Jesus Authoritatively Trumps Contradictions in the Bible

a sermon based on Mark 1:21-28
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 1, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I heard about this brand new preacher who placed a whole pitcher of water next to the pulpit for his first service. His first sermon lasted a long time and as preached he poured and drank water until there was none left in the pitcher. After the service someone asked an old farmer in attendance what he thought of the new pastor? The farmer thought for a moment and said “Well, I’ll tell ya, he’s the first windmill I ever seen run by water.”

Preachers are often full of windy sermons, some might even say hot air. You, of course, are quite lucky in that regard, never having to worry about it. In Jesus’ day apparently not all scribes – another name for lawyers – who were preaching were like that. In fact the lesson we just heard indicates that unlike Jesus the scribes in the story didn’t preach with authority.

Aren’t you glad that you all lucked out in that regard too . . .you know with my authoritative preaching? I am going to be honest and confess that as you can see in local letetrs to the editor there are actually folks who would disagree that I preach with authority, because I believe Jesus’ commandments and teachings to love supercede anything including contrary Biblical texts.

And, see, a lot of Christians think authority only comes from understanding the Bible’s words in the same Fundamentalist manner that they understand it–which usually considers all the words in the Bible to be inerrant and infallible and meant to be read literally (interpreted their way of course). There’s a great deal of irony in that sort of thinking, because both Jesus and Paul and the early church founders went out of their way to assert that some of the Bible texts don’t have to be followed. In other words, scripture was not unquestionably considered inerrant, infallible or literal to the founders of our faith– that’s a very modern tradition.

In fact the Jesus movement and early Church itself thrived and grew in great part because it did not follow unloving Biblical mandates, like exclusive cleanliness practices regarding food and circumcision; or rules about divorce or outcasts or even punishments. Jesus himself rejected religious washing rituals, marriage laws, restrictions on touching outcasts, Sabbath rules and even Biblical punishments. For example, in Matthew 5 (38-42) Jesus quite famously rejects the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” edict from Exodus 21.

Every time I hear a Christian quote that Old Testament passage in support of revenge or retributive justice I want to ask them if Jesus’ words are exempt from literalism or are fallible or errant when he tells his followers:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. . .”

That’s Jesus in the Bible directly challenging a Bible passage in a way that leaves absolutely no room for revenge or retribution. I want every single Christian who’s tried to force feed oppressive violent punitive passages on anyone they claim is an evil doer to explain why this teaching of Jesus does not apply to their lives and their beliefs and the officials their churches support and help elect to office.

The Old Testament verse authorizing retribution and revenge has been 100% completely reversed. It’s been X-ed out of the canon as valid. It’s been declared errant and fallible by no less than Jesus. It is literally not true. If we take seriously Jesus’ command in this example then we cannot take literally the errant Old Testament command to seek or take violent revenge. Indeed, under Jesus’ teaching we are mandated to give wrongdoers non-violent love. And this is paramount, as Jesus also made it clear as a bell that loving God and our neighbors are the greatest commandments. Right?

We may not like to hear that, we may want the “eye for an eye” thing, we may want to not love our neighbors, but the teaching of Jesus clearly does not authorize that conduct or belief. That’s in the Bible. We get it from no less an authority than Jesus Christ.
Jesus is our ultimate authority as Christians. Right? He is, as Marcus Borg put it, “the decisive revelation of God for Christians.” 1 Judaism and Islam find the decisive revelation of God in books, the Torah and the Qur’an. That works well for them, but, we don’t find the decisive revelation in a book, but rather in the person Jesus. Nothing in the book we call The Bible trumps what the Gospel of John calls “the Word made flesh” in Jesus.

Here’s how Dr. Borg addressed this revelation of God in the person of Jesus in his last book, Convictions:

The distinction between Christianity and other religions is not about superiority. Rather, it is about difference. It is distinctive to Christianity and has been so from its beginning. To affirm the inerrancy of the Bible elevates “the Word of God” as book above “the Word of God” as Jesus. But the Word become flesh– what Christians call the incarnation– triumphs over words in a book. 2

Jesus Christ’s teachings trump anything in the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible, that contradicts them.

A simple summation of the concept that Jesus’s commandments overrule anything that contradictions them might go like this in the vernacular of sports: “‘Love God and love neighbors’ rules!” Why do they rule? Because Christ– as the Word made flesh– told us they are the greatest commandments . . . and Christ is our ultimate authority.

In case there is any dispute what that means we can look to Jesus’ words and actions, which time and again place love above all else. The example of the “eye of an eye” reversal show this. And actually so does the Lectionary reading we heard Dick read. Jesus, we are told, was experienced as speaking with authority in our lesson. He’s recognized as teaching and acting “as one having authority.” What’s more we are not told the words Jesus preached, but rather the action he took in healing a culturally ostracized and outcast man. It can be heard as a story about the Word of God we venerate in Jesus, in action. The man was considered to have an unclean spirit. When Jesus speaks in the story it is not a sermon we hear, it’s his action taken to chase the unclean spirit away.
Jesus’ word, you see, has authority . . . Like last week’s lesson on Jonah, we can hear this to be about the Word of God making all the difference in the world. And as I mentioned last week it is important to note that “The Word of God” is not necessarily words from the Bible, but rather “the still speaking God” idea that Dick just led us to recite.

See the “Word of God” in Christian theology has a meaning that goes beyond the words in the Bible that Fundamentalists insist God put in there, but that is a modern church notion we do not have to agree with. The “Word of God” is never about hate or oppression or injustice. NEVER! It’s not even about human words. “The Word of God,” is a term of art which does not denote the Bible per se. It has long been a theological term symbolizing how God reveals God’s self in creation. The Bible itself backs this up. God speaks creation into being and that, not the Bible, is God’s Word in Genesis. God gives us the gift of Christ Jesus, and that, not the Bible, is God’s Word in the Gospel of John. As I pointed out last week, “the Word of God” is theologically defined as “God’s self revelation.” 3

Is God revealed in the Bible ? You bet. In every word of it? Not if you agree with Jesus that “an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth” is an unloving and un-Godly text and therefore errant and fallible–for Jesus some of the Bible has no authority- the texts that are unloving, the texts that make anyone unclean. This is true for the early Church too, in Acts (10:28) Peter is actually commanded by God to “not call anyone profane or unclean.”

The authority of “The Word of God” is not always in the words of scripture. God – love– is not always revealed in the literal meaning. And the words are not always infallible or inerrant. There are Biblical texts that lack love and therefore can be said to lack authority of the Word of God, who is love. I gave one example from the Old Testament, we can find them in the New Testament too. Like that part in First Timothy that requires women to submit and to be seen and not heard in church it too is unloving and therefore an un-Godly text. It has no authority.

As a rule, Biblical texts that call for killing or violence or oppressing or ostracizing or out-casting anyone have no sway on Jesus’ Way even if he did not address them back in his day. How can I say that with any certainty today? Well, it has to do with the Word of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ as our supreme “authority.’ The starting place is Jesus’ declarations about the paramount nature of the greatest commandments to love God and neighbor. These give us what I like to think of as a love filter. If a text in the Bible contradicts loving God or loving neighbor we are not just free to question it, we have an obligation as followers of Jesus to question it and to reject it as authoritative if is not loving. That is, if a scripture passage does not promoting the well being of others we need to challenge it–because love in the Bible means the compassion and desire for the well being of others. 3 Jesus himself set this model up, he challenged a number of Biblical verses. Paul challenged them too.

Both Jesus and Paul get into tussles with religious folks, sometimes generally referred to as Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes. There’s a dig in the lesson on that right? The scribes are said to not speak with authority and from the context of the of the story, they also don’t seem to have the authority to heal those with unclean spirits. Jesus does both. He speaks and heals with authority. What’s he got going, that the scribes in the story don’t have? Some sort of authority, God –the God who is love. Jesus’ words are the “Word of God” they have power in them, the power of love.

One of my all time favorite books is a rather obscure text by a professor of mine back in seminary, Dr. Stephen Patterson. The book is called The God of Jesus. It’s an amazing, eye-opening read by a brilliant New Testament scholar. 4 I n one chapter Dr. Patterson addresses the enormous amount of people that the Roman culture considered throwaways, outcasts who were considered basically disposable because they offered nothing in the complex web of patrons and clients that made up the cultural structure of the Roman empire.

The best modern example of this type of structure, for me, is seen in “The Godfather,” movies where you had to be apart of a “family” to have worth. If you remember, in Godfather II, Vito Corleone had no value to the mafia bosses when he was young. His job was cavalierly taken away and he and his family were left to fend for themselves. The mafia just tosses him and his family aside. It wasn’t personal to the hierarchy, it was that he had no worth to them.

That’s what goes on in Rome on a huge scale. Many, many people in Palestine had no worth to the Romans. It’s these worthless ones, those Dr. Patterson calls “expendables,” that Jesus makes sure to bring into his community, bring to his table, gathering them under his protective wings like a hen – as Jesus puts it in Matthew (23:37) and Luke (13:34). While Caesar may have been everyone else’s highest ranking Godfather with ultimate authority, Jesus X-ed out that scheme of authority in his life. And he invited everyone else to do the same, to play by rules of a whole other game where God is ironically the anti-Godfather “Godfather,” the non-violent Divine patron, parent of us all– that’s the meaning of “Our Father” in The Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us.

Our father is love. And that love– the compassion and desire for well being played out in the here and now– becomes the source of all authority on Jesus’ Way. It’s such a powerful authority that as Dr. Patterson puts it “in Jesus we have come to know a God who renders impotent the power of dirt to keep the unclean outside the human community.” 5 So in the story today whatever unclean thing the man had about him, whether it was a real spirit or cultural demon, Jesus tossed it aside, silenced it with the Word of God revealed in Jesus’ inclusive love.

Throughout the Gospels all expendables are made worthy, no one is unclean in Jesus’ sight, in his community or at his table. That’s why the Lord’s Table in this church is open to everyone regardless of membership, religion, unbelief, status, or conduct. There are no unclean spirits here in this church. No one is considered unclean by the Word of God revealed in Christ Jesus. We understand God to be our patron, our loving Godfather (as it were). “Our Father” the God of Jesus, revealed by God’s very own self as love. And so love is our guiding authority. To paraphrase Jesus, loving God and loving neighbor are the greatest commandments . . .they supercede all other commandments, as well as old and new Christian traditions and any local critics.

Jesus is the Word of God that speaks with authority for us. Even the words in the Bible cannot trump Jesus. Because Love is always paramount. Just ask Jesus . . . and you can also read about it in the Bible.

Amen.
ENDNOTES:

1 Borg, Marcus, Convictions, p. 99.
2 Ibid., at p. 101.
3. Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms
4 Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, pps 56-89
5. Ibid., at p. 73

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