Interpreting Scripture with Love – January 23
A sermon based on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 23, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Our lectionary reading needs some explanation. It is a post Exilic story. Judeans had been exiled in Babylon until Persia conquered Babylon. Persian then facilitated the exiled Judeans’ return home to Jerusalem, and set about helping them rebuild the city and the culture. Nehemiah was appointed governor to oversee the general rebuilding. Ezra was specifically chosen to lead rebuilding the religion.
Our lesson describes Ezra’s effort to unite the community as one at an all-morning long worship service centering on God through readings and interpretations of Scripture, “the Word.” While OUR worship services are significantly shorter – especially during the pandemic– like Ezra and the gathered we also center our worship services on God through readings and interpretations of Scripture. In fact, like the worship service Ezra led we also “read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.”
We are not alone, of course, many other churches and synagogues do that too. With most sections of the Bible humans need help understanding them. Often the context of the situations described, and our distance from them in time and culture can leave us baffled and even lead us astray. Even the words can be confusing. 1 .
As I mentioned, in our lesson the chief priest, Ezra is leading a worship service. The service takes place near the Water Gate. The Water Gate was not the famous hotel in Washington DC, but a gate on the newly rebuilt city wall near a common spring or well where everyone in the city was allowed to gather. This service is remarkably egalitarian in that regard, there were no restrictions to who could be there. Ezra rolled out a scroll of Torah and then read parts of it aloud to everyone at the service. Notably the words were not just put out there for people to take literally and go on with their day. The words were interpreted for rich and poor, slave and free, men and women, alien and citizen – for all– who gathered in that common area by the Water Gate.
The Jewish tradition has a long history of interpreting the words of Scripture. It’s a tradition Jesus and his followers and Paul and the early church followed. It’s a tradition that’s continued in churches, including this church. Whether we are literalists or not, even if we consider the Bible to have parabolic and metaphoric meanings, we all need help interpreting scripture. My office has walls of books filled with them. Most clergy access similar sources to help explain Bible passages.
While some folks in some churches claim they take the Bible’s words literally, they don’t really. For starters it’s unlikely anyone today fully understands ancient Hebrew and Greek, and anyone considering the Bible in English is literally considering words interpreted by translators. There are a hundred or so English translations of the Bible because the interpretations of ancient Hebrew and Greek words vary, evidencing it’s impossible in English to literally understand all the ancient verses as they were written. What we have are translations meant to give us a fair sense of what words were written.
While English translations give us a fair sense of the words, generally we need to also appreciate the context they were written in to understand meanings the words convey. The time and place and author’s intent matter. So too does our own context and our own intent when we come to the text. We can only find meaning if the verses mean something to us.
All of this understanding the Bible stuff has a fancy name, “hermeneutics.” Which basically means interpretation. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s the word we have in the English translation of our ancient text from Nehemiah. Just like in our lesson we as people of faith also take the Scripture and “read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.” The reading with interpretation in Nehemiah was, as the lesson indicates, meant to give “sense so the people understood the reading.”
We don’t know what verses or books from Torah were read and explained. But whatever was read and interpreted caused the gathered to weep. Which in turn caused the clergy to advise them not to mourn but to be good to themselves and to their neighbors. Here’s that part again:
“they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”
That summation sure sounds to me like love your neighbor as yourself which anchors our understanding of Jesus’ Way. It also sounds like seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God the three requirements Micah instructs God has for humans. It also sounds like go in peace knowing that you are loved and matter much, the words we end each service with. We can take great comfort in knowing that twenty-four-hundred years ago, after reading and interpreting scripture, clergy were summing up the word and preaching with essentially that advice. That’s not only along the lines of what we try to do in worship but gives us reason to have hope and not be grieved because the Judeo-Christian path points toward love and leads us to love, and also leads to, as the text calls it, “the joy of the Lord” which is our strength. We need to remember that.
And here’s the thing, part and parcel of that is every single time we consider Scripture we should look at it through an interpretive lens that leads us to that. Even when, as the lesson evidences, the text makes us weep we need to find the sense of love in our interpretation. Love needs to be the lens we examine every single word of the Bible with. Why? Because love is the anchor of our faith. The Bible tells us God is love. Jesus instructs that there are no greater commandments than to love God and others, AND that the law and the prophets depend on them. 2 Along those same lines Paul tells us “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 3. And, of course, Micah instructs that God has only three requirements for humankind, they are up on the wall of this church, seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Given all of that, we should look at scripture through a lens that focus on love.
Any Biblical words or interpretations that do not focus on love are not centered on the God who is love. Which means some lens than love is being used. We should not just ignore, but oppose such lack love readings. And we can tell if love is at the center if the words and interpretations are about the care and desire for the well-being of others. That’s the basic definition of love in the Bible. 4. Scripture showing what that kind of love looks like is described in First Corinthians 13, where Paul instructs:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
If anything in the Bible is read or interpreted in a manner that leads us to not be loving, it is being read wrong or being interpreted wrong. Our task when reading the Bible is to find love and to embody love in our lives, and not just in church, but out there in the world everywhere, every day. Amen.
- Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 1, page 269
- Matt 22:35-44
- Galatians 5:14
4 See, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (“Love”)
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