john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Luke 18 - Our relationship with Scripture

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion, 17/10/2010

    2 Timothy 3.14-4.5, Luke 18.1-8
    But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3.14-17]
    What is your relationship with scripture?

    If you took hold of a bible from the pew in front of you this morning, what would you be thinking and feeling about the book in your hand?

    Your relationship with scripture has probably changed over the years. I'm thinking about my own scripture-life story.

    I was brought up in a Baptist church, where the preaching and teaching of the Word of God was central, crucial, to our Christian life. The bible is so important in that church that each service begins with a short procession: out of the vestry come the minister and elders of the church, but the first thing which comes out is a big leather-bound bible, and when the door opens and the elder holding the bible steps into the sanctuary, the congregation stand. It is a powerful statement of how important the scriptures are to that community of Christians. Our own communion service has an echo of that when we all stand to hear the gospel reading: it's a similar thing.

    I really valued the teaching I received from ministers and youth leaders in those early years; they 'unfolded the sacred writings' to me in a way which meant these words would always be alive for me.

    As I grew up I started listening to other voices too, people with different angles on the bible stories I thought I knew, people who challenged me to go back to scripture and reread it because it contained even more wealth than I'd realised before. People whose readings of scripture challenged me about how I should apply what I knew to how I lived.

    After all, there's no point knowing about the scriptures if you ignore what they say - they 'instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus'. They 'instruct you for salvation': tell you how to live God's way.

    I was especially challenged by teachers who showed me that the scriptures open up to us the image of a God who has a real passion for justice - justice based on a deep concern for the protection of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.

    The scriptures which had excited me about the power of the creator God; the scriptures which had introduced me to some of the heroes of faith - David, Solomon, Jesus, John the Baptist; the scriptures which had instructed me about how to live in unity with other Christians through the teachings of Paul; now these scriptures began to speak to me about a God who was alive and active in the affairs of the world and deeply devoted to justice and righteousness, demanding these things of those who follow him.

    As I grew more and more towards becoming a minister, and in the 12-15 years in which I've been planning and leading services, I've seen another side to the scriptures - how they are there to help us in our devotions to God; the scriptures are full of hymns and songs of praise, which we use each week in our worship: the psalms especially, and many other passages of scripture too - they are what we use to help us tell God what we think of him, in thanksgiving and praise: 'Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever'.

    And passages of scripture are also what we use to ask God what we need of him, tell God when we're doubting him: 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?', 'O Lord, do not withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and faithfulness keep me safe for ever'.

    How do you engage with scripture today? How have you, over the years?

    As a child engaging with scripture meant being taught bible stories by people I still remember vividly, warmly and with thanksgiving for they shared with me.

    As a keen young Christian engaging with scripture meant for me a strict routine of daily reading, and sometimes added to that, of writing down my own responses to what I'd read.

    Later on, engaging with scripture was more about reading it together with others, talking, debating, arguing through what we were reading: in bible study groups, in conferences, in college.

    And increasingly engaging with scripture, for me, was about experiencing the power of it in worship, feeling those words live as they are addressed back to the God who first inspired them.

    But always, engaging with scripture had to be about letting the words on the page affect my behaviour, taking them all seriously enough to change the way I thought and lived. I hope that I still do: however poor I am at doing it.

    What is your relationship with scripture?

    If you held a bible in your hand this morning, what would you be thinking and feeling about that book?

    Today's gospel story can be read as a parable about two very different people with two very different relationships with scripture, and how this affected the way they behaved.
    Jesus said, 'In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent." For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming."' [Luke 18.2-5]
    The judge - what was his relationship with scripture? He would have been steeped in a knowledge of scripture as it was the foundation-stone of the law which he arbitrated, the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - the founding legal and ethical religious texts of Judaism - the scriptures on which the law was based. And yet this judge is described by Luke as a man 'who neither feared God nor had respect for people', and that must make us wonder whether he was taking any sort of notice of the scriptures at all.

    Even a cursory glance at the Five Books of Moses should persuade any reader that the scriptures demand of everyone a fear of God and a respect for people. But the judge had neither, as his behaviour towards the widow shows.

    The widow - what was her relationship with scripture? It would appear that this woman, whose social position was among the poorest and most vulnerable in society, also knew her Torah, and believed what it said about protecting the likes of her from ruin - believed this so much that she persisted in asking the judge for justice against her opponent.

    Jesus didn't say what her legal case was about, but commentators suggest that it was a money matter, maybe about her inheritance rights, something which would be crucial to her, and urgent too: she would need that money to survive.

    Jesus didn't say why the judge was so reluctant to grant her a hearing but commentators suggest that maybe this corrupt official had received bribes from the woman's legal opponent, or maybe that opponent was an influential person, someone in the same social circles as the judge, who he would be biassed towards helping.

    Jesus didn't himself say anything about how we should 'read' this parable which he told. Luke wants us to receive it as a parable about persisting in prayer, but that makes God out to be like the unjust judge, and that poses problems for us.

    Perhaps we should take Jesus's parable as a story which instructs us about our relationship with the scriptures. Are they collections of words which we know very well but choose to ignore so that we can live however we like; or are they passages which carry great power for us because believing them we can be confident in our faith and in choosing to live in the light of what they say to us, we can challenge those who hurt or harm us, we can confidently call on God for help, guidance and direction - and we can call on others for justice?

    This week, let us rediscover for ourselves a living, breathing relationship with the scriptures we hold in our hands.

    The exposition of the parable here is my (very feebly-stated) interpretation of William Herzog's chapter 'Justice at the Gate?' in his revolutionary work, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed pp.215-232.