REV. ROGER KARBAN
We read and pray Scripture critically when we faithfully strive to return God's words to their original context. Through the centuries, God's people have blatantly amputated lines, paragraphs and words from the original body of the sacred test, and sewn the ripped out members onto newly formed bodies of faith, often giving them a meaning which their original authors never intended to convey.
Though we're encouraged to make Scripture relevant to the lives we live today, our use of Scripture must start not with those lives, but with the lives and intentions of the sacred writers. Many of us never take the time or make the effort to reconstruct Scripture's original context.
Nowhere is this "Frankenstein" approach to the Bible more evident than in the way we handle the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17). We habitually remove them from the context in which the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures placed them: the covenant between Yahweh and Yahweh's people. Regarding them simply as ten divine laws sent down from heaven to all people at all times, we forget they originally were ten very specific obligations given to a specific people at a specific time and place in history.
The people are recently freed Egyptian slaves, an edge-of-society group with whom a God named Yahweh chooses to build a relationship. A sign of Yahweh's commitment to this unique bond is a covenant which both Yahweh and the Hebrews enter into at Mt. Sinai shortly after a miraculous, Yahweh-engineered sea escape.
As in all treaties and covenants from that period, Yahweh starts the formal proceedings by reminding the Jews of His role in their recent history: "I, Yahweh, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery." Then the people's obligations in the relationship are laid out: "You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not carve, etc." What we regard as universal commandments, the Israelites regarded as specific responsibilities flowing from a covenant agreement with Yahweh, a sign of their commitment to their relationship with God.
No wonder so many feel alienated from and put upon by God's commandments. In their original scriptural context, these ten "words" were intended only for those who were trying to build a relationship with God. We must first teach and develop the relationship, then teach and promulgate the commandments. The problem is that it's easier and quicker to say, "Don't do this!" than it is to create and cultivate the ties with God which God and the sacred authors presumed were present in all who would ever hear these words.
In the same way, we must be careful to recognize the uniqueness of our relationship with Jesus. Through the centuries, some have used parts of Sunday's two readings from the Christian Scriptures as an excuse to wreak havoc on our Jewish and non-Christian brothers and sisters. Without an appreciation of Paul and John's faith context, we could think those who don't share our faith are either very malicious toward or culpably ignorant about Jesus. In either case, our preconception helps us justify our animosity for and frequent persecution of non-Christians.
Force for good
Yet, both Paul and John presume people must experience Jesus' death and resurrection in their own lives before Jesus can become a force for good in those lives. If one only knows Jesus from history books, or, worse yet, from associating with those who claim to be His followers, it's easy to see how Jesus could be a "stumbling block" or an "absurdity" (1 Cor 1:22-25). Or, if we don't realize that the Gospels were written against the background of early Christian abuses of Jesus' life and message, we might forget each of us is capable of turning our "Father's house" into a "marketplace," and could easily start "driving out" those who don't share our religious beliefs (Jn 2:13-25).
The Christian Scriptures were written to assist Christians in understanding the implications of their faith; they weren't composed as tools to pound non-Christians into the ground.
If, after hearing the words of Scripture, we have a longing to deepen our relationship with God, we're probably hearing them in the proper context. But if we find we're using the book to find proof against our enemies, we're not only guilty of amputation, we're also in need of an immediate heart transplant.