Good Books: Sermon offered July 9, 2017
Rev Susan A. Moran ©
Of all the great books that I have read in my life, many of them are known by only a handful of people. This may be due to my proclivity for wanting to read mysteries in which at least one of the main characters is a minister, or the fact that I really like scholarship on the first century of the common era.
I have no idea why these books aren’t more popular.
I am in the mainstream, as it pertains to my interest and admiration for the Bible, the bestselling book of all time, and perhaps, the most influential. As our reading made clear this morning, it is a collection of books that we shouldn’t ignore. We don’t want the only interpretations of the text to be in the hands of the literalists, although even the literalists interpret only some texts literally.
The bible most people are aware of contains the Old Testament, or what I call the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament, the foundational texts for Christianity. The translations vary from bible to bible but most scholars use the New Revised Standard Version, or NRSV. It is the one we used at my liberal Christian seminary. However, once friends gave me their reform and Orthodox Torahs, I realized that to read the Hebrew Bible, it seemed silly to read the Christian version, even if it is the one used by scholars.
The Hebrew bible is called the Tanakh, named after the three prominent sections of the books: The Torah, consisting of Genesis Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy; Nevim, or the Prophets, and Kethuvim, the writings.
The Torah used by most reform synogogues opens with this line: When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light.”
Contrast this with the first lines of the NRSV: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.
This may not seem like a big distinction, but the differences have theological consequences. In the Torah, it is implied that God existed before the creation of the world. In the NRSV, God and the world have the same starting point.
The Tanakh is comprised of 39 books, written over a period of about 1000 years by a variety of writers, and edited by several writers as well. The Torah contains 613 commandments, almost equally divided between actions we should take, and actions that are prohibited.
The New Testament contains the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, my order being the earliest to the latest. However, in most bibles, Matthew is the first Gospel, because his Jesus, more than the other Gospel writers, is described and portrayed as a devout Jew, and therefore, more easily accepted by the Jewish population during the early period of Christianity.
Mark was writing sometime from 60-70 of the Common Era and the Gospel of John wasn’t written until early in the second century. The New Testament also contains many letters from Paul, who was writing in the 50’s of the Common Era. These are the earliest known writings in the New Testament. It also contains other people’s letters as well as the apocalyptic treatise called Revelations, which contains one of my favorite paragraphs: This is from an address to the Christian Community of Laodicea, which is in current day Turkey: I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to vomit you out of my mouth. You say, I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing. You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” (Rev, Ch 2, vs 14-15)
Christians view the Old Testament, as sacred text; Jews do not view the New Testament as sacred text. Jews do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah they have been waiting for; Christians view Jesus as the culmination of the prophecies, law, and history of the Old Testament.
What both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have in common is the fact that God is portrayed as operating in and through history, and God is always on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the downtrodden, and forgotten. God is not apart from the world, but rather infuses the world with its presence.
Another similarity between the two collections of books is that prophets have a major role in delivering God’s message.
In the Tanakh, the section called Nevim, or the Prophets, includes the history of the Hebrews from the time Moses died and Joshua becomes leader, to the history of Israel as a monarchy, which had its peak under Solomon. The three major prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The minor prophets include Hosea and Micah, famous for his injunction to “do justice, love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)
Another minor prophet is Amos, who lived during the reign of King Jeroboam II, in the late 700’s bce (before the common era). He is from Judah, the southern Kingdom but is sent by God to Israel, the Northern Kingdom, to speak sense to the people there. On behalf of God, Amos says, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts…Take away from me the noise of your songs…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Most UU’s classify Jesus as one of the prophets, and he grew up hearing the Hebrew bible, even if he couldn’t read. Much of it was put together in the 400s bce, after the Babylonian exile. Jesus continues the message carried by the Hebrew prophets. In the Sermon on the Mount, which is found in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that the blessed include those people who are poor in spirit, pure in heart, meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn, the merciful, and the peacemakers.
Can we count ourselves on the side of the prophets? Can we count ourselves blessed? The recurring biblical theme of standing on the side of the poor, the forgotten, the sick, and the marginalized, seems too often forgotten by all of us in the developed and very wealthy western world. Could this be a reason why we don’t like to read the bible?
In the Hebrew scriptures, the themes of slavery and freedom, sin and redemption, and God’s ever present loving kindness and forgiveness are woven into the history of Israel, with the deliverance from Egypt forming the core of the sacred story. The passage from slavery to freedom, is a metaphor that can be applied to all of us. What is enslaving us now? What are we beholden to, that may feel more like a cage, than a source of our liberation?
In the New Testament, many of these themes are taken up once again, but rather than the emphasis being on God, the emphasis shifts to Jesus, and Jesus Christ. The themes of sin and redemption, death and resurrection are prominent, but there is no one agreed-upon story of the life of Jesus. Mark and John neglect to mention his birth; Matthew and Luke have different versions of it.
Much of what is written in both sets of books is hard to believe. The stories that present a more believable plot are often terribly sad and reflect humanity at its worst. In the Hebrew bible in particular, our foibles and flaws are out front and exposed for all to see. Even God’s behavior is questioned. For me, this ability to self-critique is one of the best things about the Hebrew Bible. No human is depicted as perfect. No family is exempt from extreme dysfunction. Even Jesus acts like a jerk sometimes, as with the Syro-Phoenician woman.
Oh, you don’t remember that one?
In both sets of books, women are often the protagonists, and while I would not call these good books feminist treatises, there are strong and capable women described in detail. Knowing how women were treated in the ancient near east, this alone would make the bible unusual.
If you are still thinking that none of this has anything to do with you, please know that that following phrases, used often in our culture—all have their origins in these books. A sampling includes:
Can a leopard change his spots?
Holier than thou
Strait is the gate and narrow is the way
Seek and you shall find
In the twinkling of an eye
Two edged sword
Hold my tongue
Escaped by the skin of my teeth
Absent in body but present in spirit
See eye to eye
Unto whom much is given, much shall be required
My heart is faint
The fat of the land
Let him cast the first stone
The writing on the wall
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven
How we talk and how we think has been greatly influenced by this collection of books; knowing the bible’s influence made me want to know more about what the books say. I have not read all of the books. I have read some, though, and can attest to their beauty, their challenge, their difficulty and their truth.
The bible is a collection of good books. Job is a personal favorite as the traditional theology expressed in the Hebrew bible, God looks upon us favorably and blesses us when we do good and creates chaos and havoc in our lives when we don’t, is abandoned.
In its place is a more realistic view of what happens to people in a lifetime. Bad things happen. Good things happen. Neither reflects God’s punishment or God’s blessing. If Job gives me comfort, Ruth inspires. In the Book of Ruth, a Moabite woman named Ruth is the hero. She is an outsider, a known rival to the Hebrews, and yet, she is so good that she warrants her own book, and she is part of the family tree that gives us David, and Jesus. Thus an outsider is included in the most important family tree known to humankind! The Book of Ruth contains some other favorite lines of mine: Ruth implores Naomi to not send her away, telling her mother-in-law, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. (ch 1:16).
As your minister, I have pledged to go where you go, and to accompany you as well as I can. But it is also my promise to attempt to lead us into right thinking and good living. The bible’s collection of books can help us understand the many challenges facing us; it shows us the myriad ways we fail to live up to our humanity. But it also shows us a God who Erich Fromm describes as “beyond all image, yet who works and calls us in human history to real equality, community, and personhood” (Understanding The Bible, by John Buehrens.)
This call, however any of us hear it, is what we are aiming towards in this congregation, right? The effort we make towards real equality, community and personhood for all, is an ongoing one; perhaps the good books in the Bible, can help us on our way.
Rev Susan A. Moran ©