by Eric Klein. Used by permission. For Eric’s free e-book, click the image.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 ; Matthew 22:34-40

Last week, I commented – just sort of in passing – that one of the distinctive things about our Presbyterian tradition is the deep place of Scripture in our worship and our lives together. We’re not by any means the only Christian denomination that considers the Bible to be, as we say, “the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and God’s word to [us].” But there are some particulars to the way we have traditionally heard God in the Bible, and it’s those particulars that give shape to my hope for these third-graders and everyone else to whom we have given the Scriptures.

The first particular is that, at its core, the Bible tells one life-giving story. That’s not at all a unique idea. Pretty much anybody who has lived very long in a Christian culture can tell you what Jesus said to the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. To include all the details, it was: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . . Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And if they don’t get that, they’ll at least get what we call the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” Those are more than just handy bumper-sticker reminders, they’re an affirmation that the whole Bible ultimately carries one message. We certainly do believe that despite all the Bible’s difficulties and all its internal contradictions, one message of God’s love shines through.

But there’s something telling in the way people tend to remember this message as an imperative, as if the Bible were an extended Aesop’s fable with a moral about how to be good little girls and boys. Then we tend to tut-tut ourselves and each other when we’re not loving or faithful in the ways, and to the people, we care about. It’s always been fashionable for Christians to caricature the Pharisees for taking a judgmental approach to the Law, but we’ve always been far too eager to reduce the Gospel to a code of behavior that we can use to judge others.

We have more than enough of this tendency ourselves in the Presbyterian tradition. It shows up again and again in the way we often debate with each other. When we wrestled with whether to ordain women to ministry, we judged each other’s faithfulness by whether we upheld certain verses from Paul’s letters or other contradictory verses from the prophets and the Gospels. Now as we’ve argued about human sexuality for the past decades, we’ve pitted verses from Romans and Leviticus against other sayings from Acts and Galatians. Far too often, we rate each other’s faithfulness in terms of how we stack up particular imperative sentences.

At the same time, we have the remedy in our tradition. We’ve always valued the freedom to disagree with each other, not because we think anything goes, but because we know God’s word in and through the Bible is complex. We know we have to dig more deeply than the narrow meaning of any one principle. Really, we have to dig beyond commandments and ethical imperatives in general. Faith is bigger than that. As Jesus said, all the Law and the prophets’ teachings come down to loving God and neighbor. John Calvin taught that when we read the Law, our goal in reading it should be to discern the purposes of the Lawgiver (that is, God). That’s easy enough to do in the verses of Leviticus that our lectionary chose for today: “Be honest and just . . . Do not spread lies . . . Do not bear a grudge. . . .” Those clearly have everything to do with God’s desire that we live in harmony with each other.

It’s trickier when you get to the verse immediately following this reading: “Do not crossbreed domestic animals. Do not plant two kinds of seed in the same field. Do not wear clothes made of two kinds of material.” Not exactly obvious, and yet the wisdom of our tradition says to take Jesus’ summation as a lens through which the rest of Scripture makes sense. So this is either about loving God, or about loving your neighbor, or maybe both. Either way, it’s nothing to be dispensed with lightly. For what it’s worth, here’s how it makes sense: the cultural context includes the assumption that only God can mix unlike things, so for humans to mix animals, seeds, or fabrics would be to put ourselves on God’s side of the line that protects the secular world from the sacred. So it’s not a simple ethical requirement, it’s a theological statement that God is unlike us in some very important ways.

And let’s call that the second particular gift of our tradition: the insight that the Bible is not fundamentally about telling us what to do, it’s about showing us who God is. It shows us in its very nature who God is, in some profoundly complementary ways. On one hand, it shows us that God is greater, stranger, and more unlike us than we can possibly imagine. The Bible was written ages ago, far from our reality, in cultures and languages that seem desperately foreign to most of us. On the other hand, the Bible was written by ordinary human beings, primarily in everyday language, about social, political, and personal situations that we can all identify with. It presents to us a God who cares deeply about the mundane events and difficulties of our lives. God’s purposes are inscrutable because they’re so often far beyond our immediate reality and our personal concerns, but God by the Holy Spirit takes on human flesh to work out those purposes among us in Jesus and in the church.

There’s number three: the Bible’s story is bigger than any of us, but it’s always also a story for each of us. In my personal reading, I’m in the beginning of the book of Daniel. Daniel was a Hebrew exile who became the court prophet for a succession of Babylonian kings, in stories that are set 600 years before Jesus’ ministry. The stories of kings being deposed and faithful Jews being threatened with death are not about me in any obvious way. However, I can hear in them the ways that I can be similar to those proud Babylonians and hear some challenging truths in the stories. They are also about the faithfulness of God, and in that way I can read them as reminders that God is faithful in my own life as well. If we read these foreign stories without being challenged and unsettled, we haven’t read them carefully enough. And if we read these stories of God’s steadfast love without finding comfort in them, we haven’t read them long enough.

My fourth particular is that we read this book together. The Holy Spirit works in the way we come together to read through the same basic stories again and again. Every time we do, we’re bringing something different to the table and receiving something different from each other. This is a good thing because the book is complicated – not obscure or specialized so much as foreign and mysterious – and we only begin to have enough wisdom to approach it when we listen to each other. God is faithful, not only in the way these words have been written, collected, and passed down, but in the way they can continue to come alive when we hear them all over again.

God is faithful. God’s undying love for us has been poured out from the beginning of time, revealed most clearly in God’s self-offering in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and remains within and all around us in the work of the Holy Spirit. And this book is a record of that faithfulness, our unique and authoritative witness to God’s love in the body of Christ. God’s love fills this book, renews our lives, and claims everything about us. For our third-graders and for all of us, I pray that this book teaches us again to trust God’s faithfulness, to return God’s love, and to share the very best of everything with our families, our neighbors, and all the world.