Recently in a webcast, Richard Rohr offered a simple rule of thumb for discerning, evaluating, and judging the redemptive value of biblical texts. The first question to ask of any biblical text, he said, is not, "How does this text help me, save me, guide me?" Those are questions that leave the ego in charge.
The first question to ask is: What does this text say about God? How is God imaged in the text? How does the text portray God? Father Rohr says: If the God depicted and imaged in the text is operating at a level lesser than the best person you know, then you know that the text is not presenting an authentic revelation of God. If the God portrayed in that text is not as just or loving or compassionate or understanding or gracious or forgiving or kind or fair as the best person you know, then you know it can't be a reliable portrait of God.
When we read accounts of God ordering Israel to put an entire civilization under the ban-to kill men, women, children, animals, and destroy everything-we know that cannot possibly be the God of Jesus. When Jesus instructs his disciples in the Gospels to love their enemies, to pray for them and do good by them, the argument he uses is rooted in the character of God. This is how God treats those who do evil and we are to reflect God's character (see Luke 6:27-36).
Those of us who have encountered the God of Jesus know that the God of Jesus would never order genocide. Some biblical texts are human projections that reflect humankind's deepest prejudices and animosities.
The teaching value of such "bad" texts is that they show us how our prejudices, biases, fears, insecurities, and unconverted passions can shape how we see and image God. Such texts show us how easily we can be duped into using religious language to defend our egotistical attitudes and actions. Even "bad" texts have teaching value.
On the other hand, when we read texts like Matthew 5-7, Romans 8, or Luke 15 we are reading texts that reflect a highly evolved spiritual consciousness and are immensely revelatory of the nature of God.
The God imagined in these "good" texts is almost too good to be true. These texts function like breakthroughs in human consciousness having enormous potential for our spiritual development. Simply by meditating on these texts we invite the Divine Spirit to transform human consciousness. These texts lure us into relationship with a very good God and imagine an alternative world.
But most biblical texts are not that clearly distinguishable in terms of "bad" and "good." Some biblical texts incorporate both transformative and regressive elements. One such text is Matthew 25:31-46.
The transformative aspects of the passage have to do with the solidarity between Jesus and the ones described as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Those who extend mercy to this group of impoverished outcasts are welcomed into the kingdom of God. In demonstrating mercy "to the least of these" they were demonstrating mercy to Jesus.
The people welcomed into the kingdom are people who had never even heard of Jesus, but in serving the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable they were serving Jesus. Such a passage, obviously, has great redemptive and transformative potential.
On the other hand, the passage contains a hyperbolic, overdrawn depiction of apocalyptic judgment that is harsh and vindictive. Those who fail to show mercy to the disadvantaged and most vulnerable are cast into "eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" where they are banished to "eternal punishment."
The passage reveals a highly developed consciousness in terms of what constitute the heart and core of true religion, while casting this message within a framework of apocalyptic dualism that seems to endorse its most retributive elements.
Scholars have observed that several judgment texts in Matthew's Gospel are peppered with severely harsh, exaggerated retributive details. Apparently the author or perhaps an editor of the Gospel had an ax to grind.
Awareness of these various elements in the text-the good, the bad, and somewhere in between-should warn us against equating the Bible willy-nilly with the Word of God. However we may understand inspiration, the Bible is a human product. Some progressive Christians like to say that the Bible contains the Word of God. I like to say that a Scripture text can become the Word of God to us when we read it holistically, that is, critically, discerningly, and spiritually (more on that in a later blog).
I love what Burley Coulter, my favorite character in the Wendell Berry stories, says about his two young nephews, whom he practically raised after their mother died: "At first they believed everything I said, and then they didn't believe anything I said, and then they believed some of the things I said. That was the best of their education right there, and they got it from me." (A Place in Time, p. 104).
The two boys had to weigh carefully, critically, discerningly the things that Burley told them. We would do well to approach our sacred Scriptures the same way.