they looked. Did people fear them, did they hold a certain perverse power of control over people by holding them to standards they couldn’t keep themselves?
The Pharisees were essentially egocentric. The point of following rules for them wasn’t freedom or love but to make sure people realized they weren’t dirty sinners like the rest of us.
But Jesus approach is dramatically different. Jesus says what we do isn’t the most important thing.
Jesus view extends it to be about how our actions can destroy or tear down people. His is about adultery leading to an inability to love others and to serve others. Where true life and love is found in how we treat the poor. From wanting someone so much that it causes us to lose all our perspective, distracting us from enjoying life all the way to how we make policies that hurt the most vulnerable in our society because it makes us richer?
So these “instructions” are doing something far more radical than telling us what criteria we need to fulfill to get into Heaven. They are telling us what it will look like for us to be fully human, fully alive, now, where we live, who we live with and wherever we go. Where real life, peace, joy and freedom reside.
And how we can help others find that for themselves.
And to do that we need eyes to see and arms to embrace.
So let’s not start cutting off body parts we’re going to need.