Old Testament: Jeremiah (31:27-34)
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
The Response: Psalm (119:97-104)
97 Oh, how I love your law! *
all the day long it is in my mind.
98 Your commandment has made me
wiser than my enemies, *
and it is always with me.
99 I have more understanding
than all my teachers, *
for your decrees are my study.
100 I am wiser than the elders, *
because I observe your commandments.
101 I restrain my feet from every evil way, *
that I may keep your word.
102 I do not shrink from your judgments, *
because you yourself have taught me.
103 How sweet are your words to my taste! *
they are sweeter than honey to my mouth.
104 Through your commandments
I gain understanding; *
therefore I hate every lying way.
The Epistle: II Timothy (3:14-4:5)
As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
The Gospel: Luke (18:1-8)
Jesus told [the disciples] a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
According to today’s second reading, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Well, just as George Orwell famously noted that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” so we might observe that all scripture might be useful, but some scripture is more useful than others.
Today’s gospel parable, for example, has apparently always been a challenge when it comes to its usefulness, or even to its meaning. Jesus is certainly not picturing God as an unjust judge, nor is he suggesting that we can get whatever we want by badgering God. When Luke wrote his version of the gospel, he tried to make sense of it by giving it a supposed interpretation in his first line, saying that it was about the disciples’ “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” That seems to be a bit of a stretch; although, as far as I know, no one else has come up with any better interpretation or use for the story.
Yet the church throughout the ages has kept this parable as part of the gospel according to Luke, whether we have found a satisfactory explanation for it or not. And this story is certainly not alone. Even a brief survey of the rest of the Bible, New Testament as well as Old, can easily provide us with a long list of other passages that appear to be even less useful than this one.
Yet we still affirm, along with our reading, that “All scripture is inspired by God.” That is a declaration that seems to be universal for Christians of all traditions. But simply declaring that scripture is “inspired” does nothing to explain what we mean by “inspired.” The statement alone does little or nothing to answer questions of how we approach the scriptures, how we interpret them, and ultimately how we live them.
There are obviously great differences among Christians in the way that they view that “inspired” characteristic of scripture. But then the ways that people have interpreted many of the bible’s passages have varied greatly for centuries.
At one time, for example, some of the so-called “Church Fathers” approached stories told in the Old Testament as “types,” as symbolic, as representing a spiritual reality that would come to light in the life of Jesus or in the life of the church; they viewed, for example, the story about the Israelites passing through the waters of the Red Sea as a representation of Christians passing through the waters of baptism. Other interpreters have looked to the bible as a divinely-given rulebook for life. Still others have portrayed it as a collection of predictions about what is going to happen someday, both in time and beyond time.
Different people have likewise taken different views on what being “inspired by God” means. Some, for example, have pictured the Spirit of God as whispering in the ears of the biblical authors, telling them what to write and affirming, in a completely literal sense, that these are, therefore, the very words of God, and that they therefore include no errors.
In many ways, this fundamentalist / literalist approach, to which some people continue to cling tenaciously, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It seems to have arisen as a response to the late-19th and early-20th century assertion that science has, or someday will have, all the answers in life, and that religion is no longer needed. While the fundamentalists claimed that they were rejecting the arrogant claims that science could explain and account for everything, they themselves took the exact same approach, simply substituting a narrow view of the bible for a narrow view of what we can learn on our own. They essentially have made the bible and their attempted literal approach to the bible an idol: not pointing toward God nor leading people toward God, but standing essentially as divine and immutable itself.
Most Christians, however, while still holding the scriptures in the highest esteem, recognize that it is not a scientific document nor is it necessarily historical, in the 21st-century use of the term. They have chosen to declare, along with the great, 20th-century theologian, Karl Barth, “I take the bible far too seriously to take it literally.” He, along with many others, realized that “truth” is much bigger than just “what actually happened.” They recognize the fact that these are books written by human beings, all of whom were limited by the historical and cultural context in which they lived. And that context plays an essential role in understanding any passage. As an old saying puts it, “A text without a context is just a pretext” for claiming that a passage means whatever you want it to mean.
Like any other human endeavor, interpreting the bible requires time and work and study and honest reflection and discussion, and it is not something that we can do without that work or effort. Yet many people pretend as though anybody can open up a bible to any passage and magically know what it means. “God will tell me what it means,” they claim. I wonder how willing they would be to entrust themselves to a surgeon who never did the hard work of medical school and internship and residency, but who simply insisted, “God will tell me how to operate on you.”
Understanding the word of God requires years of attention and work on the part of all people who seek to live by it. And that living is the other part that many Christians avoid. The same reading that we heard today asserts that scripture is inspired by God for a particular purpose: “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Once we have heard, and to at least some extent understood, the word of God, then it is incumbent upon all of us to accept our shared responsibility to do the good work to which it calls us. That work is not just for a select few: for clergy, for vestry members, and so on. It is the work entrusted to all of us who have been baptized into Christ and anointed with the Holy Spirit.
But there still remains the question: “What does it mean to say that the bible is inspired?” It certainly does not mean that there are no mistakes or errors in it. It certainly does not mean that it doesn’t have to be understood in the light of its cultural and historical context. It certainly does not mean that we don’t have to use, as we say in our Anglican heritage, tradition and reason to understand it.
I think that the best approach to biblical inspiration that I have found might be the one taken by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He has written that the assertion that the bible is “inspired by God” means basically that these are the stories that God wants us to hear. Some of them are edifying. Some are horrifying. Some are clear. Some are confusing. But together, they provide us with normative reflections of faithful people throughout many generations on one God of all creation and on our life and the world’s life in that God. And if we “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” as one of our Collects puts it, then we, too, can, by the grace of God, be “equipped for every good work.”