The Revd Brutus Green
‘The Word of God is not chained’. That, if you like, is Scripture’s warning against taking itself too literally, taking it at its word. At the end of the lesson, our reader dutiful said ‘This is the Word of the Lord’ to which we all smartly replied ‘thanks be to God’; trapping it if you like with our little collaboration of affirmation. This is the Word of the Lord, but… ‘the Word of God is not chained’. I was with one of our people this week dropping off two children at school. He jumped out to quickly sign them in before we continued on to lunch, when an attendant popped out of nowhere and on this deserted private road in front of the school moved us on 25m to the official drop-off spot. This is how the Word of God sometimes feels, like a jobsworth parking attendant hanging around unnoticed and then tutting while noting down pointless infractions; but actually ‘the Word of God is not chained’.
This approach to Scripture is much older than Christianity. The Jewish practice of how to interpret Scripture is called Midrash - coming from the Hebrew word Darash, meaning ‘to seek out’ or ‘to explore’. For millennia Rabbis have argued over texts, speculated and invented subtexts and stories that bridge and fill out the Scriptures, in a continuous attempt to get at what God is really saying. If you just imagine for a moment how much has been written on Scripture in the last three thousand years of Judaism and Christianity, the vast libraries of commentaries, sermons, stories and fables, the biblical scholarship and theological interpretations, and compare it to the relatively slim sixty-six books of the Bible, you cannot but fail to grasp that the Word of God is very far from chained.
And Midrash continues today in all media. Perhaps you have seen Cecille B. de Mille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments. Being visual, film has to interpret, and dramatically. Who knew Moses, played by Charlton Heston, and the Hebrews all looked and sounded like White American Southern Protestants? Is it surprising that bad-man Pharaoh was played by Russian Yul Brynner as the Cold War stepped up? Or, given that the Exodus story was the template for the pilgrim fathers finding the Promised Land in the New World, that Pharaoh had an English accent? Or perhaps you have seen Dreamworks’ 1998 movie, The Prince of Egypt. Multiculturalism is now evident, feminism has given us some strong female characters, the boys are all a bit metro and there’s even a nod to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Word of God is not chained.
Now there are some Christians who will tell you that the Word of God is chained in Scripture. There are other Christians who will tell you that the Word of God is chained in unchangeable liturgy, others who will tell you the Word of God is chained in the edicts of popes, bishops or councils. The Word of God is free and yet in all the church it is in chains. Chains for St Paul are a humiliation and a limitation. Why then do we let the Word of God suffer this?
When I was at university there was a Christian Union which had a rabble-rousing campaign offering postcards with the single word “certainty” on it; trying to draw in insecure and uncertain teenagers with a reassuring faith that could define everything from how to live to who your friends should be. Nigel Lawson once said that the time to be most fearful in politics is when a consensus emerges. That is when the argument ceases to be tested and a fashionable cause pushes out rigour. Well, Christianity does not want you to have certainty. This is not because God is playing some will you won’t you game in the celestial bookies. It’s because trying to understand who or what God is is a lifetime’s work. Working out how to be good and swapping your bad habits for good ones is a lifetime’s work. We are all works in progress, in thought and in deed.
I don’t blame Dawkins for not believing in god, I don’t believe in his god either. Just as I don’t believe in the god that the Spanish Inquisition believed in. I have grave doubts about the god architect of Anglicanism and Defender of the Faith Henry VIII believed in, because all of these gods seem terribly flawed. Consider how the rationalist Dawkins and murderous Henry VIII would describe god and ask yourself, do you believe in that? Perhaps we can blame their imagination, actually for the most part their gods are far too strongly outlined and coloured in, and like many gods often a cause of violence and guilt. The God we believe in is a little less bloodthirsty than that I hope, but don’t fall into the trap that you think you’ve got the right definition, that in spite of all odds you’ve finally got God nailed down. It has happened before. The Word of God is not written on a postcard. It is not chiselled in a creed. It is not contained in all the shelves of the British Library. The Word of God is not chained. But do you worry? If you cannot trust the formulas, the absolute truth of Scripture, the soul-saving affirmation of the creed, the definitive YES I’M IN of the sacraments, then how can you be sure you’ve got it right? That you’ve convinced God you’re good enough, Christian enough, to get wings and not horns?
Perhaps there’s something in what poet and priest John Keble said: “God never lets us know the result of our actions, and in one way that keeps us humble, and in another it keeps us hopeful.”
But there’s more to it than that. The separation of the in and the out, the strict boundaries of doctrine interrogated by the Inquisition, the anathemas of the creed, the winnowing of the good enough, are human constructions and not divine. Because the Word of God is not chained. My favourite verse in Scripture is from the psalms:
Whither shall I go then from thy presence? If I climb up into heaven, thou art there. If I go down to hell, thou art there also.
God is not impressed by our tribal boundaries. He is certainly not chained by them.
But what then are we to make of Scripture? How do we read it? Well the first thing to note is that Scripture is already interpreting itself. It’s already trying to persuade, to nudge. In today’s Gospel Luke writes of the one leper who turns back. Who praises God and thanks Jesus. And Luke tells us: ‘And he was a Samaritan’. We’re not told where the others were from. We don’t know what happens to any of them afterwards. So why does Luke give us this story? Because, surprisingly, it is the foreigner who praises God, it is the foreigner who has faith, it is the foreigner who acts rightly. And not any foreigner but a reviled foreigner who had lost the faith, an enemy of the Jews. In the deep South of the 60s this person would have been black, in the 80s perhaps gay? In London today maybe a scientologist? Yes. God even loves scientologists. Not only is grace surprising but it is surprising to the majority who responds to it. The Word of God is not chained and neither are the people of God.
A huge part of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel is to show that the Word of God is not chained. St Paul’s ministry of bringing the Gospel to the gentiles is the demonstration that the Word of God is not chained. But there is of course much more to Christianity than celebrating inclusion. My point with Scripture is that we need to read it freely. Even the text itself suggests that. But with this we also need to get to know Scripture better. After all it is when verses are taken out of context and when a little is known about the Bible that we hit the most troublesome waters. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There’s a reason why the pre-Reformation church didn’t allow people to read the Bible.
Scripture will always be the primary textbook of the Christian faith, but you have to cross at least 2000 years to get to it and 2000 years back to speak it afresh. This can only be done if the Word of God is unchained. The point of Scripture is to try and explain the relationship of God to the world and how we should live alongside one another. Both of these are enormous tasks without simple answers. Judaism was most remarkable because for the first time it asserted that there is only one God, that is to say that there is one God for all people. This core understanding of our faith reminds us that for all our claims on the knowledge of God and goodness, God is not chained. We cannot escape his presence but also we cannot claim to stake out his territory or define who are his people. Amen.