God comes to us through the words of the Bible. That claim has remained central to the church for almost as long as there’s been a church. We do not gather around personal conviction or individual experience. We are guided by the document that unites us, existing beyond the control of any, inspiring all.
Words are funny things, though. They don’t dwell in isolation. Until they’re heard, and in some way understood, they don’t have meaning. We don’t carry around the Bible as a talisman, saying it’s good unto itself just because it exists. We read, explore, discuss. As they’re expressed, God’s words permeate and transform our lives. Dialogue between us and God is a two-way street, an actual relationship growing us and God together.
The Bible is real with or without any one of us, but it only becomes real in our lives when we interact with it. Our participation is intrinsic to the process. As we participate, we shape the future of the relationship and our understanding of it.
This brings up one of the great joys (and occasionally frustrating pitfalls) of scripture. The lens through which we view the Bible is going to determine, in large part, what we come away with after reading it.
This is true with every passage, but especially so of the parables we’re hearing on Sundays during this season. Last week we heard the Parable of the Sower. This Sunday we’ll hear about weeds and wheat, the Sunday after about all the things the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to. Jesus isn’t talking abstractly in these stories. He’s linking up “God stuff” to the common, everyday experience of those who hear his words. Their ears and their lives complete the story. Their interpretation isn’t a bug in the process, it’s a feature.
The problem, of course, is that our own interpretations and agendas tend to overwhelm the Word. We want God to become the great affirmer, giving us an A+ for the way we see things instead of transforming our vision. Culturally and as individuals, we use the Bible to justify ourselves instead of following it into serving God and our neighbor.
One of the sure signs that we’re falling prey to this instinct is to read God’s word in a way that divides the world into right and wrong, then puts us on the right side…or at least gives us easy access to it. In the Parable of the Sower, it’s awfully easy to say, “I am good soil, or I’m going to be! Those other people are bad soil.” It’s even easier with next Sunday’s reading, which encourages us to ask, “Who’s the weeds and who’s the wheat?”
Every time we divide the world into right and wrong folks, saved and condemned, we’re actually engaging in a form of self-justification, using scripture as the tool to enforce our power instead of following God’s. You can tell this is wrong by the endpoint we’re aiming at. If scripture exists only to divide good folks from bad, and we are good folks, then we don’t need scripture anymore. Whatever it condemns doesn’t apply to us. Its lessons are meaningless to people who already know them. We begin to view scripture the way a PhD in mathematics would view an elementary school textbook. “That’s true, but I don’t really need that anymore. Those who need to learn those lessons should read it.”
It’s distressing the number of “good” church people who actually think this way. Effectively, they’ve used scripture to work their way out of a relationship with God. That’s the opposite of what’s supposed to happen!
The lens of dividing good from bad—and putting us on the side of the good—will harm our relationship with God and each other far more than it helps. Yet this is exactly the lens we’ve been taught to use by culture and many church leaders.
I’d like to offer an alternative. What if all the words of a given passage applied to us in one way or another. What if, when we read about soil that accepts the seeds and soil that rejects it, both of those are contained in us? What if, when we hear the parable of weeds and wheat, we’re all some of each?
Now our response changes. Instead of going on a witch hunt, trying to figure out who’s good and who’s bad, we know that we’ve already found the good and bad people…they’re both us! When we read the good part, it applies to us. When we read the bad part, it does too.
Our aim in reading scripture isn’t to parse out which side of the line we’re on. Instead we admit that we’re not perfect, boldly confess that we fall short AND that there are beautiful things about us, then ask how we might bear good fruit to the world even when we’re broken.
Scripture helps us figure out the definition of “good” fruit, but the purpose is not to aggrandize ourselves, but to share life-giving things with our neighbor. We’re forced to return to God’s Word time and again, checking ourselves against its standards. As we do so, we hear again how we’ve fallen short, but we also hear the great message of hope that goodness endures anyway. Every time we think we’ve got it, we’re humbled. Every time we despair, we’re given new hope. The cycle continues through every step and relationship in our lives.
This is a far more faithful lens than the cheap one most of us grew up with. It brings more hope and more truth into the world. None of it centers around us. We’re just a bunch of types of soil jumbled together, weeds and wheat mixed up. But all of us are a part of it, growing together in the One scripture does center around, becoming more graceful and better for each other in the process.