Many of us who grew up in a Christian context have a sort of passing familiarity with Holy Scripture. We spent time in bible classes, Sunday school, Vacation Bible School; many of us had a children’s bible, and most of us have some familiarity with some of the more memorable stories in scripture – – what I like to call God’s Top 10:
Garden of Eden
Parting of Red Sea
Walls of Jericho
David and Goliath
Three Wise Men
Sermon on the Mount
These stories seem to serve us well during our childhood but usually at some point in our adulthood (or maybe adolescence), we find a need to actually pick up a bible and start reading it ourselves. And when that happens, we often find ourselves in a state of disillusionment.
● The story that we called “Noah’s Ark” as children has now become “the Flood”, and maybe we are a bit concerned about why God killed all those people. What exactly had they done to deserve that?
● The triumphal story of the Walls of Jericho — how many of us in Sunday school marched seven times around the “city” that our Sunday school teacher made? — that story is now set within a longer and more troubling narrative about conquest and aggressive war.
● Even the Crucifixion — which as children seemed like a distant event that involved, perhaps, momentary pain and death and was always linked with the Resurrection — the Crucifixion takes on a whole new tenor when viewed with adult eyes, eyes that have seen what hatred can do to the human body.
All of this is just a long way of saying that our adult understanding of the Bible is altogether more nuanced than what we were taught to believe as children. And that’s okay – – these stories all have deep religious and often historical truths that can be understood even when they are reduced down to the level of a children’s bible. And of course there is merit in sparing our young ones from the violence and difficult questions that are present in our reading of the text. But sooner or later, we as adults need to start taking a fresh look at scripture, so that we can learn for ourselves what the bible means, and what the bible means to us. And when we take those first steps, we usually run into a problem when we reach verses like tonight’s gospel. No the salt-of-the-earth part or the city-on-a-hill part – – those are easy. I’m talking about that other part. The “I come not to abolish the law” part. Many of us were taught that the law that is laid down in the Old Testament, or more specifically the Torah, doesn’t apply to Christians. So we come into difficulty when we hear Jesus Christ say, entirely plainly, “Not one letter, not even one stroke on one letter will be abolished.”
Now, I do want to tell you that many theologians and other Very Smart People have proposed various solutions to this problem that you might find satisfying. And I will give you one too, but later, and you can decide if I’m right or not. But even if you can “explain away” this passage, there are other contradictions and surprises for us in the Bible. For instance, you might be reading your bible one day and come across Romans 3:28, where Saint Paul says “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” And you think, “Good. Justification by faith apart from works. Very cool, very Protestant, Martin Luther would be proud.” And then the next day you pick up your bible and turn to James 2:24 and read “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” Oh. So Paul says “faith alone” and James says “Not by faith alone.” Oh.
Please understand that I’m not trying to undermine your faith in scripture by pointing these things out. If you read scripture, you’re going to find inconsistencies like this all around. If I were of a fundamentalist bent I could come up with an explanation about every perceived inconsistency and show you how there really are no inconsistencies. But many of those explanations are quite extreme and I’ve never found them reassuring.
So, why does the good book have inconsistencies? The answer is that the Holy Scriptures are a true and faithful record of humanity’s relationship with God – – it is not God himself. God does not live in a book. God did not send this book, fully written, into the brains of fragile humans who obediently copied them down. God inspired the bible – – he gave his spirit to those who wrote the book and to those who read it. It is a living book, a treasury of how the people of God have responded to God’s love over the course of thousands of years. It’s not an instruction manual that will give you the easy answers on who God is and what God wants us to do. It is a witness to the ongoing work of God’s faithful people as they respond to the love of God that is in our world.
If we see Holy Scripture as the record of an ongoing relationship between God and humankind, then we can stop being bothered by inconsistencies and start looking forward to them. These inconsistencies are areas where we find ourselves surprised – – usually because the people in the stories are surprised. They are finding out that God doesn’t always act in the way that we expect; and we are learning that same lesson. In fact, as our faith becomes more mature with time, we can start to really appreciate the fact that God is bigger than our own expectations of him. As you page through the Bible, you can begin to see God interacting with people who respond to God in a variety of different ways. Each story of the Bible points toward a different way of responding to God. Noah answered God’s call with obedience. Job was angry with God and demanded answers. Moses was terrified of God and God’s plan. Joshua trusted in the Lord above all others. King David exulted in God and promised to build him a temple. The Virgin Mary said “yes” to God’s difficult calling.
The Wise Men trusted in the mystical manifestations of God: the star, and the vision of God in their dreams. Peter loved God, and also denied him. Paul persecuted God’s church, and later became an apostle. Stephen boldly spoke God’s truth, and was stoned to death. So, I did promise to give you an explanation about Jesus’ teaching on the law. Actually, if you check closely it says “the law and the prophets.” That refers to the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, which in the Jewish world is divided into three categories: Torah, the law; Nevi’im, the prophets; and Ketuvim, the writings (that’s the books like Job, Psalms, Proverbs, etc.).
What Jesus is saying is that nothing in the Holy Scripture is to be set aside. The Old Testament is not just about dietary laws and ritual rules about sacrifice. It is, as we noted, the record of humanity’s relationship with God. And Jesus is telling us that although he is creating a new relationship, the old relationship will still continue. Jesus is not wiping the slate clean and starting over (like in the flood story). Jesus is working within the tradition and relationship that humankind has already developed toward God. Jesus is honoring and defending humanity’s relationship to God. Jesus is God who became human, for the sake of humans, to honor and sanctify our lives, and to bring humanity’s relationship with God to a new kind of closeness. That relationship continues in each of our lives, and it will continue forever – – even after we die, we continue to grow closer to God and to know God as we are known by God.
Let the church say Amen.